Seeing Stereoptically

I recently was certified as a graduate of the Academy for Spiritual Formation #39. As a result, I can now read whatever books I would like to read! So, I went back to a book that one presenter Dr. Amy Oden wrote and found a book in her footnotes. As a result, the first fun book I am reading is “Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. What is fun about studying church theology? I can spend two years in this book without being rushed… What a luxury!

Today, I started reading a book I chose to read! In the preface to Caferro’s book, I found the following statement: (preface, paragraph 3)

Of course, the different avenues that lead to early Christianity give us differing visions of what it was like. But they supply different views of the same thing. We cannot oppose, say, popular to official Christianity; instead, we must seek to use the two angles stereoptically to gain a deeper imagination of the early Church.

Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church” by William Caferro. (preface, para. 3)

Ordinarily, I skim through the preface of a book; however, this statement caught my attention. Caferro is discussing a comment in Cult of the Saints by Peter Brown. According to Caferro, Brown suggests in his book that “more can be done by attempting to understand the cult of the saints from other points of view.” Caferro points out an inference that “no one approach is correct, but that there are many valid ways of gaining an understanding of the early church.” (ibid)

This quotation caught my attention because it holds a truth that seems worth noting in our day and age. The other day I was discussing the tension between dueling viewpoints in a post called “‘This is my song’ and John Chrysostom.” I noted that there was a tension between my love of the song and the lessons I am learning through studying early Church historical figures.

Can you understand this light entirely by only looking at one side?

Caferro’s quotation is interesting because it provides room for thought. What if the tension reveals a deep truth? What if there is something to be learned about looking at the tension from different angles? What if we can lessen the tension through intentionally looking at the challenge stereoptically?

For many years I had a far more dominant eye because of a condition called keratoconus. One eye could see clearly so I learned to drive and function with what was effectively monocular sight. I had no depth perception because of effectively having one functional point of view.

When I received a corneal transplant, I was almost immediately thrown for a loop. After several years with one point of view I could suddenly see with both eyes. I had depth perception for the first time in years. The result was amazing. I had to take the time to learn to see with both eyes again. When I moved past that tendency to have monocular vision to having true binocular vision I could suddenly see the world in a deeper way.

What if we were to consider that many of the challenges we may face in church culture are fewer issues of diametrically opposed ideas and instead people viewing the same situation from different angles? What if instead of trying to conquer the opinions of others, we accept that they may see something differently? What if seeing together might give each person a new perspective with more depth and clarity?

None of these ideas are new ideas. These ideas are as old as time, but it is still good to remember good life lessons when we have the opportunity.

Reflecting on “This is my song” and John Chrysostom

This morning we sang a hymn in place of the offertory. The hymn is a well-meaning hymn known as “This is my song” by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness. The hymn has an interesting history: first as a poem and then as a hymn. The song is a stirring song set to the tune Finlandia.

Poet Lloyd Stone (1912-1993)

I also struggle with that particular song. I struggle for two reasons. First, I struggle with the song because I love the song. I think it is beautifully written, wonderfully lyricised, and matched perfectly with the stirring tune of Finlandia. If I were to choose a patriotic song as one I could adopt as my own, this would be the song I would choose first. I appreciate the balance between pride in one’s land and an appreciation for the viewpoint of others. I also appreciate that Dr. Harkness was a pioneering theologian whose work I love to support.

Dr. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was a leading Methodist theologian in an age when female theologians were definitely not the standard.

The second reason I struggle is that I am increasingly immersed in the early church. I enjoy reading through ancient sermons, ancient theologies, and reading about the lives of the leaders of the early church. Recently I was reading an excerpt from John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407 CE) in Amy Oden’s “And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in the Early Church.” The excerpt was from Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12, which was published in 1889, and the version I share below is sourced from the public domain. I will say Dr. Oden’s version reads far easier. Chrysostom wrote:

“Knowest thou not that we live in a foreign land, as though strangers and sojourners? Knowest thou not that it is the lot of sojourners to be ejected when they think not, expect not? which is also our lot. For this reason then, whatsoever things we have prepared, we leave here. For the Lord does not allow us to receive them and depart, if we have built houses, if we have bought fields, if slaves, if gear, if any other such thing. But not only does He not allow us to take them and depart hence, but doth not even account to thee the price of them. For He forewarned thee that thou shouldest not build, nor spend what is other men’s but thine own. Why therefore, leaving what is thine own, dost thou work and be at cost in what is another’s, so as to lose both thy toil and thy wages and to suffer the extremest punishment? Do not so, I beseech thee; but seeing we are by nature sojourners, let us also be so by choice; that we be not there sojourners and dishonored and cast out. For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there. For the just, although having nothing, will both dwell here amidst all men’s possessions as though they were his own; and also, when he hath departed to heaven, shall see those his eternal habitations. And he shall both here suffer no discomfort, (for none will ever be able to make him a stranger that hath every land for his city;) and when he hath been restored to his own country, shall receive the true riches. In order that we may gain both the things of this life and of that, let us use aright the things we have.”

John Chrysostom, Homily 16 on 2nd Corinthians from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, v. 12

Effectively, Chrysostom is referencing the teachings of Jesus about treasurers on earth. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:19-21 to avoid storing up treasures on earth. Chrysostom points out that one cannot take houses, fields, slaves (different time in history: not justifying the unjustifiable, but pointing out Chrysostom’s context), gear, or anything else out of this world. Chrysostom points out that we have been forewarned against building up our riches on earth or claiming the things of this world as treasure. We cannot take the things of this world with us. Indeed, it is only in the next life that we find ourselves growing into our true inheritance and riches.

What catches my eye in regards to the hymn and what causes me to ask deep questions is the line “For if we are set upon being citizens here, we shall be so neither here nor there; but if we continue to be sojourners, and live in such wise as sojourners ought to live in, we shall enjoy the freedom of citizens both here and there.” Chrysostom sees Christians as people on a journey through this life with a goal of reaching the next. If one stops to claim this place as one’s land, one will only have it for a moment. If one claims one citizenship to be in Heaven, then one has the freedom to both enjoy this world and move into the next without great loss. Indeed, a strict reading would say that one cannot move into the kin-dom of God by grasping tightly to a land, a nation, or one’s own goods.

Strictly speaking, the hymn we sang stands in opposition to one of the earliest Christian leaders because it claims that this is our land, our nation, and our space while Christian tradition teaches that we belong elsewhere. This world is a world in which we live in a fog. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 to a community in conflict about the things of this world: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul tells them to stop acting childishly and to quit dividing themselves over earthly matters. This is a place where we see the world, each other, and God dimly (like in a mirror from an age when a modern mirror would be a miracle). The world to which we belong and where we are headed is where we will see clearly and be seen clearly. The world to which we belong is one in which we shall come into our full being.

Thus, I am torn by the hymn. I love the hymn, the words of peace, and the seeking of understanding of other people. I also realize that Chrysostom might look at the differences between nations and see people whose eyes might rest better on the world to come than the goods and lands of this world. Neither we in this land nor those folks in other lands can carry the goods of this world to the next life.

This hymn may be one of those places where we must live in the tension between ideals. The older I grow, the more I come to see that life requires a bit more flexibility than I once carried in my idealistic youth. As a friend likes to say at church: “Blessed are the flexible for they will not be bent out of shape!”

A Smooring Blessing

In the Carmina Gadelica, the process of smooring is described. Smooring was the process by which fire was kept during the night in the Highlands. Since wood was not readily obtainable, the Carmina Gadelica describes how fire would be kept so that the locally obtainable peat might burn more readily the next day. The act became very ritualistic and infused with prayer over centuries.

In my own spiritual practice, I have been considering how I can bring regular spirituality into my daily life. I have been pondering how my own daily life translates into a modern smooring. Looking at the Carmina Gadelica, which is in the public domain, we see the following prayer:

The sacred Three,
To save,
To shield,
To surround.
The hearth,
The house,
The household,
This eve,
This night,
Oh! This eve,
This night,
And every night,
Each single night.
Amen.

Untitled Smooring Blessing in Alexander Carmichael’s “Carmina Gadelica, v. 1”

The prayer was very Trinitarian, very grounded, and very conscious of the importance of this moment in time. Pondering how my spirituality of smooring fits into modern day, I am drawn to the simple answer that I might simply change the word hearth to bring the prayer into this day; however, what word would you choose? The hearth was a source of heat, food, and family life. Would the word be kitchen? Stove? Furnace? Looking through other prayers, one has trouble imagining Jesus’ mother Mary smooring the fire in the same way today as when Alexander Carmichael first published his work in 1900.

I really didn’t need much of an excuse to share this photo… Still, that candle is sacred to me as it is the candle we burned during our Covenant Group during the last session of the Two-Year Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation (39).

Most of the Smooring Blessings revolve around the mother of the house engaging in the act of smothering the embers at the end of the evening as she remembers the legacy of the saints all around her. Some blessings see saints out on the lawn and angels watching the hearth. Others see the Apostles standing there on the floor with an angel guarding the door of the house.

Another prayer candle in our home. Not quite a hearth…

I think an honest approach to this type of prayer might be to ponder the saints who have walked these paths in years past. Here is one of my attempts:

We “smoor the fire” on this night.
We tend house and all within.
Each dog, cat, fish, child, and spouse
Be blessed as we greet the dark.

May the Spirit watch our sleep
And bring wisdom to our dreams.
May peace fill every corner
from roof to the earth below.

May Christ’s kind hands be our hands
As we settle all in beds.
May warmth surround family
And keep the night’s chill outside.

May we awake to create
Good things out of daily life.
May our Maker smile on us:
We imagine a new day.

We walk on floors tread before.
May our night be blessed tonight.
Thank you for caring for those
Who have rested here before.

May those who follow be blessed
And give thanks for our blessing
As we give thanks now for theirs.
May thanks arise forever. Amen.

“A Modern Smooring Blessing” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Grief as an Octopus

This Saturday morning I am thinking about grief. My wife has started a wonderful new professional position, but we live in an imperfect world. I fell asleep in bed with my head next to hers as she talked about her professional challenges last night. I listened for a good long time before my exhaustion took me away. Thankfully, she does not read my blog regularly: my “secret” is safe for now. Let’s be honest: she may already know.

Professionally, in my own ministry I often face grief in homes, at funerals, on Sunday mornings, in hospital rooms, in meetings, in conferences, in the checkout line at the grocery store, and many other places. Personally, I have been grieving the act of registering for Annual Meetings this year because of the grief incurred globally. Now that the United Methodist Church’s Judicial Council ruling has effectively guaranteed a divisive United Methodist Annual Conference and a United Church of Christ Annual Meeting filled with well-meant sympathy and questions, I suppose my grief needs to be accepted.

Grief is in my thoughts this morning. I spent my quiet time this morning praying while doing the less than pleasant task of doing dishes. I might not have raisins to sort, but I try to learn from folks like Henri Nouwen and Brother Lawrence. Grief was in my thoughts as I scrubbed oily residue and emptied the sink trap.

My conclusion at the end of my time of contemplation is that grief reminds me of an octopus. Grief can be Krakenesque or found 20,000 leagues below the surface. Grief can be in the shallows of a reef teeming with life or plucking what little it can from the open currents.

Grief is a master of camouflage. The beast hides in plain sight until it reaches out. Grief grabs you only once before you see it in every eddy of sand. Grief can make you paranoid to swim out into the seas of life.

Grief also does not hide behind every rock in the sea of life. If we spend our whole lives afraid to swim, we may eventually regret our choices. As strange as it sounds, fish that do not move water through their gills will drown. Most fish can only hold still for a certain amount of time before they get air from the surface or the sea.

Tomorrow in church at Maine Federated, we will sing songs and read the story of Easter again. We will proclaim resurrection in a world of grief. We will swim, we will breathe, and face whatever octopi wait in the depths.

Images: Jesus is nailed to the cross

Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, fall 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, fall 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, fall 2017
Jesus is nailed to the cross, winter 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, winter 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, spring 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, spring 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, spring 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2018
Jesus is nailed to the cross, summer 2018

Images: Jesus is stripped of his garments

Note: A friend of mine once called this statue “Jesus with a six pack.” Artistic license is alive and well, even in statuary.

Jesus is stripped of his garments, Summer 2017
Jesus is stripped of his garments, fall of 2017
Jesus is stripped of his garments, winter 2018
Jesus is stripped of his garments, spring 2018
Jesus is stripped of his garments, spring 2018
Jesus is stripped of his garments, summer 2018
Jesus is stripped of his garments, summer 2018

Images: Jesus falls for a third time

Jesus falls, summer 2017
Jesus falls for a third time, summer 2017
Jesus falls for the third time, fall 2017
Jesus falls for the third time, fall 2017
Jesus falls for the third time, winter 2018
Jesus falls for a third time, winter 2018
Jesus falls for the third time, spring 2018
Jesus falls for the third time, spring 2018
Jesus falls for the third time, summer 2018
Jesus falls for the third time, summer 2018

Images: Jesus speaks

Jesus Speaks to the Women of Jerusalem, summer 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, summer 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, fall 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, fall 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, fall 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, fall 2017
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, winter 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, winter 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, spring 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, spring 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, spring 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, summer 2018
Jesus speaks with the women of Jerusalem, summer 2018

“Needs” Photo-A-Day Haiga

Today’s prompt for the Rethink Church Photo-A-Day is “Needs.” I decided I would write a Haiga, but wanted to give some background. A lot of folks over the years have joked that ministers work “an hour a week.”

We work far more than that amount. I run to hospitals, go to Nursing Homes, write sermons, read books, counsel the troubled, plan outreach, visit the sick in their homes, and try to be peacekeeper in everything from committees to marriages. I have spent sleepless nights thinking about the needs of my church.

There really are nights that I have trouble even going to sleep because my church has needs that I cannot fulfill, but must rely on God to meet: such trust does not come easily even for clergy. There are nights I wake up with bad dreams as a result. Despite all the rumors, ministers often do not see God face to face. We, too, have to rely on faith.

An honest response to this prompt for me is to show an “empty” church. I do not show it because the seats are empty. I show it because the seats are full for me.

I see the folks looking for a word of life during a funeral, a word of acceptance during communion, and a word of joy during a wedding. I see folks in tears, folks with smiles, and folks laughing. I see folks in doubt on Christmas Eve who have been dragged in by their family and folks with a smirk on Easter morning who have been brought by their loved ones. I see those folks next to the hopeful. This space is a sacred space that encompasses all of those emotions, relationships, and more.

Holy space divine:
Please help me to do my best
And bless all the rest.

Images: Jesus meets Mary

Jesus meets Mary, summer of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, summer of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, spring of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, spring of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, spring of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, winter of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, winter of 2018
Jesus meets Mary, fall of 2017
Jesus meets Mary, fall of 2017
Jesus meets Mary, fall of 2017
Jesus meets Mary, summer of 2017
Jesus meets Mary, summer of 2017

Images: Christ falls

Christ falls, summer of 2018
Christ falls, summer of 2018
Christ falls, summer of 2018
Christ falls, spring of 2018
Christ falls, spring of 2018
Christ falls, winter of 2018
Christ falls, winter of 2018
Christ falls, fall of 2017
Christ falls, fall of 2017
Christ falls, summer of 2017
Christ falls, summer of 2017

Images: Christ takes up the Cross

Jesus takes up his cross, summer of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, summer of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, summer of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, spring of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, spring of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, spring of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, winter of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, winter of 2018
Jesus takes up his cross, fall of 2017
Jesus takes up his cross, fall of 2017
Jesus takes up his cross, summer of 2017

Images: Jesus before Herod

Jesus before Herod, afternoon in the summer of 2018
Jesus before Herod, afternoon in the summer of 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the morning of Spring 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the morning of Spring 2018
Jesus before Herod in the winter of 2018
Jesus before Herod, in the fall of 2017
Jesus before Herod, in the fall of 2017
Jesus before Herod in the summer of 2017

Upcoming Days: “Visio Divina”

Friends, I am preparing for the fourteen days before Good Friday. Starting Friday, April 5th, at noon, a post will automatically come up every day until Good Friday.

The pictures were taken on the walking stations of the cross outside the Family Life Center at the Malvern Retreat House in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The artist was Timothy Schmaltz, although my understanding is that Mr. Schmaltz did not have his name listed on the monuments. His work was to honor God and not his own talents (which are considerable).

The pictures were taken throughout a year in all four seasons. I find that contemplating the images throughout the year led me to different places in different seasons. The cold of snow in winter affected the way I saw the scenes as much as the heat (and vibrant) greens of summer.

I’m posting the pictures for those of us who find depth in contemplation. I appreciate that all of the statuary was done in black metal, which allows people of all sorts to contemplate the imagery. I do not believe it is cast-iron, but there is something relatable about seeing an image cast in something you can find in my kitchen (like a dutch oven) instead of something I only see in places of power and influence like marble.

I hope the posting of these images help lead you to a place of contemplation as we approach the cross. Blessings to you.

Poem for a rough day

All people have rough days. Ministers are no exception. Today has been a difficult morning for me. I have wept, I have prayed, and I have reached out to friends. One friend recommended I read two psalms, so I did the natural thing: I turned to a completely different psalm. I am, if nothing else, predictable.

I spent time in Psalm 127 trying to get my head back on straight. The following poem is inspired by the first two verses. It is a rondelet, which is my favorite syllabic poetry form outside of the various forms of Japanese Haikai.

Find rest with God.
Anxious thoughts do not give life birth.
Find rest with God.
There will come no bread from poor sod:
Unless the Creator brings forth
There will come nothing of true worth.
Find rest with God.

“Find rest with God” Rondelet (inspired by Psalm 127:1-2) by the Distracted Pastor, 2019

Reflection on “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by Michel Chambon

Recently I was reading an article in the April 2019 edition of Sojourners magazine called “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” by theologian and anthropologist Michel Chambon. I found the article fascinating as it reflected on the ongoing relationship between Chinese Protestant Christianity and the government under which they live. I found it fascinating because it had a greater level of reflection on the relationship between the church and state in a land I know little about in general.

I read various things about Christian practice I did not even realize where are part of the practice of my beloved family in another nation. Did you know that Christians lead large calisthenic groups in places like Nanping? Did you know that the Chinese are also facing the crisis of an aging population? I did not know that was happening. Most of the news I have seen over the years has focused on trade issues, pollution issues, or religious-freedom issues. In particular, they taught me growing up that the Chinese church was consistently and constantly under pressure. In fact, the church that the sources I read taught me about growing up could never exist openly–a public gathering of Christians to exercise was beyond my comprehension.

What makes this interesting is how Mr. Chambon presents the information. Mr. Chambon states:

“The Chinese state–like every other state–operates under its own political tradition and in relation to its own national culture. Chinese religious police is not only defined by a supposedly coherent national law but also through the agency of local officials who play a key role in its implementation. In practice, state control is heterogenous and varies from district to district. It relies on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.

In some places, local officials have imposed stricter regulation and monitoring on Christians and other social actors. In other places, they have destroyed Christian churches and jailed a few leaders. But in my view, this does not represent a general crackdown on Christianity. It reflects instead the Chinese policy of ‘killing a chicken to scare the monkeys’–applying a heavy hand on one group is publicized to push others toward self-limitation and censorship.”

Michel Chambon in “Kill the Chicken to Scare the Monkeys” (Sojourners, April 2019, pg. 8)

At some level, this should have not needed to be spelled out to make sense. Part of the struggle of the United Methodist Church is the belief we can set an international policy on human-sexuality without understanding that there needs to be a reliance “on the balance of power between local officials, religious actors, social needs, and regional history.”

At some level, the attempt to apply one set of laws across the board internationally is to engage in the same idealistic hubris which I felt must apply to Chinese culture of my imagination for decades of my life. The attempt to enforce such legislation without balancing the needs of the local area is at least naïve. I am certain there are folks who believe the “coherency” of church law requires uniformity, but that may be misguided. Yes, there are those moments of persecution which are regrettable and terrible, but what if that is a part of the policy of applying a heavy hand to push others towards “self-limitation and censorship?”

What really struck me and threw me for a loop was that I recognized this policy of “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys” in my culture. I have seen this policy my entire life. In my context as an European American Protestant Christian, I have not seen this policy enacted from the top down. Our government says there is freedom in this land. I have seen this policy enacted at the grassroots and in the middle of society. I have seen it applied in the way we treat indigenous tribes, immigrants, and the descendants of our own hunger for slavery.

In June 2015 when Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was it to put an end to every group of African American Christians? Clearly, Dylann Roof did not end the African American church when he murdered nine of the Christian family. In my experience, the church surrounded the people of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church regardless of denomination or race. That is my perception. Did Dylann Roof’s violence lead folks to self-limitation and censorship?

Photo of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2008. Photo by “Cal Sr” and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License

Here’s the thing: as a part of the dominating culture of American Imperialism, I am uncertain I can say that Dylann Roof accomplished the same goal as the Chinese policy. I can say I refuse to use an honorific to refer to him, but how did his actions affect those in churches like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? Did the people like those gathered in other communities similar to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church walk away with a message? Did people who worshipped in synagogues or mosques hear the shots of a member of the dominant culture towards a group of African American Christians and hear a message? Did they see violence against a subset of the dominant religion (Christianity) and fear for their own future when they do not share the same experience of God?

Thinking back to those moments, I realize that I took part in an ecumenical memorial for those family members in faith down south, but I did not reach out to people who might have received just as violent a message. I did not stand alongside those who might also have been intimidated. The African American Christians were the chickens who were slaughtered, I rushed to the hen house to soothe the flock, but ignored the rest of the surrounding people.

When I reflect on Mr. Chambon’s article, what really strikes me is that I have been blind. I was not only blind in my understanding of Chinese culture. I have been blind in the way I have treated my own neighbors. I was blind as a teenager every time I was silent when a friend would drive to the nearby Native American reservation to act like hooligans. I was blind as a college student when I stood by ignoring the Muslim community after September 11, 2001. I was blind to injustice when people grabbed anyone who was not pale (like me) out of the line in airport security lines.

The challenge Mr. Chambon’s article leads me towards is a difficult challenge. When I know that African American males are disproportionately jailed, who else is hearing that message? How do be in ministry with those folks who are disproportionately jailed and those who are also given those messages? When I hear that folks are labeled as coming from s%#thole countries, how do I not only build up the people I meet from those places but also the others who hear words of disparagement? How do I open my eyes further? How do I honor my own principles and ethics? How do I stop letting blinders fetter my sight?

Sermon: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”

Message: “Clearing the Brambles and Dead Wood”
Date: March 24, 2019
Scripture: Luke 13:1-9
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Luke 13:1-9, NRSV

Friends, we are in the midst of the season of Lent. This entire season we have been comparing our own spiritual journey to a journey into the wild. In this Lenten season we have faced some difficult passages and today’s scripture is no exception. Difficult passages can lead to messages that difficult to both preach and hear. Let’s enter these moments prayerfully.

Holy God, one of the early Desert Monastics named Abba Pambo said “If you have a heart you can be saved.” Give to us your saving grace this morning. As we follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, give us the wisdom to hear what you are saying to the saints. We ask this blessing in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

What have you found during this Lenten journey? Have you found wild things in your hearts? Did those things frighten or exhilarate you? This morning we continue looking at Luke’s account of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem. There’s tough words here and some difficult theology.

Jesus challenges the people to think about the world and their own lives. In our text Jesus hears words of great tragedy. The ruler Pilate has executed some of Jesus’ people and then treats them barbarically. The story has a sense of being older than time as a hated public figure has done something terrible and it upsets the people. I am certain we can all think of figures who have done awful things in our day and age.

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” by James Tissot

Jesus questions one of the oldest theological misconceptions. Jesus attacks a theology which says that bad things happen to bad people, so if something bad happened to these Galileans it is because they are bad people. Just like the people who died when a tower collapsed in Siloam, the people are looking at these Galileans and asking why God let this happen. If they are good, wouldn’t God have spared them?

Jesus starts off essentially teaches the same lesson as the Book of Job. Bad things can happen to good people. Jesus takes it a step further and points out that all of the people have sin in their lives. WHen Jesus says “Unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” we find ourselves reading uncomfortable words. The words are very uncomfortable.

Jesus is teaching a truth though. Any journey into the heart like Lent will reveal a lot about our hearts and souls. There are wild parts of us we may encounter, there are dangerous things within us, and there’s also something else in there. Like every wooden wilderness, there are places where the trees are dead, the branches are broken, and the ground is covered with brambles. It is uncomfortable to say it, but there are places in all of our lives where we need to repent.

Thornbush by Les Hatfield, used under Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

For me, there are places in my heart where there are broken bits. I grew up in a house where I experienced physical abuse as a child. When I wander through my woods, I occasionally come across parts of my heart that are deeply troubled and angry. There are parts of my soul where I need to repent because I can grow furious when those parts are touched, poked, and prodded. There are places in my life where these words are true. I need to clear out those brambles, get rid of the deadwood, and tear through the thorns.

Do you understand what I am saying? When I hear these words I don’t hear words of condemnation. I hear Jesus saying that all have brokenness. I hear Jesus seeing a group of people trying to say these Galileans must have been sinners while turning a blind eye to their own problems. To use another part of Jesus’ teachings, I see Jesus looking at a people with logs in their own eyes judging other people for having what may have been splinters.

I am glad the parable follows this passage because I think it elucidates what Jesus is trying to say. The people are like a fig tree without fruit. The owner of the garden keeps coming to get figs and finds nothing. The owner wants to tear the tree down, but the gardener asks for more time. The gardener will fertilize it with manure, break up the ground so the roots can spread, and watch over the tree for another year. The gardener is doing everything possible to save the tree.

It bears saying that we are reading this in Lent and the Lenten journey ends at the cross every year. The people are broken in deep ways and on Good Friday Jesus will do everything possible to bring life to the very people who will stand around jeering and taunting him. It is important to remember that Jesus is acting like this gardener and will do everything for these people.

When Jesus says unless we repent, we will perish the words are very hard to hear. In honesty though, there are parts in all of us we know should not be there. There are broken places in our lives and they need to go. Our hope is in the fact that Jesus tends the garden in our hearts, and with Jesus’ help we can tend to our broken places. When we pull down the thorn bushes, it is with Christ’s hands and our hands. When we chop down the broken branches, we do not swing an axe alone.

The Good Shepherd statue at the Malvern Retreat Center in Malvern, OA

Also, sometimes there are places in us which we cannot deal with ourselves. In those moments, we have one we can turn to hoping God will bless us with all we need. Yes, we have to repent, but if we turn to God with honesty, we can find our way through even the most challenging of circumstances.

Will you have the courage to repent this Lent? Will you find your broken places and turn them over to the gardener? Will you let God break the soil of your heart, fertilize what is good, tend to what is hurting, and remove what needs to be taken away?

The Small Sacrifices

Sacrifice daily.
Ask where today’s food comes from
Once or twice a week.

The role of a pastor is partially the role of a teacher. Many people think of preaching as a separate activity from other activities like Bible study, but a lot of the role can be combined into the overall category of teaching. I teach on Sunday morning through both preaching and my leadership of worship. Often I believe I teach more on Sunday morning through sharing the words around communion and in prayers than I do in the sermon. Indeed, one of the challenges pastors face is when people believe that the sermon is the focus of worship.

There is absolutely no way that one can effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in just a few minutes a week. We teach beyond our sermons through the rest of worship, through Bible study, but also through things like conversations, social media, and blogging. One of the reasons I believe that the early church had such strident rules about what it took to be a leader in the church was that they understood the church leaders would be teaching and sharing with the community far more than just Sunday morning.

Today, I would like to try and teach a little bit about creation. Creation is where we all are in this moment. The air we breathe, the food we eat, and the land we live upon is all considered theologically to be a part of creation. Some of the earliest scriptures in the Bible (canonically) deal with the care of creation. Genesis 2:15 states that when humanity is placed into the world it is with the charge to care for where they are placed. Gardens are not self-tending and theologically humanity was made to garden. Indeed, in the earliest sections of Genesis humanity depended on plants for sustenance. Foraging is wonderful but civilization was built on gardens.

Let’s look at what it means if we are given the instruction to care for creation. How do we choose to care for the world? Do we do all that we can to damage it? Sometimes it does seem like that is our way of being, but is that destructive way theologically ethical?

What if there were ways to care for the world on a regular basis that did not ruin either your bank account or your way of life? What if the foods you choose could help the world to be a better place for everyone around? What if you invited the world to join you in that adventure?

A few months ago I was listening to a podcast called “The Splendid Table.” The episode I was listening to talked about eating anchovies. To be entirely honest, I was a bit horrified. My father invited us eat to a “blind robin” at midnight for good luck growing up and I wasn’t quite as big a fan of pickled foods at that time. I was very skeptical, but I looked into the idea of eating more seafood as a way to help make the world a better place.

Strangely, I did not begin my research at the library or on the internet. I had a grocery trip to run and looked at the canned fish. Several of the cans said “certified wild caught and sustainable.” Some digging led me to a United States Government Agency called “FishWatch.” There I was able to learn about how the Northern Anchovy is caught, how it has a low bycatch rate, and how it can be healthy (in moderation due to cholesterol levels).

I began to experiment with anchovies and sardines. I learned that sardines can be ground into meatballs to add a flavor that my family loves while replacing some of the meat with a more sustainable protein. As I used the seafood more regularly, it became more and more normal to my palate. Look at the picture of my daughter and you’ll see that it is no burden at all when you get used to eating something new.

What am I suggesting? Well This Lent my family and I are experimenting (on the adult end) with preparing meals with fish and tofu instead of chicken, pork, or beef on Wednesdays and Fridays. If it works well, we’ll likely continue the practice after Lent ends. It might not change the world immediately, but helping to create a world where people eat sustainably might be one of the best things we can do this season.

I invite you to pray about how you and your family might be called to care for our environment this season. If we are to tend this “garden,” it will likely take intentionality. I invite you to consider if this might be something which you might be called to do with your life.