Spoilin’ for a Fight

Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16); Psalm 118 (Palm Sunday/Liturgy of the Palms)

In her wonderful autobiography An American Childhood, Annie Dillard fondly recalls her Sunday School days in her parents’ mainline Protestant church. She notes of her introduction to the Bible, “The Bible’s was an unlikely, movie-set world alongside our world. Light-shot and translucent in the pallid Sunday-school watercolors on the walls, stormy and opaque in the dense and staggering texts they read us placidly, week after week, this world interleaved our waking world like a dream.” Read more

Flunking Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-33 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

“I have flunked Lent. I flunk it every year.”

Fleming Rutledge writes these words in one of her many fine Holy Week sermons. But they’re my words, too, this week, and perhaps yours also. We’ve flunked Lent. We always do.

But this is not the bad news it may at first appear to be.

When we set out on Ash Wednesday every year to observe a holy Lent, we pray Psalm 51 together, asking for mercy and cleansing, for wisdom, for an erasing of the record that stands against us—a blotting out of our iniquities. We pray that God will “create in us a clean heart and put a new and right spirit within us.”

And then we often act as if we must accomplish these things ourselves. We embrace Lenten disciplines—a good thing—but we easily mistake them for what they are not: self-improvement programs meant to make us better (thinner, smarter, nicer) people. We come dangerously close to narcissism, shifting our gaze from Christ and our neighbor in need to ourselves and our trivial preoccupations. Read more

For God So Loved the World

Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:13-21
(Fourth Sunday in Lent)

With a group of friends, I’m reading a new book entitled Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist. Written by a Roman Catholic priest–Dominican and Englishman Timothy Radcliffe–and commissioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury as his Lent Book for 2009, this text is interesting reading for us American Methodists in the suburban south.

In a chapter on preaching (the book takes in the whole of Word and Table), Radcliffe warns against taming the Bible’s strangeness in the Sunday sermon. “The beauty of the Bible,” he says, “is that it is not clear, simple and unambiguous. Its words are puzzling, intriguing and slippery.” Read more

Asleep at the Wheel

John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Exodus 20:1-17 (Lent 3B)

There is a joke that occasionally passes through pastors’ circles now and again with a bit of light-hearted commentary on the passion (or lack thereof) of worship in a particular pastor’s church. Says one pastor: “My congregation is so dead in worship that if someone were to have a heart attack, when the EMTs arrived they’d wonder to whom they should attend.” Those of us who worship regularly in congregations that bear any resemblance to that description chuckle uneasily at this joke. Yet truth be told, it hits a little too close to home. What has happened to our practice of worship that it has become yet another instance of a religious institution “going through the motions” rather than true, life-shaping (rather than sleep inducing) encounter with the living God? I don’t know about you, but a few cattle and sheep in the narthex of my church might be just the ticket to breaking our somnolence and accommodation to the “way things are” in congregational worship. Read more

Closer to the Brink

Last Sunday’s readings (the First Sunday of Lent for the Western Church) were stories of destruction turned into rescue and peril into triumph. Noah, at God’s urging, saves a remnant of Creation and receives God’s covenantal promise. Jesus, upon being baptized, is immediately (euthus, one of Mark’s favorite words) driven into the wilderness (the verb, ekballein, suggests being tossed, hurled, or expelled, as in an exorcism) where he is unsuccessfully tempted by Satan before being waited upon by angels.

This week – with the Revised Common and Catholic lectionaries diverging – peril and destruction are nearer than ever. In Mark 8:31-38, Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” for advising against the path of suffering, death and resurrection. It doesn’t help that the phrase, “pick up your cross,” has lost its terrifying charge over the centuries. We might have to try a contemporary paraphrase, something like: “renounce your citizenship, lie down willingly on your waterboard, and die.” Yes, there’s the promise of the Father coming in glory with his angels, but Jesus makes plain you can’t get there from here except through the valley of death (not its shadow, mind you, but the real, mortal, unavoidable deal). Read more