Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Jesus Movement Crashes the Royal Wedding

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11
May 20, 2018

There aren’t many times when literally millions of people get up stupidly early in the morning to watch a church service.  But yesterday was one of them – the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Americans love the British royals.  It’s part fairy tale, part soap opera, and part the special relationship between Britain and the U.S.  But for us, as Episcopalians, there’s an even deeper connection, of course.  We’re the American expression of the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – so, in a real sense, it’s our church service that millions of people got up stupidly early to watch.
But in this royal wedding, the connection didn’t stop there.  Not only did we witness a marriage very much like one that happened at this altar a few hours later.  We also heard our Episcopal presiding bishop preach to the royal couple – and to the world.  Michael Curry was a surprise choice as the preacher.  I don’t think an American has ever been invited to preach at a royal worship event.  But if you’ve heard Michael Curry preach, you know why he was chosen: He pretty much puts every other Anglican preacher to shame.
Perhaps coincidentally – or perhaps not – all this happened on the eve of Pentecost.  This is when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, letting them speak in different languages and empowering them to be apostles, which means those sent to bring Jesus’ good news to people who don’t know it.  If you’ve been a Christian a while, you may have heard Pentecost described as the birthday of the Church, and that’s true.  Because Jesus’ followers received the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, they were able to turn a story about a resurrected Jewish leader into a global movement.
So, listening to Michael Curry preach at the royal wedding, one might have forgiven him for taking a moment to mention his Episcopal Church, on the eve of the birthday of the whole Church.  How many opportunities does he get to talk directly to millions of Americans who have never even heard of us?  It was a public-relations dream come true.
But, if you’ve heard our presiding bishop preach – say, when he was here in Kansas City last year – you know he has a very specific way of talking about this denomination of ours.  Michael Curry almost never talks about “The Episcopal Church,” the institution he leads.  Michael Curry talks about a movement – the Jesus Movement.  And he calls this entity he leads “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” 
So, there he was, at the center of the institutional Anglican Church.  He was in the royal chapel at Windsor Castle, for God’s sake – at the wedding of a prince, sharing the liturgical duties with the archbishop of Canterbury, representing the American expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  His role as presiding bishop doesn’t get much more institutional than that.
But because words matter, Michael Curry never even mentioned The Episcopal Church in this homily that reached millions of Americans.  Instead, he talked about the Jesus Movement.  He said, “Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history.  A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world, and a movement mandating people to live that love.  And in so doing, to change not only their lives but the life of the world itself.”1  That’s the Jesus Movement.
So, what difference does that make for us, here at St. Andrew’s?  And what difference does it make for you? 
First, let me ask: How many of you are inspired by the idea of being part of an institution?  That’s what I thought.  Oh, boy – bureaucracies, and entrenched cultures, and personal fiefdoms – and paperwork!  Sign me up. 
I think Jesus feels the same way.  That’s why he never said anything about creating an institutional church.  In the Gospels, Jesus mentions the word we translate as “church” a grand total of three times, so it’s not exactly a priority.  And even more important, the word he uses actually doesn’t mean what we hear in the English word “church.”  In Greek, the word is ecclesia, which means an assembly, a gathered community.  Here at St. Andrew’s, we often refer to the same thing as a “family.”  The church Jesus has in mind, and the kind of churches the apostles went out and gathered – they were not institutions with Vestries and committees and budgets … or buildings.  They were communities, households of the family of God.  They were nimble and responsive to the problems and needs and passions and dreams of the places where they rose up.  They were outposts of the Jesus Movement in their times and places.  They spoke and lived the good news of life and liberation and love for the people around them.  Now that’s something I’d like to be part of.
How about you?  What difference does any of this make for you?  Well, as we celebrate Pentecost, I would say what happened to those followers of Jesus in the upper room 2,000 years ago matters deeply for you – including the seven new members of the family we’re about to baptize today.  The power of the Holy Spirit that God poured out on the disciples then is the same power of the Holy Spirit that God pours out on you. 
At every baptism, we ask God to bless and inspire those who are coming into the family – and we trust that God hears us and gives us what we ask in Christ’s name:  delivering us from the way of sin and death, filling us with God’s holy and life-giving Spirit, loving others in the power of that Spirit, sending us into the world in witness to God’s love, and bringing us into the fullness of God’s peace and glory (Book of Common Prayer 305-306).  That’s our birthright as God’s children.  When we come through the waters of baptism, dying to sin and rising again in the power of resurrection, the Holy Spirit fills us with everything we’ll need to be part of this Jesus Movement – and change the world. 
Just as all politics is local, so is all transformation.  We’ve received the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring the kingdom to life in this time and place that God has given us.  You hold that power.  You have everything you need to heal and bless and renew your corner of God’s kingdom.  For you’ve been baptized into the death and life of Jesus Christ.  You’ve joined the family of God.  And you’ve been sent out as a witness of these things.
As the presiding bishop said at the royal wedding yesterday, so he says to you:  “Love is the way” – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love.  And it’s not just God’s way but our way of life.  “When love is the way,” Michael Curry said, “people treat each other as if they actually were family.”  And when we re-discover that fire of love – as the apostles did on the first Pentecost – when we re-discover the fire of love, Michael Curry said, “we will make of this old world a new world.”1  Sign me up.  Now.
Though the service at Windsor Castle yesterday was beautiful, and though the service here today is beautiful, too, the service of God’s people actually begins the moment we walk out those red doors.  Today is not the birthday of an institution but the spark of a movement.  We know what that movement was – a network of communities that spread from Palestine to the ends of the earth.  But even more important is what that movement is:  A movement of the Spirit in your own heart.  A movement spreading the balm of Gilead to make this old world a new world.  A movement empowering you to be the mouth and hands and feet and heart of Jesus to bless God’s people – today.

1. Associated Press.  “Love and fire: Text of Michael Curry’s royal wedding address.” Available at:  Accessed May 19, 2018.

Parenthood: Life Lived Outward

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension (transferred) and Mother's Day
Acts 1:1-12; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
May 13, 2018

I think it’s a bit awkward preaching Mother’s Day sermons because, very quickly, high praise for mothers can slip into implicit and unintended contrasts with fathers.  I have to tell you – and this is something of an article of faith for me – I believe both men and women are capable of equal depths of love, and I don’t believe it’s true that a mother is necessarily a better parent than a father.  But that being said, we do often find truth in popular expressions; and when you’re looking for a way to describe someone who loves with fierce loyalty and protection, what do you call that person?  Is it “papa bear”?  Nope, it’s “mama bear.”  So, I’ll have to grant you that, generally speaking, moms deserve that reputation of being the unswerving, undying champions of their children.  And if you want to test that hypothesis, just insult a kid in her mother’s presence … but wait until I’m out of the room.
Being a parent, and especially being a mother – how does that change you?  I remember a moment of parental transition for Ann and me, one of those times from which you can never quite go back.  Ann was in relatively early labor with Kathryn.  And coming from the next delivery suite, we heard screaming – not the mom but the newborn baby.  The fact that we could hear that tiny person’s voice so clearly through the wall made me wonder just how loud it must have been inside their room.  I looked at Ann and said something intended to be romantic and reassuring about how we’d have one of those little voices with us before too long.  But the look on her face made me think she was imagining the sleepless nights to come.  Like many of you, we soon found out out just how much our lives would change with a baby and just how much the experience of parenting would change us.  For parents, everyone’s path is different as we stumble blindly into the unknown, but this much every parent learns: The practice of love is the practice of sacrifice.  And if you take parenthood seriously, that sacrifice changes you.  You don’t just make sacrifices for your children.  Your life becomes sacrifice.  Parenthood changes your direction.  Parenthood makes you live outward.
So today, as we celebrate the love of those who’ve been mothers to us, the liturgical calendar deals the preacher a wild card among the flush of hearts.  Today, we’re also celebrating the feast of the Ascension, which was last Thursday, 40 days after Easter.  Ascension reminds us of what we would politely call a mystery but what people in other faith traditions would call a scandal: We claim that the God who became human in Jesus of Nazareth also returned, as the human Jesus, back into the divine relationship of the Trinity.  Having returned into the fullness of heavenly glory, God the Son now rules all creation, what we call heaven and what we call earth, awaiting the day when Jesus returns at last, and heaven and earth are reunited into God’s new creation.  Like I said, this claim is pretty scandalous, compared with other religions: We don’t say that a spiritual God inhabited a human body and left it behind.  We say that the God we call Trinity, who exists as relationship, came to dwell as a human and took that humanity back into divinity. 
And though it may sound radical – even crazy – to say it, I believe that action changed God, in the same way learning changes us.  God chose to embrace the love of sacrifice – taking on a lesser form, living as an inferior being, experiencing our brokenness, and dying our death, all in order to heal that brokenness, and overcome sin and death, and bring the experience of being human into God’s own life.  That crazy choice to shed divine perfection helped God know even better the creatures God created and redeemed and still sustains. 
And in the meantime, as we await Jesus’ return, God’s love for us humans only grows.  Why?  Because the Trinity itself now knows what it’s really like to be a person.  It’s like being a parent, in a sense.  If you’re a parent, it’s one thing to be aware that you love your child as you watch him playing at a distance, across the room.  It’s something else to get down on the floor and wrestle with him.  And it’s something even more to hold him close when he cries.  And it’s something even more to give up things that you want, to give parts of your life away, so you can give your child loving presence he wouldn’t have had otherwise.  That’s life that becomes a sacrifice.  That’s parenthood – life lived outward.
There’s a theological catch phrase that might help make sense of this.  Centuries ago, Gregory of Nazianzus was writing about the Incarnation, the doctrine that Christ brought the fullness of humanity and divinity into one.  Gregory wrote, “What is not assumed is not healed.”  What that means is that any part of human experience Jesus didn’t take on, by definition, wasn’t redeemed – so he must have taken it all on in order to heal us completely.  Well, by the same token, I think it’s true that what is assumed – what is taken on – also changes the one who enters into someone else’s experience.  Sacrifice molds the heart and grows its capacity for love – even God’s heart.
Mothering is like that, I think.  We enter into the experience of another who has literally nothing to offer in return.  There is no payoff for the exhausted mom who gets up to nurse a screaming baby in the middle of the night.  We can romanticize it all we want, but at 3 a.m., it just stinks.  It’s just sacrifice.  So is cleaning up the bed after another bout of stomach flu.  So is holding the little boy who’s crying because the kids at school pick on him.  So is holding the daughter who’s crying because her boyfriend treats her like dirt.  So is lying in bed and crying to yourself because you fear the grown kid’s depression will get the better of him.  It’s all sacrifice – and that is love, in the flesh.
That sacrifice changes us forever, growing the capacity of our hearts.  If you’ve mothered someone, you probably get that.  But what we may forget, and what the Ascension might help us remember, is that God experienced something similar – and that God’s love is even deeper, even fuller, even more all-encompassing because of that human experience.  Oddly enough, this combination of Ascension and Mother’s Day is not just a time to remember that Jesus rules in heavenly glory, nor just a time to remember your mother’s love.  It’s a time to remember something fundamental about yourself – your first and foremost identity, regardless of whatever you may have become.  And here it is: You are God’s beloved child. 
Now, you may have heard people say that so often that it’s lost its meaning.  Or maybe you hear it only as a metaphor, a poetic turn of phrase.  But I want to push on this just a little bit.  I want you to try on the idea that this isn’t just a nice sentiment but an objective reality – in fact, that it’s the fundamental reality of your life, the starting point for everything else that matters.  You are God’s beloved child.  You matter as much to the creator of the universe as a baby matters to the mother who brought it into the world.  And that’s true not despite the sacrifice God made for us, becoming human and dying on the Cross, but because of it – because the creator of the world experienced the brokenness of life as we live it, letting that direct experience of humanity grow God’s heart. 
There may be times when you fear that no one understands you.  There may be times when you fear that you have no one to help carry your burdens.  There may be times when you fear that, at the end of the day, you’re on your own.  I think that’s our deepest fear.  And you know what?  That’s precisely why God came to experience life as we know it: So that what we have been through, God has been through.  Every time you hurt, every time you grieve, the sovereign Lord who shared your life also hurts and grieves.  Just as a mother feels her child’s pain, so does God.  Just as a mother’s heart grows watching her child’s suffering steps, so does God’s.  So, the promise of the Ascension is this: Like the best mother you could ever imagine, God will never forget you.  And you need never walk alone.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Resurrection Witnesses

Sermon for April 15, 2018
Grand Opening of HJ's Youth and Community Center
1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

We gather today to praise God for the gift of resurrection, as we do throughout this season of Easter.  But today, we see that gift in a particular way as we celebrate what God and this congregation have done together over the past six years, culminating in the new HJ’s Youth and Community Center, which we open this morning.
I will resist the temptation to start at the beginning of the story – as past senior warden Greg Bentz likes to say, I won’t take us back to, “First, the earth cooled.”  Suffice it to say that six years ago, past-past senior warden Steve Rock and I began talking with Sean and Sarah Murray, and Blake and Megan Hodges, about leading an effort to celebrate our centennial and advance God’s mission at St. Andrew’s.  At that point, both the Hodges and Murrays had two preschool-aged kids running through the halls of the church – Evan and Emma Murray, and Oliver and Charlotte Hodges.  Today, as we celebrate the culmination of the Hodges’ and Murrays’ efforts, Oliver Hodges is closer to dating age than to the first day of kindergarten.  Time flies when you’re having fun.
 There are many thank-yous to offer, but we’ll save those for the ribbon-cutting at the end of the service.  What I hope to do in the next few minutes is encourage you to see that building across the street, and maybe see yourself, in a new way.
First, we have to go back to today’s Gospel reading (not quite when the earth cooled).  Last Sunday, we heard the story of Jesus appearing to his friends on Easter night, as told in the Gospel of John.  Today, we get the same story, as told by Luke.  Again, it’s only been a matter of hours since Mary Magdalene and the other women found the empty tomb.  A few hours after that, two disciples encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, seeing him revealed as they broke bread for dinner; and they ran back to Jerusalem to tell their friends.  Now, as the disciples have come together later that same night to share these incredible stories, “Jesus himself [stands] among them” (Luke 24:36).  How he got there, the story doesn’t say, but his friends are “startled and terrified,” thinking “they were seeing a ghost” (24:37).  Maybe they’re remembering that they didn’t exactly stand with Jesus when the going got tough.  Maybe they’re afraid haunting is the punishment for their faithlessness.  But Jesus assures them it’s really him, not his ghost.  “Touch me and see,” he says, “for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones, as you see that I have” (24:39).  By the way, he asks, do you have anything to eat?  Resurrection works up your appetite.
It’s Jesus, all right – in the flesh.  It’s the person his friends knew, complete with wounds in his hands and feet and side.  He looks like himself and sounds like himself and still likes broiled fish for dinner.  But … he also walks through locked doors.  He breaks bread with his friends and then vanishes into thin air.  It’s Jesus, in his own body … but not exactly the same body.  It’s a resurrection body, the fulfillment of what we’re created to be, even more in the image and likeness of the God who made us, an in-breaking of heaven on earth.  What are the disciples supposed to do with that?
I think we’re experiencing something similar with the new HJ’s.  Hang with me for a minute.  I think this building is something like a resurrection body … and we’re just beginning to see how it works and what we’re supposed to do as we live into this new reality.  Where, in the old building, we once struggled just to hear each other talk in the “big room,” now we have state-of-the-art sound and video.  Where, in the old building, we were lucky to find an aging coffee maker that worked, now we can grind and serve our own blend of Roasterie coffee, for ourselves and for people coming by.  Where, in the old building, we tried to keep the youth and Scouts out of the chamber of horrors that once was the old Y’s locker rooms, now the youth and Scouts have beautiful spaces where you’d actually want to invite a friend.  And to oversee the ministry that will happen there, we’re blessed to have Jean Long taking on new responsibilities as our minister for younger adults, youth, and families; and just this week, we hired Zach Beall as our new community coordinator to oversee HJ’s, and market the space, and build relationships with people who use it.  You’ll meet Zach at HJ’s later this morning.  It’s all very, very new … and it’ll take us all a little while to see how this resurrection body of HJ’s lives and breathes.
 But it’s not just the building across the street that’s been made new.  I would dare say that the Body of Christ in this place, the family we know as St. Andrew’s, is beginning to stretch the sinews of its resurrection body, too.  We’re learning that we are more than we sometimes imagine ourselves to be, in the day-to-day grind of church life.  We’re building our muscles for mission to the people among whom God has placed us.
Those muscles have been strong before.  In the parish archives, there’s an article from the Kansas City Star about St. Andrew’s purchasing the Southtown YMCA in 1990.  The early ’90s was a missional time in the life of this congregation, under rector Jeff Black.  The church also bought four houses just to its south to put in a parking lot to help gather people for worship – and parishioners moved those four houses, intact, across town on huge trucks, in the middle of the night, to make the homes available to others through Habitat for Humanity.  That new parking lot made it easier for people to come and be formed into the disciples Jesus wants us to be, witnesses of the power of resurrection.  And the old Y across the street offered a point of connection with the neighbors around us.  In that article in the Star, retired bishop of West Missouri and St. Andrew’s member Arthur A. Vogel put it like this – and I know some of us can still hear Bishop Vogel’s clear tenor voice saying it:  “In God’s name, we are to make a difference in the world.  The purchase and use of that property, we hope, will enable the presence of … St. Andrew’s … to make a greater difference in the wider community around Southwest High.  It will give the church a chance to have an increased variety of services it can offer people, and we would hope that it would become a center for wider community concern.”1
The idea was to draw people around us into relationship with the God who loves them more than anything.  That wasn’t just Jeff Black’s crazy idea or Bishop Vogel’s crazy idea.  That’s Jesus’ crazy idea.  In the Gospel this morning, as his friends are trying to figure out this resurrection body of his, Jesus lets them know that, actually, the reality of resurrection has changed them, too.  Munching on broiled fish with his friends around the table, Jesus opens their minds to understand that he is, indeed, the messiah they’d been waiting for, despite his agony and apparent failure on the cross – that he’s defeated sin and death for all time and offers his friends eternal life starting right now.  And Jesus opens their hearts to understand themselves differently, too – “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations,” he says, “beginning from Jerusalem,” beginning from the table where they sat that night.  “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48).
And so are we.  HJ’s is not just a shiny new toy, an impressive conclusion to a capital campaign.  HJ’s is an icon – a window into heaven, an image of the mission God has given us here: to proclaim the grace of Jesus Christ, empower people for ministry, and serve people within and beyond our church.  An icon helps us remember realities that lie just at the edge of day-to-day life.  It helps us see the thin places where heaven and earth intersect, and where the power of God breaks into this world whose boundaries we think we know.  This icon across the street should remind us – every time we look at it, every time we walk into it, every time we invite someone else to come enjoy it – this icon across the street should remind us we are witnesses of resurrection called to trust in the truth and the power of God, called to invite others to experience life that’s more than the daily grind.  Resurrection bodies testify that death is not the end, no matter how hard life can be.  Resurrection bodies testify that God wants to heal us of our brokenness, and make us jump to our feet in the power of new life.  Resurrection bodies testify that, even though we may not yet see the kingdom of heaven in all its fullness, we will – for “we are God’s children now … and when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him” (1 John 3:2), healed, renewed, and empowered to build healing relationships with others.  We are witnesses of these things.
In fact, as we go into the new building this morning, I invite you to experience the cloud of witnesses that is … us.  Revel in the power and potential of the family walking through those doors.  Check out the list of names near the coffee bar – 269 gifts from 433 members and friends of this congregation, the cloud of witnesses who made Gather & Grow possible through their generosity.  On that list, you’ll see the depth and breadth of our parish family – witnesses as young as Emma Murray alongside witnesses who now see Christ face to face, like Walt Walton, and Bob and Connie Smart, and Deacon Peg Ruth.  Equipped with our resurrection bodies, empowered by hearts beating the rhythm of new life, we are sent by the risen Christ to proclaim the astonishing truth of love we can barely fathom: that God always gives us second chances, that God always longs to heal what divides us, that God always welcomes us back home.  Each time you see that building across the street, or walk into its rooms, remember:  You are witnesses of these things. 

1. Gray, Helen. “KC church buys the Southtown YMCA.” Kansas City Star, June 9, 1990. F-10.  

Monday, April 2, 2018

Live Like Love Wins

Sermon for Easter, April 1, 2018
John 20:1-18

So, for the first time in 62 years, Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day.  For people in my line of work, it hardly seems fair.  It’s not like the Resurrection is an easy thing for people to believe anyway; and today, in the back of our minds, we’re kind of expecting an April Fool’s prank.  Maybe the snow’s enough.
I don’t know how our current calendar would translate back 2,000 years, or how close to April 1 that first Easter morning would have been.  But the first half of this resurrection story from John’s Gospel certainly leaves Mary Magdalene feeling like a fool.  She comes to the tomb before sunrise.  The story in John’s Gospel doesn’t actually say why she’s there.  Maybe she’s been up all night; maybe she’s going to the tomb to grieve.  Whatever brings her there, what she finds is horrifying: the stone sealing the tomb has been moved away, and the body is missing.  It’s awful enough that Jesus is dead; now someone has desecrated his body, too. 
So, she runs to get Peter and another disciple, thought to be John.  The two guys race to the scene, and look inside, and hesitatingly go into the cave; and they see Mary is right … which is no surprise to Mary but may have surprised the two of them.  Then, the guys unhelpfully turn around and go back home.  And Mary’s thinking, “Wait, what?  You’re leaving me here to deal with this?  Really?”  And she breaks down in frustration and grief. 
Then, when she looks into the tomb, she sees two angels there; and they ask what must have felt like a completely unhelpful question: “Why are you weeping?”  Mary shoots back, “Well, why do you think?  They’ve taken Jesus away, and I don’t know what they’ve done with him.”  Then she turns around and sees the guy she imagines to be the caretaker, yet one more unhelpful man asking stupid questions.  “Why are you weeping,” he asks; “whom are you looking for?”  Though she’s completely frustrated, she decides not to let him have it, but she cuts to the chase instead: “Look, if you’ve taken Jesus away for some reason, just tell me and I’ll go fix it.” 
Now, Mary may have felt like a fool, but it turns out the joke’s on Satan.  The one thing the power of sin and death didn’t see coming was God’s choice to enter into death so people could live forever.  Satan didn’t understand what C.S. Lewis calls “the deep magic,” the cosmic victory that comes when the innocent champion battles sin and death, and wins.    
Of course, Mary Magdalene had heard Jesus talking about crazy ideas like that – that he’d be arrested, and killed, and on the third day rise again.  And she’d witnessed the last three days, as his friends rejected him, and the authorities tried him and beat him and hung him on a cross for subverting the Empire.  The rising-again part would begin to make sense days and months and years later, the way the disconnected threads of a story come together to weave the tapestry of a great ending.  But in the moment – as she went to the tomb that Sunday morning, and dealt with the unhelpful guys around her, and tried to figure out how to pick up the pieces after a grave robbery – in that moment, she must have just felt like a total fool.  After all, she had bought what Jesus was selling; she went all in, gave her heart completely – and then watched every hope fall apart.  And finally, to make it all just that much harder, she was the one who got stuck cleaning up the mess.  Foolish, foolish – it can just feel foolish to give your heart to hope.
Nobody wants to feel like a fool, but religion does that to us sometimes.  The Church tells stories about virgins having babies, and blind people suddenly gaining their sight, and five loaves of bread feeding 5,000 people, and dead men walking out of tombs.  Right.  It doesn’t take much Google searching to find experts who can explain it all away.  By the same token, it doesn’t take much searching to find religious people explaining away those rational explanations by telling you that if you dare to think critically and don’t swallow the whole story hook, line, and sinker, then you’re damned to hell.  It can make you feel like a fool either way, believing it or not.
But there’s a different kind of fool – a holy fool, an Easter fool, a fool for Christ’s sake.
That’s what Mary becomes in the rest of the story we heard this morning.  As she stands there, sobbing, trying to get the guy she thinks is the caretaker to do his job, Jesus does the simplest but most powerful thing.  He speaks her name: “Mary!”  She’d know that voice anywhere, and she turns to see him for the first time that morning.  She hears her heart’s own song when the risen Christ calls her name. 
And she knows the fools’ errand that lies ahead of her.  Now it’s time to go find those unhelpful guys once more but with a very different message, one they’re not likely to buy.  That conversation may have begun with a little attitude – I think we could forgive Mary for that.  “Hey, Peter and John,” she says to the fearful disciples.  “Thanks a lot for running home and leaving me holding the bag.  Guess what?  The body’s not gone.  He’s alive.  He’s risen.  You can tell me I’m crazy, but I’m here to tell you:  I have seen the Lord.”  
I think religion can make us feel like fools sometimes because religion gets tempted to confuse mystery with technicality.  Humans – especially human institutions – like to think we have things figured out.  We sleep better that way.  We also sound much smarter that way.  Everyone wants to have the answers, right? 
But you know what?  Think about the Church’s No. 1 answer man, St. Paul.  He was Christianity’s first theologian, and we have all those letters in the New Testament that show just how confident he was that his answers were right.  But you know what else St. Paul was?  He was Christianity’s first fool – other than Mary Magdalene, I guess.  At least he was the first one to see himself that way and write it down.  He was making the point that the “eloquent wisdom” of worldly knowledge doesn’t hold a candle to the power of the cross and the empty tomb.  “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he said, “but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).  I may sound foolish, but “we are fools for the sake of Christ.” (1 Cor 4:10)   
It’s OK to be a fool in the world’s eyes because the greatest truth of all time is mystery that runs counter to everything the world knows.  If that truth were really knowable through intellect alone, then we’d be right in striving to conquer the complications, and tame the technicalities, and find a universal theory of everything.  Maybe if we all had brains like Stephen Hawking, that would be possible.  But you know, Stephen Hawking has now come to the end of his life, and my hunch is that his attention has shifted now, from being wrapped up in so much logic to being wrapped up in so much love – whether or not the math proves it’s real.
God is deeply mysterious, but God is not deeply complicated.  Neither is resurrection, despite all the ink that’s been spilled over the centuries trying to prove or disprove it.  The deep mystery of life, the deep mystery of God, is this: We find new life when we choose to live in the hope that love wins, even when the world says you’re a fool for thinking so.  Now, on any given day, you may or may not feel that love.  But feeling love isn’t the measure of following the one who brought resurrection to the world and who offers it to you right now as the story of your life.  Feeling love is great, but it’s also fleeting.  What lasts, and what grows into greater power than you can imagine, is the hope of love, the practice of love, the investment of yourself in the long game of love. 
You know this love.  It’s the love of showing up for your kids’ never-ending soccer games or wrestling meets or piano lessons, when there are a million other things you need to do that day.  It’s the love of going to counseling with your spouse or partner, even though it’d be so much simpler just to walk away.  It’s the love of a real conversation with someone who looks different from you, or votes different from you, and taking the risk to learn his beloved story.  It’s the love of putting yourself into relationship with others to grow your faith, or serve people around you, or work for your community’s well-being.  It’s the love of high-school kids going down to Theis Park last weekend to say out loud that they’re tired of living in the fear of gun violence.  That kind of foolish hope that love wins becomes resurrection, even in the here and now, when we believe in the power of love enough to live it out.  Jesus told his followers, “Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.  So, I tell you,” he said, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:22-24) 
Sounds pretty foolish, right?  Tell that to the high-school kids in Florida who decided it was time to start a national movement to choose a future without school shootings.  Tell that to any couple who’s chosen to reconcile and build love back stronger than they’d ever known it before.  Tell that to any of us who’ve prayed people we love back from terrible illness or injury.  Tell that to Mary Magdalene after she saw the risen Christ.  Change happens.  New life happens.  Resurrection happens – if we take the foolish risk to believe that love wins.
So, it’s April Fool’s Day.  It’s the day when we’re supposed to poke around at the edges of what we know to be true and push against the boundaries of our well-enclosed lives.  Well, I want to invite you today, with Mary Magdalene, to take the risk of being a fool for Christ’s sake.  I want to invite you to take the risk of living in hope, even though the world wants to sell you a different story.  Because here’s the mystery we celebrate this morning: Light shines through the darkness.  Death is not the end.  Life is eternal, and we’re only in chapter 1.  Hope overpowers despair.  Love wins – we just have to act that way.

Monday, March 5, 2018

"Take These Things Out of Here!" -- What Would Jesus Say About the Church?

Sermon for Sunday, March 4
Series: "Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To," part 3
John 2:13-22

As you may know, I was out of town last weekend presenting at a conference.  And as I was traveling, I made what many clergy would consider the most boneheaded of mistakes: I wore my collar on the plane. 
You have to know that airports and airplanes are like confessionals or the 5-cent psychiatrist stand from the Peanuts cartoons.  If you’re wearing a clerical collar, you can expect somebody to come looking for information, or advice, or – more likely – just the chance to get something off his chest.  It’s one of the lessons of clergy life they teach you even from seminary: Don’t travel with your collar on.
Well, I’d gone to the airport directly from church last Sunday, so I was still dressed out.  I was sitting in the gate area, waiting for my flight, when the woman seated to my right turned to me with a dubious look, a look of restrained judgment.  She was trying not to offend, so she started out in safe territory:
“Are you a minister?” she asked. 
“Yes,” I said. 
“What kind?” she asked. 
“Episcopalian,” I said. 
Now, in conversations like this, the person’s next question or statement is the branching-off point.  One possible response is, “You’re Episcopalian … is that like Catholic?”  In that case, you know you have a little common ground, though you have no idea whether they go to Mass every day or they can’t stand the last priest they knew 30 years ago.  But this time, when I said “Episcopalian,” the response went the other way.  The woman’s eyes narrowed a bit, and she asked, “Is that Christian?” 
OK, I thought, here’s a different opportunity.  So, I said, “Yes, you bet.”  But before I could go any farther, she came back with a series of more specific questions. 
“Do you think the Old Testament is the Word of God, speaking of Jesus all the way through it?”
“Yes,” I said, “we believe the Old Testament is Part I of the story of the Good News.”
“And the New Testament – that’s also the Word of God?”
“Yes, the New Testament, too,” I said, beginning to wonder what she was thinking.
 “Even Revelation?  Do you believe in Revelation?”
“Yes,” I said, “Revelation, too.  That’s where the whole story comes together, where heaven and earth become one again.”
“So,” she asked, “are you like the Mormons?”
OK.  Clearly, she wanted to ensure that she and I were on the same page, that I wasn’t spouting heresy from whatever pulpit I inhabited on Sundays (or whatever day my strange religion might honor).  “No,” I said, “we’re not like the Mormons.  Mormons believe in some different things than Christians do, and Episcopalians are Christians.”
“So,” she asked, “do you believe Jesus died for your sins?”
This didn’t seem like the right moment to explore different models of the doctrine of the atonement, so I just said, “Yes, ma’am, for the sins of the whole world.” 
“Well,” she said, “what’s your religion’s statement of faith?  What’s your doctrine?”
I said, “We root our faith in the creeds of the ancient Church, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  That’s what we believe about the nature of God.”
“So,” she drilled down, “the Father?  And Jesus?  And the Holy Spirit?  All three?”
Yes, ma’am.” 
“How about speaking in tongues.  Do you all speak in tongues?”
“Well, no, not so much of that.”
Finally, I think I’d convinced her that Episcopalians are Christians, even if we don’t speak in tongues.  From there, we went on a bit more easily, hearing some of each other’s story.  Professionally, she worked in hospital medical technology, but her passion was the Good News.  She said she’d written several books, and she said God was calling her to become a traveling preacher.  I could see her doing that.  She had the absolute (and slightly chilling) certainty that sort of life would require.
Then she started wondering about the people around us waiting for the flight.  “How many of these folks do you think are off God’s path?” she asked.  “How many of them have given their lives to Christ, and how many don’t even know what they’re missing?”  I said I didn’t know, but probably most of them are wandering … like me, lots of the time.  And she said, “Well, God has anointed me and sent me out to share the Word with others so that they can have what I have – so they, too, can live 100-percent Jesus.” 
You know, I’ve been sharing God’s Word for 15 years now, and I’m not sure I know what it means to “live 100-percent Jesus.”  Well, maybe I do, but I don’t think I’d use just that language.  It’s not that it’s bad language.  It’s just insider language for a particular way of being Christian – one that, sadly, may shut people down when what the speaker wants most is to open them up.
This is the third week of our sermon series reflecting on Lillian Daniel’s book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.  And I share this long story with you because I think it gives us a glimpse into at least one way of being church that might close as many doors as it opens.  You know, all things considered, I feel fairly comfortable talking about my faith – which is helpful, given my role.  But I felt attacked and defensive when this well-meaning woman next to me began her interrogation.  She had a crystal-clear sense of the way to do church, and clearly I wasn’t measuring up.
Of course, by the same token, a stalwart Episcopalian might reflect similar judgment about her – the other side of the same tarnished coin.  We pride ourselves on being welcoming and open and accepting … right up until we judge others for their judgmentalism and close ourselves off because of their closed-mindedness.  We may be quieter and more polite about it, but we can be just as full of assumptions as the woman at the airport.  “What, you don’t say the Nicene Creed?  What, you don’t have Communion every week?  What, you speak in tongues?  What, you don’t agree with my politics?  Oh, you’re one of those Christians….”
It’s good to remember whose church the Church is.  And here’s a hint: It’s not ours.  Or theirs.  It’s the Church of Jesus Christ, which means it’s his. 
And in this morning’s Gospel reading, we see and hear Jesus staking his claim to the church of his day, in the story of the cleansing of the Temple.  Now, in the Gospel of John, this story comes at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  He’s called his first disciples and performed his first miracle.  He’s literally just getting started, and he comes to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  He makes his pilgrimage to the Temple, and there he finds people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, along with the Temple moneychangers.  And he’s not too happy.
Now, this is not as black and white as it may sound to our modern ears.  Temple worship involved animal sacrifice; and only certain animals were fit for that use, according to the Law – so the Temple had to provide them.  And a faithful Jew couldn’t use ritually unclean Roman money in God’s Temple; so the moneychangers converted it into holy currency that met the Law’s requirements.  But….  Were the official livestock dealers gouging the poor because the dealers had a monopoly on sacred animals?  Were the official moneychangers gouging the poor with exorbitant exchange rates?  You bet.  So, Jesus drives them out because they’re acting in opposition to the ways of the God they’re supposedly there to honor, and because they’re missing the point of the worship they’re helping to make possible.
So, what would be the point of worship?  Why are we here this morning?  I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question.  I mean, why are you here this morning?  You may have a role to perform or an obligation to meet – and on some Sundays, that’s why you’re here; I get it.  But beyond that: You’re someone who actually attends worship, or shows up for it online.  That’s an increasingly exclusive circle these days.  What brings you here?
I like the way Lillian Daniel puts in her book.  Now, this may or may not ring true for you, and that’s OK; but it does for me.  She writes, “Worship … is not about hiding from the world but transforming it.  Through worship, we hope to be better than we would have been otherwise, and for that to work, we need to show up.” (123, emphasis mine) 
I don’t say “we need to show up” in terms of finger-wagging; I say it in terms of practice.  To build our skill and grow our capacity at anything, we have to practice it.  And I’ll tell you, day-to-day life in our world doesn’t give us much practice in recognizing God’s loving sovereignty and our dependence on it.  So much about our culture tells us we can have what we want, when we want it, because it’s all about me.  Worship tells us just the opposite:  Life is bigger than me.  The deepest truths are life’s mysteries.  Meaning comes from pouring ourselves out and giving ourselves away, just as Jesus did for us.  Sacrifice gains us more than acquisition.  God is God, and we are not. 
Deep in our hearts, we know these things – and we know we find our healing and our rest in them.  The hard part is living them out, which is why we need to practice.  As Lillian Daniel says about worship, “There is no other area of our lives where we pretend something important takes no work” (124).
And that’s all the more true when you remember the scope of the life we’re talking about.  If we believe nothing else as followers of Jesus, we believe this life is not all there is.  So, worship isn’t just tuning us up for the sprint of next week’s earthly existence.  It’s conditioning – deep conditioning – for the marathon of life that never ends.
So, don’t be afraid to claim it.  When you find yourself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t get why on earth you’d spend your Sunday morning here, doing this – don’t apologize for your faithfulness, or write it off to habit, or blame your mother.  Have something to say.  Maybe the reason you’re here is about the prayer book, language that expresses your heart’s deepest joys and longings when you don’t have the words yourself.  Maybe it’s about the music, especially this being the one chance we get in our modern lives to sing our hearts out in public without anyone thinking we’re crazy for doing it.  Maybe it’s about the hope we receive from words of truth that have nurtured saints and sinners for centuries.  Maybe it’s about the Body and Blood of Jesus, broken for you, poured out for you, because he loves you enough to die proving it.  Maybe it’s about the power of the Spirit, binding us together as that Body of Christ and sending us into the world to love it into submission.
The Church can feel like something we have to apologize for because so often we do miss the mark.  Some of us miss by trying too hard, like the woman in the airport; some of us miss by not trying hard enough.  But look, you’re here.  God’s pumping life into your broken or empty heart, one way or another.  Name it for someone else – because that person needs to be made whole, too.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Trust at the Blind Curve Up the Hill

Sermon for Feb. 25, 2018
St. John's Episcopal Church, Columbus, OH, part of its Reimagining Church conference
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Mark 8:31-38

Good morning! I bring you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus from the good people of St. Andrew’s in Kansas City, a congregation a little larger than St. John’s but no less concerned about the future.  I think that’s true everywhere across the Episcopal Church, everywhere across mainline Christianity, for that matter.  It seems we’re all anxious about attendance, and membership, and pledging – and how, in most of our congregations, when you look out across the nave from the back of the church, what you see is 50 shades of gray.  In my congregation, we call it the “demographic cliff.” 
For decades, since the Second World War and the Baby Boom, Episcopalians have gotten used to the notion that people will come to us, if we just don’t mess things up too badly.  The neighbors eventually will come to a place in their lives where they’ll want to take advantage of what the church has to offer.  Our kids eventually will come to a place in their lives where their negative memories of a boring church will somehow switch to fond remembrance, and they’ll bring their own kids to endure it just like they did.  As crazy as that sounds, it worked for us for a while, in the days when social and business contacts happened at coffee hour rather than the coffee shop down the street.  It worked for us to expect the kids would go through their rebellious period and eventually find a church because many did come back.  Not anymore.  Nationally, the Episcopal Church has been shedding worshippers for decades, and the trend just keeps going. 
So, aren’t you glad you brought in some inspiring out-of-town preacher to bring you the Good News this morning?
Actually, I think Good News is exactly what this situation reflects.  And that’s not because I have a death wish for the Church.  It’s because the two vital pieces of the puzzle are coming together for us.  First, we’re being honest about our situation, as individuals, as congregations, and as the larger Episcopal family – honest about where we are, the part we’ve played in it, and our call to turn in a new direction.  That’s the first piece, the one about us.  And second, just in case we needed reminding, we worship a God who brings light out of darkness, joy out of sorrow, life out of death – and nearly always when it’s the last thing anyone would have expected.  Put those pieces together, and you can solve the puzzle.  Leave either one out, and we actually are sunk.
So first, about us:  Let’s remember what time of year it is.  It’s Lent, which isn’t about wallowing in our wretchedness but about being honest.  It’s about self-examination and repentance, as we heard on Ash Wednesday – like an annual physical.  It’s about acknowledging where we are and deciding where we’re going from here – changing our minds about some things and acting differently, which is what “repent” means in Scripture.  So the time is right for us as individuals and congregations to look at where we are, acknowledge where we’ve been missing the mark, and turn in a new direction. 
That’s what you’re doing here at St. John’s, what Lee Anne has been leading you toward – turning toward the neighbors coming among you.  Now, for some Episcopal congregations, making that turn might start with just realizing that there are people among you.  You’re a long way beyond that.  You’ve given your hands and your hearts in serving people who are hungry, people sleeping in the cold.  You’ve built those relationships into a worshiping community, which I can’t wait to experience this afternoon. You do amazing things here.
And still, those words we heard in today’s Gospel reading hang like Jesus’ thought bubble over all our best work.  “If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)  It’s tempting to hear those words and think, “Absolutely, Jesus – that’s what our feeding ministry is all about. That’s what our street church is all about.  We’re bearing that cross right alongside you.”
And so you are.  So is my congregation, in the way it helps feed and educate kids in Haiti, feed and clothe people in Kansas City, and foster social enterpreneurship.  And Jesus sees all that: “Absolutely,” he says back to us – “and bless you all for walking alongside me.  And now, the path is turning.  Will you stay with me as we carry this cross up a new hill?  Will you let go of just a little more, so you can become ever so much more?”
I’ve been blessed to talk with people in the Episcopal Church, and our cousins in England, who are saying “yes” to this call to give up some of what we’ve known in order to love differently and love more.  I’ve talked with folks who’ve invested themselves deeply in the places and the people God has given them.  There are a hundred different ways to go about it – dinner churches, or community partnerships, or pastoral presence, or kids’ play groups, or community organizing, or sharing physical space, or preaching with kids each week.  And there is no Holy-Grail sort of solution that will bring young adults and families through our doors for Sunday-morning worship.  But there is a common thread, and that thread is individual connection.  It’s taking the person in front of you completely seriously, and linking her up with the next person in front of you to build networks of relationship, networks of blessing for the real, live human beings nearby – whether we would choose them, or not.  Whether we feel comfortable with them, or not.  As one of the priests I interviewed told me, the key to building ministry with young families – or with anyone else, for that matter – is wanting to.  The key is wanting to invest ourselves in easing the burdens or spurring the passions of real, live people you come to know and love.
That’s possible.
But it’s not enough simply to want to.  It’s not even enough simply to try hard.  The second part of the equation is trust – trust that God will be God.  God does not offer us easy solutions – not even to God’s good friend Abraham, the ancestor of many nations, chosen by God to model what it means to walk side by side, in loving covenant with the sovereign of the universe.  For Abraham, that path began with leaving everything he knew to come to a land God was promising but that he’d never seen.  It continued with a dangerous sojourn in Egypt and conflict with those who’d become his neighbors.  And it included big promises that must have seemed pretty empty in the moment.  A couple of chapters before the reading this morning, God had said to Abraham, “Here, I will give you land and descendants, innumerable like the stars of the clear night sky.”  Then decades pass, and Abraham doesn’t have much of anything to show for those promises.  His wife, Sarai, hasn’t had any kids, and it’s hard to have descendants without any kids; so they figure a child with Hagar, whom they hold as a slave, is better than nothing.  But God comes to Abraham again and says, “Wait, the story gets better than that.  Your descendants shall come from your 90-year-old wife, Sarah.”  That’s a laugh line, by the way.  Scripture does have laugh lines, and this is one of them.  Abraham falls down laughing, but God is serious.  “I know you can’t see it now,” God says, getting serious, “but this is the way I work.  Trust me.  The best outcomes are the ones you’d never expect to see.”
The Episcopal Church is not a bunch of slackers.  Many congregations, like yours and mine, have worked faithfully for a long time to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses, and follow Jesus.  We’ve tried hard.  We’ve offered feeding programs, or school partnerships, or new worship experiences, some of us nearly killing ourselves trying to come up with the right things that will bless our world and draw in new folks.  What maybe we haven’t done so well is to be open to learning how we might serve different people in different ways.  Maybe we haven’t done so well at setting aside what we understand and how we’ve always done things, and learning from people in our midst whom we don’t really even know.  That’s one of my congregation’s growing edges, and I think that’s true for most of the Episcopal Church.  There are people around us yearning for spiritual meaning in ways a standard worship service may not sufficiently address.  There are people around us hungry for connection with God and each other in ways we’d never think about ourselves.  There are people around us already tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit to solve problems in the neighborhood and bless people’s lives. 
We can trust that God will bring us wisdom and insight and new life, for ourselves and our congregations, if we will set aside some things we’ve always done and hear the wisdom that real, live people will teach us over a hundred cups of coffee.  We can trust that God will bless us to be a blessing in this time when church is shifting under our feet and the road ahead has hit a blind curve.  Even in the dark of Good Friday, even along the way of the cross, we can trust that Easter is on its way because that’s how God works:  The best outcomes are the ones you’d never expect to see.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Repent and Believe in the Good News" ... Episcopalian Style

Sermon for March 18, 2018
Series:  Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don't Belong To, part 1
Mark 1:9-15

If you’re someone who’s here most Sundays, you’ve probably noticed things look and sound a little different today.  The rough wooden cross has appeared behind the altar; we’ve offered up our sins with the centuries-old Great Litany; and we’ve changed the liturgical color to a penitential purple.  Welcome to Lent, our 40-day journey of repentance as we follow Jesus to the cross.
But if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, I wonder what your reaction to all this might be.  The things I’ve just said might push some buttons for you.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Great.  The church I’m staying away from was all about how God expects perfection.  I’m tired of church people making me feel beat up.”
Or, if you’re someone who’s not here most Sundays, maybe your reaction is more like this: “What are you all doing?  I only came in to recharge my spiritual batteries in this beautiful space.  What’s up with all the parading around and that long, dreary prayer at the start?”
So, if you’re a “regular” here, think for a minute: What would you say to those real people’s real concerns?  Would you apologize for our ancient pomp and circumstance, and say all this talk about sin doesn’t really matter that much anyway?  Or maybe you’d just talk about the weather instead?
Today, we’re starting a five-part preaching series reflecting on Lillian Daniels’ book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.  We’re going to spend some time through this season of Lent hearing Jesus say some things that might push our buttons or simply sound crazy.  And as we do, we’re going to take the book’s point seriously: That Christians in traditions like ours need to have something of value to offer people who’ve been hurt by church or who don’t have much experience of it.  In a day when the popular definition of Christianity is a religious institution that’s judgmental, highly political, insisting on interpreting Scripture literally, and constantly after your money – in a day like that, we need to claim our different story, a story of good news.
So, let’s start with that reading we just heard.  Each year, as we begin this season of Lent, we hear about Jesus going to the wilderness.  What was he doing out there?  The only set-up for this story in Mark’s Gospel is something we heard before Christmas: John the Baptist warning people to repent because someone more powerful than John was on his way to bring God’s authority to bear on the world around them.  Then we get today’s story.  Jesus comes to be baptized by John but with no explanation why.  Then the clouds are “torn apart” (1:10), and the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon him.  And the voice of God breaks into the scene, proclaiming Jesus to be The One, God’s own Son, the Beloved. 
It sounds like the next step is for Jesus to mobilize the crowd, the new king ready to take on the Romans.  But what happens instead?  “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness,” where he was “tempted by Satan” for 40 days (1:12,13).  So much for cheering crowds.  Now Jesus is alone in the desert, taking on the power of evil.
So, what’s up with that?  Why has the Spirit of God driven the Beloved Son out into the wilderness?  Well, the story never says why, so it invites us to wrestle with it.  Is Jesus struggling with this call, unsure he wants to be The One?  Is he uncertain what he’s supposed to do, now that he’s anointed by the Holy Spirit?  Maybe.  Whatever is going on in Jesus’ mind, the God who loves him as a Son wants him out there in the wilderness, wants him to have a chance to sort through what God’s asking of him.  Jesus needed to get lost for a while.  You know, sometimes you have to let yourself get lost, or admit that you’re already lost, before you can find your new direction.  More on that in a minute.
Well, while he was wrestling with the powers of darkness, so was John the Baptist, in a different way – getting arrested and eventually losing his head.  So, with John gone and the wilderness time over, Jesus steps up and begins naming the new reality he’s been sent to proclaim: that it’s time to think differently.  It’s time to see God’s power at work in the world, in contrast to the powers that suck our life away. “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). 
Repent and believe in the good news.
Hmmm.  I don’t know about you, but when I hear “repent and believe in the good news,” something in me kind of shuts down.  Maybe it has to do with the baggage those words carry these days.  When I hear “repent,” my lizard brain says, “Nope.  Don’t go there.  You do a perfectly good job of feeling bad about yourself without any help from overly-convicted preachers.”  I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, and we got lots of finger-shaking calls to repentance, implicitly and explicitly, from lots of religious people.  Even today, you see billboards try to scare you into loving God:  You know, “Repent or burn,” that kind of thing.  For my lizard brain, “repent” means slick preachers manipulating people into tearful altar calls.  No thanks. 
But in Scripture, “repent” doesn’t mean, “Be afraid of going to hell.”  It also doesn’t mean, “Feel bad about yourself.”  In Scripture, “repent” means, “Change your mind” – to think differently about something based on some experience.  Now, it does imply you’re turning away from something with regret for having been on the wrong path.  It’s not just realizing intellectually that it’s safer to drive 70 than 90 on the highway; it’s regretting that you’ve put yourself and others at risk when you speed.  Repenting is changing your mind and acting on it.  It doesn’t mean seeing yourself as worthless or stupid or unworthy of love because you made bad choices – just the opposite.  Repenting means recognizing that, because you’re human, you are God’s beloved.  And God needs for you to be out there spreading love, not barreling down the highway like your life doesn’t matter.
And how about believing?  That’s the other thing Jesus calls us to do in this story – “believe in the good news.”  Now, if we’re supposed to believe in the good news, does that mean we’re on our way to hell if we don’t think the universe was created in six days, or if we don’t think Noah saved the earth’s biosphere on a boat, or if we don’t think the Nicene Creed is a technical spec sheet for the nature of God?  Does believing necessarily mean we have to see theological truths as facts? 
You know, if you look at the Greek word for “believe” in this story, it’s not about facts vs. falsehoods.  It’s not about whether ancient stories jibe with scientific explanations.  The word “believe” is about trust.  It’s about where you direct your mind and commit your heart.  It’s about claiming God’s narrative as your own and staking your life on it.
And you know, that doesn’t happen with the flip of a switch.  I don’t know anyone with life-building, difference-making faith who hasn’t come to it over a long and sometimes painful process.  We’ve got to go deep in order to be deeply in relationship, whether it’s with our spouse or our kids or our friends or our God.  In her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, Lillian Daniels talks about how a journey looks and feels very different depending on whether you see yourself as a tourist or an adventurer.  Now, I love a good tour, but you can’t live there.  Real living – living that means something, living that makes a difference in the world – real living isn’t tourism, it’s adventure.  Daniels puts it like this: 
Tourism is a journey with clear boundaries and limitations. …  When you’re a tourist, you approach the trip with a certain set of expectations.  I want to see the Taj Mahal and get my picture taken in front of it. …  When you’re on an adventure, you have to relinquish your expectations. ...  If faith is an adventure journey, you need to accept that you may not know how this trip is going to turn out. (175-176)
I think that’s what Jesus was doing out there in the wilderness for those 40 days.  I don’t think he went there as a tourist.  I think he was wrestling … maybe with his own demons, maybe with his own uncertainty, but definitely with ours.  I think Jesus was out there in the wilderness to see what it’s like to be just as lost as the rest of us.
So, where are you lost?  And what if we could be honest about that question – with ourselves, and with each other, and with God?  We spend a lot of time and energy not wrestling with the demons at our doors.  Maybe you know your family’s life isn’t perfect, but you’re doing everything you can to make sure no one else finds out.  Maybe you look at your credit-card statement and feel like you’ve fallen down a well, and no one knows you’re down there.  Maybe you look at the news and worry that someone might buy an assault rifle and shoot up the place where your kids or grandkids go to school.  Maybe you know just how easy it is for teens to buy drugs, and it kills you that you can’t protect them from it.  Maybe you feel like you’re held captive to an outside force yourself – drugs, or alcohol, or food, or gambling, or sex, or any of a hundred other addictions.  If any of those situations ring true for you – and if you know, deep down, that you need a source of power greater than yourself – welcome home. 
Yes, God wants us to repent – to change our minds and live differently.  And God wants us to believe – to trust in a story bigger than our own.  And we do that by traveling the long road together, a community of pilgrims walking the path of adventure.  That doesn’t mean ignoring the demons in the wilderness – just the opposite.  It means spending some time in the wilderness, but not by ourselves.  It means being real with each other about how hard it is to struggle with our faults and failings.  It means leaning on each other when the world trips us up or beats us down.  And though that’s not easy, I think it is healing. 
This is the offer Jesus holds out to us:  Sure, you’re part of a broken family, the human family, God’s family – but don’t stay stuck in your brokenness.  Look at it with your eyes wide open.  Take the risk to share it with someone who’s just as broken as you are.  Think differently, and see your belovedness, and choose to turn in a new direction. 
That’s Lent.  And strangely enough, it’s Good News.