Friday, November 29, 2013

a banner of ads for Black Friday

Once upon a time, an amazing church in Denver, Colorado wanted to remind themselves that Christmas is about more than presents.

They made this.

And I, a year or two later, stumbled upon it and fell in love with the idea.

Last year, my internship congregation got to do it.
Early concept drawing

Final design

Color guide

PDF'd and printed

Everyone brought in the many Christmas advertisements they'd received, and over the four weeks of Advent, we cut out shapes and colors.  We slowly assembled an icon -- a religious piece of art meant to point us to God.  We took what the world uses to tell us we need more, more, more, and turned it into a reminder that we already have all that we need.

The finished icon
O come, o come Emmanuel.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Preaching Lab: Sin as the space in between

Another sermon for preaching lab, based on the Lamb of God text in John.

John 1:29-41

The next day John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”

And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”

He said to them, “Come and see.”

They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed).

This is the word of the Lord.


I want to talk to you today about sin.

…A killer opening, right?  But I do.  I want to talk to you about sin, because it’s important that we talk about it.  Because we live in a time and a place and a culture where we don’t.  We want to be fine.  We tell everyone we are fine.  Work is fine, school is fine, the house is fine, the kids are fine, we are fine.

This is what we have to do, right?  Because I know I need that space.  I need a little separation between me and others.  I need a protective barrier.  People don’t need to know about my problems.  It’s embarrassing.  It’s shameful.  It’s scary.  It’s not that big a deal -- lots of other people are going through worse.

This isn’t a bad thing.  We do need space.  We need self-protection.  We are allowed to make space between ourselves and what hurts us.  The danger is when we are so afraid of pain that we make space between us and everything.  Because space is never just empty.  It fills with things, or it collapses.  So we fill up that space in between.  We look for something to keep the space wide - to protect ourselves and our truth.  To get between us and pain.  And the deeper our fear is, the bigger we make that space, and the more we need to fill it with.  With perfectionism and success, with self-indulgence and pleasure, with clinging violently to whatever we can or shoving others away, to immersing ourselves in a project or shutting out the world, to helping others so they’ll need us and we’ll never be alone.

Take a moment.  Imagine that space.  Imagine your space.

Maybe one of the ways we can define sin is as what we put in that space in between.  Where we fill up this void with brokenness and anger and distrust and whatever else we can stack up in there to keep other people away.  And into all that mess, all that clutter, all that heart-wrenching stomach-twisting fear, comes a voice:

“What are you looking for?”

Someone is knocking on the door of your heart.  Someone is peering around the boxes and into the dusty corners of that sin, that space in between.  Someone is asking, “What, in all of this, are you really looking for?”

When you stack your space full of things.  When you invest your time and your love in money or a relationship or a house or a job.  When you show up for church.  When you follow this man called the Lamb of God.

What are you looking for?

Then we have a rush of words.

To be whole.
To be loved.
To be valuable.
To be true to ourselves.
To be competent.
To be secure.
To be happy.
To be safe.
To be at peace.

To have this fear, this need for separation, this sin, that space in between to be closed -- our sin to be taken away.

When John says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he does not mean that Jesus only came to cleanse us of our guilt.  Jesus came to take away that space in between.

When Jesus asks the disciples “What are you looking for?”, they don’t know what to answer.  Jesus has been called the Lamb of God, the son of God, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, the one who ranks ahead of John -- and all the disciples can say is “Teacher?  Where are you staying?”

And maybe it is so with us.  Maybe what we are looking for, maybe what we are longing to put in this space in between, is just too big for words.  Maybe Jesus says “What are you looking for?” and we say “I don’t know.  It's too much for one word, or even many.  But can I go with you?”

This is how close God comes, to take away our sin -- so close that we can touch him.  “Teacher, where are you staying?” we ask, and Jesus says, “Here.  With you.  In the midst of humanity, in the face of all your spaces in between, into the place where you store up your fear and self-protection, everything that separates you from each other.  This is where I have come to be.”

And having seen this, the only possible response for the disciples is to say, “We’ve found the Messiah.  We’ve found the one who will save us.”

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away all the spaces in between of the world.

Come and see.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Preaching lab: Leadership in Crisis

For my senior preaching lab, I had the following prompt:

You are six months into a new call when a 24-year-old member of the congregation tells you that she was sexually abused by your predecessor when she was in the high school youth group. Over the next month, you hear of four other women who were also abused. Your predecessor, who served for 18 years in this congregation, retired and moved away from the region two years ago. To the best of your knowledge, few people in the congregation knew about this abuse, but word is now spreading fast and several people, including one of the victimized women, have asked you to speak about this from the pulpit.

Assumptions I made:  I am being asked to preach about the assault before it's been made publicly known.  In my opinion (and my classmates and preceptor agreed with me on this) the wrong place to make the first public announcement of this abuse would be from the pulpit, so I chose not to specifically address the issue, but to speak into and make a space for it.

I would expect the church to follow up on these accusations immediately and with the proper contacts made with the synod, legal counsel, psychological assistance for the victims, etc.

I received this prompt 72 hours before I was to preach.  I had already decided to prepare to preach on whatever the assigned text was for the day, since in a normal situation we would already have bulletins printed and so on.

And here is the result.

Lectionary gospel reading for November 17, 2013:  Luke 21:5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?”

And Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.  When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”


When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

… again?

See, the temple of Jerusalem is a hard-won battle.  The First Temple was built by King Solomon only to be sacked a few decades later by an Egyptian Pharaoh.  It was rebuilt under King Jehoash in only to be stripped of its riches by the King of Assyria.  When the Jewish people were taken off to captivity in Babylon, it was completely destroyed.

But the Jewish people returned.  They built a second temple.  Alexander the Great nearly destroyed it, the Seleucids perverted it with pagan sacrifices and slaughtered pigs, Pompey desecrated the Holy of Holies, but it remained intact.  Herod the Great, about fifteen years before the birth of Jesus, renovated it.  Now it has stood for fifty years, under the thumb of Roman rule and yet still in control of the Jewish people.

It is the center of their life, their worship, their hope.  It is a symbol that God is still with them, that God has come and made a dwelling among the people of Israel.  It is their comfort.  And Jesus walks into it, looks at the marvelous stones and offerings, at this house of worship a thousand years in the making and restoring, the central hope of the whole Israelite nation, and says, “A day will come when all this will be destroyed.”

And this is true.  The temple of Jerusalem no longer stands.  It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, with only a few stones left upon the other -- the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, where Jews continue to gather and pray and weep over another temple lost.

For Jesus to say that the Temple will one day, again, finally and totally be destroyed is to say, “Your hope will be lost.  Your trust will be broken, the world will be in disarray, and it will appear that God is gone.”

In too many ways we live there now.  The temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.  Only a few stones are left upon another.  And just as painfully, our own lives are marked with destruction.  We fight sickness and pain.  We grieve the death of friends too young and family members so well loved.  We struggle with work, with school.  Some of us go to bed hungry.  Some of us go to bed weeping.  We fight despair, and depression, and fear.  There are those among us whose walls have been torn down.  There are those who have had their innocence torn from them, their trust destroyed by abuse or neglect or hatred.  There are earthquakes in our souls, and famines in our hearts, and there are wars and insurrections all around us.

And Jesus has the audacity to say “Not a hair of your head will perish.”  Your family will turn against you, your churches will throw you out, some of you will die -- but not a hair of your head will perish.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that if we endure we will gain our souls.  And to those of us who are broken, who fall asleep with empty stomachs or hurting hearts, these words can break us again.

So much of what breaks us is hidden.  We put on a brave smile.  We pretend it didn’t happen.  We fear the accusations and condemnations of our friends and family, that we might hear that somehow our pain is our fault, that our suffering is part of God’s great plan.  So we bear our pain in silence, in what we might call endurance, because we fear the judgment of others.

Yet see what Jesus asks of us.  We are not to endure silently, our mouths closed, our heads bowed.  We are not to run, to hide, to lie.  We speak truth.  We speak of what has happened.  It is in that endurance, that pure and raw courage, that we regain our souls.  If we are wounded Jesus does not call us to bind ourselves up and pretend we can run.  If we are broken Jesus does not tell us to claim we are whole.  Jesus says, This is your opportunity to tell the truth.  Speak it.  Speak it before friends and family, before kings and governors.  Tell of what has happened, and hold fast, for it is in speaking the truth that you will find your soul.

This is the stupid, audacious, arrogant promise of Jesus, that God is on the side of the victim.  God does not run from the destruction of the temple.  God does not turn a blind eye to the tearing down of our own walls.  When all appears lost, God will have the final word.

And we, as the church, are called to endure.  We are called to be witnesses -- to testify but also to witness, to see and to hear and to know.  We of all places in the world are called to be a source of light.  When victims speak, we do not shut our ears.  When our children wail, we do not silence them.  When those we love declare that the temples of their hearts have been torn down, we do not shout “No!  It cannot be!  There must be an explanation, a reason, a flaw of your own.”  We cannot push the pain away.  We cannot extinguish the light of truth.

We are called to stand with Jesus, in the center of the temple, to see the day when no stone is left upon another and yet to believe that God is still here.

We have been commissioned, by Jesus, to stand in the midst of others’ destruction, in the face of hunger and poverty and abuse and neglect and all the ways that sin breaks the ones we love and say:  You are not alone.  We hear you.  We will fight for you.  And we will walk beside you while you heal.

Something new is coming.  For us.  For all that is broken and torn apart within us.  We will speak the truth, and the truth will give us our souls.