Easter People #20: Unexpected religious experiences

The latest Easter People podcast is up:
"Greetings, Easter People people! Here’s our new episode with a conversation about non-religious pop culture that hit us in a religious way, a game which turns that formula around, and (as always) Green Shoots. We’d like to welcome guest panelist Becky Zartman, with whom we had a blast and who joined us on short notice. Thanks, Becky!"

Listen here.

An apology

I don't read my sermons. I study, take notes and write them the week before. But I typically preach without notes. It's what works best for me. I feel as though I give a better delivery that way and connect better with those listening. It also frees me from having to stand behind a pulpit, which I prefer not to whenever possible and acceptable with a congregation.

When writing this sermon, which I just posted, I used a term that is offensive to others, "sissies." The sentence it was in, I have changed: "Which in Hebrew sounds like, 'Calm down! It’s just me!' For the sake of humor, I used a term that has hurt others and for that I apologize. I honestly don't know if I used the term while preaching or not. If I did, I apologize to anyone that was offended.

Part of my hetero, white male privilege is that I could say something offensive to someone else and get away with it. Fortunately, the world is changing. Fortunately, I have friends with different experiences that widen my perspective and show me how others see the world. It's not always painless but it is a gift of friendship that I will always treasure. I didn't have to write this note post (at first, this started as an addendum to the last post) but I choose to because its important that people like me continue to grow in our understanding that we share this world with others that have a different perspective and experience and for whom our dominance is tragic.

Misogyny is unacceptable even when unintended.

Femininity does not equal weakness. I know this. I live with two powerful women and work with many. I am sorry for using language that communicated otherwise.

I don't think Jesus was inoffensive. I don't think he was as sterile and pristine as our images often portray him. It's hard to discern tone through thousands of years of cultural difference, but I think he was incredibly offensive to many–and still is. But I also believe he was intentional about who he offended. (Yes, I think he did it on purpose.) In this case, mine was unintentional and offensive to those that I think Jesus wouldn’t have intended to hurt. Rather, his story elevates women in a way that was quite radical for his time and place.

So, thanks to those that love me enough to shoot straight with me. I will continue to make mistakes but I know that I have friends who will hold me accountable when I do and help me do better.

The Risky Path

This is the sermon I preached last weekend at St. Thomas':
“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

Matthew 14:22-33
There are two sides of this story.

There is the perspective of the disciples’ and then there is Jesus’ perspective.

From the disciples’ perspective, it had been a long day.

But an incredible day! If you remember from last week’s Gospel reading, it was the story of Jesus feeding the crowd five thousand with just a few fish and loaves of bread.

Can you imagine what the response was to such a miracle? People had come out to the countryside to hear this rabbi, this teacher share a message of good news for all. Not only did he teach, he healed people. And then he did something even more incredible: he fed thousands of people with virtually nothing.

If he could do this, what else could he do?

If he could provide for the Hebrews in this way, they didn’t need to be subject to a king, to an oppressive empire such as Rome. This man could be their king! This could be the next Moses, a Messiah!

Can you imagine the response of the crowds?!

The kind of kingdom Jesus had in mind wasn’t what the crowds had in mind. It had been a good day but was time for he and his closest friends to step away from this crowd. To let the fervor die down.

He tells the disciples to go ahead of him, get in the boat and head for the other side. He’ll meet up with them later. I’m sure Jesus’ disciples were on cloud nine! As they walked towards the shore, I’m sure one said something such as, “Now I get what you’ve been talking about Jesus!” Another says, “ Oh, man! This is incredible. If we can feed people there’s no telling what we can do!”

Jesus tries to calm them, “Easy fellas. Don’t get ahead of yourselves.” He sees them off and then goes back to tell the crowds that it’s time to go home. Party's over.

As the last of the crowd begins to fade away, he heads up towards a hill top to pray.

Maybe Jesus could see the disciples boat from that hillside. Maybe not.

In any case, a storm hits the boat and they are still far from the shore.

Some of these men were experienced with boats and water ways. They were, after all, fishermen. It was part of their trade. So, the conversation on that boat had to have been pretty engrossing in order for all of them not to notice a storm approaching.

I imagine that it was something like other conversations between these disciples of which the Gospels let us eavesdrop in on. Debates about who would be Jesus right hand man. Who would be chief of staff, secretary of state, secretary of defense and press secretary… or something like that. “I get to be Leo!” “No, I’m Leo. You’re Josh Lyman!” “No way!” “I helped him write that great sermon on the mountainside, so I’m Toby!” … Alright, maybe they didn’t watch The West Wing.

Then there was the debate as to whether it was just Jesus who had used miraculous powers or the disciples as well. “Technically, I handed him the fish.” Peter had to have said, “So, if I touched it first maybe I have some of the mojo, brothers!”

“No, no,” John retorts, “He handed the first piece after blessing it to me! I think it actually multiplied while in my hand!”

Then one of them begins to notice that the weather has a taken a turn. They are not near shore and they are entering a rough storm. “Hey guys! The wind’s getting pretty rough.”

“Oh, no! Who was supposed to guiding the boat!” They start to argue about who was supposed to be manning the sails, when another disciple yells out, “Guys! There’s a ghost out on the water!”

They begin to panic. This is it. The grim reaper has come to escort them to the other side.

But then they hear a familiar voice. “Take heart. It is I. Do not be afraid.”

Which in Hebrew sounds like, “Calm down! It’s just me!”

As always, Peter has to up the ante! He’s got to show the fellas that he’s going to be second in charge when Jesus comes into his kingdom. He yells out over the storm, “Lord, if it is you command me to come out to you on the water.”

Which in Hebrew probably sounds like, “Hey Jesus, dare me to walk out on to the water!” As he looks over at his friends with a sinister grin.

Jesus replies, “Come.”

Which in Hebrew is something like, “Sure! I dare you, Peter.”

Popular telling of the story has led us to believe that Peter took a few steps on top of the water but then began to sink. Maybe he realized he hadn’t put on a life vest. Safety’s no accident. Or maybe he realized that this was not happening because of his own power and realized he couldn’t do this without Jesus after all.

He cries out. Jesus grabs him. Places Peter back in the boat. And the storm stops.

First he feeds more than five thousand people with virtually nothing.

Then, he walks out on to open water.

Then, he stops a storm.

This guy is more than a king!

So, they do the only reasonable thing to do when you’ve seen such things happen in less than 24 hours:

They fall to their knees and acknowledged that they are in the presence of God.

At this moment, they are not so egotistical about the whole scenario. Now they don’t see themselves as high and mighty as they did just a short time ago. But they certainly see Jesus as even greater than they had previously imagined.

This is, in my mind, how the disciples experienced that evening.

For Jesus, it was likely a bit different.

Jesus was tired. Feeding five thousand people is a lot of work. Your average restaurant serves maybe a few hundred in a day? Can you imagine what it would take out of one guy to feed more than 5,000?!

He gets done praying and looks out over the water. He’s got to get over there. It’s going to take him forever to walk around to the other side of this body of water. It’d be much easier if he could just cut across. … Then he thinks, “Oh, yeah! I’m the Son of God! I just fed five thousand people with a few scraps! I got this.” And being the Son of God, even if an exhausted Son of God, Jesus does the expedient, efficient–yet miraculous–thing to do: he walks across the water.

This isn’t the only time Jesus takes the expedient, more efficient, if not riskiest path. Before Jesus ascends into heaven, he gives his best friends–these disciples he’s spent the last three years with–a few last words. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, and to baptize them. In Acts 1 it reads that Jesus tells his friends that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jerusalem. Judea. Samaria. Ends of the earth.

For us these geographic locations might not seems like much. But for Jesus’ followers in first century Palestine, it mattered a lot! Samaria was home of the Samaritans–a people group despised by Jews. They were treated as unorthodox, filthy and subhuman. You didn’t go through this marginalized group’s land to get to anywhere! You went around Samaria. Yet Jesus tells his disciples that in order to complete their mission, to participate in this re-imagining of the Abrahamic covenant, they have to first bring this message of good news to “the other.”

Jesus didn’t just tell the disciples to do this. He didn’t himself. Remember the story of the Samaritan woman? I can only imagine the looks on the disciples’ faces when Jesus leads them through Samaria. Then he has the nerve to send them off to look for food while he waits at a water well! It is there that Jesus has one of the most risky conversations in the Gospels. And yet the fruit of the conversation is incredible!

We play it safe. We hedge our bets. We watch out for ourselves. We cover our own butts.

The Gospels portray following Jesus as anything but safe. To follow Jesus is take the adventurous path–to take the risky path.

I don’t think Jesus calls us to be stupid, negligent, or not put to use the wisdom and insight we’ve gained through life’s experiences. But I do think he calls us to use what we’ve gained for the more adventurous path.

Where is your journey leading you in which you’re looking for a detour? What places are you hoping to avoid? What person–or people–are you hoping to avoid? What path requires you to have a little faith?

When Jesus pulls Peter out of the water he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

I don’t think this is a put down. I don’t think that having a “little faith” is bad. Sometimes that’s all we have. Sometimes we’re as pompous as Peter and have more faith in ourselves than anyone else. Sometimes we’re simply filled with more doubt than faith. In which case, I’m confident that Jesus says, That’s all you need. A little faith. Faith enough to choose the risky path, the adventurous path.

And if you do, I believe you will find Jesus there with you.

Easter People #19: Serving with young adults (live from Kindling)



From Key Resources: "The Easter People (well, some of them) come to you from the road! Live from the Kindling Conference for Young Adult and Campus Ministry Leaders, Jason and Kyle were joined in Minneapolis by past guest Mike Angell (@angellmike) and new pal Amity Carrubba (@amitycarrubba), director of Episcopal Service Corps."

Listen here.

It is only the living churches we don’t show

Schumacher messes with my head. If you haven't read Small is Beautiful, you should. I love this quote–which I was recently reminded of–from A Guide for the Perplexed:
"On a visit to Leningrad some years ago I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said 'We don’t show churches on our maps.' Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. 'This is a museum,' he said, 'not what we call a living church. It is only the living churches we don’t show.'

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map that failed to show many of the things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance for the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity was complete; and no interpreter came along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps." (emphasis mine)
HT: Brainpickings

The scarcity of what we have and the God of abundance

This is the sermon I preached yesterday at St. Bartholomew's:
“Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” 
Matthew 14:13-21
This story must have been important to the early Church. It shows up in all four Gospels. Not only that, Jesus refers to this incident on more than one occasion.

Can you imagine the scene?

Jesus' reputation has been growing. More and more people are hearing about his message of good news for all–not just the religious elites and people of privilege but a message of good news for all. And they had heard about his miraculous touch, the stories of broken people made whole. Healed.

As his reputation spread, the demand upon the disciples and Jesus grew. Jesus retreats to a remote place to recuperate only to be met by a massive crowd upon his return. All day long, Jesus and his disciples minister to those gathered, teaching about the good news of the kingdom and healing the sick. I imagine it was a bit like an impromptu, day-long festival of sorts.

As the sun begins to set, the disciples discuss amongst themselves sending folks home. Now, they are often portrayed as numb skulls in situations like this. But I’m certain that the disciples had the best of intentions. After all, gathered there that day were the sick and the well, the poor and rich. Not everyone had provisions for staying the night. Not everyone had food to eat. The fair thing–the equitable thing, would be to send everyone home. No one is embarrassed that way. People are getting tired. People are getting hungry. It’s time to shut this festival down.

So, the disciples approach Jesus, encouraging him to let everyone know that the party’s over. But Jesus doesn’t entertain this suggestion. “No, fellas,” he replies, “You feed them.” I’m sure this had to have cultivated a feeling the disciples felt countless times. Really, Jesus? Don’t be ridiculous ... Is this one of your metaphorical statements again? They set before Jesus the evidence. “A few pieces of fish and bread,” they tell him, “That’s all we got. Send ‘em home!”

Jesus takes the bread and the fish. He tells the crowd to take a seat and lifts the handful of food up towards the sky. He thanks God for it. He blesses it. He breaks it. And then he begins to hand it to the disciples who then pass it out to the crowds. There isn’t just enough for everyone gathered there. There was more than enough. After everyone has had their fill, baskets full of leftovers come back!

I wonder if this is the great lesson for us that bears so much repeating:

Between the scarcity of what we have and the God of abundance is our willingness to trust and to try.

Where, in each of our lives, are we saying to God, “There is just not enough to go around,” and yet the Spirit is whispering back to us, “Feed them.”

Last night, I returned from a visit to the U.S./Mexico border along the Rio Grande River. A young adult from our Diocse and I had the opportunity of seeing first hand the work that is being done to assist those coming into McAllen in order to escape the terror in their home countries.

You’ve likely heard about Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which has been at the center of much of the media attention given to this crisis. Not long after we entered the parish hall at Sacred Heart, four mothers entered the building with their children. They had just been released from a detention facility for migrants crossing the border. Volunteers cheered as they entered and then quickly went to work, getting them ready for the next leg of their journeys.

Having a daughter, I’ve watched a number of princess movies. And I was reminded of these as volunteers busily took measurements and sizes in order to find the fresh clothes for the families. It was not unlike animated birds and mice busily taking measurements for a ball gown. I can’t explain to you how vast a difference a warm meal and a hot shower can do for a person that has been traveling for as long they had. It was as if a different person stepped out of that shower area with fresh clothes, still damp hair and smiles on each of their faces.

We assisted these families with around 30 other volunteers. There were card-carrying Democrats and card-carrying Republicans. But each of us served because, as the Assistant Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen, TX put it, they were “trying to behave like Christians.”

I’m not primarily concerned about the politics involved in this crisis. Yet I am deeply concerned about the Church’s response and role in this crisis.

Scripture is not silent on this. We have a biblical mandate to offer care and compassion to the stranger and the alien ... the least, the last, the lost and the left out.

What is more, our baptismal covenant calls us to seek justice and extend human dignity to all–no matter their place of origin or how they got here.

Of course, a very human response is to be concerned about whether or not there is enough. Of course, we might think it best to just send people back to where they came from.

But is Jesus whispering to us, “No, you feed them”?

Is this our opportunity to stand with what we may assume to be scarce resources, trust God, try to obey and watch the God of abundance miraculously fill in the gap?

My hope is that our citizenship will not trump our baptism.

My hope is that we will hear Jesus whispering, “You do it, you care for them.”

My hope is that we will extend care for them. And that we see God do wonderful things with our willingness to trust and to try.

Visit to McAllen, TX

Sister Sherry spends her days working with the migrant women and children coming through McAllen, TX. I had the privilege of working with her today, escorting three families to the bus depot, ensuring that they got on the right bus and headed in the right direction.

"Why do you do this?" I asked her.

"Because," she said, "I look in their eyes and I see Jesus."

Her slight frame should not be mistaken for frailty. She ruthlessly protects these families. Sister Sherry is not to be messed with. But with her scrappy sensibility came a tenderness and compassion that was touching.

My friend Dongbo and I arrived at Sacred Heart Catholic Church not long before four mothers entered the parish hall with their children in tow. The volunteers cheered for them and then quickly went to work putting together necessities for the next leg of their journey. The families were fed, given medical attention, they took showers and were provided fresh clothes and shoes. Three of the families we assisted had only a short respite. They had to be on a bus soon in order to start a 2 to 3 day journey to meet up with their relatives here in the States.

We spent no more than a couple hours with these women and children. Still, it was difficult not to break down when putting them on that bus today. I agree with Sister Sherry, I see the face of Jesus. But I've seen Jesus in the faces of those that are serving these families as well. This evening Dongbo summarized it this way, "You have to check your politics at the door here," he said, "and simply seek the Kingdom of God." Around here, folks have set their politics aside in order to do the hard work of serving these families. As Rev. Nancy Springer from St. John's Episcopal told me this morning, "We're just trying to behave like Christians."

Something radical always seems to happen when followers of Jesus take their faith seriously in places like McAllen–places on the outskirts of empire. From Nazareth to Selma, places like this have a way of changing the rest of us. I hope that's what is once again happening here along the Rio Grande.

Let's Start A Fire!

Mike Angell told me that he was going forward with a national conference for young adult and campus ministry leaders from across the Episcopal Church right after he was hired to his current position. With only 6 months to design and promote before the conference would actually happen, I had my reservations. But those reservations were proven unnecessary.

I’ve just left Minneapolis where around 100 leaders from around the country came together over 4 days for a gathering called, Kindling. Over the years, I’ve been to lots of Christian conferences and I’ve long held the opinion that the hallway conversations, the small, spontaneous groups gathered around drinks were the best aspects of those events. My confidence in the programming is typically low. This isn't to say that some conferences do not at times deliver excellent music, speakers, venues, formats, etc. It's just that it typically doesn't seem to quite scratch the itch I sense in myself and others I connect with in attendance.

Kindling was different.

In full disclosure, I was invited to be a part of the design team. Yet, I still stand by this claim: Kindling pulled off what others have only tried.

Here's why:

Keep calm and carry on.
As I admitted, I was able to help with this event therefore getting a "behind the scenes" look at this event. Often, those that orchestrate such events are riddled with anxiety and worry over any variety of aspects. Those that lead this event exuded a calm and entered into the event as much as those that came simply as attendees. This effects so much for everyone at an event. And we had fun! I've grown tired of Christian conference that take themselves too seriously. I didn't know Episcopalians could have so much fun. But, holy cow we had fun!

The floor is yours!
We used "open space technology" for running our break-out sessions between plenaries. This meant that the conference was able to be responsive to the needs of those gathered. All were invited to have a voice. If you heard a plenary session and needed to talk about something in particular in response, you simply offered a subject, a location and attendees "voted with their feet." I confess that I was a bit anxious about this aspect going in. But with only a few hiccups, this worked out really well for a majority of folks. Better than other attempts I've seen, this brought the "hallway conversations" into a main aspect of the conference programming.

Informal yet sacramental.
It's impossible to please everyone at events like this. We all have our preferences regarding music and worship. But Fran McKendree did a fine job of holding the casual nature of the gathering in balance with the respect and reverence found in this tradition. There was creativity while still embracing the "flow" of Episcopal worship.

And it can't go without adding that Kristen Kane-Osorto, Bianca Vasquez, Tom BrackettRyan Marsh and Anthony Guillen were fantastic speakers.

I want more.
Here's my only regret: I wish more young leaders were there. In my limited experience of two years with this event it has been billed as an event for young adult leaders at a diocesan level and campus ministers. But there's room for lots more leaders! More young leaders still in school and helping lead campus ministries. More young leaders starting new expressions of this tradition. More young leaders in parishes of all kinds.

It was a treat getting to meet so many young leaders doing fantastic work across the country. We all made new friends. And, as Mike put it, it's time to dowse this fire, head back to our own tribes and start new fires.

Amen!