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I find myself stumbling over what the church (or the general culture) has tried to teach me about Jesus – things that everybody knows about Jesus – but that I just don’t find a lot of convincing evidence for when I read the Bible.

This spring/summer, we spent three months reading 1 Peter. (The “we” is a study group in the Presbytery of East Iowa, working with Nikki Collins MacMillan to explore stepping outside the walls of our church buildings.) I spent most of the summer angry, recalling comments I’ve heard stating that oppressed and marginalized folks should be glad to suffer, if that’s what God wants, because that’s what Christ did, suffered for other’s sins. I would have problems with that statement almost no matter what, but I especially had problems since that’s NOT what 1 Peter says.

For some perverse reason that I don’t quite understand, I’ve been including readings from 1 Peter in worship since the beginning of July, though I’ve only managed one sermon on it that whole time. But this week I got stuck on 1 Peter 4:1 – learn to think like Jesus. (Have the same intention, the same attitude.) What a difficult thing that is. We have his words, reported by other people, but not the thinking behind his words. The gospel lesson, the last parable in Luke 12, ends with one of those hard sayings of Jesus that just doesn’t seem to jive with the standard story about Jesus as the eschatological judge. I can imagine it, though, as a glimpse into his own thoughts about who he was – a faithful steward might have filled the bill just as well, maybe better, than the image of a son: “From the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded. “

I think a lot of people today want to learn to think along these lines, both inside the walls and out.

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What a Beautiful City

KeokukIA

 “Then one of the seven angels said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates, twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” Revelation 21:9-14

It’s a peculiar image, to my modern mind, but the ancients often used the metaphor of a wife to describe their cities. Beautiful, precious, carefully adorned and protected, treasured as the keeper of hearth and home. Consequently, it doesn’t really surprise me that this city, the worthy spouse of the Holy God, should be compared to a very rare jewel. She is perfection, with her 12 gates, 12 angels, 12 inscriptions of the 12 tribes, standing on 12 foundations of the Lamb’s own 12 apostles. Twelve is one of those perfect numbers, combining symbols of both heaven and earth – the triune nature of the divine choosing to dwell within the four corners of the world.

What I do find fascinating is that John sees this perfect city coming down out of heaven to take her place on earth. Frankly, it would make a lot more sense to me if the angel had just carried John away to heaven, but that’s not what happened. John is very much on the earth, and so is this new city. She’s everything you’d expect a city to be, but made perfect with the glory of God’s presence. I may be wrong, but I don’t think most of us think of our cities as a worthy spouse of the Holy God, but maybe we should. If we treated our community, and the people who live here, as a precious thing of beauty, to be adorned and protected, treasured as that which we value most, we might be surprised how keenly we could feel God’s pleasure in us, as the bride he adores.

We see many things when we look at ourselves, but we rarely see what God sees, because we do not have eyes of love. I don’t know which is the cause and which is the effect – maybe it’s a never-ending feedback loop – but I sense two things essential to our thriving, and they are inextricably linked together: the deep conviction that God’s love is making our community beautiful and perfect, and our own commitment to treat every member with the compassion and respect due to one beloved by God.

(original post 14 June 2013)

  “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

When called on to officiate at a funeral, I almost always use these words somewhere in the service as a witness to the resurrection. I find these words of John’s vision to be among the most comforting ones in the Bible, especially when hard pressed by a present reality of death, mourning, tears, or pain. It gives me great hope to hear that there will come a time when death will be no more, that in God’s long-range plan for creation, suffering and sorrow will cease to be, replaced, we are told, by God’s shalom, by God’s peace.

Of course, my head is rationally insistent that such a time has not yet arrived – we do still experience those hard realities. Yet my heart hears with unabashed joy that the first things have passed away. I don’t think it’s the death of Jesus that so captures the human heart; death is a common-place thing. It’s his resurrection from the grave which is so compelling. I wish I could understand it, but try as I might, I can’t – my head is in total agreement with the poet Swinbourne: “Dead men rise never”. And yet my heart is convinced that Jesus did. In the silence of that tomb, in the darkest hours before dawn, the first things passed away, and God began to create the world anew. It’s probably the best news I have ever heard.

     Though I’m sure none of them realized it at the time, when the women came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning, they were standing on the threshold of a whole new life, one never even imagined before. As Tom Wright put it, what everyone expected at the end of time, God had done for Jesus right in the middle of time, and it changed everything. It opened up a way into the space between what was and what is and what will be – Jesus opened a way into the “kingdom of God”, and I pray every day for the courage to live and grow and follow him into that eternal space where God’s peace permeates heaven and earth.
(original post 12 April 2013)

New Heaven?

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” ~ Revelation 21:1-2

New heaven, new earth, new city. That always surprises me when I hear it, and I have to confess, it gives me just a twinge of discomfort as well. I’m NOT a city girl, especially; I’m not sure I even like the city all that well. Yet, John tells us, that is precisely where God has chosen to make his home among mortals. In the city. Where babies are born, and the elderly die, and those in the middle ages work and worry and wonder. A new heaven and a new earth – and a new city, the place where you can find anything – business, art, sport, science and education, culture, music, industry – you will find all the things that make us human in the city. Compassion? Yes. Competition? Sure, you’ll find it there, as well as cooperation. New heaven, new earth – and a new city.

And why not? For some strange reason, this God of ours likes to be here with us, right in the thick of things. Born of a woman, raised in the faith, working with the people, Jesus spent his life in the heart of the city. He made his home among mortals: tall / short, male / female, gentile or Jew, free or slave – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And for some strange reason, he liked it here with us so much, not even death could keep him away. A lot of people who hear John’s vision latch on to the idea of the new heaven and the new earth, but pushed out to some time far in the future, and they completely miss the part about the city. If this kingdom Jesus talked about is as near as he kept saying it was, then the new city would be our city, where we live and move and breathe right now – our little city, made new, because the Spirit of God has come to make a home among mortals, not for a few years, but forever. Our city, Keokuk, made holy because God lives here, with us. Can you imagine that?

It still strikes me as strange that God wants to be with us – WE don’t always want to be with us – but I can’t shake the idea that maybe this kingdom thing is more than “some day, some where”. If so, this could begin to sound like good news, really good news.

(original post Apr 2, 2013)

Ordinary Radicals

“Ordinary Radicals” is not my term, I lifted it from Shane Claiborne. It’s a gritty term, but one I imagine would make Jesus smile.  Reading Mark’s version of the gospel, I think he’d approve of the term as well, though I don’t picture him smiling. He took it all with deadly seriousness. For Mark, the grittier, I think, the better he liked it. This disciple stuff was not for the faint of heart. Tax collectors, and sinners, and sundry other unsavories. Oh, my! But now, as then, that’s where you’ll find Jesus hanging out.

Ordinary Radicals

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 1 July 2012.

(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems, right click and download the file to listen.)

I’m not sure why, but Leonard Cohen’s haunting song “Suzanne” feels like the perfect reflection. I love Judy Collins‘ version, and I imagine you will too.

I really think Mark should have done his gospel as manga. I know there have been a few recent attempts to fill the void, but they haven’t met with a lot of critical acclaim. It seems nobody feels comfortable with a comic book Jesus.

Mark’s book, though, cries out for a few visual cues. And the story of Jesus’ first exorcism is one that would have been perfect material for a graphic novel. POW! KA-BAM! WHOOSH!

That Spirit on Your Shoulder

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 17 June 2012.

(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems, right click and download the file to listen.)

Wes Seeliger (1938-2000) continues to influence some of us through the Foundation for Contemporary Theology and through his books, especially Western Theology. It’s a great little book, but be warned – it’s offensive to just about everyone. But then, so is the gospel.

Free, as in Beer

The societal pressures to change in response to technological advances were nerve-wracking. We think we’ve got pressure with smart phones, social networking, and global economies, but the move from Late Bronze to early Iron was serious. Makes me glad I live now instead of then, but then again, reading 1 Samuel, it seems eerily contemporary. If you were to substitute the phrase “big government” for “monarchy”, you’d think this came out of this year’s campaign cycle.

There are the conservative voices (Samuel, in this case). There are the progressive voices (the elders, whoever they were, exactly). And then, there is the divine voice, failing to validate either human faction, but holding out hope for a whole new, and fresh, direction.

Every now and then, you stumble across an elegant turn of phrase that seems to say it all. This is one of them – free as in beer (coupled, naturally, with its mate, free as in speech). It’s not original with me, of course. I most recently heard it from Landon Whitsitt (author of “Open Source Church“), but it’s been knocking around the open access community for a long time. You take the two together, and you have a pretty fair sense of the distinctive direction God has been leading in forever.

Free, as in Beer

Preached at Mt. Comfort Presbyterian Church on 10 June 2012.

(The file is a Windows Media Audio file – if you have problems, right click and download the file to listen.)