Monday, April 30, 2012

One flock, one shepherd

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday (abridged)

This Friday is the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  Of the many gifts I got that day, there are only two that I can still remember clearly.  The first was a stuffed animal sheep that I received from a priest and his partner.  It came with a card that read, "Remember you're still the same species."  I kept that sheep for years until it was finally destroyed by one of the dogs.

The other gift I still have.  It's this lovely gold cross that was given to me by another priest who was one of the presenters at my ordination.  She had been a mentor to me and was a great help to me when I was going through some difficult times with my boss.

I found out, a few years later, that she was quietly dismissed from her position when the church discovered she had been embezzling from them.

Don’t be thinking, Oh, that’s just her.  Here’s a story from my own experience:

One of the things you have to do to get ordained in the Episcopal Church (though this may change) is take something called the General Ordination Exam.  In it you're tested on Scripture, liturgy, church history, and other topics over the course of four grueling days.  Although your ordination didn't completely depend upon the results, certainly the Powers That Be paid attention to such things.

I still remember our ethics exam that asked how I personally would respond in a particular situation.  I knew exactly how I would respond.  I also knew exactly what answer they were looking for.  I gave them the answer they were looking for.  Yes, my friends, I flat-out lied on the ethics portion of the General Ordination Exam! Oh, and I got the highest possible score too.  Because I knew what people wanted to hear and I wanted to be ordained. 

Remember: we're still the same species.

It amazes me sometimes how otherwise savvy people seem to let their powers of discrimination lapse completely when they find out I'm ordained.  My boss at the winery is a wonderful and worldly-wise woman who promptly taught me how to use the cash register.  "We figured you'd be honest," she said.  "After all, you're a priest."  And I'm thinking, yeah, I'm a priest who doesn't have a church job who's trying to get work at a winery.  Doesn't that seem suspicious to you?

There's always a mix of reasons why people want to become ordained, many of them good and holy.  But I think one reason that is often unexamined is that we want, we so long, to be a different species, a better species, a more loving, more patient, and wiser species.  And there's nothing wrong with wanting to be more loving, more patient, and wiser.  The problem comes when we think somehow it's the becoming ordained that's going to make us more loving, more patient, and wiser. 

And it’s not just those seeking ordination who want that; everyone is implicated.  Everyone would like to believe that if you’re a priest, you’re not going to be ambitious or greedy or selfish. That you’re somehow purer, nobler, better.  I can tell you right now for a fact, and after 10 years, it doesn't happen. You stay the same species.  I certainly hope that I am a better person now that I was 10 year ago, but I also know that that has nothing to do with being ordained.  It's the same struggle for all of us to become better and wiser and more loving, and ordination has nothing to do with it.

It behooves us (so to speak) to remember that there is one shepherd.  One, uno, ein, un, one.  And we are all part of the flock.  One flock, one shepherd.  

What it boils down to is this:  don’t be looking for a shepherd.  You already have a shepherd.  He will be there for you always.  If you try to make your priest your shepherd, you will do a disservice to yourselves and to your priest as well. 
The best thing you can do for your priest is remember that they are still the same species.  And if you treat them as such, in time perhaps they too will come to believe it and rejoice.

In memory of Jerry Townsend

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Let's Pretend This Never Happened

You know that part where you're waiting for someone and you bring a book to read while you're waiting and and get to the part in the book that says, "Then Victor realized that I must be using his hands-free headset, and he got all kinds of pissed off that I was 'getting it sweaty.' And that's when I hung up on him.  Because getting a headset sweaty was kind of small potatoes compared to the fact that I was brandishing a machete at large raptors, while considering the pros and cons of hiring a pimp to dig up our dead dog," and the person shows up and wants to know while you're laughing uncontrollably and it takes you ten minutes to explain?  Yeah, that happens a lot reading Let's Pretend This Never Happened.

Even though Jenny Lawson gets into all sorts of situations that take ten minutes to explain and that make you laugh uncontrollably, at the same time I kept thinking how poignant this book is, and at times almost unbearably sad.  If there's one critique I have it's that I sometimes feel that The Bloggess is protecting us from the sadness.  I felt this in particular in the chapter in which she describes her rheumatoid arthritis where I wish she hadn't framed a truly awful time in an admittedly hilarious story involving being stabbed by a chicken.

But believe me, that is a minor quibble for a beautiful, heartbreaking, profane, and breathtakingly funny book.  I still want to know who she wants to play her family and herself in the movie.  I can tell you already, the book is better.

Various & Sundry: What To Do Once You Get Your Burrito

Let's start with the burritos.  Sunset Magazine had a fun article about the great NorCal/SoCal Burrito Battle.  The author is totally biased, being from Orange County, but does her best to be impartial, giving her hints on where to find the best burritos of both the Northern and Southern persuasion.  I am shocked--shocked--that Ramiro and Sons didn't make the cut.  And I am completely impartial about that.

Now that I've got my burrito, I am ready to head out to clergy conference--especially now that Lent Madness Supreme Executive Committee member Tim Schenk has written the Clergy Conference Survival Guide.  It's full of helpful hints like, "During the inevitable evening social hour (cash bar), always carry two drinks with you. This way if an especially wind-baggy colleague corners you to talk about his/her most recent Maundy Thursday sermon, you can escape by pretending you’re taking the other drink to someone else. Repeat as necessary." An excellent technique.

You should also use clergy conference to catch up on your reading.  No need to read Bad Religion, according to this delightfully vicious review by Charlie Pierce. ("In Bad Religion, Douthat breaks a great deal of rock to come around to the unremarkable conclusion that American Christianity would have been infinitely better off if somebody had stopped the banjo Mass in its tracks.") If you're thinking about reading any of the Man Booker Prize nominees, you might want to check out this infographic tracing the themes of each book. (Hint: the black lines connect to the books about death.)  Or, if you'd rather, you can read one of these Six Princess Books For  Parents Who Really, Really Hate Princess Books.  Oh, they're for children? Well, whatever.  Clergy Wellness, people.

Or, if you prefer, you can just look as some of these great photos of dogs diving.  That's what I'd do.  You can do that and eat a burrito at the same time.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's World Malaria Day!

Roll Back Malaria World Malaria Day 2009 Not much time to write today, but I wanted to alert you to the fact that it is World Malaria Day!

Here are some key facts about malaria from the World Health Organization:
  •  Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes. 
  • In 2010, malaria caused an estimated 655 000 deaths (with an uncertainty range of 537,000 to 907,000), mostly among African children. 
  • Malaria is preventable and curable. 
  • Increased malaria prevention and control measures are dramatically reducing the malaria burden in many places. 
  • Non-immune travellers from malaria-free areas are very vulnerable to the disease when they get infected.
WHO also notes that half the world's population (3.3 billion people) are at risk for malaria.

If you are wondering what you can do, the Charity Rating website GiveWell ranks the Against Malaria Foundation its #1 top rated charity. A $5 donation will pay for one long-lasting insecticidal net.  You could also donate to Nothing But Nets or Nets for Life.

You can learn more about malaria and actions you can take from the links above (including the icon), or from
Roll Back Malaria
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
and many others (linked on those sites)

If you're on Twitter, I encourage you to take a look at the #malaria hashtag to find lots more commentary and action.

OK, got to run!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Remember the Red-tailed Hawk Nest cam at Cornell? Well, the eggs are hatching.  One little fuzzy thing is out already and a beak has made its way through another egg.  The gory thing sticking out? Sparrow remains. Take a look! If you stick around you'll probably get a glimpse of a hawklet or two.

Watch live streaming video from cornellhawks at

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Bloggess LIVE and IN PERSON

I went to see The Bloggess, aka Jenny Lawson, do a reading and book signing on Friday night as she continues her book tour for Let's Pretend This Never Happened.  My pre-ordered copy arrived oh-so-helpfully on Saturday, but that's OK, because I didn't need her to sign it. All I really wanted to do was give her a present: a set of playing cards featuring one of a kind Barbies. I knew she'd like it.

The last time I went to a book signing I got all tongue-tied and flustered, but this time I knew I had the perfect intro sentence: "I'm the person who told you about St. Agatha when you found the magical boobie mushroom." Because how's that for a conversation starter?

So I got there a few minutes before the reading started, knowing the place was going to be packed--and it was.  Standing room only.  Here is my view of Jenny during the reading:
I cannot complain since there were MANY people behind me.
She read a chapter from the book that had us in stitches; then she took questions.  I decided to live tweet the whole event, which made me feel I was being useful, don't you know.  She couldn't see me so she wouldn't have to think I was being rude and ignoring her during her reading.  Far from it.  I thought it was important for the world to know about how the audience went AWWWW when a boy asked The Bloggess "How did you get such a witty personality?" Yeah, he was working it.

I wanted to ask her who she wanted to play her, Victor, and her family in the movie, but she never called on me.  Probably didn't want to show too much favoritism. Or she couldn't see me.

So after about an hour, we moved on to the Book Signing portion of the evening.  The crowd was invited forward row by row, a la communion, except that people brought their own wine.  The woman behind me had cleverly snagged a glass of red wine from the cafe in the bookstore.  I was mighty jealous.

Yeah, she was rubbing it in.

I was in line about an hour by the time I got near the front.  Even then, here's what the line behind me looked like.

Everyone had finished their wine by this point.
I had my intro ready to go.  I had my gift pack of playing cards in my left hand and my phone ready for the guy who was taking people's pictures in my right.  And I approached...

And prattled on like a maniac, talking about St. Agatha and the One of a Kind Barbie Store until Jenny (who must have been completely exhausted at this point) said, "Why don't we get our picture taken?" (reminding me very much of those encounters I've had in the receiving line in church where you have to remind someone gently that though of course you would love to hear the full story, there are others behind them and maybe they should just go on to coffee hour).  Picture.   Oh. Yes.  And here we are:

Jenny Lawson, looking a bit tired but holding up bravely, and me, now wishing I'd given my hair a brush. 
So that was my encounter with The Bloggess who worked that crowd like a pro. And her book is lovely, by the way, poignant as well as hilarious.  I'll tell you more once I finish.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Funnies, April 22

From the Tumblr Theology Ryan Gosling.

h/t Facebook friends Annie P. and the newly-priested Rachel K., who don't know each other, but probably should.

Happy Easter, Ryan.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Various & Sundry, April 20

I'll have to be brief today since I'm headed out before long to hear The Bloggess Live and In Person read from her new memoir Let's Pretend This Never Happened.

I'm going to have to pretend that the book I pre-ordered in February arrived since Amazon didn't let me know until Tuesday that they needed a new charge card since the one I placed the order with expired in February. You know, the month I thought I bought the book. THANKS SO MUCH, AMAZON! Oh well, at least I've got my autographed book plate.

I'll try not to be as tongue-tied as I was the last time I met a celebrity author.  Yeah, fat chance. Will it help that I am bringing her a gift from the one-of-a-kind Barbie store? I hope so.

ANYway, what else have I got here?

I don't think I posted this original Muppet Show pitch last week. Well, even if I did, it's worth posting again.

In the world of Biblical scholarship, The Lark reported that a Scroll reveals Proverbs 32 woman was a lazy bum. I always wondered about her.

Two fabulous stories from the elementary school set.  First, kudos to 3rd Grader Sam who used a science fair project to reverse the discriminatory policy in his classroom. What was the policy? He couldn't count comic books towards his daily reading log.  Kudos also to the teacher who changed the policy in the face of the scientific evidence. As I learned when I read The Watchmen, reading graphic novels is hard work!

Finally, I encourage you to watch this video about Caine's Arcade.  Such an upper. Especially knowing that this video has raised over $180,000 for a scholarship fund for Caine. AND, I just saw, he'll be at the Exploratorium in San Francisco tomorrow, April 21.  Awesome. Enjoy.

Caine's Arcade from Nirvan Mullick on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Whatever happened to Kony 2012?

Remember #Kony2012 that I got into such a snit about last month? Well, April 20 is the date for their Cover the Night action thingey so I was kind of curious what was up.

I was very happy to stumble across Un-Cover the Night, a Tumblr that includes a lot of great background information in an info kit, a petition to President Obama to withdraw military support from Uganda instead of increasing it, and a petition to Invisible Children to present a more complete picture of the situation in Uganda and stop using Ugandans for their own commercial ends.

As with #Kony2012, I encourage you to ask questions of these approaches and the information you have been given and then take the action that seems best to you given what you have learned.

I'll be curious what happens tomorrow night.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

4 things I learned about elections from Lent Madness

Lent Madness was a much better spiritual discipline than I had imagined.  After a week of being aggravated at the stupidity of people who didn't vote for the saints I thought should move forward, I learned to laugh at myself because--hello!--this doesn't actually count for anything.  Except the glory of the Golden Halo, of course.

And so I started to watch with some fascination what kinds of things seemed to lead to one saint's victory over another.  It wasn't always clear, but there were a few things that seem like practical tidbits as we enter into the slavering maw of a presidential election year.

1. You can't change votes that are already cast.  Over and over, I saw people writing agonized comments wondering how on earth more people could vote for that other saint than the saint of their choosing.  Well, water under the bridge, people. You may never know why, but it also doesn't matter.  Those votes are already in! Moving on.

2. It is easier to recruit new voters than to persuade current voters (who may have already decided).  With Lent Madness this was particularly stark.  All due credit to Lent Madness for drawing a couple of thousand votes each day--but that's still only a couple of thousand votes out of a much, much larger potential pool. If you're only advocating among the faithful voters, boy are you missing a huge opportunity.

3. People are partisan, so find a way to make your team their team.  Emma of Hawaii's triumphant march to the finals was an excellent example of this.  The "of Hawaii" part was important as the Hawaiian vote turned the tide on several apparent shoo-ins. Big Pineapple or no, Emma got votes for being Hawaiian--as well as being a worthy saint.

4. People vote for weird reasons.  I know I did.  I voted for Jerome because I liked the lion puppet. I would have voted for Enmegahbowh because of his awesome wife, had I not been the writer for David Oakerhater (I voted for St. E. in the next round). I voted for some saints because I liked one write-up over another, with nothing to do with the saint at all! People voted because they liked the name, or because their saint day was their birthday, or because the icon was cool.

Are we "voting against our interests"? Maybe, but we have our reasons. I can tell you one thing that didn't help, though, is being told I was voting the wrong way.  It would just get my back up. Or shrug and say, "You don't understand."

Lent Madness made clear to me that if I want to make a difference in the November elections, I shouldn't bother arguing with people whose minds are made up. Instead, I should look for the pockets of people who have a strong interest in one thing or another, make the case why my candidate is their candidate, and make sure they are able to vote. And then let it go, knowing that people do what they do. People. That's democracy for you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

I kept seeing blog posts from Rachel Held Evans being forwarded here, there, and everywhere.  I even posted about one myself.  It finally occurred to me that I might enjoy reading her book, Evolving in Monkey Town.

Subtitled "How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions," Evolving in Monkey Town is  Evans' memoir of a crisis of faith.  Evans traces her Christian beliefs from her earliest days as the daughter of a professor at an Evangelical school, through her youth and college experience, and as the cracks begin to show in her carefully constructed "worldview" and what happens next. She frames this experience through the notion of her evolution in faith, fighting words for a girl who grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, the home of the Scopes trial.

I read this expecting to find some familiar experiences, having grown up in an Evangelical milieu. But my experience was nothing like Evans'.  Instead, I found myself shocked and amazed at what passes for Christianity for a great many people.  Mostly I was astonished at how unChristian the Christianity she grew up with was: how uncharitable, unforgiving, and unloving.

She describes how she was trained to answer any question thrown at her about her faith, based on 1 Peter 3:15: "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you," but they are never told the next verse, "yet do it with gentleness and reverence."  As she discovers, when she finally leaves the Evangelical bubble and meets people to whom she can witness, "Not once after graduating from Bryan was I asked to make a case for the scientific feasibility of miracles, but often I was asked why Christians aren't more like Jesus.  I may have met one or two people who rejected Christianity because they had difficulties with the deity of Christ, but most rejected Christianity because they thought it means becoming judgmental, narrow-minded, intolerant, and unkind."

I have to say, though Evans convinced me that she wasn't that way, she didn't exactly show that the rest of the so-called "Christianity" she was part of is anything other than intolerant and unkind.  It was worth reading just for that, just to get a sense of what that culture is like from the inside, how it is so many of them are trained to see the world. (The Unlikely Disciple is also an excellent exploration of this.)  But it was also worth reading because it is very well-written, entertaining, and honest. She writes beautifully and gives a gracious and fascinating glimpse into the life experience of many people in our culture whom we may not otherwise understand. Here's hoping that her experience inspires others to ask the questions and rid themselves, as we all need to do in one way or another, of the 'false fundamentals.'

Monday, April 16, 2012

Monday afternoon preacher

So I went to a church yesterday where in the course of a very short sermon, the priest managed to use the words penultimate, declamation, and denouement.  To his credit, it was clear that these were his words; he wasn't reading from a manuscript. It sounded like he wasn't saying them to impress; he was using them because they are terrific words that perfectly captured what he was trying to say and are words he naturally uses. They are words that I love myself.

On the other hand--come on! Penultimate? Denouement?! Really? You couldn't use "next to last" or "conclusion"--or even "ending"? As a general rule, I think it's a mistake to use $5 words in most homilies, and then only when it's the absolute best, most perfectest word available. But that's me.  What do you think?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Funnies, April 15

You might think I have a tax themed edition, but no! I am very excited to present this week's episode of Judge John Hodgman which features Rachel and Leeman, who were students at Canterbury when I was the chaplain at Kenyon College. And, as you will hear, Rachel is an Anglican priest--actually being ordained today. Blessings, Rachel!
The Sound of Young America

Friday, April 13, 2012

Various & Sundry, April 13

First off, what would you guess the New York Yankees Fragrance would smell like?  If you guessed sweat, leather, and money, you would be wrong--at least according to the official website:
This fresh, woody scent introduces an invigorating blend of sparkling Bergamot, Coriander and cool Blue Sage. As it evolves, the fragrance reveals a fusion of crisp Ivy leaves, Orange Flower and Geranium enhanced with rich earthy Patchouli, smooth Sandalwood and Suede to create a timeless, masculine scent.
Sounds a bit overwhelming to me.  Kind of lost me at Patchouli.

There's also a Yankees Fragrance for her: "a fun, inviting scent that captures the playful spirit of the Yankees™ girl." Oh goody.

There was an obit this week for Peter Douglas, defender of the California coastline, to whom we all owe a great debt of thanks.
For 26 years, Mr. Douglas was the executive director of the California Coastal Commission, the powerful state agency that he helped create with a mandate to keep the coast open to the public — and one that set a high standard for its counterparts in other states.
So any time you get to the beach, be sure to say a little prayer of gratitude for his work.

The Internet Monk directed me to a blog post by Ed Stetzer on Considering (and Surviving) Unhealthy Christian Organizations, which I thought was spot-on. Here's a hint: unhealthy Christian organizations are all about looking good on the outside.  I think Jesus had something to say about that.

Brene Brown also has words to say about the Worst Advice Ever, that advice being, "You can rest when you're done."  As she says, "How do you 'rest when you're done' when it's never done?" I think God had something to say about resting as well.

Speaking of getting some rest, I sure hope It's Margaret gets a lot since she is dealing with a gutload of gallstones--ugharino! You're in my prayers, babe, and get well soon!

Perhaps a little tango will make you feel better:

Or maybe some baby goats.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Obit du jour: Christine Brooke-Rose

I urge you to read this obit, as much for the style as the subject.  Christine Brooke-Rose was a writer of experimental fiction (novels that never use the verb "to be," for example), and the obit writer had a blast playing with the form.

But if you aren't going to read the whole thing, I'll do you a solid and excerpt a bit from the middle that is particularly fabulous:
Ms. Brooke-Rose’s earliest novels, published in the late 1950s, are conventional satires of manners. But as early as her third novel, “The Dear Deceit,” published in 1960, she had begun to play with narrative form. The novel opens with the death of its protagonist and, in successive chapters, works backward to his birth.

This convention has a time-honored analogue in narrative nonfiction, as when, for instance, a newspaper article begins with word of its subject’s death and, only lower, reads:

Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva on Jan. 16, 1923, into a French-, German- and English-speaking household. Her enigmatic English father, who left the family when she was a child and died when she was 11, had been, she later learned, an Anglican Benedictine monk and a convicted thief, though not necessarily in that order; her American-Swiss mother became a Benedictine nun after the dissolution of her marriage.
See that right there? That's some mighty pretty obit writing.  My hat is off to you, Margalit Fox. You can write my obit any time. After my death, of course.

Easter sermon (abridged)

Love this picture! It's apparently a bar in Chapel Hill, NC.
Did this gospel take you by surprise this morning? How many of you were going, “Wait! Isn’t Jesus going to show up along in here?” How many of you were waiting for the part where Mary thinks he’s the gardener. Great story, but it’s not here. Like Jesus’ corpse, there’s a lot that appears to be missing, including any explanation of what on earth happened.

I love the ending. Love it.

“and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” 

The end.

Well, clearly the story leaked somewhere or we wouldn’t be here today.

But the thing that’s so wonderful to me about this version in the gospel of Mark is that it captures the confusion of that morning of the resurrection in a way that to me, at least, brings it home.

So often I think we get blasé about the resurrection. We know too much about it. We hear the story every year and are reminded of it in every Eucharistic prayer. We know how the story is going to turn out and we are not taken by surprise. It’s no shock when Jesus is missing because he’s supposed to be.

But he wasn’t supposed to be missing. He was supposed to be there, where the women had seen him last, placed in a tomb with a big old rock in front of it. What they found instead shocked and surprised them so much that they couldn’t even talk about it, at least at first.

The first surprise was that the stone was moved back.  Who did it? How did it happen? Was this a good sign or a bad one? What did it mean?

So they enter into the first chamber of the tomb where they expect to see some shrouds, perhaps bones in the niches along the walls, and certainly Jesus' corpse resting on one of the shelves along the walls and instead, they get their second surprise: a man dressed in white.

Who is this guy? Is he an angel? Mark doesn't say.  He's just a man dressed in white. There's no other explanation whatsoever.  But he does have something to tell them:

“Do not be alarmed [good luck with that!]; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

And that's surprise number three:

Jesus isn’t there, and the only explanation they get is “He has been raised.”  

None of them know what that means. There’s no creed with a tidy summary statement about what Jesus has done and what it signifies. There are no theological treatises on the resurrection; they haven’t even used the word. They went to the tomb expecting to find a body and the body wasn’t there—not because it had been moved, or stolen, or desecrated, but because (they were told) the person they loved whom they had seen shamefully executed had been “raised.”

Whatever that might mean.

You can imagine that for these women—for all of us, actually—one fixed point in the world is that the dead are dead. That’s it. Done. But to show up and discover that dead may not be dead after all? You can see why this would turn a person’s world upside-down.

We really don’t expect the dead to be raised. For Jesus, though, we’re willing to make an exception. Of course, we’ve had a couple of millennia, give or take, to get used to the idea of Jesus rising from the dead. We put it on our calendars and send out flyers to let everyone know when to expect it. It is so hard to imagine how confusing this was in the moment, how completely unexpected and completely unexplained.

And so I’m not going to say anything about what the resurrection is or what it means or what it does or how you should remember it. My hope for you this Easter day is that you leave here confused. At least slightly confused. My hope for you today is that you leave here this morning wondering what happened, what on earth went on in that tomb? What does it mean? If he’s not in the tomb, where is he? Where will he appear? Will he ever be seen again, or will he just vanish? And if he does appear, what will he say or do? And where is Jesus now?

I hope you’ll leave here a little on edge, wondering if Jesus is going to show up around every corner, wondering what you ought to say to people about it, what this means for you. Easter is 50 days long and we’ll have time to mull this over and try to make sense of it. But today, on this first day of the week, I invite you to have no idea what happened and what this means, to be bewildered and astonished at the news. He has been raised; he is not here. Where on earth is he?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: Being Elmo

Easter Sunday afternoon, I watched a movie I'd been dying to watch for ages: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. It was even better than I had hoped.

A documentary about Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, Being Elmo is also a story about how mentors  make a difference even to those with the strongest of natural talents.

There's no doubt Clash was a natural.  He started making puppets as a kid in Baltimore where you can bet that wasn't the cool thing to do.  He watched Sesame Street and the Muppet Show obsessively, as much to find out how they made the muppets without visible seams as to see the shows.  Whatever it was that drove him, clearly puppets were his medium from his earliest days.

What was wonderful (and made me cry) was how many generous mentors Clash received over the years, and how he clearly understood what he had been given and will pass it along himself.  This is no self-made man and he knows it.  Special credit goes to Kermit Love, an esteemed muppet and puppet builder, who made a point of taking Clash under his wing--and made his first meeting with Jim Henson a successful one.

Being Elmo is a beautiful movie that embodies generosity of spirit.  It made me happy because I got to see someone's dream come true.  Watch and enjoy.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday Morning Preacher: Easter redux

At 10:48 pm on Saturday night, I posted on my Facebook page: "Guess it's time to get started on the Easter sermon."  I wasn't kidding.  Well, I was and I wasn't.  I'd been pondering for ages, but writing? Not so much.  Boy, was I glad not to have a Vigil to do as well. Whew! Good Friday and Easter Sunday were plenty for me.

Sermon writing outfit
This is only the second time I've preached on Easter Sunday.  The other time was my very first year out of seminary; I was still a transitional deacon at that point.  The rector offered me the gig and I fell all over myself thanking him.  He told me, "I'm not doing you any favors." He was so right. Easter is a tough, tough gig. Can I get an amen?

For all that I was putting it together until 7 AM Sunday morning, I thought the sermon turned out well.  It helped a lot that I did indeed have a clear idea of what I wanted to say long before I started writing things down.  The other thing that helped immensely was a book called Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus , much of which I could read on Google Books.  For me, at least, it helped to picture what it was the women were expecting to see.  I hope it helped the congregation as well.

Sermon preaching outfit
The congregation, by the way, was wonderful.  If you have a congregation that laughs at your jokes and responds when you ask questions, it makes preaching so much easier and more fun.  And I have found that almost every congregation is willing to do that, willing to be with you in the midst of the preaching, so I do try to invite them in to participate--mostly for my sake.  It just feels so much better preaching when you don't feel like you're talking to yourself. So, thank you, St. Giles!

And Happy Easter, everyone! How did it go for you?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The battle for the Golden Halo!

If you haven't been following, now is the time to hie yourself over to Lent Madness to vote for who will win the Golden Halo.  If you have been following, you will know that it's been a wild bracket!  Mary Magdalene coasted on in to the finals with ease, but on the other side of the bracket, big name after big name was bounced by Emma of Hawaii!  Paul, Cranmer, and Bonhoeffer all bowed down before the Queen.  Was it the forces of Big Pineapple, as the smear ads below suggest? Or was it the spirit of aloha carrying her like a wave?

In any event, either of these worthy and faithful women have earned the Golden Halo, but only one will win 2012 Lent Madness. VOTE (once!) for your choice! Polls close at 5 am PST tomorrow.

Great job, Supreme Executive Committee on a very fun Lenten project!  (Won't you be glad when the intertubes aren't cluttered with all these partisan attack ads?)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday Morning Preacher: Palm Sunday redux

Well, that's done.  The gospel didn't get the sermon it deserved, I'm afraid.  I wanted to keep it short because the gospel reading was so long, but at the same time I'm afraid I put in too many concepts to be clear.

The keeper is the line from the ever-wonderful Interpreter's Bible (1952) (bolded in the text of the sermon below).  Here's a fuller version:
The unmeasured generosity of her giving moved him.  It was a glorious maximum of sacrifice which never stopped to calculate what might have been a passable minimum--the kind of mathematical computation that so easily besets us...She did not pour out a few drops and say, "Well, I guess that ought to be enough for this occasion."...  She was lifted clear out of arithmetic into love--one of the greatest leaps which a life can take.
The paragraph about how Palm Sunday and the palm fronds we use symbolize the glorious maximum and the passable minimum was a last-second addition, added in the moment and not in the text I had written.  I just thought, standing there, watching each person carefully take one single frond and no more, that this was just the kind of "passable minimum" I was talking about. But that does mean that it is pretty clunky and disjointed at the end.

There was lots going on behind the sermon that didn't get mentioned: a book I'm reading called Evolving in Monkey Town (more on that soon), memories of Palm Sunday in Kampala, the other readings (which never got mentioned but were in play), thoughts on stewardship and how that plays the "passable minimum" card, other incidents of the passable minimum in church life.  It may be that a single story would have been more effective than all this explanation, but I couldn't come up with one that didn't require even further exposition.

It was odd.  The sermon came out than I had intended it to.  And a little muddled.  Clearly something I haven't thought through well enough myself so the end got in a bit of a tangle, there, which is a shame because the core idea is an important one.

But it's done, as I said.  It's not the worst sermon in the world; just a bit of a clunker, I think, rushed and awkward. On to Good Friday.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sermon: Palm Sunday

The person putting together the bulletin asked me if I wanted the shorter gospel reading (which still isn’t short) or the long gospel reading. And of course I wanted the long gospel reading, but I promise you that as a trade-off the homily will be short even though there are so many amazing things in this gospel that I could go on for days and days, starting with the very first bit when Mark tells you that Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper. Who is Simon the leper? The official answer from the commentary I used: “Simon the leper is otherwise unknown, but he was probably known to those who handed on the tradition.” So there you go.

It’s the woman with the ointment who interests me: the woman with ointment is the reason you got the long gospel reading today. As far as I’m concerned, the whole Last Supper and Crucifixion parts can wait till later in the week where they belong. For me, Palm Sunday is all about extravagance and the ways we respond to it, the ways we try to keep things under control and make ourselves feel good about ourselves, often at the expense of others, this woman being a case in point.

So here’s Jesus (at the home of Simon the leper) when a woman comes in, unnamed and so most likely unknown (see: Simon the leper), with an alabaster jar filled with a costly perfume. She approaches Jesus, breaks open the jar and pours the contents on his head. As far as I can tell, she reserves nothing, but empties the jar of perfume. The room must have been overwhelmed with the scent of it. And as I imagine the scene, everyone there: Jesus, the disciples, Simon the leper, is taken by surprise by the act. And so it is very telling how people react in that first moment.

First, there are those who were indignant, who said, “This should have been given to the poor.” Their lack of graciousness is astonishing—or would be if it weren’t part of a larger pattern. But if you read through the rest of the gospel of Mark to see how often this concern for the poor appeared among Jesus’ followers, you’ll find the answer is: not so much. The feeding of the 5,000? “Send them away to the villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” People bringing their children to Jesus? “The disciples spoke sternly to them.” You know what Mark reports the disciples were concerned about? Who was the greatest among them, and who was going to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand.

For all that we like to pick on the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples are cut from the same cloth: doing their darndest to keep their status high and that of others low.

And Jesus calls them on it, as he always does. That whole “the poor you will always have with you” line? What I hear in that today is Jesus telling the disciples, “Why are you so all-fired concerned about the poor right now? Could it be because she’s done something beautiful—and you haven’t. Quit being such jerks.”

But why did they react so strongly and immediately? Here’s why I think that is, and this is something that is true for me as well, and perhaps for you too: it’s because when we see someone being truly extravagant, doing something truly beautiful and noble, it points out how stingy and miserly my own offerings are. So when we see the real deal, such as this woman, some woman who doesn’t even know Jesus, hasn’t been taught properly, hasn’t been part of the gang, pouring out a whole jar of costly perfume, it blows away our shabby little pretenses of our own most noble and gracious self.

We want her to be wrong somehow. And so in a desire not to be reminded of her generosity and my stinginess, it is best to shut down the extravagance, label it completely inappropriate, tell her how she ought to have done it, and keep things tidy and gray.

The commentary I read about the woman with perfume said, “[Her gift] was a glorious maximum of sacrifice which never stopped to calculate what might have been a passable minimum.” That’s the thing that the Pharisees, and the disciples, and many more of us throughout the ages have never been able to quite grasp: that the life that Jesus calls us to is a life of the glorious maximum, not the passable minimum.

I can think of no better symbol of the glorious maximum and passable minimum than Palm Sunday. The story we hear is of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with crowds of people yelling and cheering, palm branches and cloaks strewn before him--a glorious maximum of welcome...and what we end up with is this single sad frond, the passable minimum of palmness.

The story of the woman with the ointment is the story of Holy Week in miniature: the extravagant entrance, the muttering reaction, the shameful punishment that is overcome for all time by Jesus' redemption. Her gift to us is giving us this sign of how we too might live as Jesus did, called to the glorious maximum of life and faith in whatever we might do.

I'm afraid it's not going to be easy. We talk a good game about abundance and generosity in the church, but I have seen a whole lot of beautiful gifts covered over with shame and scorn. People who are looking for the glorious maximum are told it’s unrealistic or too soon or costs too much or that we need to focus on other things. People who want to do beautiful things are worn down by the pressure of those interested only in the passable minimum.

But there is hope, and that’s what this week is about: that the glorious maximum ultimately overcomes the forces of the passable minimum, despite their every effort. And it starts with the glorious maximum of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That’s where we start. Let’s see what meets us as we walk down this road. And let us go forth extravagantly.

Sunday Funnies, April 1

April Fools Day and Palm Sunday?  Here are some...appropriate selections from the Twitter hashtag Easter Pro Tips, collected by David Hansen.

  1. Palm Sunday Tips:
  2. Share
    On Palm Sunday, use sour wine at Communion, served from a sponge on a stick. Side piercings are optional. #EasterProTip
  3. Share
    #EasterProTip Enhance your Palm Sunday atmosphere by annointing folks with coconut-scented suntan oil on the way in.
  4. Share
    Palm Sunday processional: Black Eyed Peas, Let's Get it Started #easterprotip
  5. Share
    For your children's sermon, make sure you have a Passion Jesus action figure, complete with lash, spear, blood, and water. #EasterProTip
  6. Share
    For a more exciting Passion gospel, use (@TheAuthorGuy) Christopher. Moore's LAMB, rather than from the bible. #EasterProTip
  7. Share
    #EasterProTip Do you have a rain date for your Palm Sunday procession? Just fine to have it on the second Sunday of Easter!
  8. Share
    #EasterProTip Film Sunday morning's video reflection using marshmallow peeps. Consider a Passion Play!
  9. Share
    Palm Sunday Sermon: "Is Jesus on Your Ass?" #easterprotip
Be sure to check out the full Easter Pro Tip storify for further tips for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter!