Saturday, June 28, 2014

I gave Marc Maron one of my sermons

This week I joined all the hipsters over in Lawrence, KS (I felt at a loss, because I wasn't wearing skinny jeans nor an ironic thrift store t-shirt.) to see my favorite comedian and podcaster Marc Maron.  The show was great and he was very gracious with the fans.

Last year on Pentecost Sunday, I used a story from Maron's book Attempting Normal in my sermon.  I brought a CD of that sermon hoping I could give it to him.  During the Q&A, I shared that I was a minister who was a big fan and I had used his stories in sermons.  The crowd thought that was awesome, so I told him I had a copy of one for him.  He seemed genuinely glad to have it and asked if he could play it on his show.  I agreed, of course.

After the show, I began to worry that I came across like I was crazy or trying to convert him, so I tweeted the following:

A little while later, I got this reassuring response to my tweet by none other than Maron himself:

I hope he does listen to it and appreciates it.  Mentioning it on his podcast seems like too much to ask.  Either way, I got to interact with a comedian/podcaster whose work I really enjoy and that interaction was a good one--I'm more than satisfied with that much.

If you want to hear the sermon I gave to Marc Maron, here it is on my church's web site.  Apologies for the crappy audio quality.  Something was up with the audio that day.

Wadi Qelt (a.k.a. "the valley of the shadow of death")

"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. . ."

I learned the words to the 23rd Psalm when I was a child.  I still prefer the poetry of the King James Version and its Elizabethan English.  Today, I recite it most often at funerals, at which I'm grateful still most people know the words to recite along with me.  I've been known to preach on it, because it is worth living by every day and not just at funerals.  After visiting Israel, I think of it in a whole new way.

The picture above is of a place called Wadi Qelt.  A wadi is a canyon carved by centuries of sporadic heavy rain.  Wadi Qelt is the traditional place David had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.  (It is also said to be the place where the prophet Elijah hid from the forces of Queen Jezebel and was fed by ravens.)  Of course, there is no way to know if this is the place David really had in mind any more than there is a way to know for sure that it was David who wrote Psalm 23, but it was powerful to visit it just the same. 

I had always envisioned the "valley of the shadow of death" as well, more shadowed rather than baked by the sun.  The vegetation you see in the picture exists because an ancient aqueduct still carries water along its steep cliff side and leaks at places.  The aqueduct was built long after David's time, so if he was thinking of Wadi Qelt it wasn't with any greenery.  It's much more bleak than I imagined.  The day we visited the temperature was in the 90's (don't ask me about Celsius) and it felt like we were being baked in an oven.

I had also imagined the "valley of the shadow of death" to have more life to it.  I guess I was taking the phrase literally which says, "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters."  Now I know the writer of the Psalm, if he or she had Wadi Qelt or a place like it in mind was drawing a contrast between his or her lived reality and what he or she trusted God would provide.  There are no green pastures nor still waters in Wadi Qelt.  The only water comes rarely and dangerously rushing through the canyon.

When we look at the parched landscape with its steep cliff sides that allow only a narrow trail along them, we can realize just how much faith it took for the Psalm writer to trust God would provide "green pastures," "still waters," "a table before me in the presence of mine enemies," and a cup that "runneth over."  This is the substance of faith in God--that in our desperate moments when we are most in need that God remains with us to provide for us.

Wadi Qelt speaks to our lived reality.  In moments of tragedy and grief, pain and loss, it may take more imagination than we can muster to believe existence is more than a parched and desolate place lacking in comfort.  When we have no answers for why the innocent suffer, the young die or relationships are broken, Wadi Qelt awaits. 

The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."  There are times when we have no assurances nor convictions.  Yet, Psalm 23 declares that when we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" God is with us.  This is faith--daring to believe God walks with us even when we cannot feel God's presence. 

Wadi Qelt reminds us not to speak of faith in a trite manner nor to speak words to one who grieves merely to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable in their presence.  It reminds us that faith in such circumstances is truly a miraculous event that if it occurs, does so on a different timetable for each person.

Faith is believing that even in such a bleak landscape, God is still present with us.  Faith is trusting that the Psalm's words are true: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."  I hold no guarantees, but I pray you find faith when your life's journey takes you to Wadi Qelt.  May your "shepherd" guide you.
Grace and Peace,

Why was Jesus a Small Town Guy?

(written for my church on June 20)

I'm back from Israel although I'm still jet-lagged.  Although I returned Monday evening, I continue to fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon and wake up in the middle of the night, so in case I miss Sunday worship, that's my excuse.  I am thankful to all who filled in for me during my absence: Mark Pridmore and Karon Harper for preaching and leading in worship, the church staff for doing all their good work to keep our church running, and our lay leaders and volunteers who do so much to make this community of faith a reality.

My trip was wonderful and I'm full of thoughts about it.  In the coming weeks and months, I will be sharing more about my experiences.  Suffice to say, I will never read Bible stories in the same way now that I have seen the places they are supposed to have happened.  For now, let me share this reflection with you.

 My trip started out seeing sites along the Mediterranean coast such as Caesarea, a port city constructed by Herod the Great before Jesus' birth that later became the home of Roman governors like Pontius Pilate.  (see above picture)  It was quite the city complete with a grand theater, circus mzximus for chariot races and an arena for gladiatorial combat.  We concluded our trip in Jerusalem, which was in Jesus' day as it is now, a hub of religious, governmental and commercial activity with incredible architecture that towered over its inhabitants.  Between these ancient cities, however, we visited sites around the Sea of Galilee which was an entirely different experience.

First off, the Sea of Galilee (pictured above--photograph by Sterling Severns) is not a sea but rather a freshwater lake--a big one but not a huge one.  After reading about it in the Bible my whole life, I was rather stunned by how small it is.  Don't get me wrong it's beautiful; in fact I would say the Galilee area is probably the most beautiful part of Israel, but it is not large.  We visited the ruins of the ancient villages of Capernaum (see below picture--photograph by Sterling Severns) and Bethsaida where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  These two villages and a third Korazin form what's called the "Gospel Triangle," the area where Jesus did almost all of his preaching, teaching and miracles.  Again, I was shocked by how small the villages were--really just hamlets by the lake shore in the case of Bethsaida and Capernaum.  Furthermore they aren't far off from each other, a few hours walk at most would take you between these villages and through similar ones nearby.  Now I understand why the gospels describe crowds gathering around Jesus; everybody in this very small area probably knew of his teaching and activities.

 Jesus didn't pick a metropolis for his ministry but a small rural area where fishing was the primary industry.  He could have chosen the city which represented the might of the empire or the city considered most holy but instead chose a much less "important" place for his work.  If you happen to believe in the incarnation, as I do, this means that God chose to be present in a unique and incredible manner not in the halls of power but among ordinary people in a small area.  What might that mean?

For me it means that if this God-thing is real, then any place can be a place where God can do amazing things.  Even if that place happens to be out of the way, what God does may start in an out of the way place but it doesn't stay there.  What God does matters so much, shakes the foundations of our human sensibilities and conventional wisdom so greatly, that it echoes in the powers of influence.  Jesus was the ultimate grassroots organizer that ended up changing the world by starting small, but what was small in the eyes of the world was great in its power and influence.

If this God-thing is real, that means what we do as a church among our small congregation matters a great deal.  If we allow God to be active among us, what we do together matters.  Just as what Jesus accomplished in the small villages near the lake shore impacted the world around it, so also what we do together can make a huge difference in our neighborhood, our part of the city, our metropolitan area, the states of Kansas and Missouri, our nation and our world. 

Are my thoughts too grandiose?  Perhaps.  But I walked among the small villages where God worked wonders on the shore of the Galilee, and I've learned that what matters is not the size or influence of a community but rather its willingness to allow God to work through it. 

Grace and Peace,