Archive for January, 2013

The Poor Will Be Rich… (Program and Recap)

// January 28th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff


Very good discussion this Sunday, but, as always, there were things I was hoping to get to that we could not.  We were looking at Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  He makes sharp divisions between good and evil and is very clear that the best result, the ultimate end, is the reversal of fortune for those at the top and those at the bottom.  One thing we did discuss is that things are not so clear now – and probably weren’t in Luke’s time, either.  This forces us to ask who we are in Jesus’ proclamations of blessings and woe and rarely results in easy answers.

The truth is, we likely shift between Luke’s categories all the time.  We all experience degrees of poverty and prosperity.  It’s less likely that people in Church in the Cliff have experienced true hunger or food insecurity, but it’s possible.  I’m certain that many of us have gorged ourselves on food we didn’t need, but enjoyed all the same.  Maybe that’s just me.  I know that we have all grieved and mourned, whether it was the loss of a relationship or a loved one or a job that brought us to tears.  And I know that we laugh.

Because we slide so easily from grief to laughter, it strikes me that one way to read Luke is as a simple description of reality.  Not a prediction.  Not a judgment.  Just an assessment.  No matter how good things are going, it can always go bad.  For some, it may not be until age and illness overtake us.  For some, it’s just some personal tragedy, some minor misfortune, that turns the tide.  And, no matter how bad things are going, I know that it can get better.  Not without effort and support and even luck, but it can get better.  It will get better.  Maybe it’s a career change.  Maybe it’s a new love.  Maybe it’s coming out to your family.  Maybe it’s just realizing that we are loved and we are good and we are children of God, but it will get better.

In this light, what might seem like a judgment in Luke is actually message of hope.  Things will turn.  And in the meantime, as Jesus tells us in the passage following the Sermon on the Plain, the best thing to do is to love our enemies, to return cruelty with kindness.  This is how God acts.  This is how we should act.  This is life in God.  This is the reward.  This is the means by which the world experiences the Great Reversal.  It gets better because we treat each other better.  Because we love each other.  Because we have compassion.  And because we learn to cherish all the moments, the good and the bad, that come with being human.

Blessed Are the Poor. Woe to the Rich. Uh-oh.

// January 26th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

There is a Monty Python sketch about a Robin Hood-type character named Dennis Moore.  He steals from the rich and gives to the poor until the rich have become poor and the poor rich.  This is the paradox of reversal: when the first become last and the last first, we end up with the same class hierarchy.  Nothing has really changed.  Dennis Moore tries to solve the problem by engaging in armed redistribution, but finds it ultimately frustrating trying to even out coins and tiaras.  Hopefully, God has a better plan.

I’m not sure Luke thinks so.  Perhaps we should narrow the field a bit.  Certainly, there are threads in Luke that point to a cosmic battle between good and evil.  But in the Beatitudes Luke is very concrete (6:20-23).  If we compare his telling of Jesus’ teachings to their parallel in Matthew (5:3-12), it is very grounded, very earthly.  Matthew speaks of the “poor in spirit” where Luke speaks only of “you who are poor.”  Matthew speaks of “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” where Luke speaks only of “you who are hungry now.”  It is direct.  It is personal.  It is real.  It is now.  The problem, as Luke sees it, is not spiritual or psychological; it is material.  Real people are really starving.  And, while there is some sense in Luke that there is a great evil that controls the world, woe to the ones through whom it finds its power (cf. 22:22).

Luke adds something that Matthew does not: woes, judgment upon those who cause suffering.  They precisely parallel the blessings.  It seems clear that those who are rich are the cause of poverty for others.  Those whose bellies are full are the cause of those who hunger.  Those who laugh do so at the expense of those who weep.  Any Christians concerned about class warfare should probably avoid Luke.  Maybe the rest of us, if we really look at the world around us, should as well.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about the rich and the poor, the hungry and the satisfied, and grieving and the joyful.  Most importantly, we’ll talk about where we find ourselves in this teaching and how we are to live in response.

Grace and Peace,

The Great Reversal (Program and Recap)

// January 26th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff


Good conversation last Sunday.  Bonus points to Sarah for saying that transformation starts with hope.  I’m always blessed by the wisdom of the gathering.  I did want to comment on one part of the conversation.

In talking about a larger, cosmic battleground in Luke, we stumbled upon questions of interreligious dialogue.  It’s a question that bedevils those who are interested in building bridges across faiths.  Some, like Karen Armstrong, suggest that all religions are ultimately pointing at the same thing, that all paths lead up the same mountain.  For her, compassion is the common value and insight for all religions.  All other values and practices are particular instantiations of those values at best and distractions at worst.  Others, like Stephen Prothero, argue that there are actually many mountains.  More importantly, it is chauvinistic to explain to a person of another faith “what it is really about.”

I must admit that I am torn on this.  I just took World Religions last semester.  Although my professor kept things somewhat close to the vest, I suspect he agreed, in principle, with the Karen Armstrongs of the world.  At the least, he saw enough common ground to create opportunities for fruitful dialogue.  This contrasted with a course I took in undergrad from a professor and mentor who had a tremendous influence on my thinking.  He seemed to agree more with Stephen Prothero.  His argument is that the way we think is so inescapably structured by culture that it is hard to even know what the other is talking about, much less shift our thinking to find common ground.  For him, the child of Baptist missionaries in China whose first language was Chinese, language itself constrains our thinking too much to even know if we are talking about the same things.  He was able to negotiate between cultures because he was fluent in multiple languages from an early age, but that is a rare gift.

I’ll continue to wrestle with this, but I have a tentative standing.  Perhaps it is not appropriate to think that all religions have a common root value or that we even mean the same thing when we use words like “love” and “compassion.”  However, maybe Armstrong is right that there should be, that compassion is ultimately the value that can unite us, whether it currently does or not.  And maybe the task of the person of faith is to steadfastly and earnestly seek that value by engaging others of all faiths or no faith to discover the meaning and the possibility of compassion.  Maybe compassion as I understand it is not where we have all ultimately been directed, but maybe our conversation can and should reorient us to that.  Maybe in that process of inclusive dialogue, we find God.

The Great Reversal

// January 19th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Long before I came to Church in the Cliff or went to seminary and was exposed to the liturgical calendar, I received a covert education on it.  Living in New Orleans, one is immersed in the flow of that calendar.  The already low productivity in the Big Lazy drops even more after Thanksgiving.  Holiday parties and ski vacations for those who can afford them leave many out of pocket.  And then we roll into Carnival, the weeks preceding Fat Tuesday and Lent.  In a city prone to search for reasons to celebrate, Mardi Gras delivers.

Those distracted by hurricanes and public nudity might miss the serious purpose that lurks underneath.  Carnival is probably an evolution and Christianization of a more ancient celebration: Saturnalia.  Saturnalia was a Roman celebration in which societal norms were undercut – at least, temporarily.  Slaves were served a feast by their masters.  People wore ornate dinner clothes during the day.  Everyone, slave, citizen, and freedperson, wore the hat normally designated for the freedperson, eliminating the usual markers of class hierarchy.  And, of course, there was a lot of drinking, perhaps to make equality more palatable.  This all harked back to a primal time when humans enjoyed the world’s bounty without labor or commerce and so there was no need for class.  (Sound familiar?)  In the official liturgical calendar, this time is just ordinary time, but in New Orleans – and in many other places around the world – this is the time to celebrate the Great Reversal.

If you plot out this part of the year as the life of Jesus, this is the time of Jesus’ mission, sandwiched, like all our lives, between birth and death.  And so it is a time of celebration.  The bridegroom is with us!  Feast and drink!  Celebrate!  For it will not always be so.

But it is not just a celebration for its own sake, particularly if we follow Luke’s story of the life of Jesus.  The life of Luke’s Jesus had a particular focus.  It is foreshadowed in the messages of angels and the song of Mary.  It is welcomed in the joy of the shepherds.  And it is stated explicitly when Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of our God’s favor” (inclusive translation).  The world as we know it is turned upside down in the presence of God.  We might need a drink.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss life in the Great Reversal as presented in Jesus’ “mission statement.”

Grace and Peace,

The Baptism of Jesus (Program)

// January 19th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

A little behind, as always, but here is the program from last Sunday.  For our response, we did a remembrance of baptism with the blessing: “May the Holy Spirit work within you.”

The Baptism of Jesus

// January 12th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

In the Epiphany, we considered the identity of Jesus.  However, we only really considered it through the eyes of others.  Every child is born with expectations, but perhaps none more than Jesus.  I mean, my dad wanted me to be good at golf, but he didn’t have angels singing to him about it.  The reality is that none of us can live up to the expectations of others, regardless of how noble or well-intended, because those expectations have nothing to do with us.  At some point, our lives have to connect to who we really are, to the image of God within.  As the story is told by Luke (3:21-22), baptism was that moment for Jesus.

Luke is the only canonical gospel to include stories of Jesus’ upbringing, but it is very limited.  There is the story of his circumcision with the songs of Anna and Simeon.  Then Luke zips ahead to the 12-year-old Jesus taking it upon himself to be educated in the temple in Jerusalem.  Next thing we know, Jesus is thirty, standing in the Jordan River being baptized by John.  A curious thing happens: the skies open up and Jesus hears a voice that says: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Unlike Matthew, who frames this as a public announcement, Luke has God addressing Jesus alone.  This is a private moment, a moment in which a voice from heaven and a voice inside speak in unison.  There is an unmistakable clarity.  We don’t know exactly what Jesus did for the first thirty years of his life, but after this moment, with the certain knowledge that he belongs, that he is loved, and that he is good, he begins his work.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about what it would be like to have that kind of clarity, what it takes to find it, and what we might do with it.

Grace and Peace,


// January 8th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Again, catching up, so this was the e-mail that went out last week for Ephiphany:

Merry Christmas!  Did you think that was over?  Not quite.  As the lyrical evidence clearly shows, there are twelve of them.  They culminate on January 6, this Sunday, in the Epiphany.  Technically, the Epiphany is the account the visitation of the Magi provided by Matthew.  However, popular piety likes to mash the Gospels together.  I often regard this mash as a flavorless paste that dulls the spice and texture of each author, but there are times when it can be a tasty gumbo, where all the ingredients are distinct, but speak to one another in interesting ways.  In this case, all the characters of the Gospels show up in the manger, in our nativities: Mary, Joseph, the angels, shepherds – and their sheep! – the Magi and the camels they rode in on.  Everyone is there to witness the manifestation of God in the form of the baby Jesus.

This, of course, is not what the Epiphany has always been.  It has been, in the past, the celebration of Jesus’ Baptism, when he was presented to the world as God’s child.  It has been a celebration of Jesus first miracle recorded in the Gospel of John, turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana.  And now the Magi and the angels and the shepherds.  In all cases, it is the celebration of the revelation of the identity of Jesus as God’s Anointed and the presence of that One in our lives.

This week, we’ll look at the visitation accounts of the shepherds found in Luke 2:8-20 and of the Magi found in Matthew 2:1-12.  Here we have the very lowest of society and the very highest of society coming to see the baby Jesus.  They come for different reasons and they leave with different understandings, but they all know that they have encountered God With Us and they all must respond.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about who Jesus is and how we might respond to that Epiphany.

Grace and Peace,


One thing I’m enjoying in being off of school for the month is that I get to spend some time developing experiential responses for our topics.  This week was easy, taking off on the gifts of the Magi: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I think we have become so used to this trio of gifts that we no longer consider their symbolic resonance.  I wanted to give people a chance to rediscover that.

Gold was, for the Magi, a symbol of power just as it is for us today.  As the Golden Rule says: “The one who has the gold makes the rules.”  The Magi were claiming power for this little helpless baby.  In response, I asked people to take a coin (Mardi Gras coins!) and consider their own experience of power in their lives.  Do you have power over the world?  Or does the world have power over you?  What is the source of that power?  Who wins and who loses in the exercise of that power?

Frankincense was used in sacred rituals all over the ancient world.  No other incense was allowed on the altar of the Jewish Temple and secular use was restricted in Jewish law.  The Magi are claiming a sacred character for Jesus, that he is set apart.  How are you set apart?  What makes you you?  That is the image of God.

Myrrh was a perfume, but it was particularly used in embalming.  This points us forward to the end of our story.  Jesus is certainly divine, but he is also human.  He will die and he will die in a horrible and humiliating way.  He will give his life for those he loves.  What do you have to give?  Who would you give it for?  What is worth living for or dying for?  I asked people to anoint themselves with myrrh oil as gifts to the world.

Because that is what you are.  Each of us contains the image of God, a source of power that sets us apart and prepares us as gifts to the world.  If each of us can see that, then surely the dreams of God are at hand.

Advent Programs

// January 8th, 2013 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Got a little behind in the end-of-school/Christmas rush.  Ready to get back to my normal level of disorganization.

Advent Week 1

Advent Week 2

Advent Week 3

Advent Week 4

Christmas Eve