When sudden tragedy strikes, it is often a time when many of the big questions about the meaning of our lives and the universe just won’t go away. Friends of mine, Chris and Karen Burpo, recently lost their son, Scott. At Scott’s memorial service, held at St. David’s Episcopal Church, his father tackles the question: “Why are we here?”
Why are we here? We are here to celebrate the life of Scott Burpo. But…
Why are we here?
We are here because the church is Scott’s home, the church is where he was baptized, and where he was confirmed. This is the place at age 16 that he renewed the baptismal vows that his parents and God parents had said for him at his baptism. This is where he promised to put his whole faith and trust in God’s grace and love.
At his confirmation, the Bishop said this prayer:
Strengthen, O Lord, your servant Scott with your Holy Spirit;
Empower him for service;
And sustain him all the days of his life. Amen.
The Bishop’s prayer obviously worked, because Scott was empowered for service. This is the place Scott learned about service as an acolyte, as a man, and as a Christian. From an early age Scott always had a generous soul. His generosity is reflected in many of the on-line tributes I have read on social media over the last few days. One of the last pictures we have of Scott and Karen together was taken when he came up to visit us for Karen’s birthday this year. The picture was taken of the two of them with aprons on, smiling, and serving dinner to our Unidad families.
As further proof that the Bishop’s prayer worked, the Holy Spirit did “sustain him all the days of his life.” While he was not regular in his attendance lately, he did not forget what he was taught here (by Gene Jeffords, Hendree, and many others). Over the last weeks when he was not always in good spirits, we talked about God’s plan for him. He remembered that God loved him, and I know he drew strength from that as we talked.
Finally, we are here because this place meets Maya Angelou’s paraphrased definition of home:
“The safe place where we can go as we are (at any time) and not be questioned.”
Why are we here?
We are here because we all loved Scott and miss him dearly. His teachers are here. Many of his friends are here. His families, both his birth family and church family, are here.
We are here because he touched our lives in a variety of ways. His donations to people in need, his helping and supporting friends in need, and organizing his work team for volunteer clean up duty while they were on the road in Oklahoma at the time of the deadly tornado in Moore OK in 2013. In many ways he modeled Jesus in helping where and when he could.
Why are we here? We are here because we simply don’t know what else to do. Scott doesn’t need our help any more now, because he is rejoicing in heaven.
We are gathered here to together to say prayers and thanksgivings of the burial office for two reasons. First we are gathered to officially give Scott back to God and to thank him for his gift of Scott in our lives. Second we are here to care for each other and to ask God’s help for us all. Our collective presence helps each of us remember what Scott knew, which can be summarized in these words from John 5:24:
“He who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Scott heard that message here, and he believed it, and now he has eternal life. The Gospel reading today says:
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
So that is where Scott is now, and forevermore. But what about us? We are gathered here to give him a big send off, but we know that he is being greeted by a heavenly host of saints who are there to welcome him to his father’s house. Maybe they will be praying for us as we pray for him. In the days ahead we are left to comfort and support each other in our bereavement and our loss. We should be of that good courage that he was. And love one another like he loved us all. And rejoice with him and all of the saints in the Eucharist.
Printed with permission of Chris and Karen Burpo
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James.
When you read the three parables of Luke 15 – three parables that Jesus uses to stand down the rule-oriented, intolerant religious people of his day – they all end with a BIG party. The Shepherd brings home the lost sheep and throws a party. The woman finds the lost coin and throws a party. The lost son returns and his dad throws a party.
They all gather their friends and neighbors to rejoice. The word translated “rejoice” literally means to jump up and spin in the air with delight. It’s a big raucous celebration!
Okay – so let’s recap. In these parables, God’s heart is breaking because we’ve wandered away from God. When we either let God find us and pick us up or see God running toward us, there is no condemnation. Nor is there a punishment. Nor is there a “better do better speech.” All we really do is say “yes” to our creator. Yes! I want to know you – to be transformed by your love – to love others like you love me! Yes! Yes! Yes! God can’t wait to scoop us up or throw loving arms around us. And then God throws a party complete with cool clothes, good food, dancing, and music. I am not making this up. Read Luke 15!
This party, where the friends and neighbors of God gather, is what the Kingdom of God is all about. There is really no sense hanging out with religious people who are intolerant, rule-oriented, judging, and condemning. Find the ones that understand the Kingdom of God is like a party. Hang out with them – because God is in their midst:
“The LORD your God is in your midst. . . He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice (jump in the air and spin around!) over you with shouts of joy! (Zep 3:17 NAS)
This blog post is written as an answer to questions that I am getting about my last post on repentance…
I want to reiterate that we misunderstand the teachings of Jesus when we come to the conclusion that being a Christian is about agreeing to keep a list of rules. It is also a misunderstanding of repentance when we think that repentance is about turning from breaking that list of rules to promising to keep them. This issue is precisely what got Jesus crucified and the very heart of the gospel. Get this wrong and your Christian faith is never going to make sense.
Jesus went up against the religious people of his day who had a long list of rules that they required everyone follow. Jesus kept breaking these rules. For instance, he didn’t keep the Sabbath, he befriended “bad” people by going to dinner with them, he was friends with women he wasn’t related to, he touched sick people, etc. The list goes on.
In actuality these religious people didn’t know God at all. They thought that they had a contract with God – we keep your rules and you bless us in this life and the life to come. But God had made a covenant with them, not a contract. A covenant is about having a relationship. God offers humanity a covenant (I will be your God and you will be my people). The covenant was and is about following Christ not a list of rules.
Now those who follow Christ may look like they follow a list of rules because they demonstrate a radical love for others. But in truth, they are following Jesus. Believe me… it is far more difficult to follow Jesus than it is a list of rules, because Jesus will ask you to make sacrifices that rules protect you from making. For instance, the law said, “love your neighbor,” which protected you from loving those who weren’t like yourself. But Jesus said his followers would love even their worst enemies – and all the people in between.
There are many rule followers today who call themselves Christians. They keep a set of rules (and want to force others to keep them). They think that makes them right with God. But they don’t even know God. Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, they have no love for God and others. They are trying to twist God’s arm (still thinking they have a contract with God) into blessing them and giving them a ticket to heaven. But when one follows Jesus they live sacrificially in God’s love giving up their own desires to let Christ live through them – to let Christ through them bless even their enemies.
It is like a good marriage… when one truly loves the other person, there needs to be no rules, because you want what is best for the other and are willing to give sacrificially for them. In a bad marriage… you have a list of rules you follow. Each person wants what is best for themselves and protects themselves and places limits on how much they will give the other. In truth, this is no marriage at all – it is just a contract between two unfortunate people! The religious people of Jesus’s day had this kind of relationship with God. Which was no relationship at all. It was a misunderstanding of the covenant they had made with God.
This is where we come back to repentance. Repentance is different from agreeing to a set of rules… repentance is giving God permission to transform us into someone who follows Jesus into the difficult hard places. To give God permission to make us a sacrificial person who lets Christ live through us – a person who puts others first. Repentance is to give God permission to empower us to stop worrying about which rules to follow and to start loving God and others unconditionally.
This is the gospel!! Far harder, but far more rewarding than keeping a list of rules.
The guy with the sign has repentance all wrong.
For instance, let’s say that we make a huge error in judgement and embezzle funds from our employer. So how do we repent of this misdoing? Maybe we force ourselves to feel guilt, shame, and remorse. Maybe we confess what we have done. Maybe we come up with a plan to repay our employer. Maybe we do time in jail or community service. Most of all, we start adhering to the rules that we have broken.
That is what scripture means by repentance – right? Wrong!
In the parable of the lost sheep, repentance occurs when the sheep simply allows the shepherd to scoop it up and carry it home where the shepherd’s friends are waiting to greet it. It is the act of saying “yes” to God.
I know something about this. I have a Great Dane puppy who is eight months old and weighs almost 90 pounds – about the same as a middle eastern sheep. I couldn’t scoop her up now if I tried. But a few weeks back when she only weighed fifty pounds, I could. One day back then, she got out of the house when some friends had come to visit me. I tried the “here” command. She stopped, she looked at me, she waited until I got an arm’s length away, and then she ran. When I got close to her again, she lay down and rolled over on her back knowing that I could not pick her up while she was in that position. She playfully nipped at me when I tried to put the leash on her. She lay there and waited. She felt guilty. She knew running from me was wrong. She had even stopped doing it. But until she said “yes” to letting me pick her up and carry her home where my friends were waiting to greet her, she had not repented.
In the parable of the prodigal son, where the son takes his father’s money and leaves home only to lose it all, it is the same thing. Many people think that when the prodigal son is sitting in the pig sty realizing what an idiot he is, feeling guilty, putting together a plan to become his father’s slave that it is then that he has repented. But he hasn’t. Some say that when he turned to go home, that he had repented, but he hasn’t. When his father runs to meet him in the road, he starts to tell the father the terms of their new relationship, “I will follow the rules – I will be your slave.” The prodigal son is still trying to define the terms of his relationship with the father. But the father isn’t interested in the son’s terms.
The father doesn’t want a son who follows a list of rules and acts like a slave. He just wants his beloved son back – to be in a father-son relationship with him. He wants to bring the son into his house, gather his friends, and have a party. Repentance happens when the son stops trying to define the relationship by a list of rules that he will agree to follow and instead lets the father hug him, wrap him up in a new garment, and bring him home.
Jesus was telling this parable to the Pharisees who were mad at Jesus because he wasn’t following their religious rules. He is telling the religious leaders that all of their crummy religious rules are absurd!! Religious leaders take note! God doesn’t care about your rules. God wants a relationship with you. And God wants you to encourage the people in your religious community to have a relationship with God too. God wants to be their God and for them to be God’s beloved children. Repentance is when we accept that love from God. It does not require that we feel guilty or shameful enough. Nor does it require that we sign up to follow a list of rules. It requires that we let God scoop us up and carry us to God’s home (and I am in no way talking about heaven – I am talking about God’s kingdom here on earth) where we get to party with his friends.
For it is when we say yes to going home with God that are agreeing to spend our lives with God in God’s house with God’s friends. It is then that God has the opportunity to transform us into the hands and feet of Jesus so that we can love others as God has loved us.
Back to the embezzler. You can’t fix your greedy ways by yourself. But you can say yes to letting God transform you – pick you up and carry you to the beloved community where you will be a beloved child transformed by the love of God. Sadly, most Christians – just like the Pharisees – are out there defining a list of rules and making sure everyone is following them too.
April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. It is equally great for group Bible studies or to be read as a novel!
Have you heard God called “The Good Shepherd?” Have you heard God portrayed as the father who runs out to meet the prodigal son? These are two parables that Jesus told the religious leaders who were annoying him because they did not get that God was all about loving the world and not condemning it. They are brilliant parables – the very heart of Jesus’s message where God pulls out all of the stops to love us. But sandwiched in between these two parables is the parable of the lost coin:
What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” (Luke 15:8-9 NRS).
Do you notice anything really really really weird about this parable? In it, Jesus describes God as a married woman who has lost the equivalent of her wedding ring. The ten coins were most certainly the coins she received at her wedding and wore around her head on a chain – our equivalent of a wedding ring. One of the coins must have fallen off. We tell this story over and over. And yet, no one ever points out that Jesus was not ashamed to compare God to a woman! What does it say about us that we are okay with God being “The Good Shepherd who lost his Sheep” or “The Father of the Prodigal Son”? But which of us doesn’t flinch when we hear that God is “The Woman who Lost her Wedding Ring?”
In a moment where Jesus is revealing God to us, he describes God as a woman who is willing to go into the dark, dirty places and search until she finds the thing that represents the covenant love she has for her husband. Is that not beautiful? God as female. God in love. God who values us and searches to be reunited with us until she finds us?
This is the gospel. God lost us – and we are so precious to her that she is willing to go into the dark, dirty places to search for us. And she does not stop until she is united with us again.
I grew up in a church that looked down on me even from my birth. You see, I was born a girl and girls weren’t supposed to have a voice in this church. We could not be leaders, teachers of men, and certainly not pastors. We were to be submissive to our husbands – in fact, to all males. I was neither slave nor free. In this wilderness, I was lost for years.
Jesus spoke in his parables of this wilderness. A wilderness where being who God created me to be was impossible — a wilderness where I could not use my gifts of leadership and teaching. Through no fault of my own, I was lost. I was like a sheep who had been told not to grow wool and not to make sheep sounds.
This is exactly what the religious leaders were doing to both the religious and non-religious people of Jesus’s day. They wrapped the religious up in rules that enslaved them. They shunned the non-religious by telling them they had no place with God.
This caused conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus. Jesus was out having dinner with lost people like me. He was inviting people like me to come out of the wilderness and into his community where we would be treasured and nourished. The religious leaders didn’t like this one bit. They wanted Jesus to leave the lost in the wilderness – a wilderness that they had created for them and where they had power over them. But Jesus explained to the religious leaders that he was the good shepherd who “came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NRS).
In Old Testament scripture, the prophet Ezekiel was angry with the religious leaders of his day, “You shepherds have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The religious leaders of Ezekiel’s day were no better than the religious leaders of Jesus’s day. And so God speaks his mind to these leaders: “I will provide for the sheep… They are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am their God.” Jesus came to fulfill this ancient promise – to gather his sheep and carry them from the wilderness of a religion that enslaves to his beloved community.
Jesus found me enslaved in a church that kept me from being who God created me to be. Jesus picked me up on his shoulders and is carrying me – even now – out of the wilderness into his beloved community where I am nourished and cared for. And where I can nourish and care for others.
There are many things in the wilderness that keep us from being our best selves — injustices of all kinds. Your wilderness experience will be different from mine. But it doesn’t matter. Jesus came to find us, to scoop us up on his shoulders, and carry us to his community where we can flourish. It is a journey that takes a lifetime. But the ride comes with a pretty good view.
Now the lost were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes the lost and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my Sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents (turns around – comes out of the wilderness – lets Jesus pick them up) than over ninety-nine righteous persons who see no need. (Luke 15:1-7)
After the women saw where Jesus was buried, “they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” (Luk 23:55-24:1 NRS).
Jesus died on Friday. His female followers stayed with Jesus’s body from the cross to the tomb and then went home to prepare spices and ointments to be used to give him a proper burial. They knew they had to finish with the burial preparations before the Sabbath when it was required that they rest.
These women were planners and doers and fearless. But they were also confused. And what they were doing Friday late into the night was a waste of time. For they were preparing spices for a body that would not be dead when they arrived to care for it on Sunday at day break.
I am certain that I would have done the same thing. But if they had known – had trusted – that Jesus wouldn’t be dead Sunday morning, what might they have done Friday night instead? They wasted time worrying, preparing for the worst, unable to imagine the amazing and good possibilities. Had they not understood what Jesus had told them would happen? Did they not believe the promises he had made? They could have spent the time in wonder and in peace. But they worked. Wasted energy and time.
Like these women, I too have wasted a lot of time worrying and preparing for the worst between the crucifixion and the resurrection. Instead of living in joyful anticipation of what God will do next, I busy myself with things that I don’t even realize won’t matter in the morning. I refuse to really hear his promises and grab hold of them. I prepare burial spices when I could be preparing a celebration!
O God, transform me! Let me have faith that death – all the little deaths and all the big ones – have no power over me. Let me have faith that the resurrection is coming! And that in the power of the resurrection, I will be empowered to be your hands and feet. Amen.
Sometimes I just need a hug. Yesterday was one of those days. Too much going on. Little things making me stressed out. Nothing huge. I really can’t explain why, but I felt a little down. Nothing a hug couldn’t cure.
I remember when my son Kit was a toddler. He gave the best hugs. Just wrapped his entire little body – both arms and legs – around me. I can close my eyes even now and remember what his big bear hugs felt like. Even to this day, there is such joy in his hugs! My church is also a good place to go to get hugs (I realize not all churches are) — except during holy week when you are instructed to leave in silence. That was disappointing last night! I wanted to stop everyone and give them a hug! Yet when my husband walks in from work at the end of a long day, I always get hugged. I like the way he is so tall that I fit under his chin. When my other son Brent arrived home last Friday for Holy Week, my husband and I both hugged him at the same time. To our surprise, Maggie, our Great Dane joined the hug by standing on her hind legs and putting one paw on my husband and one on me. A great big family hug with lots of laughter. The doggie seemed pleased.
“The Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite embrace”
Being hugged and giving hugs can be a very holy thing. While teaching about the Upper Room for the last six weeks, I discovered that the Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite hug. I am not just being sappy . . . stick with me for a second. This is what Jesus said:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (Joh 14:16 NRS).
Other translations call the Holy Spirit “the Comforter” instead of “Advocate.” There is a sense that the Holy Spirit is for us. Advocating, Teaching, and Comforting. Hugging! But that isn’t all. This is what is really cool:
In the book of Acts, after Pentecost (which was when the Holy Spirit came), the Holy Spirit is described as tripping and falling a lot. For instance in Acts 10:44 the Holy Spirit falls on all who heard the word. In Acts 11:15, the Holy Spirit falls on them again. That amused me. Was the Spirit drunk and doing a lot of tripping and falling? No, but that was the image conjured up in my mischievous mind.
I started looking into what this “falling” really meant. Lo and behold, it literally means “to embrace” to “give a bear hug.” The Spirit was giving these people a hug that never ends! How cool is that?
The same word is used to describe what the father does when he runs to meet the prodigal son. He “falls on his neck” or better translated, “he hugs him” (Luke 15:11-32).
The Holy Spirit hugs us. The Holy Spirit is God in the act of giving us an infinite embrace. Think about that the next time you feel a bit (or even a lot) down. You aren’t alone. The Holy Spirit has her arms around you holding you tight. Know how much you are loved!
P.S. Don’t let my calling the Holy Spirit “her” distract you. The Spirit is gender feminine in the Old Testament and neutral in the New Testament so it is perfectly theologically legit.
“What do you have to offer?” Not the typical Holy Week question. But it really should be!
I have been reading a book about how to market books. As I recently told my publisher, “I am not fond of the marketing aspects of being an author.” Clearly, I don’t know what I am doing. It isn’t – at least not so far – in my skill set. But apparently it is part of my job description.
The first thing this marketing book says to do is to develop a brand. I am to start this process by asking myself: “What do I have to offer?” As I thought about this, I realized that it is an important question, but not just for authors. In fact, with Holy Week coming up, I think it is something we should all be reflecting on.
After Jesus had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? (Joh 13:12 NRS)
There was a time when I bought into the “Jesus Says: Do the Crappiest Jobs” sermons I had heard about this scripture. In fact, I may have preached one or two myself. Who hasn’t heard it preached? Wasn’t Jesus teaching his disciples to randomly take on the most humiliating, most unrewarding, lowliest tasks possible? Not exactly.
Consider this. At that moment in history, Jesus was the only one who could wash the disciple’s feet. No one else could do it. He hadn’t picked out a lowly task in order to be humble; he was humbly doing what only he could do. He says this in his exchange with Peter:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean . . . “ (Joh 13:6-10 NRS)
Jesus wasn’t washing their feet because they had physical mud and dust on them. In fact, according to custom, they had likely already washed their own feet as they entered the house. This foot washing pointed to spiritual renewal – a cleansing of someone already ultimately clean – a forgiving of someone already ultimately forgiven – a renewal of vows to be committed to the well-being of the other.
Yet, Jesus was also demonstrating to the disciples that they were to serve one another like he served each of them. This meant perpetually loving, forgiving, and meeting all kinds of emotional, physical, and spiritual needs for one another — to be committed to each other’s well-being.
You call me Teacher and Lord– and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (Joh 13:13-17 NRS)
Just as Jesus was the only one who could wash their feet, our service to each other should also come from our uniqueness. “What do I have to offer to you?” is the ultimate question when washing another’s feet. “How can I love you, forgive you, care for your needs?”
We aren’t to pick out lowly tasks in order to be humble; we are to humbly do for each other what God has given us the skills and resources to do. This is a subtle, but incredibly important difference. It is how we make the biggest impact in our world with the least amount of wasted time and effort. But it also makes it essential for us to know the abilities and skills God has given us – to hone and refine them so that we can humbly serve each other best.
Since marketing is part of a writer’s job, then I guess honing and refining my skills is what I am doing in reading this marketing book. By the way, it might make sense for me to accept help from someone who has these skills already. This is how we wash one another’s feet.
April is a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs.