Each week our clergy, and occasional guest preachers, attempt to faithfully proclaim God’s Word in fresh, aspirational, and practical ways. In essence, they explore what it means to live our mission: We seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We hope that audio and text files you will find here will aid your own Christian journey.
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Matthew 10:24-39Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Over thirty years ago now, early in my time as a minister, a new congregant told of how he had lost a son during his 4th birthday party. The boy had choked on a carrot stick stuck in his trachea that a vigorous Heimlich maneuver could not dislodge—as you can imagine, an excruciating, unbearable loss.
Statistically, couples that experience the accidental death of a small child frequently wind up in divorce. Shame and guilt are major culprits, and the subsequent need to blame the other in order to escape a sense of responsibility. And then, the simple physical presence of one’s spouse conjures a kind of living memory of the child that can sponsor an awful Groundhog Day experience of relentlessly reliving the tragedy.
In this case, the couple was still accountable for parenting a two-year-old sibling, so, lost in their grief, they turned to a therapist who tragically fell in love with my new friend’s spouse—a colossal misadventure of what’s called in psychology, countertransference, the therapist chalked up as “true love.” Divorce ensued, and her marriage to the therapist. Dad retained custody of the sibling child and after several years moved to a new town and a fresh start. It was then that he showed up at my church.
Time flowed forward for a while when I got a call from this same Dad in a hospital emergency room; his younger son had been struck by a truck while bike riding on a busy highway. Dad could hardly choke out that he was in critical condition. I told him I was on my way.
I sat with him for hours waiting some word about his son’s condition. I was a pretty capable up-and-comer minister but bereft of any useful wisdom at that moment when he quietly asked me about faith, as in, where did you get it? I mumbled some well-intentioned pious gobbledygook but mostly realized that simply being there was the best response I had. This was no time for either a deep theological conversation or pious platitudes. It was a moment for holy presence and solidarity. Words weren’t going to be especially helpful just then. I knew they would be necessary eventually.
A trauma specialist finally emerged and reported that his son would likely survive. He’d have a long recovery, and while there was no guarantee for 100% restoration, there was a good chance for that, or something close.
This was a seminal pastoral moment for me, probably because I had two small children of my own then, just in my early 30’s. I over-identified. And on the drive home I realized it was possible to distance myself from the human pain by retreating into my head to theologize about the vagaries of the human condition.
But many of you know tragedy firsthand, how disorienting it is and how easy to forget the placement of handholds and footholds for staying steady when the ground falls out from under our feet. And the frantic flailing about for perspective.
Those who think deeply about this human situation will come to realize there is finally no truly satisfying answer to the question of, why? That was Job’s dilemma—the existential question of why bad things can happen to good people.
But that really wasn’t my friend’s question. His was different. He wasn’t grappling with the why of it; he accepted that life could be difficult and at times tragic. He understood that sometimes people were at fault and sometimes not. His question was more along the lines of, given that this is the way life is, how can I endure? Sitting in that hospital waiting room I think he was wondering how he would be able go forward if his second son died. Honestly, that question crept into my mind on his behalf. How indeed...
Now in services like this we have the opportunity to sit quietly and think deeply about things like this. We enter this space with our own story to tell, our own encounter with vexing problems, our own scars as well as triumphs—it’s certainly important to celebrate our triumphs, too. But the heart of the human drama concerns the struggle of making our way through and around problems and obstacles. That’s what all of our great literature entails—the struggle for wisdom and awareness in the midst of problems and obstacles.
Our scriptures are filled with stories like these. They drive the narrative. That’s a great strength because it doesn’t mince words about our reality. The Bible deals unflinchingly with the human dilemma of being born and having to die and the physical and moral conundrums that dog us in the meantime.
So, for instance, Sarah and Abraham have wanted a son their whole lives. As this seminal story is told—the backbone of the three so-called Abrahamic faiths—Abraham heard God’s voice tell him to “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you...So Abram went...” He prospered but after many years Sarah is still childless and now evidently beyond childbearing years. This is why she laughs when she hears the words of the three strangers that she will bear a son.
Part of the wisdom here pertains to the recurrent theme that God will have the day, that abundant life is the outcome that’s woven into the creation fabric. Remember those words on our walls that I’ve referred to before: “Wait on the Lord. Be of good courage.” & “Let not your heart be troubled.” Teachings like these refer to the fundamental reality that God will not be deterred from bringing laughter out of heartache, renewal out of decay, and life out of death. his is the recurrent scriptural message that finds its culmination in resurrection.
And again, we must never forget that resurrection was born from awful tragedy, which is why it’s such a fantastic truth. At its heart the message is clear: nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from God’s great love. Nothing. This is the seminal truth of our religious tradition. Everything else is derivative.
Now in the meantime each of us must walk the path that’s set before us. A lot of our misery is of our own making, of course. But then some things seem to come straight at us from out of left field. But in either case the holy dictum stands firm and true: God intends good for us, we haven’t been forgotten, and our lives rest in God’s hands. Our job is simply to accept and revel in this truth. That’s the essence of faith.
That’s what Paul wants to affirm with his friends in Rome when he tells them that through their relationship with the Risen Christ they possess this same faith, and given that this risen Christ suffered a terrible death he was completely present to them in their own sufferings. As Paul concludes, we can actually “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The definition of faith here is nearly the equivalent of “having a relationship with.” In other words, having a relationship with the risen Christ allows us to endure suffering in such a way that leads to a hopeful future. Why is this? Because God intends good for us. We haven’t been forgotten and our lives rest in God’s hands. How is this confirmed? By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Faith then is a leap into the arms of God. It’s not entirely rational. If it were, it wouldn’t be faith. By the same token, it’s not exactly irrational either. Our very existence is evidence of something remarkable and wonderful afoot in the world. Again, as our scriptures make clear, all of creation gives evidence of God’s life-abundant nature.
This doesn’t negate the reality that life can be difficult. That truth is perfectly obvious even if we struggle to disprove it, as though it shouldn’t be difficult for me. That’s where a lot of our agony lays, in the misguided assumption that I should have special dispensation from vexing problems.
What we all have is simply life in all of its richness and complexity, beauty and agony, sorrow and joy. My friend and I wound up having a number of conversations about all of this. His faith blossomed as did his life. Eventually he fell in love again and married. The family thrived and life advanced. Before I left that congregation he wanted me to know that though it seemed a nearly impossible outcome, he had actually come to know joy and peace and hope…and he was a very grateful man.
Proverbs 8:1-4; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
In recent months I’ve taken to listening to National Public Radio when I’m driving. I had been only a sporadic listener over the years, knowing it primarily through the lens of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, but never adopting a steady diet. If I want music, classical or jazz is what I’ll generally tune in to in the car, although, I have eclectic musical interests. I’m also a fan of silence when I’m by myself. I drive a lot in silence.
I’m not sure why it took me so long, but I’ve newly discovered NPR’s really interesting programming. For instance, a recent installment of Marketwatch Weekend was devoted primarily to the financial concerns of millennials and covered a lot of territory including the current job situation for recent graduates; how to choose a career path, or not; tips for establishing credit; which credit cards are best; how to think about the difference between renting and buying; and the precarious state of education debt—how to think about that and manage it.
The program was creatively produced and even though I have several decades on millennials, I learned a few things. Wished I had access to media like that forty years ago.
When it came to an end I turned the radio off. In the ensuing silence I wondered if any millennials had been listening. Then my mind took flight on a number of topics like, how much audio/visual noise typically fills our days and how satisfying to actually hear something worthwhile.
I was aware that the reason I heard it was due to a traffic accident that kept me trapped in the car traveling at a snail’s pace, stop-and-go, for over an hour. I was traveling slow enough to see a lot of drivers staring down at their phones. One guy behind the wheel of a tow truck had the heel of both hands on the steering wheel texting with both thumbs while managing a smoldering cigarette with an overhung ash about to fall into his lap—a multi-tasking nightmare. At one point he glanced over at me, our eyes connected, he smirked and went back to his texting.
As readers of my Faith Matters blog know I’ve been brooding about our problem with keeping our attention on things that matter most given the proliferation of addictive technologies; most presently, how our neurotic attachment to electronics for every scrap of late-breaking news, tweets, posts, pics, opinions, rants, whatnot and hooha drags us down a rabbit hole of inconsequential distraction while ramping up our touchy reptilian emotions and aggressive tribalistic tendencies.
Apple, Google, Facebook, and maybe Amazon, too, have garnered a monopoly on our attention, feeding us our own entrails based on what we click.
It’s been said that we live in the age of ubiquitous information. The whole world is available to us in an instant. Have a question? Just ask Siri. I do. Out at dinner and a question comes up to which no one knows the answer, out comes the mechanical brain linked invisibly to an impossibly complicated network of information feeds that leads to a near instantaneous answer.
In this way everyone’s a genius—I think that reality hasn’t really sunk in yet, especially for the generations who haven’t grown up with this technology since birth. We don’t have to download anything into our local wet-work hard drive—otherwise known as our individual brains—‘cause we’re now just one raindrop in a ubiquitous cloud of information that’s a nanosecond away from consciousness.
As far as Google or Facebook is concerned, that’s our primary relevance—individual collection points of information bits they can add to their fantastical database, keeping us hooked up by feeding us stuff they know we like.
Don’t get me wrong: the opportunity this technology presents is fantastically awesome. It’s extremely hard to resist; in fact, as time advances its clear we’re on an absolutely fixed path into what used to be considered a science fiction future when human and machine are one—what some futurists call the great singularity—only the latest version of utopia or Shangri-La.
In these early decades, however, a devastating problem has emerged that anyone can see if they take the time to do the equivalent of turning off the radio for the sake of quiet contemplation. Awash in the tidal force of information intoxication, we’re tempted by the proposition that all information bits are equal, nothing is more inherently more important, more “true” than anything else.
This has now given rise to the ubiquity of “alternative facts,” left and right, that simply reinforce what we already think, to which all of us are susceptible, no matter our political, religious, or cultural persuasion. In this way, we actually become stupider, not smarter. Inevitably we succumb to the chaotic undertow of the information tsunami by the simple coincidence of our living in the twenty-first century.
But here’s the emergent truth: information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. Our technology is an absolutely fantastic conduit of information first, and knowledge second, but we’re discovering that it simultaneously mitigates wisdom. And here’s the thing: true wisdom is the height of human flourishing.
This is a huge problem for the church because from one vantage point we could say that the whole purpose of our spiritual enterprise is for the sake of gaining wisdom. Proverbs tells us that wisdom was the first thing God created and that wisdom informed and participated in everything that came later. Wisdom is the capacity to discern what’s true and real at heart of all things.
Elsewhere scripture teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, in other words, understanding that God is the first principle behind all things. Well, you can see what a hard sell that is in our current cultural moment. It sounds downright quaint and irrelevant what with all the tweeting and posting and instagramming. The church attempts to make use of these same tools in service of its message, but even so, over the last decade a church like this has become quite counter-cultural, and from my point of view, more necessary than ever precisely because we’re in the business of fostering human wisdom.
Information is a collection of data bits and facts that may or may not be true or accurate. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts that you have learned about or experienced. It’s being aware of something, and holding data bits. Higher knowledge is really about facts and ideas that we acquire through study, research, investigation, observation, or experience.
But wisdom is the ability to discern and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true, right, lasting, and applicable to our lives. It’s the ability to apply that knowledge to the greater scheme of life. It also drills deeper; knowing the meaning or reason; about knowing why something is, and what it means to your life; and finally, discovering what matters most of all (1).
That’s the business we’re in here at Christ Church. And that’s the business that’s under water today because we are so enamored, addicted, if you will, to the astonishing distractions of our 24/7 connection with the wondrous cloud that holds a thousand delights of gaming, and consorting with like-minded people, and music and video and pictures galore at a relentlessly breakneck pace. We seem never to turn it off. First thing in the morning, last thing at night…and every moment in between.
Take the guy driving the tow truck while texting and smoking. He can’t possibly gain wisdom from this behavior because wisdom dictates that his human flourishing begins by tossing the cig out the window and turning off the phone. Wisdom might dawn one day when he crosses the median to hit an on-coming car and now lies prone in a hospital bed…actually, we could hope it would dawn if it came to that.
But you see the point, you see how difficult it can be to muster your will to actually follow through in the meantime. I don’t mean to pick on that guy especially because I realized that but by the grace of God he was a stand-in for me in that moment.
So then this all boils down to a very simple proposition. As you know, I like to give you simple homework assignments. Today I’m suggesting that you take up a mantra prayer that you hold in your heart for the remainder of the month. Easy enough, right? It only has five words so there’s no excuse for memory’s sake.
Here it is: “Holy God, grant me wisdom.” It’s best if you pray this disconnected from technology. But you might discover that if you hold it in heart and mind you will want to disconnect—the prayer itself will lead you there.
You don’t have to stay disconnected forever, of course, as if that were really possible. That’s not my point. In fact, it seems the awesome potential of our advancing technology can only be guaranteed by our gaining true wisdom.
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53Read MoreLess
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Have you noticed how your news and messaging feeds are festooned with superlatives? Exclamation points proliferate—even in simple text messages about inconsequential matters. Meet you at 3!!!—exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point! Having chicken for dinner!!! And superlatives saturate politics and advertising of every type. Currently our language is drowning in superlatives.
Pressure to generate clicks through headline exaggeration has led to the proliferation of superlatives across the media. X is bad therefore it is labeled the worst. Y is good therefore it is branded the best. Some examples I’ve culled from internet comment pieces include: “Are millennials the worst generation ever?” “Is this the best vacuum cleaner ever?” “This is the worst government ever.”
A new movie was announced as, “Wonderful! Outstanding! Engrossing! Inspiring! Superb! Breathtaking!” Another was “The most powerful film of the year, a knockout of high drama, passionate emotion and electrifying intelligence!” And another was “Brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined, fabulously detailed.” And yet one more declared, “A miracle, huge, extraordinary!” Exclamation points everywhere.
Mimicking the standing ovations that now occur at every Broadway show without regard for the actual quality of the production, we surmise these superlatives are the essential advertising ingredient for our time. Addicted to superlatives, perhaps we hope that a film that is wild and irresistible, dazzling and wonderful just might rub off since we seem to believe life should consist of one breathtaking and utterly original experience after another.
Of course, you could easily name the politician who perfectly matches our current moment with his use of superlatives, especially in reference to himself. A perfect cultural match.
Was there ever a time that life was thought to be built on things like Patience! Forbearance! Forgiveness! Compassion!? What type of experience would help us enjoy more of our real lives? --Real, meaning actual, not an inflated artificial alternative. And if we found that experience wouldn’t that be wonderful, inspiring, outstanding and deeply satisfying?
This is one way to think about what we do here—offering a quietly subversive message about the things that actually matter for human flourishing. The agenda we assert at Christ Church floats under the cultural radar that is otherwise alit with breathtaking and utterly original experiences and personalities adorned in superlatives and exclamation points. This fascination with the new and original drives the engines of our capital markets.
It seems that our work in here—the values we affirm and advance in this remarkably vital city—compete against the “brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined and fabulously detailed” for our attention. Christian New Yorkers can seem to suffer from spiritual ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder), constant distraction from the things that matter most.
So, for instance, attending to something as homely as regular worship requires a degree of intentionality in this city that is itself rather breathtaking. I’m aware that we wouldn’t normally put those two words together: “breathtaking intentionality.” But that’s why I find the Sunday shared experience more genuinely inspiring than most other things we might name.
I suppose it’s not quite “A miracle! Huge! Extraordinary!” but it does come by way of “breathtaking intentionality” beginning with the people who committed themselves to building this unusual church on the corner of Park and 60th in the first place, and all the others who followed, maintaining the continuous community of faith with their time and treasure, right down to this hour on May 21, 2017 with all of us: breathtaking intentionality. You probably didn’t think of your presence in this sanctuary like that this morning, but there it is.
I recognize I’m preaching to the choir this morning. You likely have an instinct for what I’m talking about. After all, here you are. And I say, good for us!
This track in my thinking was triggered by the passage you heard from Acts recounting Paul’s presence in Athens, the center of classical Greek learning and culture. The story takes place at the Areopagus, which is a hill next to the Acropolis. It held a temple to Mars, the God of war, otherwise known as Mars Hill.
Paul allows how extremely religious these Greeks seem to be, given their devotion to so many gods—he finds idols everywhere, even an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god,” which Paul takes as an opportunity for telling them about the God Paul worships. Here’s a bit of the drama leading up to this moment…
While Paul was…in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there… Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
That last phrase, “all the Athenians would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” caught my attention. Couple this fascination for anything new with the Athenian propensity to worship at many, many altars and we seem to have an ancient facsimile of post-modern urbanity. Devotion to the new and worship of many idols… Of course, our idols are not as tangible today. I’m not certain what a contemporary equivalent of the Mars Hill might be, (the bull down on Wall Street?) but from the biblical point of view, idolatry has always been humanity’s major problem, our first order sin, our deadly fundamental mistake—honoring something other than God the creator of all things with our primary allegiance.
Often claiming center stage for ourselves, trusting in our derivative powers above all others we forget that we are creatures only, not the creator. That’s why Paul tells the Athenians that their unknown god is none other than “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things… In him we live and move and have our being…”
Experience reveals that this most obvious truth is among the most difficult for us humans to hang on to. We so yearn to be brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined and fabulously detailed, not to mention a miracle, huge, and extraordinary, that we’ll step out of the lesser-seeming path blazed by a man with a cross who has a bead on the things that matter most of all. It’s so very easy to lose track of that, isn’t it? --in the land of abounding superlatives and exclamation points…
Which leads me to say that the point of this message for those of us who have managed to make our way to church in a fantastic city with an array of breathtaking distractions comes down to this: when you step back out onto the sidewalk and make your way into your otherwise mundane experience, remember, always remember who’s who and what’s what. Remember that our God is not contained in any shrine to commerce, self-fulfillment or superlative experience—even this shrine, which, as Christian shrines go, is pretty darn spectacular.
When you walk back into your personal relationships, when back at work, when looking for love, when shopping for more stuff, when thinking about how you’ll be organizing your lives, when reflecting about what all the hours of all your days are finally adding up to, hang on to your first principle: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…this one alone gives to all mortals life and breath and all good things… In him we live and move and have our being.
1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
This past week I made a pastoral visit to an old friend of mine, Thomas Lane Butts who lives in Monroeville, Alabama, which is also former hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of you may recall that during my first decade here, Tom filled in for me for about a month each summer so I could get away with my family. In those days, I was very much a “one man band” and needed pastoral relief. Tom loved New York and always relished this opportunity.
I met Tom through a mutual friend almost 40 years ago, when I was in my late twenties, and though he was more than 20 years my senior, we took an instant liking to each other and I have valued our friendship and his mentorship in a variety of ways over the decades. Recently I felt the pastoral urge to visit him since, now at the age of 87, he’s become extremely frail and homebound. We had a good visit. It was poignant, nostalgic and bittersweet.
Now Tom happened to be friends with Nelle Harper Lee—they grew up within 10 miles of each other—so he was very familiar with the cultural historical context of her famous novel, the malignant racism. And, as it happens, Nelle Harper was a friend of Christ Church, which I found out through Tom. Many of her adult years were spent here in New York where she lived a secluded life, but having been raised a Methodist, from time to time she would slip into a back pew here after the service had started and slip away before it ended. Through Tom I had opportunity to spend some time with her and she was a guest in my home on several occasions. Back in Monroeville, Tom often became her public face because she refused to be interviewed, give speeches, or otherwise consent to any exposure whatsoever. Harper was militantly reclusive.
In terms of Tom’s lifetime portfolio, this was but one small chapter. He has tracked a colorful life arc that involved many adventures—and a couple of misadventures, too—that has always been characterized by compassionate regard for absolutely everyone who crossed his path. He is highly unusual in this way, completely non-judgmental, always at the ready to intervene in crises of every sort. Do you have someone in your life that you could trust with your life no matter what? No matter the circumstance? Someone who would stand with you immediately, without hesitation regardless of what you may have done? Tom’s that person.
He grew up dirt poor—he’d say his father was dirt farmer. Of course, he’d be quick to add that as a child everyone was poor so they didn’t have perspective on their poverty. On the other hand, he also knew that there were others far worse off, the separated African Americans who were severely boundaried and set apart in that region of our nation in those days.
During my visit, Tom was in something of a reminiscent frame of mind and I had the opportunity to quiz him about some things I was curious about. For instance, his early advocacy for racial justice. He told me he doesn’t really know how he came to that. But as a child he recognized that how black folks were treated wasn’t right. It was completely obvious to him, though he was frequently told by adults that he’d understand one day. Of course, he never did come to see things the way the majority did and this got him into trouble once in a while.
For instance, after returning from graduate studies in Chicago and receiving his first appointment at a church in Mobile in his mid-twenties, he was told by the church leadership he wasn’t wanted there because he was known to have been tainted by his exposure to northern liberals. His reputation preceded him as an integrationist and likely communist.
Tom chose to go there anyway, and shortly after he arrived three laymen came to his office to tell him that on the third Sunday of September, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan would show up in worship in full regalia wearing their hoods. They would enter in procession and a collection would be taken and placed on the altar, which the church would make available to the Klan.
Tom quietly responded that he could not prevent them from coming to church since it was open to everyone, but that if they did show up and take a collection, as they marched back out Tom would throw the money out the window. They did not come that Sunday, but not so long after, Tom was awakened one night to the sight of a large cross burning on the lawn of the church. The following night another cross burned on the front lawn of his house. He had been formally marked.
Midway through his five-year tenure at that church a Klansman arrived at his home wielding a long knife to kill him. Several other Klansmen yanked him away before he could engage with Tom. Some time later this perpetrator had a life-threatening illness and Tom visited him every day in the hospital. Before Tom left that church for good that man came to apologize saying how sorry he was for threatening Tom’s life.
Now there’s a whole lot of challenging mentoring in those few sentences. I suggest you find my message today online and reread that short story and hold it up to your own life and take stock of what you see...
Unlike the vast majority of his fellow white clergymen, Tom supported the famous bus boycott in Montgomery, spent a day with Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually walked in the Selma marches. What has been so uncanny to me is how matter-of-fact Tom was and is about all of this. He simply knew the truly Christ-like perspective on these matters, despite the malignancy of majority opinion in those days. The call was for love of neighbor, period—all neighbors. All of them children of God having been created in God’s image. Everyone of equal value. For Tome that was as obvious as the sky was blue on a clear day.
We all know the church has, at best, an extremely checkered history on these matters. Likely the majority of those Klansmen were churchgoers, many of them members of Tom’s congregation, otherwise, they wouldn’t have had the tradition of showing up every year on the third Sunday of September. Sometimes Christians get the Jesus-thing really wrong, terribly wrong. And they become righteous in their wrongness.
The thing about Tom is, that he’d love you and work with you whether you were wrong or not, all the while maintaining clarity about where and how he stood with Jesus Christ. That’s a stunningly rare character in today’s culture. He’s been my teacher in these matters.
The passage Violet read earlier from John comes during the last night Jesus shared with his friends, the night of what we call the Last Supper. We rehearsed that in here on the Thursday before Easter. We pulled all the pews away and served a light supper as we remembered those final hours of Jesus’ life. And among the things we heard was how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them a new commandment that they were to love one another as he had loved them. In other words, “Disciples, good friends, follow the pattern I’ve lived and taught among you.”
Biblical scholars say what then follows in the story, some of which we heard today, is Jesus’ final discourse, his last teaching before he’s betrayed and sentenced to death. We could think of it like Final Instructions and Admonitions. And among the things he tells them is that they are about to accomplish more than even he, Jesus, has managed. Those who trust me, trust the God I adore and follow after my path, they will do “even greater works.”
That’s sort of astonishing, isn’t it? Greater works than Jesus? And we ask, well, just what sort of works are we talking about here? And the answer is found in that new commandment to love. Low and behold, sometimes people do. Sometimes they step up to the plate. Sometimes they’re stronger and bolder than they thought they could be. Sometimes they’re a lot more generous than they thought they could be, recognizing that everything they have is a gift. Sometimes they get in trouble by loving so well…
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Those who grew up in a Christian household and were steeped in its language and customs will be familiar with the imagery of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Personally I’ve never cared for this imagery. Which is not to say I don’t have a very deep resonance with the 23rd Psalm. On the contrary—that’s a central component of my piety.
My problem has been with the saccharin art. One famous depiction has a well-coiffed and quite white Jesus with a sheep around his neck; others display sheep at his feet – a sort of rugged Aryan prototype of manly compassionate regard for a subservient species. There was a period of time in certain parts of this country where one of these depictions hung prominently in the living room or hallway in many homes. It has been an immensely popular image within American Protestantism especially, showing up nearly as often in stained glass as images of Mary shows up in Catholic homes and churches.
Apart from my condescension concerning the sentimentality of the art form, I realized long ago that my main issue is that I have a problem identifying as a sheep. I think the images were meant to remind us of who’s who and what’s what; of the proper ordering of things, and then help us remember where our true help is to be found in any time of need, which is all completely useful and appropriate piety.
Still, it’s hard for me to identify with sheep. They seem so supremely stupid, clumsy and passive. My whole being rebels against this identification, even—and perhaps most especially—when I am stupid, clumsy or passive.
There’s no question that as presented in our Gospel lesson today Jesus wants his followers to know him as the Good Shepherd. As simple as that sounds, his disciples didn’t understand what he was saying to them. That’s exactly what our text said: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Now really, it’s sort of hard to grasp what was so difficult with that concept. That is until I recognize my own inner rebellion. Sheep were ubiquitous in first century Palestine. Jesus’ early followers would have been very well acquainted with their relative intelligence. I’m thinking that perhaps I share the same problem those disciples had.
The specific behavior Jesus identified was the sheep’s patterning on the voice of their shepherd. That voice they would recognize and follow. He distinguishes that voice from counterfeit voices and as such the passage teaches us something about authentic leadership—who has it and who doesn’t. And this functions on at least two levels: First, discovering Jesus as the truest leader; second, in the time this gospel was written—probably seventy to a hundred years after his life—the problem of identifying authentic leadership in the contemporaneous culture. In that, we have precisely the same agenda as those first readers—locating authentic leadership.
Now I assert every person in this room exerts leadership in the world. Of course some of you have roles that name this specifically, others of us don’t, but none of us can escape the fact that as we act in our world we impact our world, and to that extent we exert leadership. When we claim as we do in our mission statement that we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves, we could say that’s a component of our definition of leadership. That’s what a Christian leader does. Actually loving our neighbors in tangible ways impacts our world in a particular fashion and it doesn’t matter what official title accompanies our various roles out there beyond our walls. And it doesn’t matter whether we think we’re leaders in the traditional sense or not.
In this sense we might say the Christian faith is all about the training of leaders patterned on our namesake. His voice is the one we are to follow. His ways are to become our ways. So the leadership we practice here begins with submission to a certain shepherd. Submission requires a quality of humility; a willingness to compare our ways with his ways, and then choosing to bend our ways to his.
In my doctoral work I researched and wrote about leadership. When I began twelve years ago, leadership studies were riding a cresting wave of interest, including my own. It fascinated me. And while there’s been a lot of good work on the subject, I’ve become circumspect about all the leadership palaver that’s been generated on the topic. For one thing, there’s no general agreement on the definition of leadership within scholarly circles—one researcher has counted more 2500 definitions, yet as we scan the national scene across disciplines from church to business to politics do we see evidence that we’ve benefited from all this investment in leadership? It seems to me the jury is out on that.
According to Parker Palmer, “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.
“I think, for example, of teachers who create the conditions under which young people must spend so many hours: some shine a light that allows new growth to flourish, while others cast a shadow under which seedlings die. I think of parents who generate similar effects in the lives of their families or of clergy who do the same to entire congregations. I think of corporate CEOs whose daily decisions are driven by inner dynamics but who rarely reflect on those motives or even believe they are real.” (Let Your Life Speak)
I like this idea of casting shadow or light. That’s a concept that pertains to all of us regardless of our individual vocations. And it’s congruent with what Jesus models for us.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the life of Inez Grant who was just shy of 93 years old when she passed away—a beloved member here for many decades. Inez didn’t fit traditional definitions of leader, but at her funeral this sanctuary was filled with people because she was a light-caster of the first order. She knew her shepherd and listened to the sound of his voice. Of course, she would have told you that herself.
In a men’s connection group this past week the conversation turned to Inez, which was an interesting twist to observe. Now as it happens, these were all successful white guys; each would be thought of as a leader in their respective occupations; and I would add, a potential prototype for those shepherd images I mentioned earlier. Those that knew this 93-year-old Jamaican lady tried to explain her specialness, and how she had mentored them. At one point one of the guys asked, what was it that brought so many people to her funeral? And sort of under his breath, he said to no one in particular that he wanted to build a life that mattered like that.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but an honest answer to his question was she listened to the voice of her shepherd; that was tangibly expressed in how she ordered her life; her generosity, though she had little material means; her desire to help whenever or wherever she could. She would hug you or pray for you at the drop of a hat. Now Inez could also be difficult and stubborn as hell, but there’s no question she knew her shepherd.
For those of you that did not know Inez, you catch the sense of someone anchored in humility, yet profoundly self-assured and self-possessed of an inner confidence because her faith was so bedrock, so alive and dynamic. Her words and actions matched up and they made a positive difference. She absolutely was a first rate leader in my book. She was a leader in how to live a life that matters. And this didn’t require all the typical accouterments and folderol we associate with celebrity leaders. She was a lover. That’s how she spent out her life. And it mattered…
Acts 2:14a, 36-39; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
This past week I attended a meeting of the Board of Yale Divinity School that happened to coincide with the final week of classes. Board members had several opportunities to meet with students, especially seniors who would be receiving diplomas in a few weeks. I enjoyed these conversations.
Maybe it’s a life stage thing, but this year a lot of memories came flooding back to mind of my own transition from graduate to real life. And honestly chief among those memories was the flood of anxiety I had about what came next, about what it might mean to actually embark on a journey into ordained ministry. No question I felt called to it at the time, but I really didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was getting into. Melissa had even less of a clue, but God bless her, she was game, a more than willing companion, and off we went into uncharted waters.
Nearly forty years later, here I am. I’m finding that age brings a certain kind of wonderment. I didn’t expect this…. this sense of “how the hell did I get here,” while still feeling reasonably intact and full of gratitude. There have been a few surprises along the way, a couple of missed opportunities perhaps, some moments of deep panic and confusion, and a time or two of wondering why on earth I took the path I did, recognizing, for instance, that I could have made more money in another field of endeavor, and so forth.
While I never completely succumbed to this anxiety-ridden confusion, I did lose my inner way with it once in a while. And I suppose that in those seasons of confusion I was seeking an escape of sorts—escape from whatever it was at the time that wasn’t measuring up to my expectations. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that expectations can be the bane of a happy life. As the pithy cliché has it, “life is what happens when you’ve planned something else.” I can now say with some authority that a life well-lived has more to do with how we manage what we haven’t planned on than what we have.
We might call this the control freak syndrome. I’ve learned that New York attracts an overabundance of this personality type. Expectations run far, wide and deep here. Stands to reason there’s a lot of resulting confusion, heartache and disappointment along with spurts of success and fulfillment. It’s a bumpy ride.
Often in those difficult moments, those times of confusion and heartache we’ll attempt an escape. Famous in addiction recovery is something called the “geographical cure,” a belief that changing one’s location makes all the difference. But the astute counselor will ask, “Are you truly moving toward something positive? Do you have support at the new location? Or are you just trying to run away from reality?” Experience teaches that this same set of questions works well for anyone in any sort of internal or external crisis.
According to Luke we don’t know the inner experience of the two men traveling to Emmaus following the dramatic events of the last days of Jesus’ life. It was late Easter Sunday and Cleopas and his friend were heading out of Jerusalem confused and agitated, disciples of Jesus Luke says. But he was dead, crucified, and along with him these disciples’ hope and expectations were crucified as well.
From a famous sermon written half a century ago prolific writer, theologian, and New Yorker, Frederick Buechner, wrote that Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred…where we spend much of our lives, you and I, the place that we go to in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is that we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the hole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’
“But there are some things that even in Emmaus we cannot escape. We can escape our troubles, at least for a while. We can escape the job we did not get or the friend we hurt. We can even escape for a while the awful suspicion that life makes no sense and that the religion of Jesus is just a lot of wishful thinking. But the one thing we cannot escape is life itself. (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, Seabury Press, 1966, pp 85-86.)”
It was on the road to Emmaus that these friends encountered an anonymous stranger who joined them for a while. They were talking about all the things that had happened over the last several days. As they talked and discussed, Jesus drew near and joins them. “What are you talking about as you walk along?” he asks.
Not recognizing him they launch into a description of the events of the past weekend. They describe the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and how they hoped he would be the Messiah, the one who would set Israel free from Roman oppression. But he was wrongfully condemned to death, crucified and only three days ago placed in a tomb. Now even his body was missing. You’re the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know all this?!?
They were confused and agitated but they urged their new friend to stay and share their evening meal—in Emmaus, their place of escape. And there, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and shared it; he became visible to them in giving thanks and the breaking of bread.
Not terribly dramatic as an account of the resurrection, is it? Just a meal shared among friends, but eyes are opened and new ground is set beneath the feet of the otherwise confused and agitated in a place called Emmaus.
There are three different places in the Holy Land that claim to be the village of Emmaus. There is no record of any village called Emmaus in any other ancient source. And the only place in all of the writings in the New Testament where we hear of the village of Emmaus is in this lone story. Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is anywhere. Perhaps Emmaus is here. Maybe going to Emmaus is like going to church some Sunday, looking for an escape (As recounted in Pulpit Resource, vol. 27, No. 2, 1999).
A man reported to me that he had been in a confused, dark place, the most difficult place of his life to this point. Afraid and uncertain any true options lay before him, he stumbled into this church one Sunday. As he spoke I realized he hadn’t suspected the truth about most everyone else who filled the pews. Sure, they all looked pretty good on the outside, but each had their own story to tell of waffling between confusion and clarity through varying life dilemmas and personal corruptions. I was tempted to interrupt his tale to tell him he was among friends.
But I didn’t say that just then; still that’s true, isn’t it? You have first-hand experience with surprising life transitions that cause old life-forms to fall away like scarred husks, exposing the tender growth underneath, ready or not. I bet if we were to collect our stories we’d gather a pretty complete compendium of the sorts of possible bewilderments and grief that can overwhelm a person as they move through their life arc.
My new friend said he was stunned by the comfort he experienced by his lurching into spiritual territory. He came out of a confused need seeking an escape, but, frankly, not expecting anything much in turn. He didn’t realize his heart was already prepared for taking in something new, something surprising, something he couldn’t or wouldn’t have expected while on his way to Emmaus.
I didn’t say this then, but given the season of the year I could have said something like, “Well you know, that’s how it is with resurrection. It’s stunning, surprising, and bewildering, showing up right where we are, in something as mundane as sharing a meal.” Resurrection shatters our expectations into a thousand fragments and reassembles them into something we might call real life. If Jesus is raised, we have to rethink everything. Everything is in play. No current problem, obstacle, or confusion has the final word. Even death—which is the biggest problem of all lurking behind every other problem we experience—has to be rethought.
As you may be aware from this past week’s news, the beleaguered United Methodist Church has hit a wall of division within its ranks over the issue of sexual identity. Its been struggling with this matter for 4 decades that is now coming to a head. We’ve reached a decision point that will clarify within the next 2 to 3 years as the slow institutional processes grind forward. Christ Church has staked a claim on inclusion. It is not clear how this will resolve denominationally. Sadly, schism is a very real possibility.
But here’s the thing for those of us who follow the pattern Jesus modeled: no outcome is the final outcome. No present obstacle imprisons our hope. To our LGBTQ sisters and brothers I say hold fast to the resurrection that shows up in the most unlikely circumstance, say, in Emmaus, for instance—our place of escape. You are among friends here. All of us together share a common hope that the message of love Jesus commanded will have the day at last. We live that as a present reality. Today. Now. Right here. We have our very own Emmaus resurrection story at hand…
John 20: 19-31
The phrase, “A peaceful transition of power” came to the fore of our American lexicon after the results of our most recent presidential election. In a speech meant to help unify our country, then president Barack Obama lifted up the peaceful transition of power as one of the hallmarks of American democracy. Yet America is not the originator of peaceful transitions of power. In our gospel text, we witness a much earlier transition of power. Jesus had concluded his earthly ministry and was preparing to return to the Father. But before he left, he prepared the disciples to continue the work of the kingdom.
Our text begins on the evening of the resurrection. The disciples were hiding in a locked room. Jesus, the man that they had given up their lives to follow, had been crucified. What would they do without him? Would they return to their homes? Could they even return home? Was it safe for them there? Would Jesus really be raised? They were filled with questions and confusion. We often hear this story referred to as doubting Thomas, but on this first day, all of them were filled with doubt. There were rumors that Jesus was alive—Mary had seem him earlier that day. But they were still filled with doubt.
In the midst of this chaos, Jesus came and was present among them. The first thing he said was “Peace be with you.” Not why do you doubt? Why are you afraid? Why are you hiding?. They were afraid, so Jesus gave them peace. These words aren’t just a greeting. Jesus was giving a gift. He was sharing with them God’s gift of wholeness and rest. He reminded them of the gift he first offered before his death: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This was the same peace that allowed Jesus to sleep in the boat in the middle of a storm. He offered them the peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace that guards our hearts and minds.
When the disciples were in doubt; when they were confused; when they didn’t know what to believe, Jesus gave them peace. And this wasn’t the first time, but since they needed it again, he gave it again. Jesus knew that his followers would experience hatred and persecution. They’d have to withstand the chaos of the world. And just as Jesus gave peace to his earliest disciples, he also gives it to us. And we’re called share that peace with others. We share it in our words: “Peace be with you.” We also share it in our actions. Don’t underestimate the importance of peace. Because just as peace is transferable, so is chaos. There are people in this world who transfer chaos. People who like to keep mess going. People who will try to disrupt your peace because they don’t have any. But we have a peace that the world didn’t give and the world can’t take away. So don’t let anybody take your peace. You can share it, but don’t let anybody take it!
In giving the disciples peace, Jesus didn’t promise to make life easy. He didn’t change their external circumstances. The leaders who persecuted Jesus were still outside of those doors. The disciples’ lives were still in danger. We still live in a world where children are poisoned with chemical weapons; where the Mother of All Bombs is dropped in Holy Week; where the threat of nuclear war is ever present. So much of what happens in the world is out of our personal control. But we can have what Howard Thurman called “the island of peace within one’s own soul.” This island is where we can be our authentic selves in the presence of God. Where we can be rest from the stress of life. So when life is wearing you down, go to your island of peace. When you won’t do right, go to your island of peace. When your kids are crazy, go to your island of peace. When you want to curse a coworker out, go to your island of peace. Be open before God, share your struggles, and receive Christ’s peace. Then you can emerge from the locked doors, ready to face your fears in the world.
In this transition, Jesus gave the disciples peace. He also gave them his power. He breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus, who had driven out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead, was now charging his disciples to continue the work he had begun. The risen Jesus, who had all authority in heaven and earth, was now giving the disciples his power.
So what is this power that Jesus gave them? It certainly wasn’t the military power of the Roman government. It wasn’t power acquired through wealth, social status, or education. He didn’t give them power to retaliate against their persecutors; power to get reservations at the best restaurants in Jerusalem. He didn’t give them power so that they could be like Pinky and the Brain and try to take over the world. Jesus gave them a different kind of power. This power would allow the disciples to withstand persecution. This power for them to proclaim that God’s kingdom. Power to build a community where shared all their possessions. Jesus gave them power to forgive sin. Power to heal. Power to love.
Like so much of what Jesus did, the sharing of power was countercultural. In a land where power was seized by violence and force, Jesus presented a new model of gaining power. He didn’t require that they fight for it. Jesus willingly bestowed power onto the disciples. Sharing his power was not a threat to Jesus. Rather, he saw it as necessary for the advancement of his kingdom. Advancing the kingdom that where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female… [where all] are one in Christ Jesus.
This power, God’s power, is foolish by the world’s standards. The world tells us to pursue power that will advance our agendas. We want a promotion that will bring with it more power. We want more money so that we can have power. We want a car that can own the road. But if we aren’t careful, the quest for power can lead us to trouble.
A few weeks ago, I was watching the show Survivor. This show is all about gaining power in order to eliminate others and win the million-dollar prize. One contestant Jeff, could feel that he was powerless in the tribe. He suspected that he would be voted out at the next Tribal Council; so he made a final grab for power. At tribal council Jeff attempted to save himself by outing one of his tribe members who was transgender. The other tribe members were shocked at Jeff’s actions. They thought that as a gay man, he’d understand the harm of outing someone. But Jeff was desperate and willing to go after power at any cost. Soon after outing his opponent, Jeff realized the magnitude of his transgression, and he was remorseful. But it was too late. He had already hurt another player, not just on a reality show, but in this player’s real life. He had jeopardized his family, his career, and his personal safety.
Pursuit of the world’s power can make us like Jeff. We can be good hearted people. But we can become so caught up our quest for power that we lose sight of our values. We can hurt our friends, our families, our communities. Hurt ourselves. But Jesus gives us power that builds us up. Power to help. Power to serve others. Jesus is calling us to follow in his way. To peacefully share this power with others.
You see, the world entices us to rule, but God empowers us to lead.
The world entices us to take. God empowers us to give.
The world entices us to lie. God empowers us to lift up others.
The world entices us to hurt. God empowers us to heal.
God has given us the power of love.
Receive God’s power.
The power of love.
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
As the story is told we don’t know what Mary Magdalene expected when she went to the tomb that first Easter morning, or just what she was going to do there. In her grief she may have been wondering if the morning would ever come again. John tells us that Mary went to the cemetery by herself. That it was still dark might suggest she hadn’t slept well during the night, or that she was afraid of being seen.
Why does anyone visit a cemetery? As with Mary, grief brings people initially. Grief, loss, a longing to fill the empty hole that’s opened up within the heart. After the funeral no one expects to return to find the grave disturbed. Cemeteries are all about finality. Endings. Things that have been and never will be again.
Perhaps like me you’ve discovered that a cemetery can be a place of comfort and solace. I rather like them. And given my line of work I’ve walked through my share of cemeteries over the years. I’ve wandered around the markers reading names and dates and inscriptions and sat under expansive, leafy trees on pleasant days remembering people I have known who are no more, inevitably wondering about the number of years I might have and how I’ve already spent the ones I’ve lived.
Mary’s visit came too soon for solace and self-reflection. She came freighted with all of the oppressive events of Jesus’ last days haunting her mind, her heart, and her soul, her whole being. She still had the crucifixion seared into her brain—it was just some rush of hours ago. She was raw with the rapid and violent devolution of Jesus’ campaign. Is that what it was? Was he on some sort of campaign? And if so, to what end exactly? Surely not this end. Not this End, capital “E”. But he had been placed in a grave. Dead. Gone. Finished.
And when Mary discovered the tomb had been tampered with she thought that his body had been stolen. The way John writes it, Mary runs to the disciples to tell them breathlessly, “They have taken the Lord…” We aren’t told who “they” are, but we could surmise that Mary fears those who put him to death were not finished desecrating his remains, perhaps moving him to a pauper’s grave, or throwing him on the city’s garbage heap. She drew a logical conclusion based on life as she had known it.
The ruthless and the arrogant inherited the earth, after all, not the meek and the poor in spirit. The dissemblers, manipulators and takers of the world were filled, not those who hungered for righteousness. The merciful rarely received mercy and Mary never heard peacemakers called children of God, except from Jesus. But he was dead. And now his body was stolen. And she wept from grief.
Now friends, this is the lynch-pin of the Christian faith. We’re right at the heart of the mystery and the way the story is told what we have is an empty tomb, a somewhat ignorant and terrified group of would-be followers and—taking all gospel the stories together—a convoluted hodge-podge of confusing facts and story-telling. Man-o-man I often have wished we had more to go on here. The reported evidence appears so thin. But then from a higher vantage point that very thinness seems to inform the essence of faith.
Here’s how John says it goes down for Mary. After Peter and another disciple come to see the tomb for themselves Mary is once again left by herself in her grief, weeping. Still believing that someone has taken Jesus’ body she turns and sees a man she thinks is a gardener and asks him if he’s the grave-robber. Jesus looks at her and simply says her name—“Mary!” And with this she sees him for who he is, the first witness to resurrection.
When Jesus calls her name all the doors and windows of Mary’s soul are flung wide. No barrier prevents the profound and intimate connection. Jesus is fully present to her and she to him. Nothing is hidden. And in this astonished state she learns that things are not always as they appear. There are layers to reality that she had sensed but never really understood. It’s as though scales fall from her eyes and she’s able to see reality from a multi-dimensional perspective for the first time in her life.
The closest material approximation I can make to this is when someone who loves me says my name in a moment of acute awareness. Has this ever happened to you? Your best friend or spouse or partner, or family member, even a child who knows you very well, who loves you, during a moment of honest engagement says your name while looking into your face and it hits you that you are truly known to this person and they offer a love that is larger than you perceive you deserve.
Now if you’ve ever come close to sharing an experience like this you know that it changes you. The naming changes you. Your insides become larger. Things clarify. You sense this love makes you a better person somehow. Yet you would be very hard pressed to describe the facts of the experience in any meaningful way—we were out to dinner sharing a bowl of pasta; we were on our way to a meeting and the car broke down; we were walking down the sidewalk when it started to rain. The external circumstances for the most part are inconsequential to the acuteness of the experience.
This is but a shadow-box portrayal of the love released in resurrection. Resurrection is a work of love. An astonishing, awesome, heartrending, courage-enabling, hope-inducing, life-transforming love. Again, the reported details of the story have a limited range because describing the essence of something the size and scope of resurrection love is nearly impossible, our words and descriptors inevitably fail. They are not large enough and we wind up talking in metaphors and analogies and poetry or creating buildings like this filled with sparkling mosaics or writing music and wringing as much passion out of it as we can because the love is so large, so awesome, so overwhelming.
The other day I was having a conversation with someone who walked in here several years ago because of a nagging experience of God’s intimate presence in his life. He told me he had grown up in a non-religious household. But from early on he had this sense of a holy and profoundly intimate presence. As a result he started looking for ways to deepen the connection. And though he did not hear a mystical voice call out his name, everything he reports suggests that he knows he is understood, held, loved in a way that defies description. This relationship slowly impacted his life, agitating his decisions and commitments.
Honestly, as he told his story I felt I was hearing a variation of my own. I, too, knew this holy presence from as early as I can recall. Oh, I went through my agnostic stage about this, but eventually the church, the scriptures gave me a language and a pathway to understanding this experience which led me to help introduce others to the One who knows their authentic name. I know for certain, as certain as faith determines, that this One has set the ground beneath our feet, knit us together in our mother’s wombs and inflated our lungs with breath.
To add nuance to my point here, consider what we do when we mean to harm, demean or disrespect others. We abuse their names. We make new names for them. Consider how this functions with every sort of prejudice between races and classes and sexual identities and religions and enemies of every kind. Derogatory names are assigned, hateful names, names meant to put up barriers, names intended to strip dignity and humanity of those on the receiving end of our ugliness. In Auschwitz and Treblinka and other gruesome destinies names were exchanged for numbers tattooed onto the skin so as to obliterate prisoners’ humanity.
In direct rebuke of the diminishment of an individual the resurrected Jesus called out “Mary!” and she was known in her innermost being—known, claimed and loved. In the naming she realizes there is nothing that separates her from him. Nothing. No prior condition, no fault, failing or weakness. No limitation.
Just a few days ago the disciples had majored in cowardice and betrayal of their best friend. They let him die alone, bereft. Lied about their associations with him. Honestly, their transformation is a far better proof of the resurrection than the written reports of the supposed events—if physical proof is what you’re after.
I agree with William Sloane Coffin who wrote, “Not only Peter, but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before: that’s irrefutable… Convinced by his appearance that Jesus was their living Lord, the disciples really had only one category in which to articulate this conviction, and that was…resurrection. …In Paul’s writings the living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never clearly differentiated, so that when he says, ‘Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,’ he is talking about the same Holy Spirit that you and I can experience in our own lives. I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as it were, to close the show with ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ but rather to reopen the show with the hymn, ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.’ (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 28.)” An astonishing gift of love, by love, for love’s sake. Did you possibly come to receive that gift today!?
Friends, love and its derivatives are the only authentic positive change-agents there are. If someone is changing for the better, love is somehow at work. If authentic justice occurs, a broken relationship is restored, the spirit of resurrection is there; if children are held and cared for, forgiveness happens, the lost, abandoned, oppressed and abused receive the dignity of being called by their name with compassionate regard, I tell you resurrection love is afoot and Jesus lives for certain. Hallelujah!
Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Standing up to preach after rehearsing the awesome story we just heard seems more than a little anti-climactic. I feel terribly small by comparison; hardly capable of adding an additional thought that would provide the crucial clue to the overarching meaning of what we just heard.
Some years I feel differently. Some years I’m full of myself believing I have an inspired nugget of insight. That’s the curse of the self-assured preacher that can manifest in rather unpleasant condescension. And, honestly, sometimes when I step up here I really do wonder what on earth I think I’m doing. I’m well versed in the theological frameworks concerning the necessity and importance of preaching, and the power of attending to what we Protestants refer to as “the word of God.” And I generally subscribe to these frameworks—which is a good thing, I suppose, given my occupation. I’ve had a fine education and years of experience. But then, as you well know, neither of those things predict that what a preacher has to say does any earthly good.
But now those of you who know my wife, Melissa, know that I married very well lest I should find myself thinking more of my output than I ought to. I’ve shared with some of you that a couple of years into both my marriage and my ministry, Melissa provided the appropriate counterpoint to an ambitious preacher’s ego.
It went down like this: Being a rather earnest and arrogant young cleric who wanted to be known to deliver a useful word that was well-received I regularly asked Melissa for a review after the Sunday service. It might come sooner, or it might come later, but sometime before we fell asleep, if she had not already volunteered a point of view, I would say something like, “So, what did you think of the sermon?” And she would dutifully provide a generally positive, rarely critical comment in a somewhat ambivalent manner.
But after a year of this repetitive behavior that she no doubt saw trickling forward into our misty future week after week, year after year, she finally told her truth with a great big sigh after yet one more repetition of, “So whadya think about the sermon?” And she said, “You know Steve, I don’t go to church for the sermons—I go for the music.”
And honestly, that was a very clarifying moment that I’ve never forgotten. Though her response was layered with several motivations and meanings, it made me more aware of my actual place in relation to the great mystery we honor here. In other words, one of the very first things to say today is that this story teaches humility.
Some weeks, on some occasions, I feel humbler than others; some years this humility hits me more acutely as Lent moves into its climaxing week. It comes with the tension I experience between my personal spiritual engagement with the material and the necessity of my occupation to talk about it. And I am an extrovert who likes to think out loud.
But as a matter of personal experience, I am compelled into silence by this story. That’s one reason I don’t often preach on Good Friday. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll come to our service and allow yourselves the humbling gift of being brought to silence before the cross, with open hands and hearts.
One of the main reasons I fall silent before the story is that it gave birth to my faith. This story captured my mind and heart and soul. It’s the reason I wound up doing this gig. This is it, this walk Jesus took taking Jerusalem by storm one day, the climbing Calvary’s hill lugging the means of his death the next day, then hanging there utterly alone.
Each year I’ll take the time to read and consider all four gospel versions because each has unique elements. This seems to make it more human, like how four witnesses to a traffic accident tell a somewhat different story with slightly different facts based upon their location, frame of mind, and whom they’re addressing.
I call myself a Christian because this story converted me and I’m somewhat hard-pressed to tell you exactly how that happened. On that specific point, I’m at a loss for words. I’m brought to profound silence. Nothing I could report would touch the change itself. It came to me as a gift. I can tell you that no one talked me into it. I was not coerced or otherwise manipulated into believing a set of religious propositions, nor was I scared about my eternal destination.
In early years I was especially captured by Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The way the story reads the son of God experiences utter forsakenness, loss, despair, complete emptiness—a startling and intensely human experience summarized, dignified and hallowed.
And then Jesus died. After six or so hours of torture, he spent his last breath. And somehow death was hallowed as well.
As I mentioned last week, death is the Great Fear. Look behind any human ambition and you will find death as motivator. I mean, without it, would we be spurred to do anything at all? As William Sloane Coffin argued, “Consider the alternative—life without death. Life without death would be interminable... We’d take days just to get out of bed, weeks to decide ‘what’s next?’ Students would never graduate, meetings would go on for months...without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, 2004, Westminster John Knox, Louisville, p168.)
And Jesus is the one who teaches, demonstrates, reveals that death is not worthy of our fear, it does not, cannot separate us from God. “Though he die, yet shall he live,” said Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. And “Whoever believes in me shall never die.” Summarizing his own experience of Christ, Paul wrote, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Paul came to that realization because he was captured by Jesus’ story and this revealed to him that “The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she who overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience” (Ibid) When that happens we’re able to pray with quiet confidence, “Loving One, help me to live as one who is prepared to die, and when my days here are accomplished, help me die as one who goes forth to live...”
For myself, the best I can say is that the tables reversed somehow; rather than my attempting to interpret the story, I awoke one day to find that the story was interpreting me. And I was hooked, gone, or better, found—I was found, like it says in the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” I hadn’t thought myself a wretch exactly, but I knew what John Newton meant when he wrote those well-known words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
There’s a reason that hymn hangs on and on in our cultural cloud. It’s the same reason Jesus’ story has captured the hearts and minds of billions over centuries. Hearing the story for me was like hearing the sound of amazing grace. Like Melissa knew instinctively, it was indeed a kind of music that groans deeper than words.
And in a few minutes we’ll be concluding our serve by singing this simple but powerful question:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Consider that an invitation…
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Over the years of my ministry several experiences have been indelibly linked with certain scripture readings. One such experience from a number of years ago relates to this particular day, the fifth Sunday in Lent, and our stories from Ezekiel and John. I was attending a workshop in New Orleans at an organization for recently paroled prisoners transitioning back into society.
The program used some traditional methods such as re-education and mentoring, but the founder located its real power in a process of mutual self-help and spiritual encouragement he called “community building.” Sitting in a circle for a number of hours several times a week, these 50 prisoners spilled out their stories, sharing their defeats, celebrating their victories as they engaged the long hard process of rebuilding their identities and place in the world.
The stories I heard were severe: the 21-year-old sitting next to me, tried and convicted as an adult at the age of 14, released just 6 months earlier; the 45-year-old woman across the circle who became a crack addict at the age of nine; other stories recalled murdered brothers, parents dead by overdose, the devastations of crushing poverty, all manner of human calamity and depravation.
The stories leaked out as the men and women told of how their lives had been transformed by the love and care they found in this program. Their gratitude was overflowing. One man spoke simply and eloquently for the group when he said that what the program had given him—something that he had thought was gone forever—was his dignity.
I shed many tears during this shared experience. At some point I realized these tears were not about the suffering. Instead, they were a response to the palpable opportunity for resurrection these women and men were experiencing. Through their surrender to a spirit larger than their own, and their willingness to reach out to one another, this unlikely company made the plain industrial room in which we met a sacred space. From the moment I walked through the door and first experienced their respectful silence, I felt that space was far holier than many churches I had been in over the years.
At one point during their sharing, one of the participants recalled the story of the bone-rattling imagery from Ezekiel you heard a moment ago. She must have dug it out from a childhood memory of Sunday school, and honestly I swear to God I nearly heard the rattling and clattering of bones coming together. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them...and the breath came into them and they lived...” (37:8, 10)
Their lives were not easy by any reasonable measure. They spoke of many failures as well as successes. But they were filled with a vital hope—it struck me as a lot more hope than many persons who had been blessed by a far richer environment, education and material prosperity. It occurred to me at the time that this experience would have brought tears even to the eyes of cynics.
And strangely, these might be the tears of identification. I say “strangely” because most of us in this room probably wouldn’t automatically identify with these people. But when actually bearing witness to something dead being brought back to life, most of us will feel a strum on a deep inner chord. All of us, at least once in a while, sense death lurking about whether or not we ever speak of it, and long for a word of hope.
Ezekiel had gone into long exile with his people in the 6th century BCE—around 2600 years ago. Sharing their devastating experience he knows their state of mind. He has heard their complaints. The people say, our bones are dried up and our hope is lot. Their God resides elsewhere; they have been cut off at the root. The smell of death hangs in the air. And Ezekiel hears God’s voice inquire, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I’m thinking Mary and Martha may have heard a similar voice in their despair over the death of their brother Lazarus.
Now concerning the matter of death, we are completely the same regardless of background or present status. Whether you have a doctorate from Harvard or failed to get a high school diploma, whether you have a hundred million dollars or just ten, whether you are blessed with dazzling physical beauty or not, whether you command the attention of thousands or only your cat, and then only occasionally, each of us has a finite number of hours on this earth.
As the story is told, Jesus will raise Lazarus to physical life; but, really, it’s only a postponement for a more permanent change. In a few more months, or years, or even another decade or two, Lazarus’ earthly life will leave him for good. Jesus has another order or magnitude in mind when he speaks as the one who is the resurrection and the life. We know this because of what will soon befall him. Easter is just a few short weeks away. This story from John is a bit of an Easter tease here as Jesus continues his dramatic journey to Jerusalem and we continue our season of Lent.
Death has many guises, of course, From Jesus’ perspective it’s entirely possible to have physical life and still be mostly dead. Have you ever seen that? Or, perhaps, even experienced that yourself in some desperate time? I’ve spoken with many people over the years that have been in some stage of decay, despair or hopelessness. It’s not so very uncommon. I suspect a condition like this visits nearly everyone at some time or another before our final death.
Virginia Mollenkott, emeritus professor of English and theologian said that she loved to watch students come alive. “One of the courses I teach is freshman English,” she once wrote, “and that’s a place where you can empower people. They often come to you beaten down...Before I pass back their first graded paper, I give them a little speech” ‘This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in.’
“Then I ask them if they want to know what I think of them, and usually they want to. So I continue, ‘I think you’re made in the image of God and of inestimable worth. There’s no way anything I could put in my grade book could ever begin to estimate you.’
“I learned to do this after I read Flannery O’Connor’s story about the boy who went up in the attic and drew a circle with a big ‘F’ in the middle…and hanged himself over the ‘F’. He didn’t distinguish between the grade he was getting and who he was.
“For me, the meaning of life is to share with people the wonderful news that we are the daughters and sons of God.”
That’s what many of the paroled men and women in the re-entry program were discovering. In fact, though this was not a faith-based program, I was struck by how many of them made off-hand references to God in their storytelling. No hyper religious soliloquies, but respectful, hopeful references to faith, and a source of hope beyond themselves, as though this was a common language of life for them.
In addition to the Ezekiel passage I heard a reference to Lazarus as well. At one point one of the participants said to the young man next to me, “Jeff, I swear to God, you’re Lazarus come out of the grave!” I doubt the majority of those present knew the reference, but I did, and it’s the reason I remember it so well on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Desolation and hope co-mingled in that room, but there was no question that hope, the spirit of life, had the larger claim on the intentions of their hearts.
Ezekiel preached a powerful word about God’s life-giving spirit. God’s breath enters the dry bones and brings them to life. What is impossible for hopeless, lifeless humanity to imagine is, for God, a simple exhalation. Where God breathes, life springs up. This defines God’s nature.
Ezekiel’s vision of a desecrated valley fully restored is a powerful metaphor of what God accomplishes with another set of lifeless bones nailed to a wooden crossbeam in first century Palestine. And remarkably, it foreshadows what’s possible for anyone who feels, at any moment, that he or she is part of the company of the walking dead.
If that has ever defined your situation, take heart! Breathe deeply. It’s God’s pleasure to fill your lungs with his very breath. And considering the state of our troubled and fractious nation and world, let’s take heart together. Let’s claim the promise that’s found on the other side of every death-dealing circumstance, joining forces with the breath of life.
Psalm 23Read MoreLess
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
When I first arrived at Christ Church this sanctuary was locked up except for 3 hours on Sunday mornings. The congregation was near internal collapse and some of the remnant leaders had seemingly taken an unspoken oath to protect this space as though that was their primary Christian obligation. Of course, if it weren’t for their stubborn perseverance, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.
After a number of years of accumulating new members and friends, we finally installed the glass doors and got this space open 12 hours a day. And it didn’t take long for folks to realize that this space itself was an important ministry to the city and all passersby seeking refuge. That’s what the word “sanctuary” actually references, a haven of protection and safety. And it was very evident to me offering such a place for New Yorkers was no small matter. It’s just a short step from the gritty sidewalk into another realm.
And I’ve been intrigued with the choices that were made for the interior design. Mostly symbols, icons and pictures, there are very few words inscribed on the walls. In Jesus’ lap a book is opened with this phrase: “I am the light of the world.” Ringing the apse above the gospel writers is the summary commandment to love God and neighbor, and then the two phrases on either side. Above me, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” And on the other side, “Wait on the Lord. Be of good courage.”
Those two phrases are quite prominent. Even if you don’t recognize John the Baptist or Moses, you can make out those words. The designers could have chosen anything. As it is, they chose words emphasizing the experience of sanctuary, of safety and help, words of hopeful encouragement. These are the words that share the heart of religious consolation.
Speaking with a young professional I learned that he had recently emerged from a very dark place. Among other personal dilemmas he had been caught in an extremely difficult situation at work for several years and couldn’t see a way out. He said that from time to time he came and sat in these pews focused on those lines of scripture—they became his mantra. Over time, they seemed the only prayer he had.
I told him that many years ago, not long after I first came to Christ Church, I also discovered the power of those phrases. Finding myself in a dark time roughly the same age as my luncheon companion, I discovered that if I sat up in the balcony at certain hours during the day, the light coming in from the back window illumined those phrases—and I let them hold my heart. I came to depend on them.
My young friend said he learned about patience and waiting during the last couple of years. He learned something important about faith and life and how they linked up. He had suffered over these years—terrible depression, confusion about his sense of identity and purpose, his freedom and future. He felt trapped, suffocated. So he worked at “waiting on the Lord.” He chose to sweat it out with God, as it were, praying that his troubled heart could find courage to endure the waiting.
His experience wasn’t very dramatic in the telling, but it was profoundly real for him. Over lunch he told me about a leg of his spiritual journey. We didn’t set it up that way. After ordering our meals I didn’t say, so, tell me about your spiritual pilgrimage. But that’s what he did. And I shared some of mine. And I was struck by certain similarities though we were separated by more than twenty years occupying very different moments in our lives.
Of course, the similarities extend beyond the two of us. I imagine that if I were to meet with a random sampling of everyone present and somewhere between the entrée and coffee the conversation swerved onto the road of your spiritual pilgrimage, I would hear something recognizable, something about suffering and waiting and trusting.
My lunchmate told me his wait is over for the time being. His life situation clarified. He credited his waiting on God and praying. And now on this side of his dark time, he said he was learning something important about trust.
He was credible and humble. I’m hopeful the learning sunk deep roots within him because my extra decades of experience suggest he’ll need ready access to trust, prayer and courage again, and then at least once or twice more after that. Because that’s the nature of long journeys, isn’t it? Never know what pothole might appear knocking your alignment out of whack if not causing a terrible accident.
We all have our own story to tell about the map we’ve followed thus far. All the adventures, calamities, wrong turns, dead ends, and filling stations that have made their mark. And isn’t it interesting how those maps have brought us all here today? Having been drawn together, didn’t we all hear a short while ago what Paul wrote to his friends in Rome? Did you hear him say, oddly, we can actually “boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts...?”
And couldn’t I weave a sermon around those powerful sentiments written two thousand years ago, jogged by the conversations I’ve had with you concerning your own sufferings, your own experience of waiting-on-the-Lord?
Interesting that we’ve changed so very little over twenty centuries that Paul’s words are still relevant in twenty-seventeen. My young friend learned something about patient endurance drawn from suffering, and I’m confident that his character edged forward as a result. He didn’t say this, but there’s no question he grew up some, becoming stronger, wiser and more faithful. And this emergent character gave birth to a new hopefulness about his life’s trajectory. He credited God using the ancient words inscribed on our walls. In his longing for courage from a source beyond himself he was met halfway with hope.
Paul also ascribed his hope to God, specifically in the pilgrimage of Jesus who was the prototype for tracking through suffering. Jesus revealed the new life that awaits those who wait on the Lord. That’s why he’s the light of the world.
That’s the rhythm of faith we profess in here. This same hopefulness caused Paul to write in just a few paragraphs forward “that all things work together for good for those who love God.” He did not say all things were good, but that out of all manner of things, good can come for the one who is turned God-ward. That happened for my friend. In a sense, that was his testimony, although he never used those words.
Sometimes we use the word character to mean a person of good repute. But as we all know one’s character could be good or bad, strong or weak. Paul uses it in the positive sense, that hopeful perseverance in suffering produces qualities of integrity, compassion and depth. We become better, larger persons formed in the image of the one in whom we have hope. Just as our bodies are formed by what we put into our mouths, our character is formed by what we put into our hearts and minds and souls, what we deeply yearn to emulate. Pretty basic, right?
Here’s where this whole pilgrimage thing gets really interesting. When we turn our eyes God-ward in the midst of suffering, learning how to endure, and persevere in hope, we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of the one who offers the aid.
In our gospel lesson there’s a wonderful moment that comes after Jesus has spoken with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. John writes, “Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” They’re astonished because Jesus is breaking the strict conventions of his day. For one thing, the woman is a Samaritan; the Jews despised Samaritans. They were unclean, heathen, the dreaded “other”. For another thing, this Samaritan is a woman, whose subservient gender role was well established in this ancient culture. No self-respecting rabbi would have addressed a woman directly. And for a final insult to propriety, this Samaritan woman had a notorious lifestyle.
Why does Jesus break all of these conventions? Because of his compassion for her, or we might say, his love for her. He breaks the rules in order to love her.
Now imagine you’re one of the disciples and this is your teacher, your mentor. Your worldview is this big. And his is THIS BIG, much larger than you had ever conceived. Trying to grasp that, take it in, causes a different sort of suffering, doesn’t it? It’s the suffering endured by groaning into a larger version of yourself, a bigger version. We might call it growing pains, but excruciating nonetheless. “You mean, Jesus, I’m supposed to love people I’ve been taught to hate?”
The disciples had to learn to break the rules in order to love like Jesus; rules that seemed as natural as the rising of the sun; rules that shaped the contours of their culture and kept it small and cramped. These rules restricted the range of God’s grace, rules the disciples imbibed in their mothers’ milk.
You can sense how tough it was to grow into the sort of character Jesus emulated. You can see how breaking those rules would upset many people, especially those who were most invested in the rules, and you can further sense how breaking these rules would loop back on the disciples creating another sort of suffering caused by one’s enlarging character that put him at odds with his own culture, maybe even his own family. That’s the pilgrimage Jesus modeled for us.
And now we begin to see that this character we’re mapping in our life’s pilgrimage isn’t only about hopefully enduring personal dilemmas, although it is surely at least that. But more, we discover it’s about transformation, first our own, and then the world’s.
Sounds grandiose, I suppose. But there’s no denying the truth of it. That’s the size of the grace we attempt to grasp in here.
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
I’m guessing that more than 95% of those present this morning did not grow up in New York City. There might be a few natives scattered around, but the overwhelming majority have their roots in other parts of this country or in numerous nations around the world. This means that most of you chose to come here.
Some might report you had to come because your employer insisted on it. Still, that would mean you chose to stay with that employer. Some came to school and stayed on longer than originally intended. Some thought a stint here in banking, finance, law, medicine or some other profession would set up your careers in another geography only to discover the powerful seductiveness of the city can grow like kudzu strangling old notions of a life’s direction.
Many of you were prompted by a spirit of adventure—maybe most of you, really. Some came without much of a resume other than a conviction that the city held a promise about your future. There are some present today that came to sing, act, paint, dance, or otherwise unleash their creative energies. Some overcame great hurdles to get here—hurdles of money, family, language, culture and government.
Some came fleeing oppressive or dysfunctional environments seeking a geographical cure. Others always knew the city had a part to play in your life adventure. You experienced it like a call on your life. You may have been surprised by the turns in the road that brought you here and surprised that you’ve stayed on. Of course, some of you think you’ll be here for just a year or two or three.
Over the last decades, New York City has been rediscovered as a surprisingly wonderful place to raise children. It’s one of the safest cities in the world. So, adventuresome couples shock their relatives and friends with the news that city life has claimed them for better or worse.
And with thirty years of experience here under my belt, I’ve been struck by a restless spirituality. I’ve been thinking that my work has never seemed more relevant in a time of cultural upheaval. I’ve told you before that this gig has never been more challenging given the sociological, technological, and political disruptions in recent years. People are spiritually restless, agitated, unmoored, undisciplined, and unidentified religiously.
Does that describe you? Account for your presence here this morning? Take a moment to consider the improbability of sharing this space with everyone else gathered here. Highly improbable, right? Can you see how every decision you’ve ever made thus far has had a part to play in landing you here at this precise minute on March 12, 2017?
In theory, there are any number of other places you might be—even wish you were—but you’re not. You’re here. And since this is a church, it occurs to me to ask if you think God had anything to do with this. You probably function from the perspective that not only are you the main actor in your own life drama, but you’re also the playwright, director, and producer as well. If so, has the script been written from this point forward? From here, do you know where you’re going? I suppose you might say, “Well after service I’m going to brunch,” which is all well and good as far as it goes, but we’re asking a more substantial question.
Where are you really headed? By what light do you travel? What matters to you most of all? What gods do you serve? And are you wanting something authentic and powerful on which to rely? Are you looking for faith, by any chance, the kind that pierces through your cellular membranes into the very heart of your invisible essence?
I think we are mostly a people who live every day somewhere between verse one and verse two of Psalm 121. That Psalm begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” The second verse answers, “My help comes from the Lord.” There should be a long silence between these verses since most of us much of the time live our lives in that space. Distracted New Yorkers find it hard to stake a claim on where their help actually comes from. Stake a claim and follow it through—man, is that ever a hard sell today.
Where does our help come from, anyway?
An advertisement caught my eye. The bold letters up top announce: “You just sold your company for $50 million. How quickly that feeling of euphoria can turn to fear.”
Having captured your attention by touching the sensitive fear button, you squint to read the small copy down below: “Finally, you can relax. All your hard work and late nights just turned into more wealth than you ever imagined. You experience a feeling of euphoria. Then, just as suddenly, you experience a feeling quite foreign: fear. You realize that after years of knowing exactly what to do, you don’t even know where to start.” You quickly learn that what you need, where your true help comes from, is a certain wealth management firm.
Notwithstanding this ad was directed to a highly select group of people, I thought it was an apt metaphor for those of us who have been caught like moths around the light of Manhattan. Not that most of us have managed to amass a fortune, but most of us have stepped out to follow our own byway of the yellow brick road to Emerald City, the place where dreams can come true. And just as Dorothy and her Kansas sidekicks were dogged by fear in the land of Oz, so we are, which is why that famous story remains so iconic within our culture. As that ad makes clear, even amassing a fortune is no hedge against fear. Hitting the fear button is an excellent marketing tool since most of us are fearful about something nearly all of the time.
Our scripture lessons today concern questing for authentic faith. The short verses from Genesis set the stage for 4 billion people today. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Abram as their spiritual forebear, as prototype in faith. Those few words hardly seem adequate for such an astonishing outcome.
Abram, listening to the voice of God, left his own version of Kansas—the home of his parents and family—for a new place where he’s promised to become the father to a great nation. He can’t possibly comprehend the result of his questing that we now assign to him thousands of years later. As the story is told, he stepped out in faith and let God handle the rest.
Nicodemus took a much shorter journey under cover of night, but he’s clearly searching for the heart of faith as well. Jesus’ cryptic words about being born from above, or born again, leave Nicodemus wanting more.
Nicodemus was a religious leader in his day. (Evidently, even religious leaders want renewal of their faith.) Did he receive what he was after? Was he reborn of the spirit from above? As John tells the tale, at the end of the gospel Nicodemus returns, now laden with a hundred pounds of spices and perfumes. He will help prepare Jesus’ body for burial and lay him in the tomb. I suspect he was as well positioned as anyone to receive the startling gift that was given Easter morn.
And where does this leave us today? Well, as we said all the life decisions you’ve ever taken have landed you here at this very moment. Looking out at everyone and imagining the uniquely designed yellow brick paths that brought each of you here I’m overwhelmed by the random complexity leading to this precise moment. But in this minute each of us hears the same proposition that a life well-lived, a life tuned to listening for truth and oriented towards God boils down to the matter of receiving the gift of faith.
It could be that you thought the spiritual quest was more complicated than this. It isn’t really. On the other hand, I know this sort of faith can seem elusive, even for those of us, like Nicodemus, who have been well-schooled in the religious arts. I know many secret agnostic religious leaders.
But here’s a very small discipline I recommend during this season of Lent. Intentionally walk with Jesus through his final days. Read the story. Come to worship. Brood upon his words and actions. Sit in his presence. Listen. Take stock. Bracket your own agenda every now and then in the course of a day. Let God speak to you for a change. Force yourself to be free of technology for at least 10 minutes at a time. Turn it off. Leave it at home for a walk through the park.
As part of your discipline repeat this short sentence: “Lord, increase my faith.” Let it become a repetitive mantra throughout your day. Let’s say that together so you get the feel of it: “Lord, increase my faith.” And again, “Lord, increase my faith.” When you wake up in the morning offer that prayer. Say it out loud or silently to yourself when eating breakfast. Then again at lunch and dinner.
Learn to have that short mantra at the ready in any other moment that occurs to you. There is no wrong time to say it There are only right times. If you stumble into a dark place, let the experience remind you to say this prayer. When looking up in the Wall Street canyons, let it come to your mind. When folding the laundry, preparing a meal, waiting at a restaurant, saying good night to your children, brushing your teeth, let it come to your mind. Make it your Lenten discipline.
Here’s a prediction. If you do this with a sincere heart, you may discover that New York becomes imbued with a quality you hadn’t thought possible. This city might actually begin to have the feel of the kingdom of God.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
I imagine Piper, Kansas, is a pretty typical middle-class, Midwestern town. A farming community founded in 1888, it was annexed by Kansas City in 1992 and is now identified mainly as a school district with thirteen hundred students. It’s the ordinary American character of this town that made a small cheating scandal in the High School stand out some years ago.
Here’s what happened. A biology teacher discovered that twenty-eight of her students had stolen sections of their botany project off the internet. She gave these students zeroes for their efforts, which may have caused some to fail the semester.
A number of the plagiarizers’ parents complained to the school board, which in turn ordered the teacher to raise the grades. She promptly resigned. A following school board meeting attracted an overflow crowd where community response was heard. Half the faculty and the new principal vowed to resign by the end of the academic year over the board’s intervention, while some worried about the school’s reputation and a potential decline in property values.
Between interview appearances several days later the offending biology teacher said, “It’s not just biology—you’re teaching them a lot more than that. You’re teaching them to be honest people, to have integrity, to listen, to be good citizens.”After she had been ordered to raise the students’ grades she reported that one student approached her and said, “We won!”
And I wonder what those complaining parents might have said if a large portion of their pension had been invested with someone like Bernie Madoff, the mastermind behind the world’s largest Ponzi scheme. I bet they’d want justice. And they’d likely miss connections with how integrity was modeled for their kids at school.
Here we have average Americans in an average town, going about the average business of raising kids, struggling to get ahead. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that if I asked for a show of hands of those who ever cheated in some form or another in order to gain some advantage and we were all truthful, we’d have a thick field of waving arms.
This story came to mind as I was processing new cultural phrases like, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” The news and blogosphere are awash in the claims and counter-claims of truth and fiction as it pertains to persons in the public sphere. I wonder how citizens today might respond to this comment made by George Washington: “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an ‘Honest Man’.”
Sounds quaint and creaky today, doesn’t it? --Could come from a fiction novel about an alternate universe. It’s hard to imagine leaders in nearly any field of endeavor today making that sort of statement. When you go home today, find Washington’s quote in my sermon and try saying those words as though you really meant them: I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an ‘Honest Man or Woman’. See how they roll around in your mouth…
Is that important to you—your reputation as an honest person? Here’s a question that comes to mind: Would you have a different standard about this for someone in, say, my occupation than for yourself? How bout for our politicians? Of course, I do want to live with integrity. We might assume that’s a prerequisite of my job. Although, as for that, the necessity for integrity isn’t really any different for the lawyer, accountant, financier, biology teacher, school board member, spouse or most crucially, the parent.
Anyone from any field of endeavor, who travels any distance down the road called Christian, comes to understand integrity as a very large concept that defines the universe of an authentic life. The first dictionary definition says that integrity is the quality or state of being complete; wholeness; entireness; an unbroken state. The paradox the Christian discovers is that integrity begins with the admission one doesn’t really have all that much—in other words, with the admission of brokenness, with the admission of the truth about oneself. Sometimes we call that admission repentance. So generally speaking a person with integrity will also display flashes of humility.
Now as you know at Christ Church we claim that love is our principal agenda. You hear repeatedly that “loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves” is our mission. That’s an excellent mission. But if love is the essential verb of a Christian life, integrity is the essential condition. Real love cannot happen without integrity. They come as a package.
One of Christianity’s foundational truths states that all of us are sprung from God. That’s what the story of Adam and Eve reveals. They are nothing less than God’s beloved companions who were fashioned in God’s image. The Garden of Eden is a place of integrity. It is whole, complete, unbroken. Unbroken, that is, until temptation leads to corruption. And their corruption isn’t really about eating a fruit. It’s about believing a lie—that they, too, might become gods—that they could step outside of God’s dominion and establish their own rules.
Well, that’s a pretty common temptation, isn’t it? I know you understand that. I certainly do. We might say that’s temptation with a capital “T”. It’s the temptation that lies behind all others. From the biblical perspective that is the fundamental corruption of our human nature: pretending something we’re not. This pretense is a lie.
The temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness were an attack on his integrity. As with Adam and Eve, the bearer of the lies comes in the form of Satan who has been named in Christian lore as “the father of lies.” The wilderness replaces the Garden of Eden where humanity now finds itself. The confrontation is intensely personal. It happens out of view, when Jesus is most vulnerable. This extreme vulnerability accounts for our attraction to this story. Here is Jesus in his unadorned humanity struggling with the boundaries of his integrity.
The choices he makes remain consistent with God’s intentions, which frankly, seem much less glamorous than what Satan offers. God’s intentions seem small by comparison. Satan suggests that Jesus could live like a god on earth! He could have it all—the only required thing involved relinquishing his integrity. There’s a wonderful line spoken by the sleazy character J.R. Ewing in the 1980’s evening soap opera, Dallas, that stuck in my mind years ago: “Once you lose your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake….”
The tempter wants to split Jesus’ soul into divergent loyalties. Yet Jesus cannot live with integrity except by unswerving love for and trust in his Father. And there you see, love and integrity are revealed as inseparably linked. That’s how it is for us humans, how we’ve been made.
It’s the divergent loyalties that so confound us! For instance we can believe our intentions are pure enough sitting in these pews on any given Sunday yet completely miss how life on Monday has anything to do with our time spent here. We’re adept at rationalizing every sort of behavior. Our souls wind up broken into little unrelated compartments. And then we wonder what’s wrong with our lives; how did things get so out of kilter; what’s up with our relationships? Why do we feel so alienated from ourselves and, sometimes, even from the universe?
Integrity begins with the acceptance of our situation as it is, and finds its fulfillment in unswerving love for God. At our beginning and at our end, at our birth and at our death, we belong to God. Most of us in here don’t have difficulty believing that. It’s the time in between we’re not so certain of. That time seems a lot like ours alone, that we can do with it whatever the hell we feel like doing. Of course, the results of our choices in the meantime may be exactly what hell feels like.
I take comfort in the knowledge that all of us share this predicament, that our struggles, though different in detail, are actually quite similar in their deepest essence. I take comfort that we all have the same divine lineage and that God loves us in our confused and broken state.
In the scripture’s poetic language we hear how God sent angels to minister to Jesus, that he was enveloped by God’s spirit. God abides with us no matter what. This is an aspect of God’s integrity. There is finally nothing we might do that will prevent God from loving us. Nothing. It’s hard to believe, I know. But that’s the promise. And therein lies our hope.
Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
A small boy, maybe around 4-years-old-or-so, asked me on a Sunday morning if I thought God would show up today. He asked it eagerly, not cynically, as though repeating something he heard his father toss off sarcastically. I told him I thought there was a very good chance of it. Did he hope for it? After a long pause he said he didn’t know—the thought of it sort of scared him.
This brought to mind my own memory from about the same age as my new acquaintance—the earliest memory I have of being in church. During Sunday worship I sat on the edge of my pew waiting for God to make an entrance. I had my eyes glued on the carved altarpiece at the back of the chancel thinking God would emerge from the shadows behind. I was both excited and scared.
Needless to say, God didn’t appear in the manner I was expecting. And I suppose I could say I’ve had my focus fixed on that spot ever since—waiting expectantly, hopefully, with just enough fear to make my desire honest. After all, it’s God, we’re speaking about here, the one who flung the stars into distant space and fashioned life out of dust.
Childhood dreams are washed away by adult realities, of course. The child’s imagination succumbs to the onslaught of secular education and the demand for sticking to the tangible and material. The five physical senses have pride of place in our culture over the one unnamed and under-utilized sense that has a bead on Mystery and transcendence. Spiritual yearnings get short shrift in educational and family settings overfull with busy stuff. The wonderment about life—its origins, meaning and purpose—gets lost in the din of many distractions.
Interestingly, this can even happen within the church. Adult religion is easily stripped of an intimate sense of the transcendent. And it can happen in both conservative and liberal settings that gather in the rather comfortable state of being quite clear about whom God is or is not, having honed it down to a set of propositions.
God becomes more of an idea than a living, dynamic reality in the present moment. Forms of prayer can seem anachronistic, or artificial, certainly nothing that really amounts to much now that we’ve outgrown childish fantasies and superstitions.
And true enough, there are plenty of superstitions we ought to leave behind. There is a lot of bad religion out there, neurotic religion, narcissistic religion, destructive religion. We all know something about that. Some of us know of it quite personally. And you know people who are persuaded that all religion is bad, or at best simply irrelevant. For them to be an adult means, in part, leaving behind in the toy box what they might refer to as the crutch or the delusion of God.
For me, that would be like leaving my heart behind in the toy box, or my soul—the precious aspect of my essential identity. I’ve never understood why so many people do not see this the way I do, that is, don’t see God lurking everywhere behind creation and sense God mixed up in the air of every breath they take. This is a great conundrum to me: that what I know to be the deepest truth would be for others a curious improbability.
You can tell the designers of this space understood what I’m talking about. We can surmise by the results of their obvious effort and investment of resources that they thought God should be seen and heard. That wonder was an important component of life.
If not, this was a horribly expensive folly, wasn’t it? There are plenty of New Yorkers who think that, of course. They think that the purpose for which this place was built is complete bunk, although they like that it sits here on the corner as opposed to, say, yet one more condominium. They may like that they live in a city with useless but very attractive cultural artifacts.
When I first moved into the city at the tail end of a hot building boom, I was routinely telephoned by real estate developers who shared the exact same rap: “Reverend, did you know that you’re sitting on one of the five most valuable undeveloped properties in all of New York?” And I repeated the same response every time: “And here I thought that it was developed.”
We’ve often reflected that when you make your way into a place like this on a Sunday morning in this city you’re behaving counter-culturally. You know that many, maybe most, of your friends and business associates did not go to a religious observance this weekend. And they’re not entirely certain what to make of those who do.
From their vantage point it’s a bit strange that people choose to gather in these decorative buildings on an otherwise perfectly fine Sunday morning, singing songs about someone named God and reading opaque ancient writings, while practicing esoteric rituals with people wearing blue and white robes.
But then that’s all part of the mystery we’re marketing. We use imaginative means and materials to hook all of our senses so that underused sixth sense might be tweaked into life. We take that 4-year-old’s wonder seriously, as though it just might be the most important thing there is.
To be completely truthful, what we’re really selling here is change. If we were simply concerned with portraying an entertaining idea about God and leave it at that, church would be a bit like a religious zoo with our version of god safely caged. With the passing of the plate we’d pay our price of admission, throw a few peanuts in the direction of that which we’ve come to see and be on our way.
What we’re really selling here, is God uncaged—God on God’s own terms. But to actually allow for that possibility requires a break with the status quo in our lives. It requires an expectation like that of my young 4-year-old friend asking if God would be showing up on a Sunday. I’m reminded of Jesus once commenting that unless we become like little children we will never find the kingdom of God. Children have an innocent anticipation of what they do not know because they know so very little, really. Can we admit how little we actually know and how little we actually control behind our masquerades of competence and mastery?
Annie Dillard offers this observation: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? …It is madness to wear…hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We don’t know what happened at Mt. Sinai as Moses led the Hebrew people from captivity in Egypt, but we do know this: that whatever happened “released a torrent of spiritual energy which transformed Israel into a people of priests and prophets, bringing enlightenment to humanity,” and establishing a course of human civilization to the present day. (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook)
In the Gospel passage concerning the disciples’ vision of a transfigured Jesus, that Sinai experience is recalled. Again the sacred event happens on a mountaintop. Peter reports that Jesus was changed. When they looked at him in one direction it was the same old Jesus, but then looking again they were astonished and rattled by glory. The witnesses would be changed as well, but they wouldn’t get the full force of it until some time later, after they descended the mountain and got on with life.
Commenting on the transfiguration, Harry Emerson Fosdick said an inner transformation took place in Jesus…”faith replaced fear, strength for anxiety, confidence for hesitation, inward power adequate for outward tension. That showed in his face.” Ultimately, it would show in the faces of Jesus’ witnesses, and the spiritual power released through them brings us to this moment 2000 years later.
The 40-something man said he wanted to speak with me during the week as he left the sanctuary. He had been profoundly shaken. Monday morning he called me; we met that afternoon. He wasn’t sure what had happened, he said. He even felt a bit childish. But something had turned him upside down. Something I had said sliced like a knife into a deep part of him. He added, “No offense, but I didn’t even think that the sermon was all that interesting.” Nevertheless, it was during the music following that he felt the deep incision. He couldn’t stand for the offering hymn. His knees were wobbly when he finally got up to leave.
He identified himself as a successful corporate officer, Harvard MBA. Traveled all over the world; had dropped in on church off and on, but it had never felt like this. This was different. He was like a kid in Sunday school. “Imagine that!” he said. “I went to church and found God…” He had the same look of excitement, fear and confusion as the boy who asked me if God would be showing up on a Sunday a while ago...
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1st Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
So I’ve been thinking of late that these are really interesting times to be a preacher. Current conditions have challenged the status quo for churches and ministers of the gospel. The fractious political culture dividing American citizens doesn’t offer a receptive environment for the call to spiritual unity. Today Jesus teaches that we’re supposed to love our enemies, and I guess that includes everyone with whom we strongly disagree as well. That’s a hard discipline, isn’t it?
There are a lot of opinions among Christians about how politics should or should not find their way into church. I like to remind people that Jesus was not a partisan but he did die a political death at the hands of the state. He was accused and executed for sedition, as in, promoting discontent or rebellion against the government. That didn’t exactly describe his mission, but on the other hand it held several grains of truth.
Over the years this has led me to keep a clear-eyed focused on the heart of what it means to love God and neighbor, letting the chips fall where they may. In this way the point was never about learning to behave or sound like a Republican or a Democrat in here, but like a Christian, committed to the ethical system appropriate for the citizens of the kingdom of God. I’ve tried to maintain that discipline over the years.
But followers after the way of Jesus will inevitably find themselves engaged in matters of public policy. To love authentically has political consequences, up and down the scale of importance, as Jesus’ own life exemplifies. Since this is President’s weekend, we might consider our nation’s blood-drenched road to the abolition of slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a staunch abolitionist. That was a result of his Christian faith. You couldn’t be a Methodist and a slaveholder simultaneously. There was no true middle ground on the matter. To be sort of against slavery but do nothing to stop it was really to be sort of for it, for the end result was the same. There was a political consequence to the matter of how we were to love among the races.
I’ve always appreciated that Christ Church has assembled a broadly diverse congregation over the last three decades—more than 50 different nationalities and ethnicities, from all walks of life. Despite this diversity we discover that we share many of the same questions about suffering and meaning. Over the years I’ve often heard that you seek simple instruction and clear direction—you desire a clear point of view anchored in the wisdom of our tradition fashioned through thousands of years of human struggle. The music, the preaching, the praying, the architecture can all provide fine sacred stimulus, but after all is said and done, “What should we do?” may be the relevant question.
And as if responding to that specific concern today’s scripture speaks directly. First, from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” And what does it mean to be holy? Well, we’re supposed to take care of the poor; we should live lives of integrity, that is, no lying, cheating or stealing. We should have compassionate regard for others. You should not hate or take vengeance or bear a grudge… indeed, “you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
And as if that wasn’t clear and direct enough, some hundreds of years later Jesus ups the ante by radicalizing the old teaching. In the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson, Jesus says, “You’re familiar with the old law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy…’ I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless; the good and bad, the nice and the nasty.”
“You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
I don’t know what you came expecting to hear today, what kernel of an idea for self-improvement or pathway to happiness. Likely it wasn’t, “love your enemy and pray for those that persecute you.” If you’ve hung around a church for any length of time, well, maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard this admonition from Jesus and like most people have dismissed it as hopelessly utopian. Love your enemy?—yeah, right, Steve, I’ll get right on that…
Every once in a long while exemplars arise that clarify the matter. Consider these words of Martin Luther King Jr. that he wrote in 1958: “Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities and fears. Agape [the main Greek word for love in the New Testament] is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action.
“Agape love seeks to preserve and create community... It doesn’t stop at the first mile, but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community….
“If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.”
And we then recognize this love had political consequences. Still does. Still does...
Now with 20/20 hindsight I invite anyone to suggest how King’s words do not square in their entirety with Jesus’ instruction. What I can tell you as one who lived through that time period as a young person, much of so-called Christian America would not have seen this strikingly obvious truth and its ramifications for our society since it was spoken by a black preacher.
In retrospect that’s a real head-scratcher. I mean, how could those who claimed they followed after the way Jesus blazed get it so fundamentally wrong? At the time, a popular critique of civil rights talk in church was that politics shouldn’t come inside the church door, which was a cover for the incipient racism that filled the pews. Jesus was lost in the noise and it was forgotten he died a political death. An uncomfortable truth better left unsaid.
Every now and again I like to return to G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Love my enemy, you say. Pray for those who persecute me… hmm, well then...
One of the regular criticisms leveled at the church goes like this: What difference does it really make, other than dividing people up into those that belong and those that don’t? What’s its purpose? For all of the great music and architecture, so what, really? And it’s just here that our desire for clear, direct teaching meets Jesus as though for the first time.
Notice that he does not say that the point of it all is right doctrines. Nothing about agreeing to a correct set of propositions about God, something we Christians tend to fight about as of absolutely greatest importance. Instead, Jesus says that in God’s kingdom of grace our primary interest should concern how well we love one another.
Honestly, I think it’s a lot easier to argue about the fine points of a creed than it is to love one’s enemy. A lot easier. Arguing about who’s got it right set of words, who’s in and who’s out, is a fantastic distraction. Indeed, doesn’t one’s enemy often follow a different creed? And this disagreeable person doesn’t need to live in a far-away land. Again, in our incredibly shrinking world Chesterton had his finger on the truth when he said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
What an incredibly daunting agenda is set before us: breathtaking; bracing; ennobling; life-altering! You won’t hear about this anywhere else. The poet Robert Browning captured the essence of our circumstance in his famous line: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We’re meant to stretch beyond our current condition, reaching all the way into the kingdom of God.
That’s what we’ll be praying in a moment: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as is in heaven.” This yearning for the better way prompted Paul to write, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus…[because] our citizenship is in heaven…”
Friends, if the pursuit of the better way tugs at your heart then you are well on your way to joining the ranks of those who are bent on changing the world—Love’s rabble-rousing revolutionaries! And make no mistake, just as with Jesus and the disciples, there may come a moment to stand up and be counted among the righteous.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Because I’m a graduate of Yale Divinity School and serve on its Board of Advisors, I’ve had interest in how the university was going to handle the matter of possibly renaming its John C. Calhoun residential college. Though this issue had been simmering for decades it roared into life in 2015 following the murder of nine African American church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a self-described white supremacist who had posed with confederate flags in photos.
John C. Calhoun was also from South Carolina, graduating from Yale in 1804 as valedictorian, eventually serving the United States as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and a U.S. senator. But he left behind the legacy of a leading statesman who used his office to strongly advocate for slavery and white supremacy. As a national leader, Calhoun helped enshrine his racist views in American policy. While other southern statesmen and slaveholders treated slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun actually insisted it was a “positive good,” beneficial to enslaved people and essential to republican institutions.
As a result of these considerations, Yale has just now decided to remove his name from the school since, in the Yale President’s words, “[The] legacy of Calhoun…conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed. Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them.”
So, in effect what has happened in the last year and half is that Yale did some serious soul-searching and wound up recovering its root values and commitments. This required stripping away encrusted, barnacle-like accretions of privilege, legacy, and tradition until the underlying values were laid bare. When that was finally accomplished, the decision was obvious.
Of course, it’s tempting to say it was always obvious. Even from the moment the college was first given the name Calhoun in 1931— when the stained-glass window was installed depicting slaves picking cotton with a portrait of the great man placed nearby. Calhoun was a racist white supremacist in 1804, and in 1860 when he led South Carolina to secede, and in 1931 with the founding of the college, and now in 2017. The facts haven’t changed a bit. It just took a good long while for the hypocrisy to so weigh down on the truth that it couldn’t be carried any longer.
I’m sharing this as an up-to-the-minute example of what can happen when a decision is made to affirm one’s core values. In this case, it was a system-wide process, but still comprised of individual decisions, which I’m guessing were highly nuanced by all interested parties: students, professors, administrators, funders, development officers, trustees, alumni and so forth. In some soul-searching way, each individual decision had to take account of what to do about idolizing a racist white supremacist in one of the nation’s most storied institutions. An African-American student living at Calhoun College adorned with the slave window might have a different gut perspective on this than a prosperous, 70-year-old, white alumni living in Greenwich.
We can imagine that it took 86 years to reach this point because until now the folks who had place and position within the system didn’t really want to consider it seriously. As I said, Calhoun was also vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war and a U.S. senator. Surely a lot of money had been donated in his name, although, at least some of that was no doubt an extended legacy from the sweat of slaves. After all, slavery was at the heart of an economic system that produced wealth for a comparatively few. The slaughter in a Charleston church is what ripped the skin off this corruption of values today.
But you can sense how complicated these matters get when you start traveling down the path of self-examination leading to a decision about fundamental values. Human nature being what it is, we likely just as soon not start that process at all. We defensively demur that everyone’s got skeletons in their closet, some more than others… but then, some have a whole cemetery locked away…
As the story is told, near the end of Moses’ life, as the Israelites are finally ending their 40 years in the wilderness and about to settle in the land of Canaan, Moses reminds them that they have a fundamental decision ahead of them. He starkly tells them they have options about the sort of people they will become: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors.”
This reaffirms the constituting promise for the Hebrew people, reminding them of their most basic value commitment. The Hebrew Scriptures tell story after story of their individual and collective tendency to let other matters, other gods, if you will, capture their attention, causing them to forget this core value at the heart of life. But the stories also tell of God’s relentless pursuit of his people because God wants nothing more than their flourishing.
The heart of healthy religion keeps a laser focus on what matters most of all: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s the core insight from our tradition. From this flow all the qualities that reveal the glory of our humanity. Things like humility, integrity, courage, fidelity, kindness, compassion and justice.
This is the religious impulse at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. He invites everyone who will listen to strip away all the life-sucking accretions that prevent human flourishing. That’s the underlying agenda behind the Sermon on the Mount. In the portion we heard today he radicalizes the law so that no one can escape judgment.
Who hasn’t been viciously angry with someone wishing them great harm; who hasn’t lied or lusted or tried to take unfair advantage of someone? Who hasn’t fallen into the trap from time to time of self-delusional corruption? Jesus means to level the playing field, stripping away all our defenses and conceits so we can see clearly the heart of the matter.
And here’s the heart of the matter: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s it. You want to know the secret of a meaningful, joyful life filled with love and hope? You want to know the Grand Unified Theory to abundant life? Love God and love everything God loves.
Man, that sounds so simple! But I know from personal experience that attempting to hold on to it cuts to the bone. This is not a sentimental discipline because after the manner of Jesus, it calls us to hold ourselves accountable to what we say we value most of all. And all sorts of things that have captured our attention and allegiance don’t measure up; some are actually antithetical to love; these need to be named and discarded for the sake of our flourishing. Sometimes we call this justice.
Here’s the wonderful thing. Every single day provides a fresh opportunity for us to choose life. Every day. Today, for instance, is a fantastic day to say yes to life and to love. I choose to love God and all the things that God loves; that shall be my foundational commitment.
And how good is it that we do this in the presence of others who are also choosing the way of abundant life? I’m heartened and strengthened by your presence and your willingness to join my imperfect intentions, and hopefully you are heartened and strengthened by the others in this room as well. We’re meant to do this in a company of friends. We call it church, but at the heart of it we’re just a band of pilgrims seeking to live and promote abundant life for all.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b - 12); Matthew 5:13-20
Many of us will gather with friends later today to watch our country’s highest rated sports event, the Super Bowl. We’ll eat millions, if not billions, of chicken wings. We’ll gorge on pizza, chips, and beer. We’ll wear our favorite team’s colors or paraphernalia. Some have spent thousands or tens of thousands for the elite privilege of viewing the game live at NRG stadium. Others will watch on their rented or newly purchased 60-inch flat screen televisions. The Super Bowl is a religious experience of sorts. While we may be reluctant to say that football is a god, certainly we have placed supreme importance on this particular game. Theologian Barbara Lundblad notes that when we consider all the rituals of this celebration, we might realize that it is not altogether different from what we do in church on Sundays. Many have sojourned to Houston just to be in the vicinity of the celebration. People will stand at attention while the American flag, our sacred object, is being carried onto the field. Men will remove their caps. We’ll place our hands over our hearts as the national anthem is played. Many will mouth the words quietly as if they were in prayer.
To many, this occasion feels like one of our noblest moments as a nation. Regardless of which team people cheer for, feelings of patriotism will be almost palpable. Cameras panning the crowd will show people standing tall with tears in their eyes reflecting pride in their homeland. And yet, while this ritual is happening, something else will be happening in our nation. While we eat our chicken wings and chips, 1 in 6 people in our country will continue to fight hunger. While some view the game from suites priced at over $300,000, others will sleep on streets with temperatures below 30 degrees. While we laud one team’s ability to conquer their opponent, some trafficked sex worker will become another person’s sexual conquest.
And after all the ritual of the evening is complete, we will return to our daily routines, consumed largely by our own personal needs, problems, and pursuits. Many Muslims will continue to fear for their safety here and abroad. Our nation’s indigenous people will continue facing intimidation and discrimination as they defend their land from oil pipelines. Coal companies will resume dumping waste into our water. Families in Flint will still have lead in their pipes. Millions of children will still receive a substandard education. And time will reveal that the rituals surrounding today’s game, have done little, if anything, to close the chasm between who we aspire to be and who we really are.
Now I pause here to say that I recognize that our nation is not a religious community. In fact, one of our nation’s founding principles is the separation of Church and State. The rituals of the Super Bowl are not—at least intentionally—a declaration about our theological beliefs. They are not meant to bring us closer to God. Nevertheless, these rituals lift up the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and unity, and they reveal to us a chasm between our nation’s ideals and people’s lived reality.
Today’s lectionary readings have something to offer about that. In Isaiah 58, we encounter a community that is also experiencing a chasm between who they espouse to be and who they really are. The community in Isaiah 58 has returned to Jerusalem and Judea from Babylonian captivity. They are navigating the challenges of rebuilding their lives, and the community is seeking to renew their relationship with the holy. In an erroneous attempt to connect with God, the Israelites focus on rituals instead of righteousness. But God is having none of it. In Isaiah 58:1, God tells the speaker to announce the people’s sin and rebellion. God is not pleased with how they were living because their worship was disconnected from their daily lives. Outside of worship, the community had done little to protect and provide for its most vulnerable. They were worshipping, but they had no witness. And worship without witness is worthless. And it remains true for us that if we are to have a worship that is worthy of our God, then when we finish praying, when we finish fasting, and when we finish singing, we must get up from these pews and go out into the world to work; to be the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew.
So how do we do that? Through the prophet Isaiah, God provides guidance on how we can witness to our faith in the world. And while this list is not exhaustive of all we are to do, we discover here that being salt and light requires few things: resistance, insistence, and persistence.
Resistance. It’s a hot word being used right now. With all that is going on in the world many are finding it important to resist laws, policies and practices that they consider unjust. Some resist by marching in the streets. Others are refusing to follow laws they consider unjust. Some cities are resisting what they view unjust immigration policies by offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Still, there are those who view resistance, organized or disorganized, as a nuisance to society. But what our text reveals to us is that resistance—withstanding the effects of something—does not begin with us. The text illustrates that resistance begins with God.
God tells the prophet to shout out the people’s sin. In The Message Bible God says “Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives.” The text continues: “The people are busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. They maintain the appearances of a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring [people]…The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.”
God recognized that the community’s busyness in worship, their prayers, their fasts were insincere. Why? Because they didn’t result in any change of heart. The people’s worship was not about God but about themselves. If anything, they were hoping to cajole God into giving them prosperity and protection. They wanted to avoid another stint in Babylonian exile. But God resisted their prayers. God refused to hear them; refused to be moved by false worship.
Instead, God insisted on how the people should live: “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” God says I’m interested in seeing you, “sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] being available to your own families. Get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. Be generous with the hungry, and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.”
And the same principles that were true for the Israelites thousands of years ago remain true for us today. If we are to help change our world from a place filled with unnecessary brokenness to a place filled with light and love, then we must resist those who do not sincerely try to make positive change. Shout out the truth about laws and policies that keep people oppressed. We insist that our nation live up to its ideals of liberty, freedom and justice. And we insist that we treat all people with compassion, dignity, and respect.
And not only do we resist and insist, but we must persist. Persist in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Persist in loving our neighbors as ourselves. Persist in being the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew 5. And God says to the people if you do this, when you do these things, I’ll continue to guide. If you do this, then your light will shine. Isaiah records: “Your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’”
Now, persistence is not easy. It demands commitment and courage. It takes energy and strength. It’s easier to rest in our own comfort than to work on behalf of others. But as Civil Rights leader Ella Bker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest…” We must work until freedom comes. Not just for a few. But for all.
This reminds me of a story I hear about a man who fell into a dark hole. He was crying out for help and a priest came by. The priest said a prayer for the man and then kept going. Later a wealthy man came by. The wealthy man wrote a check, dropped it in the hole, and then kept walking. Finally, the man’s friend came by. He heard the man crying out for help and he jumped in the hole with him. The trapped man said to his friend, why did you get down in here with me. Now we’re both trapped. The friend replied, I’ve been in this whole before, and I know the way out.
There are some among us who are trapped in a dark hole. And they don’t just need our prayers. They don’t just need our money. They need those of us who know the way out to get in the hole with them and help them out. Some of us know the way out because our people have been in the hole before. Some were in the hole during slavery, and they found their way out. Some were in the hole during women’s suffrage, but they found their way out. Some of us were in the hole in Japanese internment camps, but we found our way out. Some were in the hole during Jim Crow, but we found our way out. Today, persisting means that those of us who are out may have to climb back in to help others find their way. But in 40 or 50, years when the world looks back at this moment in our history and asks us “What did you do?” what will be our response? We will say, we tried to be good people. We prayed for people every Sunday at church. Or will those who come behind us be able to see what we did. That we persisted in caring for the immigrant, for the poor, for people of color, for women? We will be able to say, I served at El Nido? I made a meal at Sharing Table? I resisted unjust policies and laws? I marched for equal rights?
So go. Enjoy the Super Bowl. Eat some chicken wings. Cheer for your favorite team. Be moved by the rituals of the day. And when it’s over, get up from your space, go out into the world, and help close the gap. Help bring forth the kingdom of God.