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Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
Would you be surprised to hear me say that I’m not entirely sure what to make of the resurrection accounts recorded in the Gospels? I mean, I’m not certain how we should read them. Were they intended as history, simply relating facts meant to be taken at face value, like a cub reporter might write when covering his first murder? If so, they aren’t very good history; the narrative details are incomplete and vary wildly from writer to writer.
That something dramatic happened to the disciples following Jesus’ death can’t be denied. Even a thoughtful unbeliever has to be perplexed over the dramatic success of the early Christians considering that their leader was put to a humiliating death as an enemy of the state. But these stories don’t neatly wrap-up the events of that first Easter, do they, the way we might expect a good, factual history or even a novel might? And it’s not as though they don’t have the ring of truth, it’s just that the truth they ring extends beyond rational comprehension. I suppose we could say that these stories are bigger than we are.
So maybe they’re more like the parables, not so focused on specific historical detail per se, as on revelation of larger truth. Still they don’t fit neatly into a particular category. In the lesson we just heard, what seems the overriding concern for the writer is that the disciples’ grasp of the truth had to be enlarged. Their old categories for understanding the way the world was organized could not contain this new information.
So, we’re told that when Jesus stands among them they were startled and frightened. They thought they were seeing a ghost perhaps. Then Jesus reassures them by eating a bit of fish. Part of the message the reader gleans is this: whatever it was the disciples experienced, it was unlike anything they had known or imagined.
Of course, our predispositions often prevent new information from penetrating our consciousness. It’s simple human nature, as Luke tells it: the disciples tried to apply existing categories to something that was alien to them. That’s why they leapt to the conclusion they were seeing a ghost. Not that this was particularly plausible, but they had to no other way of interpreting what they experienced.
Reading this again got me thinking how often new information remains unabsorbed by us because of our habituated patterns of organizing our world. Much of the time we don’t really want to hear there’s a new way of understanding something. We’re quite attached to our own biases and prejudices, our own habits and ways of thinking about things, and woe to those who shatter our comfort in these matters.
That’s a primary reason Jesus was put to death in the first place—he shattered the comfort of status quo thinking. But then, the crucifixion didn’t put an end to it. Instead, after his death the power of his life continued as though amplified a thousand-fold rippling down through the centuries reaching us today when we’re now the ones confronted by these perplexing, hard-to-categorize stories.
In our reading and pondering it helps to consider how rigid and compartmentalized our thinking really is. This is difficult because, of course, we don’t like to think of ourselves as rigid and compartmentalized. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and responsive to new information.
But among our many biases is our belief that we already have the truth pretty well in hand. This is a problem because as the resurrection stories indicate, the truth is very much larger than we are and if we were just a bit smarter and less smug we would see that we have it exactly backwards: it’s not that we have the truth in hand, but that the truth has us in hand! Which makes for a very different way of looking at things.
Leroy Collins, a former Governor of Florida, told of a day he was beach combing with his then 6-year-old granddaughter. The tide was going out, leaving all of those beautiful treasures that come in from the Gulf of Mexico. He was carrying the bag in which they were collecting the shells of all shapes and colors.
Suddenly, little Jane came running to him with sparkling eyes, saying: “Granddaddy, look at this beautiful shell.” He looked at it with some deference, but firmly said to her, “Darling, it is pretty, but we don’t want to keep that one, it has a hole in it.”
Jane was crestfallen at this assessment but unwilling to surrender her view of reality. She argued, “But look, Granddaddy, how pretty it is here, and here and here.” She kept pointing to all the places on the shell that were indeed pretty. Finally she said, “Don’t look at the hole.”
Collins reported that on another walk, months later, when he was alone on the beach, he thought again of this experience and it occurred to him that he had been looking at Jane’s shell from the wrong end of the telescope. He was seeing only the hole. When looked at differently, something much larger loomed into view.
“I once asked a blind man what was the greatest obstacle he felt he had to overcome. I thought he would say walking across a busy street or preparing his food, something like that. But instead he said, ‘My greatest problem is that everybody just thinks of me as a blind man. They may express sympathy, but it is not sympathy I want…it’s understanding that I am not just a blind man. I want them to just see me.’”
On Friday I read a report about a 14-year-old boy who nearly lost his life after being shot at while trying to stop at a home to ask for directions to school. For some reason the homeowner seemed to think that when he knocked on her door he wanted to rob her.
The encounter began when Brennan Walker woke up late, missing the bus to school. He tried to walk the bus route but got lost and without a phone with a map, he resorted to the old tried and true method of stopping and asking for help. He chose the home because he saw a neighborhood-watch sticker on the house and thought it would be a safe spot to stop.
Unfortunately, after knocking on the door the woman who answered started yelling at Brennan screaming, “Why are you trying to break into my house?” He tried to explain his situation, but a guy came out with a gun, so he ran away as the man fired off a round. Luckily, he missed.
But the homeowners’ security system recorded the whole ordeal, including the woman exclaiming, “Why did ‘these people’ choose my house?”
You may already have surmised the 14-year-old was black and the homeowners were white.
We often get things wrong by reading persons and events through rigid predispositions and prejudices. We do this all of the time. We structure our world according to a prescribed set of well-formed, but often quite erroneous propositions.
We do this with external reality and we do this with our internal reality as well. The former prevents us from really seeing others, the latter prevents us from really seeing ourselves. And so, the irony from Leroy Collins’ story concerns this question: which person is truly blind—the one whose eyes don’t work or the one who just doesn’t see?
One of the glories of our humanity is our capacity to learn and change. One of our strengths is that every once in a while, the status quo of our thinking gives way to a much larger truth—a truth we may not at first have anticipated, or even wanted. We come to see a larger reality. That’s what truth means after all—“non-concealment,” the disclosure of the “full or real state of affairs.”
I think that whenever such a breakthrough occurs, resurrection energy is at work; energy that brings the new thing out of the old, energy that brings life where only death seemed real, energy that has the power to shatter entrenched ways of thinking about things, even religious, spiritual things.
Among the reasons some of us have gathered in church this morning is due to a spiritual restlessness, or a quest for meaning, salvation, hope, something that is bigger than what we already know or have. Still, we have strong predispositions even concerning these matters. We have the tendency to want to control and anticipate the
larger truth we seek. Actually, there is a powerful tendency within all religious systems to so organize revealed truth that the largest truth becomes the enemy. This is what happens with fundamentalisms of every stripe. Adherents come to believe they own the truth rather than the other way ‘round. Then holding their little bit of it in their hands they wield it like a weapon and watch out if you happen to be within arms’ reach.
Looking through the wrong end of the telescope, as it were, guarantees that we will keep our realm of truth small, neat and tidy. This will also keep our faith small, our world small, and our hope and love small as well. We might, say, see a ghost rather than resurrection—see only the hole in the shell—when if we opened up our view we could see beauty everywhere.
Like the disciples we live our days waffling between confusion and clarity, doubt and faith. We each have our own personally designed blindness and prejudice. We have all known the agony of defeat, dashed hopes and dreams, fears, personal corruptions, death of loved ones.
Nevertheless, we have found our way into this sanctuary this morning, which, is not so dissimilar to standing in front of the empty tomb. And the good news, nearly impossible news we hear in stories difficult to explain, is that in our willingness to make ourselves available to the God of life, in our asking and in our listening, Jesus, himself—himself—stands among us. And if we let him, with our hands and hearts held open, he will open our minds so that we might understand. That’s the promise.
Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31Read MoreLess
Act 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
So it turns out last time Easter fell on April Fools day was in 1956 when I was 3 years old. Honestly, there’s a kind of ironic symmetry to that coupling. From the atheist’s perspective this makes for an obvious joke: Hey, did you hear that Jesus rose from the dead?! Really? Just kidding…April Fools! As though billions of people for 2 millennia have been duped into believing an otherwise preposterous proposition. Think of the scale of such a joke…boggles the mind.
If such were the case consider the folly of a place like this and all the effort that’s gone in to our preparation. Either we’ve been stupidly bamboozled or brainwashed, or something else entirely is going on. So I’m thinking that starting with the April Fools joke properly sets the context for asking, just what is it that we’re doing here today?
In a book entitled "The Quest for Beauty," the famous 20th century psychologist, Rollo May, recalled scenes from his lifelong search for beauty, among them a visit to Mount Athos, that famous peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. He was recovering from a recent nervous breakdown and one morning, he stumbled upon the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, the tail end of a church service that had been proceeding all night long.
The ceremony was thick with symbolism, thick with beauty. Icon’s were everywhere. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. And at the height of that service, the priest gave everyone present three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” He said. “Christ is risen!” Each person there, including May, responded according to custom, “He is risen indeed!”
Now May was not a believer, but he reported being “seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: what would it mean for our world if He had truly risen?”
If it were within my power this morning, I would create the same context that gave rise to May’s inspired spiritual clarity—one of those rare moments that catch us by surprise when all of our spiritual senses are on fire. All there is for the moment is the haunting transcendent mystical question….
But for all of the Byzantine architecture, mosaics and iconography of this space, it isn’t Mt. Athos, and likely you haven’t been on a conscious lifelong quest for beauty; and I should tell you now that I’m not going to be handing you three beautifully decorated Easter eggs. We’re sitting just off a bustling sidewalk in New York City, and you know well what its like out there—the set location for Law and Order Special Victims Unit. No doubt there are many visitors present who’ve come to the city for all of its diversions and distractions that provide its drive and pulse. On Mt. Athos, beyond the dramatic setting, church is pretty much all there is. Rollo May was part of a captive audience on that special day.
Still, I would do everything in my power to have you consider the question. You haven’t forgotten it yet, have you? What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen? We don’t have much time for conversation this morning. And I know that when you leave here today the culture out there isn’t particularly hospitable to the sorts of things we say and do in here. Monks and penitents and pilgrims on a quest for beauty will not immediately surround you when you step out onto Park Avenue. It won’t be outright hostile, just indifferent to what goes on in here. Majorly indifferent.
So, since we have just a short time I will ask the question again, with a personal twist: what would it mean for you if He truly is raised?
The middle-aged man came to tell me his story. Not so long ago he had been stuck in a loop of anger, regret and depression. He couldn’t let go of the past. Over the last decade or so the memories of his uncle’s abuse had clarified. He had found a compassionate counselor who helped him organize his life better. And though he had become quite successful— by his reckoning he had amassed a small fortune—he couldn’t let go of the pain and humiliation.
But his real issue was this: that had all happened thirty years ago. Only in recent years had he awakened to the fact that for the past decades he had lived with his uncle smack in the middle of his life, and this relentless focus had kept him wound up in resentment and bitterness.
Then one year he walked into this Byzantine sanctuary on Easter and he heard a word that confronted him personally and directly. And the word he heard concerned the person he was becoming. Or another way to say it, he experienced a shocking and overwhelming sense of hope for the future.
Surprised by a rare moment of spiritual clarity he realized that he could not heal his past. That was gone. What he could do was reclaim his future through the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness was a tool of hope. Hope was a fruit of resurrection. It dawned on him that if Christ is truly raised, he could be too. It clicked into place for the first time in his life. Resurrection was a present reality as well as a future hope. He was shocked and awed, and he reported he wept through the rest of the day.
These tears were complicated, he said. On the one hand they were tears of grief for the abuse and loss of innocence. But they were also tears of liberation and joy because he was ready to be released from his addictive bondage to his past. His anger and resentment had come to fashion his identity and he was ready to let it go, and he was ready to release his uncle into the hands of God. He couldn’t change his past, but he could release its hold on his present and future. That’s what he had come to tell me. He felt a thousand pounds lighter. He needed to tell someone who might understand.
Now I don’t know your individual stories of course, but I do know that whatever they are, they fall well within the range of human striving and all the permutations of success and failure. You’ve likely been both victim and perpetrator. But there’s nothing that could be reported by anyone here that falls beyond the range of redemptive hope. That’s because if Jesus truly is raised he has nail prints in his hands—the archetypal victim. Put to death on a trumped up charge. Abandoned by his friends. This sorry loser is the one that is raised.
Consider Jesus’ friend, Peter, the rock—his right hand man. He’s the one who at the arrest of Jesus denied he ever knew him. When he rushed to the tomb he couldn’t leave his cowardice and betrayal home with his fishing nets. It came right along with him as he ran to see for himself.
When the impossible truth finally dawned Peter got his future back, because if Jesus had truly been raised then the world was fashioned far more wonderfully, mystically, than he could possibly have imagined. And discovering he had been raised with Christ, forgiven and restored, along with his friends he would seek the things that are above. That’s how Paul phrased it: “So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is...”
Even Judas—if he hadn’t short-circuited his options—would have retrieved his future and been empowered to set his sights on the things that are above. How do I know this? Because from the cross of death Jesus was heard to say this prayer: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing…” If Jesus is raised, that prayer takes on cosmic significance.
If Jesus is raised this same energy can show up in our lives. That’s the inevitable truth. That’s what struck Rollo May on Mt. Athos in a moment of spiritual clarity. If we’re raised along with Christ we too wind up setting our sights on the things that are above. But friends, this setting of our sights has implications that initially lie very close to home.
I hate to disappoint you, but the vast majority of you will not receive some exotic calling as you embrace the astonishing news of Easter that will transport you to another life. I doubt there’s another Mother Teresa sitting here this morning, although, on the other hand, I wouldn’t rule it out either. So be forewarned. She could be sitting next to you unawares…
Far more likely you’ll discover that setting your sights on the things that are above has homely implications right where you live, right in the middle of your own mundane lives; in your personal corruptions, or agonies or failures or wounded-ness— right smack in the middle of your confusion and uncertainty and doubt—right in the middle of all that… that’s where resurrection can re-arrange your worldview—like the man who came to tell me about the joyful liberation and power of forgiveness he found in this very space one Easter morning.
And here I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous observation that “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” That insight and wisdom emerged by King’s answering Rollo May’s question: What does it mean if Jesus is truly raised?
And that same wisdom fueled King’s passion for justice, another of the remarkable outcomes if Jesus is truly raised. George Weigel calls this the Easter Effect. And here’s the thing: the disciples didn’t get it right away. They didn’t understand it. Our scriptures are clear that most of them doubted. How could they not? Don’t some of you? I don’t understand it fully. After all, the disciples are like us. But they held on to the same question Rollo May heard on Mt Athos and over time they began to change.
In particular, “The way they thought about their responsibilities changed. What had happened to Jesus, they slowly began to grasp, was not just about their former teacher and friend; it was about all of them. His destiny was their destiny. It concerned their present and their future. So not only could they face opposition, scorn and even death with confidence; they could offer to others the truth and the fellowship they had been given.”
They could experience in their own mundane lives that they were loved and cherished, and that this same love was extended to everyone, everywhere, which truth continues to upend the world to our present time. April Fools indeed!
Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
A story is told about William Barclay, one of the 20th century’s most beloved New Testament scholars, who sometimes took controversial positions on the scriptures. A lively and colorful commentator, he made a popular series for the BBC. In an interview following the airing of this series he related the experience of knowing God’s sustaining strength during and after the time his twenty-one-year old daughter drowned in a yachting accident. A listener, angry over something Barclay had said in his program, wrote an anonymous letter. It said, “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know now why God killed your daughter; it was to save her from being corrupted by your heresies.”
But Barclay knew that God did not go around drowning people’s daughters in order to punish them. Had he known the writer’s address, he said that he would have written back in words that John Wesley said to someone: “Your God is my devil.”
In 1995 the highly respected Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin, was assassinated. He came to mind this week when I noticed the release of a new movie about the Entebbe raid in 1976 that was a successful counter-terrorism rescue of a hijacked airliner — Rabin had ordered the raid. Eventually he was re-elected as prime minister on a platform embracing the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and became a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. One wonders how these last decades would have evolved had this courageous politician survived. The assassin was a Jewish religious zealot who asserted that he had served his people and his country when he killed Rabin following a peace rally.
In making the sentence of life imprisonment the judge declared, “There is no greater desecration of God’s name than to justify this murder as a religious commandment or a moral mission.” In response, the assassin self-righteously stated, “Everything I did was for the God of Israel” — a poignant example of our human tendency to assign to God our own depraved motives.
Some pundits would have us believe that’s all God has ever been – a cosmic screen for human projections against a vast sea of unknowing. If that were all we believed, I should not be standing here and you should not be sitting here today. Despite our limitations, we do assert certain truths arise from the mysterious origins of life that make claims upon us.
Still, at best, we know only in part and the part we know is often less than crystal clear. Sometimes we do project our own biases onto God. How could it be otherwise given that we do it to one another all of the time? One of the primary reasons we cannot be healthy spiritual beings apart from a mature faith community is precisely because of our tendencies to get carried away with our individual opinion.
I realize that as a preacher you indulge my opinions on many things, but I’m mindful that my word is not the final word and it only finds life as it engages the hearts and minds of all of you, as though at the end of it we are really having a dialogue. And as a matter of course, many of you will reflexively share your opinions and faith with me which is all to the good.
So, thinking long and hard about the story we hear on this most dramatic day in the Christian year, we can only deduce that humans are at best extremely fickle. We are very prone for self-deception. As I described, not so long ago a self-righteous man says he must kill the leader of his nation which has as one of its ten basic principles, “Thou shalt not kill,” or more closely translated, “Thou shalt not murder,” in order to promote a political agenda.
And as we heard today, on another day 2 millennia ago, in the same city of Jerusalem, another pious man determines he must betray his friend into the hands of his enemies to execute a plan that will topple the oppressive government. Or was it only for the bounty of silver coins?
As that story is told, however, Judas isn’t the only conspirator. By the end, everyone conspires in Jesus’ death. His closest friends flee. Crowds intoxicated by the smell of blood replace the jubilant crowds who received him just a few days earlier. The colonial government desiring nothing more than maintenance of established power arrangements sentences an innocent man to death under the pretense of justice. The whole depressing story is a tissue of lies, deceptions and cowardice. There are no heroes standing in the wings. And there is no one at all who stands outside the proceedings.
This story continues to speak with great power because we’re able to read ourselves into it. When we’re honest, we know that we have the movement for both good and evil, for life and death, within us. None of us is exempt from this human condition. Each one of us falls short of an idealized version of ourselves. We can hope and pray and work to become more alive to that which brings life—I mean, that’s why we gather in places like this year after year, isn’t it? But we never completely sever our relationship to dark motives.
To lose connection with this truth puts us and those we love at great peril. Then we can do real damage. That’s part of the universal character of the story. Everyone is a participant. Not always a happy truth to behold. But in beholding it, we paradoxically discover a powerful hope.
A story is told of a man who came home drunk after a night of carousing in a number of neighborhood bars. His pious wife helped him up to the bedroom, helped him to undress and tucked him into bed. Then she kneeled at his bedside and whispered, “John, do you want me to pray for you?” He nodded a bleary “yes,” and she began to pray, “Dear Lord, I pray for my husband, John, who lies here before you drunk…”
Before she could finish, he interrupts. “Don’t tell him I’m drunk,” he says, “just tell him I’m a little sick.”
We’re all dissemblers before God. And before that, we’re dissemblers with ourselves. Always in some disguise. Always pretending. Never quite fully exposed. Hiding our true identity. Projecting an image of ourselves for mass consumption. Often propping ourselves up by putting others down.
There’s a sense in which we are ashamed of our humanity. Ashamed that we aren’t quite what we would like to be – that we aren’t exactly what we project. Ashamed, or perhaps angry, that our lives are what they are at any given time. It’s not uncommon for us to project our shame onto others, make them wear the clothes we don’t like in our own personal closets and then exile them from our circles of inclusion. Isn’t that what all the social isms and phobias are about? Chances are pretty good that if we’re feeling inherently superior to others we’ve managed to clothe those others in our discards. I love this bit of wisdom phrased by Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Jesus played against type as a divine messenger. At the end of it, what was he but a failure? A has-been. A could-a, would-a, should-a been. What a convenient mannequin for everyone’s closets of shame and failure and fear. Put him to death. And just maybe all those secret parts of us will die as well.
Paradoxically, even shockingly, for an entirely different reason, that is exactly the potential in this crucifixion. Not by our own doing, but by God’s, our deceit, shame, failure and fear can all be buried with this man. For he was pleased to leave his place of splendor to become one of us. He emptied himself so that he might fill himself with our fickle humanity and allow our frailty to die with him as life drained from his body. That’s the mystery we proclaim. I know it sounds both preposterous and too good to be true.
You mean I don’t have to continue to pretend I’m something I’m not? That I can be free of fear and anger? That I can put aside my blustering arrogance? That I have the real opportunity to rise into the full height of my humanity, becoming what God intended all along? It isn’t too late to learn love’s lessons? No, it’s not too late.
If we empty ourselves like Jesus did, if we allow our minds to share in his humility, will shall rise with him on Easter. That’s the heart of faith.
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
In my first year as an ordained minister, I came to know an older woman of quiet serenity, deep, sensible wisdom and abiding faith. The serenity was especially poignant after I heard a piece of her story one day over coffee. She told of a very bright and ambitious young woman, destined for great things. Driven and competent she broke through the ranks of a corporation known for its hard glass ceilings. Along the way, she married a supportive man, delivered two beautiful children and achieved great material success.
But she had secrets, some of which she kept even from herself. Secrets about fear and self-loathing among other things. One secret she did know about was the bottle of vodka in her desk drawer which was never allowed to run dry. Eventually, her alcoholism caused her to lose it all – her career, her marriage, even her children for a time. She reported that her need to control, her desperate attempt to make life conform to her worldview, and what she now saw as her fear-driven arrogance, drove her to a state of humiliation and despair.
She couldn’t really say what finally caused her to take the hand of a friend who drove her to her first AA meeting. But she began to rebuild her life into something that more nearly approximated, as she put it, “the truth.” Along the way she found God, or better perhaps, God found her. She said to me, “I don’t know what you’ll think about this, but I knew I had found my center when, surprisingly, I heard myself saying one night at a meeting that I thanked God I was an alcoholic. I didn’t mean I was thankful for the pain and ruin, but instead, that by smacking up hard against my limitations and failure my spirit cracked open and I found myself.”
That would be the first of many similar statements I would hear from people in a wide variety of contexts over the next four decades, right to the present moment. Honest, sincere people thanking God for all manner of difficulties of one sort or another, some for which they were personally responsible and others that came at them sideways out of nowhere. The gratitude was never for the actual failure, loss, or disruption, but for the new person or the new faith that wound up emerging on the other side.
Now I don’t subscribe to the sentimental “God never gives us something we can’t handle” school of thought. I’ve seen too much bad stuff go down to imagine that this stripped-down theology summarizes the human situation. On the other hand, it is often the case that a gift is hidden within challenging circumstance, regardless of its origins, that without the challenging circumstance the gift would never be realized.
I recently wrote about a comment by Helen Keller… You remember her? She was an American author, political activist, and lecturer; the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She campaigned for women's suffrage, labor rights, antimilitarism and other causes, proving to the world that deaf-blind people could all learn to communicate and that they could survive in the hearing/seeing world. Here’s what she said: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
I know from my own version of the-dark-night-of-the-soul that but for the stunning desperation I experienced I would never have really understood the limitations of my own powers, and then how to truly and for real rely on a power much greater than my own. And while I would never want to go through such a thing again, I am profoundly grateful and utterly changed as a result. I would tell you that prior to this time I dabbled in the outer rings of faith. After that time, I had a visceral sense of what it might mean to die in order to live. The heart of the Christian message transformed from a flat two dimensions into all four.
I’m well aware that others have had far grittier, grimmer circumstances to endure than me. But as for that, who’s to say which circumstance for which person has the greater claim on authenticity? What I can tell you is that at some point along the way something happened, something I hadn’t expected, something that came at me sideways from out of nowhere — so far as it seemed to me at the time — and I had choices to make about whether or not to let go and fall into the arms of God.
In the passage from John’s gospel we just heard, we’re told that some Greeks wanted to “see” Jesus, and by that I suppose the writer means they would like to meet him, perhaps speak with him. Evidently, these Greeks had heard of Jesus, and they were intrigued.
John’s interest in the telling, however, is not on these seekers, but on the one they wish to see. In the presence of his disciples, Jesus states, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But this glorification has nothing to do with becoming either a political savior on the one hand, or a celebrity preacher on the other. It has nothing to do with success in the ordinary meanings we attach to it. His next words are shockingly distant from what we might think of as a great accomplishment – he speaks of his death. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit….”
Life, death, and life restored is the heart of the Christian gospel. We’re now moving into the season in which this theme is displayed in its full archetypal glory. Jesus, the seed, will be sown in the earth which will, in turn, bring forth an astonishing fruitfulness, a great flowering of life abundant. That’s the story of Holy Week. A stunning, incomprehensible revelation about how the world has been fashioned.
Of course, if this were only a story, say, a colorful legend from a long time ago in a land far, far away, rather than a searing description of how the life of the world has been wrought in the hands of God, there would be no places like this for the sharing of it 2000 years later. It’s an incredible mystery for certain, how lifting a man upon a cross — an instrument of torture and capital punishment — could draw billions to himself. How does that make any sense at all?
Honestly, I don’t know how we are to make full sense of this mystery. The man on the cross remains stunningly charismatic. The church has offered a number of theories about this over the centuries, explanations, doctrines and dogmas about its meaning. Yet none of these finally stand fully on their own, none completely hold the truth of it.
But then, you see, along comes a woman who tells you her story about dying to her old self and rising again to a brand-new self, and she knows for certain that this has come to her as a mysterious gift from God. And the story of Jesus’ last days begins to resonate in a very deep place within, a place that is less comfortable with words and more comfortable with flat-out reality where certain decisions are made, such as whether to let go, risking what seems like death for certain, only to fall into the arms of God, like a seed that falls to the ground and dies, as it were, to become the miraculous thing that was always latent within.
Or along comes a man who has suffered a heart attack two years earlier who tells you it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Nearly died in the emergency room. In fact, he was told that he had died. Turned his world upside down and inside out, first causing a profound depression but then, miraculously, somehow, during an especially dark night, he gave up. That is, he threw in the towel on his puny powers, and he awoke the next day knowing he was different, new. Everything sort of looked the same, but sharper, clearer. He realized it was his sight—he saw things in four dimensions instead of his normal two. And he saw that he wasn’t alone. In fact, he was held by something—no, Someone—who loved him more than he could describe. His words couldn’t capture the experience.
Or, as the story is told, along comes a man who betrayed his best friend, in fact, watched as his friend was led away on trumped up charges that would lead to his death. This man was afraid for his own life. Just flat out afraid. He would have betrayed his own mother in that moment. Indeed, it was as if that is just what he had done, betrayed everything he ever thought he really honored in his life. And then one night in a sweaty anxiety his friend somehow came to him mystically and he knew that an overwhelming, life-transforming forgiveness was offered. The man he had been fell into the earth and died that night; the next morning a brand-new shoot had sprung up from the fertile spot where the seed husk had fallen. That man’s name was Peter, the Apostle, the supposed rock upon whom the church would be built. We’ll be hearing his story next week.
Or along comes persons like you and me who have heard about this Jesus, similar to the Greeks in our Gospel lesson. The Greeks are us. We’re intrigued by the stories we’ve heard, by the buildings that have been erected in his memory and the communities dedicated to serve the world in his name. Many have said they’ve thrown in their lot with him so far as they’ve understood it. Yet, maybe the seeds of their lives have yet to fall to the earth and die so that the latent fruitfulness can finally be released. I don’t know. How does anyone really know the heart of another, let alone their own heart? What do you think? How is it for you?
In the language of John’s gospel, a voice from heaven speaks as Jesus asks for his Father’s blessing and some hear a ratifying thunder as he asserts, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also…
And the mystery looms large and the mystery sounds like thunder, sometimes rattling and resonating our material and spiritual selves. Though we hadn’t thought of it like this before, it’s almost as if the seed is being put on alert that the time is near for its transformation. Time for the life God has intended for us all along. And the voice says, “Watch this Jesus. Listen to what he says. Let him stay with you for a while and see what can happen….”
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Not so long ago the Bronx Zoo closed its famed monkey house, officially the Primates House. Finally succumbing to the same maturing rationale that closed the Lion, Elephant, and Ape houses before it, the monkey house had outlived its usefulness having been born in what might be called zookeeping's colonialism period.
Part of the Monkey House lore includes a truly terrible, but darkly compelling, story from 1906 when a small African man named Ota Benga, was placed on display in one of the cages. It's a difficult story from many angles including the awful legacy of racist colonialism, but if you'll bear with me, it may help us think deeply about the work we attempt to accomplish during our season of Lent, and especially those words attributed to Jesus we just heard: "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…Those who do what is true, come to the light…"
Benga was a member of the Mbuti people in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. The tragedy unfolds when his people were slaughtered by the Belgian military who needed to control the natives in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the region. Benga lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was away on a hunting expedition when the military attacked his village. He was later captured by slavers.
An American businessman and missionary, Samuel Verner, was sent to Africa in 1904 under contract from the St. Louis World Fair to bring back an assortment of pygmies, so-called, to be part of an exhibition. On route to a particular village, he discovered Ota Benga and negotiated his release from the slavers for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.
Verner brought him back to the United States where Benga was exhibited at the World's Fair as part of a display of so-called "emblematic savages" and other "strange people" in the anthropology wing. This first stop in America was influenced by an incipient racist Darwinism.
By 1906 Benga had been brought to New York, first as a curiosity at the Natural History Museum, but ultimately finding his way to the Bronx Zoo where he was put on display in the monkey house. Although the zoo director insisted he was merely offering an 'intriguing exhibit' for the public's edification, he apparently saw no difference between a monkey and the little man; for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity-a parrot and an Orangutan.
It was widely believed at this time, even by eminent scientists, that blacks were evolutionarily inferior to Caucasians, but caging one in a zoo produced a lot of publicity. Ota Benga worked-or played-with the animals in a cage, naturally, and the spectacle of a black man in a cage gave a reporter the springboard for a story that worked up a storm of protest among African American ministers in the city. Their indignation was made known to the Mayor, but he refused to take action. They wrote, "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes ... We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls."
But in a striking defense of the depiction of Benga as a lesser human, an editorial in The New York Times suggested this:
We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter... It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies... are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place... from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
In other words, even the enlightened and exalted New York Times was under the thrall of racist science not to mention racist cultural norms. And friends, I don't really have to tell you how that got wound up over the next few decades in Europe into a principle rationale behind the holocaust.
Here's what's relevant for our purposes today. Given the time and distance that has now passed, although all things considered, not so very long ago at all - just over 100 years. I've lived for more than half that timeframe. In one sense it's just a short while ago, but perhaps enough distant to allow us a bit of perspective and a sense of the cultural freight of institutionalized evil. And by institutionalized I refer to both formal and informal structures that conferred assumptive power on evil motives and outcomes that were taken for granted. People just "knew".
The plaintive request of the black clergy haunts our conscience: "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls." That could ring backwards and forwards through the ages, right to the present moment, as the humble rebuke of every person who has been stripped or denied their basic human dignity. They speak for Jesus in this for certain.
Now we cannot change the past and I've not retold the story to foster a backwards - looking, handwringing moralizing. Instead, I want to present it as is, free of a manipulative emotional charge, to make a summary observation. It's probably fair to say that most people of privilege in that day were enthralled with a corrupt pseudo-scientific theory confirming their already well-institutionalized beliefs about human rankings. And of course, for those in power it's always quite gratifying and obvious that they should be on top, among the elect, or otherwise just basically better than so many others.
You've heard me confess the sins of the church in these matters over the years. And it's not lost to me that the businessman that brought Ota Benga back to the US for display, was also a missionary. Many a fine upstanding Christian could then, and still today, find many reasons why some people are just obviously inferior and beyond the bounds of God's graceful care. With Benga, seeing him caged with an orangutan just simply made the obvious case that most everyone already assumed.
And this is what I find so challenging. I mean, do you suppose that had you been to the Bronx Zoo in 1906 you would have held a different point of view than what the institutionalized powers espoused, including the scientific community and the wise New York Times? And yet, from our distance we see what an insidious evil it was and how mutated versions of this same human ignorance wended its way through the decades of the 20th century wreaking havoc right into the present.
Although, here's my real point. Can we see it now? Is it actually possible to see the darkness of our otherwise benign existence here on Park Avenue in New York City in 2018? Is it possible to see how we collude with powers and principalities that put others down and out, excluding them from God's hospitality, God's grace? Is it possible to see how we collude with the groupthink of our day?
For that matter, can we see how we ourselves are corrupted in our own character? How is it possible to get a helicopter view of our lives in order to gain a perspective on the interplay of darkness and light there? For instance, how we treat those we say we love, or our friends and neighbors close to home, let alone those we don't even know. Even if we wanted to get a handle on this, is it even possible to do so? How can we ever gain perspective?
Do you suppose anyone in 1916 would have thought they were in any way responsible for Ota Benga's suicide who one day found a gun and shot himself in the heart? I suspect the typical response would have gone something like this: Well, see? There you have it. What more could be expected of an inferior specimen?
Now as I mentioned in the beginning, I've shared Ota Benga's story this morning because at the end of our gospel lesson Jesus tells Nicodemus that though light has come into the world, people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil… but those who do what is true come to the light…
Doesn't that seem an apt description of our situation, albeit in first century poetry? But then, where does our help actually lie if we prefer wallowing in the darkness? And here the writer of Ephesians helps us out; he explained that we are saved by grace through faith that comes as a gift of God. In other words, what we cannot do for ourselves, God can do for us, if we have the humility to ask.
God can awaken the heart of truth, just as he did with the former slaver John Newton, writer of that most famous of all hymns, "Amazing Grace." Do you remember his story? Former captain of a slave ship turned abolitionist… He got turned around in his life in just the manner Jesus describes: by coming to the light and by doing what is true. "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see," he sang.
Maybe the light just smacked him on the side of his head in such a way that he could no longer look away. Or maybe he finally decided to take it on, full in the face, finding the heat of the light opening his eyes, purifying his mind, heart, and soul, singeing his hair, while restoring his life.
The clergymen's humility responding to Ota Benga haunts: "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls." That they have to actually say that prosecutes the case against the world's wisdom. And as we read the stories about the life and times of Jesus, his teachings, suffering, death and resurrection, we can arrive at no other conclusion but that those men spoke for him.
Who's willing to take a long hard look at the dark contours of their culture as well as the content of their character? Setting it out in the bright daylight where nothing is hidden? I tell you, that's a very big sort of work. But it's just the sort of work that faithful, courageous people take on because they have an instinct for knowing it's the pathway to abundant life for everyone. Those who do what is true come to the light…
For further reading about Ota Benga check out these links:
Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-25
Emily was experiencing something psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance - that's when behavior doesn't match beliefs, short-circuiting our wiring, causing dissonance, or disharmony, friction in our psychological world. For instance, a person who smokes knows this behavior is dissonant with knowledge about how to stay healthy. Or, telling a lie creates dissonance within a person who holds to a value of telling the truth. Whenever dissonance is created, we will want to eliminate it, bringing thinking and behavior into harmony. Something has to give. Either, the behavior changes, thinking changes or some form or rationalization smooths-over the dissonance.
If you think about it for a minute, you'll be surprised how many places it crops up large and small. Well, actually, you may discover you don't want to think about it too much-which is another way of dealing with dissonance-pretend it doesn't really exist by living in the land of denial and/or avoidance. Of course, if you're like me, you may find it has a way of waking you up in the middle of the night.
That's what Emily was dealing with. She called it anxiety and confusion, but those were just the symptoms. No doubt about it, she was in a full-blown spiritual version of cognitive dissonance. That's why she was speaking with a minister and not another sort of counselor.
Several things had come to a head in her life all at once: the reality of a dreadful marriage that had led her into an affair that had devolved into a sort of unpleasant duty; she was estranged from her children; and she was in a job that demanded she routinely misrepresent the truth to the customer, or as she said, flat out lie. Although the company never formally espoused such behavior, it was simply expected of the loyal employee. Loyalty meant adherence to the company's reverse ethic of misrepresentation-do that and loyalty from the company meant hanging on to your job and paycheck. And he had a big job with a big check.
As our conversation warmed up, Emily told me she had grown up attending Sunday School, though she had never thought of herself as especially religious. Fact is she had been away from church and religion for about two decades. But for some reason, the older she got, the more the old learning haunted her. She referenced the Ten Commandments and said she felt there was likely none that she hadn't broken. Of course, while she had never actually killed anyone, it was a good thing she didn't own a gun - but don't think she hadn't thought about it…
I said something like, "Well, welcome to the real church-you meet all the prerequisites as a member of the family. Hope you'll stick around."
We wound up having a series of good conversations about life and faith before she moved away-truthful conversations, rich and deep. I found it interesting that the Ten Commandments popped up every now and then, unusual in my experience; they evidently served as a touchstone for her, giving voice to the dissonance she experienced in her life.
Spiritual cognitive dissonance. That diagnosis lies behind many of the conversations that take place in my office. For that matter, spiritual dissonance often animates my personal prayer. It's a ubiquitous human condition. We each suffer our variations. I don't think it's possible to grow up without wandering into its terrain. And then attempt any number of remedies-booze, drugs, sex are pretty standard. Lots of things can seem to deaden the symptoms. So too, simple acquiescence a la Darth Vader and throwing your lot in with the Dark Lord. Lots of others do it, and it seems to pay off.
Anyone who takes the first proposition of the Ten Commandments with any degree of sincerity is bound to experience spiritual dissonance. "You shall have no other gods before me." This exposes the fundamental human problem of idolatrous self-regard, putting something first, namely ourselves, besides that which actually belongs there, namely God. In this way, we do not stand securely on the first principle of who's who and what's what; who we are, who God is, and how things have been arranged for our flourishing.
We don't generally think of the commandments in this light-as the means to human flourishing. We tend to get stuck on the "thou shall not" part of the repetitive equation which prompts a response like a rebellious child. But as the story is told God seems to suggest to the Israelites that these laws will help secure the freedom he has already provided for them. That's how the passage begins: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In other words, I'm the one who provided you liberty and here are some words that will help you flourish in liberty.
This can be a tough sell in 21st century USA because we've made something of an idol of liberty and freedom extending it into every conceivable arena of our lives and it gets trivialized like this: Don't tell me what to do! Even good things can become idols for us. We can swap places with God quicker than we can say lickety-split. In fact, I would say that is our favorite trick in resolving spiritual dissonance. It doesn't change the facts at the heart of all things, but this can seem to resolve our moral dilemmas for a time.
Of course, sooner or later, since this formulation doesn't square with actual reality, we set up a whole new theater of spiritual dissonance. Think it's hard to live with God at the center of all things? Just wait until you've displaced him. Actually, that's largely our human predicament much of the time, isn't it?
Honest spiritual dissonance is good fodder for our work in the season of Lent. It can fuel our own inward journey traveling with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. I don't remember the time of year my dialogue with Emily began. Don't know if it happened to coincide with Lent. Either way, she found herself confronting full in the face a raw experience of spiritual dissonance. She became aware of the uncomfortable disjunction between what she thought she really valued and how she was living her life. She had become aware of the rot and was no longer willing to avoid it. This admission was the fulcrum of a renewal of her life and faith.
I was aware how little I had to do with her discovery. It bubbled up into her consciousness from a deep source, like the Spirit's groan too deep for words that comes as a gift identifying our heart's desire. I was simply the person she found to share her groan. Like so many stories people tell me of their awakenings, I find my own faith walk confirmed and ennobled. Emily was a courageous woman who was about to have a major breakthrough into a glorious freedom she found in affirming the first proposition of the Commandments: have no other gods before me.
I should tell you that eventually Emily found her way out of her work situation and ended the string of deadening affairs. Her marriage never recovered, which was probably the best outcome there, but she was on her way to mending her relationship with her children. Life wasn't perfect, she wasn't perfect, but she wound up feeling freer than she had for decades.
How did this happen? She learned a variation of Paul's discovery: "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." We might say that she began to resolve her spiritual dissonance by deciding to do the harder thing, addressing the deep truth of her situation, stepping off the pedestal, and taking on the work that would lead to her flourishing.
It seems counter-intuitive that freedom comes by letting go and letting God. Reminiscent of Jesus' paradoxical wisdom when he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"
Learning to live that paradox lies at the heart of authentic Christian faith. That's it…
Acts 1:6-8, 2:1-4Read MoreLess
Genesis 9:8-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (substitution); Mark 1:9-15
In honor of Presidents Day many took advantage of the short work week. A lot of New Yorkers grabbed the opportunity for a mid-winter holiday out of the city. For myself, being a bit of an Abraham Lincoln dilettante, I was reminded of an old story concerning another Sunday about 150 years ago when President Lincoln was returning home from church and he was asked by a companion how he liked the sermon. Mr. Lincoln responded that he thought the message was well prepared and thoughtfully constructed but that it lacked the most important ingredient. His companion inquired what that might be. Lincoln responded, "The preacher failed to ask us to do anything great."
This got me to thinking about that word, "great." We've heard it a lot in recent years. And I got to wondering about its meaning. What exactly do we mean when we aspire to something great? Is it interchangeable with success for instance? Could we interpose that word in Lincoln's remark: "The preacher failed to ask us to be really successful?" I've heard the call to success, of course. Over the span of my life, I heard it from my parents, my schools and the wider culture.
Or does it mean notoriety or fame like a movie star, or, say, a reality television celebrity... aspire to a great name or brand recognition.
These definitions clearly don't square with the little vignette about Lincoln. Given the trajectory of his life commitments, we can be certain he didn't have in mind the amassing of a fortune or the fickle fame of celebrity.
Lincoln was President during our nation's most perilous moment, during the war we ironically refer to as "civil" - our Civil War. At a time of great distress, the call to do something great has particular poignancy. It's telling that Lincoln's comment pertains to what a preacher addressed during a church service and especially telling that he was longing for the words himself. I'm thinking Lincoln himself desired to hear the challenge as in "Abraham, do something great! Do the harder thing, the right thing, the truest thing." He needed the support for the terrible sacrifice that lay ahead.
Following this line of thinking takes us into the realm of virtuous character and notions of courage and sacrifice. He longed for a word that would challenge and stimulate a response within him, and to the extent he was looking for that in church, we surmise it was a deeply soulful concern.
This quality of brooding soulfulness, this desire to continually grow into greater character and to do the better thing - as he would artfully and famously phrase it, to listen to "the better angels of our nature" - defines in part the reason historians rate him our greatest president.
Now it turns out the challenge Lincoln longed to hear could have been heard in Philadelphia on that same Sunday where a younger contemporary preached. Phillips Brooks was an up-and-coming Episcopal clergyman known for his ringing oratory. A staunch abolitionist, Brooks located the essential battle for soulful character in the hearts of individual women and men.
"The ideal life," he said, "is in our blood and never will be still. Sad will be the day for any man when he becomes contented with the thoughts he is thinking and the deeds he is doing-where there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger, which he knows that he was meant and made to do."
For Brooks, one "great desire to do something larger" was putting an end to human slavery. That required changing the minds of more than half the population of the United States to see that skin color did not privilege one group over another-that slavery was antithetical to following the path Jesus blazed.
We can't hear this kind of forceful rhetoric today. It's hard to get it even in here. We've been too well marinated in the shallow noise of social media and before that, decades of reality TV and its ilk.
But the same tradition that motivated people like Lincoln and Brooks is still found written in these walls. The same tradition that located the essential moral battleground in the hearts of individual women and men is alive and well in the scriptures we read in here. The same clarion call for deep soul work can still pierce the cultural clutter if we allow ourselves to become silent and listen well, and that seems very much harder to do today.
It's an uphill battle. Listen to Brooks again. "Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks." Embedded within this is a call to take on the more important tasks that flow from the same God to whom we're praying.
Popular culture idolizes living easy lives requiring little struggle or sacrifice-moral or material. Or, radically successful lives built on fame or fortune. The goal our culture fashions for us, the mark of life fulfilled, is either the adulation of our peers or at least substantial material prosperity or, best of all, both.
Now, there's lots to commend about success, of course, I'm all for it. I've wanted a bit of it myself. I have wanted it for my children. We should for certain, maximize our various talents and abilities. Still this is not on point with the deepest, greatest values. When was the last time, for instance, you heard the word sacrifice used as a matter of some moral urgency? When was it powerfully mentored for you?
I'm reminded of a father's lament in Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, who at the climax speaks to his brilliant but heartless son saying, "A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteous¬ness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul."
The father is a rabbi steeped in biblical wisdom and he knows something about true greatness, its source and its agency in the world. He knows about our sacred genetics holding the potential for a greatness that reflects God's glory.
Parents, what do you want for your children? Could you say something similar, that your heart for a son, a soul for a daughter, compassion for a son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my children, not a mind without a soul…? And what do you mentor? What do you want for yourselves, for your community and world? What are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good?
Page after page our scriptures tell stories about people who are called to grow into larger versions of themselves. Noah was one of them, as the story is told, risking ridicule and fortune. The Apostle Paul turning from persecutor to lover. Peter, the fisherman, the supposed friend who flatly denied he ever knew Jesus at the time of his greatest need finally coming to his senses.
Most crucially we see this modeled in the life of the carpenter from Nazareth. On the first Sunday in Lent, we read about the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when he decides to step into his call. He strides to the Jordan River and receives a baptism of humility and solidarity. Immediately he's driven into the desert for 40 days to contend with his demons.
The other gospels describe this torment in greater depth. Mark only summarizes the outline. Jesus is baptized, driven into the desert where he's tempted with the powerful, seductive desires of his lesser self. After 40 days of hunger and thirst, he emerges from the ordeal having chosen the better way that ran counter to the world's patterns.
We have the advantage of knowing how his story turns out, how in a few years he'll face a brutal test and a horrible death. But the whole of the gospel hangs on Jesus' initial choice right here, in the wilderness, and his willingness to grapple with the very seductive, but ultimately lesser alternatives to the way of compassionate integrity. Here is where the die is cast; here is his defining moment. Here is where he leaves his lesser, uncertain self behind and stretches for his authentic greatness. He makes a clear choice.
Now we are not Jesus of course. But he mentors the pattern for our own inward journey. If you've wondered about the meaning of the forty days of Lent, here we have it clearly stated. Lent is a call into our greatness, which is to say it invites the self-examination that seeks the truth about ourselves and our situation, listening for the better angels of our nature, listening for the higher calling, purging what holds us back and accepting the power that is equal to the tasks to which we've been assigned.
"It does not take great people to do great things; it only takes consecrated people" (Brooks). That is, people who commit themselves to matters of the soul. Striving to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves counts us among their numbers. Do this and you too are consecrated to do great things.
2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
So how many of you watched the Super Bowl last Sunday? Someone commented after the sermon that Isaiah seemed to prophesy about the eventual winner. We had read the famous passage that says, "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31). So, eagles had the day and Isaiah had no word concerning patriots…
Fabulous game. Right? Among the best ever.
I'm not sure the same could be said about Justin Timberlake's half time show. Generally, I'm not too interested in those spectacles. At the end of the second quarter, I'm just as likely to head into the kitchen to start getting dinner ready or putting in a load of laundry. But this year Melissa was sitting with me, and she said she wanted to see it.
All in, we weren't that captivated. Although I think I did remark that it was visually impressive. Each year the organizers seem to want to outdo prior years in the razzle dazzle. That seems the point: how visually stunning can they make it? A lot has to do with how they handle light - and like I said, it had its visual moments.
But then I think I said at one point to Melissa, if you close your eyes the sound was pretty dismal. A couple of commentators reported the same. After all, Timberlake is firstly a singer, at least that's how he's packaged. I think that for a blind person the whole thing would have been a big yawn. The audience is supposed to be blown away with the visual extravaganza.
I like a good show, of course. There's a time and place for spectacle. Like the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Nothing much to hear during that show. Spectacle is the whole point.
We're suckers for the impressive visual display which is why CGI (computer generated effects) has taken over the movies. Big and flashy sells. Star Wars and its ilk are entirely dependent upon surprising the viewer with spectacle after spectacle. In the latest release, I especially liked the whole sequence with Luke Skywalker's final confrontation with Kylo Ren, Darth Vader's grandson, and his subsequent disappearance. The scene is actually a spectacle within a spectacle. Even Kylo is taken in by the artifice.
It's true in the religion business too. You've likely seen Joel Osteen's show in his arena. Tremendous production values, big hoo-ha and whatnot. Lots of megachurch ministers attempt to outdo one another in visual effects.
Of course, there's a long history for this in the world of religion. Pyramids and cathedrals and elaborate costuming have all been employed to capture the attention of the faithful. You can't help but be impressed when walking through St. Peter's Square in the Vatican or stepping through the basilica's portal into the space designed, in part, by Michelangelo. The most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, it's the largest church in the world. It was meant to be visually impressive. And it is.
And of course, in our own way here at Christ Church, our space is meant to capture the attention of cynical New Yorkers. Stepping into the sanctuary people inevitably look up, and around, and marvel at what they see immediately from coming off the sidewalk.
The Bible has stories filled with spectacle as well. We heard two of them today. TGI engineers would have fun with the scene of Elijah whisking away in a chariot of fire. And then the mystical transfiguration of Jesus on the top of a mountain who, Mark tells us, has more razzle-dazzle than the hottest pop-star, enveloped in shrouds of smoky clouds, and that voice, that voice that says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!" And with that, all in one fell swoop the spectacle evaporates. Poof! And its only Jesus and the three disciples left standing in bewilderment.
But here's the takeaway: the razzle-dazzle was never the point. The point was found in the voice of God who said, "Listen to him!"
Just prior to this dramatic episode, Mark reports that Jesus described how he would undergo great suffering, rejection, and even death at the hands of the elders and leaders. Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this sort of thing, and Jesus famously responds, "Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things, not on holy things."
And what do you suppose the human things were? Well, that's pretty easy given the disciple's transparent nature. They were following along with the expectation of a big payoff when Jesus came into his glory. That was the bargain they'd made. Though following after the way of Jesus, they had lost the point of what this journey was all about.
And here, just as Jesus is about to turn his path towards Jerusalem for the final leg of his journey, the lead disciples get a wake-up call, not that they'll get it, as the story is told. They're denser than thick mud. Just a few miles ahead they'll be arguing about who's the greatest among them. They want their big payday, by God!
So, one clear interpretation of the transfiguration concerns the fact that the disciples are captured by the razzle-dazzle opportunity and miss the content of the mission. Listen to him! God says. And the other gospels report it exactly the same way, with the same words. Listen to him… Listen…
Alert parents become aware of the reality of "teachable moments." These refer to the unplanned opportunities that come along when child and parent are both receptive to deep listening and sharing. These times can't be forced. In fact, parents learn the hard way that repetitive admonishments are regularly ignored, often inducing the exasperated, "Am I talking to myself?!?"
But then, maybe riding along in a car, or in a quiet walk down the street, a window of opportunity opens, you sense you are in a healthy emotional space, as is your child, and something is said or experienced, and a lesson is taught and heard.
Growing in faith is like that. Adults are stubborn students, actually worse than kids, because they've had years of honing their expectations and desires. We know what we know, after all. And we know what we want, need and expect. This is especially true in our relationship with God. We like to set the terms.
And like the disciples, our following along the path Jesus blazed is chock full of our expectations and desires for personal advancement and fulfillment. We want God to deliver the goods, to do some razzle-dazzle on our behalf, right? I've certainly been in that place.
And every now and again we may even experience some spiritual razzle-dazzle on the top of some high mountain, as it were, but if we're really alert to our circumstance, we'll also hear a loud, "Listen to him!" meant to bring us to our senses, to get a grip on the most meaningful content for the living our days. That after all is said and done, life isn't about going after one mountaintop experience after another, one success after another, one more trophy after another, one more razzle-dazzle distraction devoid of actual, consequential content.
As the story is told, the disciples were confronted up on that mountain with a voice that told them not to gawk, but to listen, yet the spectacle overwhelmed the message nevertheless, so when they descended the mountain they weren't any wiser and wouldn't become wiser until after they had had all their hopes dashed in a great conflagration of disloyalty and cowardice. Finally, after death and resurrection, stripped of all their expectations, vulnerable in their weakness, they had their teachable moment, and they remembered the words they were meant to hear all along as though for the very first time.
Here is just a smattering of some of those words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
"You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world…let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to God…
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
"When you stand to pray, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
And this: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"
Jesus said these things walking along the road with his disciples. Honestly, this wisdom is hard to hear, that is, it's hard to actually let it penetrate the thick crust of our own selfish preoccupations. As Paul said to his friends in Corinth, [The gospel] is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this world has blinded [their minds] to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. God…said, "Let light shine out of darkness…"
One simple way to understand your presence here in this space pertains to our helping one another to listen. To really listen. Because left to our individual selves we're really quite deaf. That's true for me. Man, do I ever need help to actually hear what's being said… That's been true in my marriage, with work colleagues, with my kids, and perhaps most especially with God. Fortunately, we have each other to hold us accountable to the things that matter most of all…
Isaiah 40:21-32; Mark 1:29-39
The question crops up in conversation quite a lot—why go to church? What’s the point of organized religion? Can’t I have my own private spiritual perspective and let it go at that? Aren’t all religions the same anyway and does it really make any difference?
If you pay attention to this line of thinking, follow its pattern, it leads to a more generalized disaffection with nearly all organized behavior—a growing lack of confidence in not just religious institutions, but government, education, business, too. A lot has been written about the collapse of institutional life in the last decade.
A while ago David Brooks nailed this situation squarely (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/opinion/brooks-how-to-fight-the-man.html). He recounted how a 22-year-old man named Jefferson Bethke produced a video called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video shows Bethke standing in a courtyard rhyming about the purity of the teachings of Jesus and the hypocrisy of the church. Jesus preaches healing, surrender and love, he argues, but religion is rigid, phony and stale. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” Bethke insists. “Religion puts you in bondage, but Jesus sets you free.”
The video went viral, acquiring millions of hits. Evidently it spoke for many young people who felt close to God but not to the church. Brooks reasoned that this represented the passionate voice of those who think their institutions lack integrity—not just the religious ones, but the political and corporate ones, too.
He went on to say that we currently suffer from an over-reliance on the narcissism of the individual point of view. “This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest…that is ultimately vague and ineffectual.
But in fact, belief systems help...”people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act.
Just a bit of reflection reveals we are the beneficiaries of an astonishing depth of collected wisdom gathered and refined over decades and centuries, passed on through institutional means. To assume we individually and separately have the singular bead on the truth is a remarkably arrogant, not to say profoundly limited point of view and a great diminishment of our potential.
Consider the Bible for a moment. A vast library collected, edited and redacted over 1000 years; passed on generation after generation; argued, debated, re-interpreted; advancing God’s graceful, potent and life-affirming message that has captured the attention of billions of people, but made possible only through so-called “organized religion”. One doesn’t have to be any sort of believer in its transcendence to stand in wonderment at this legacy. We could almost say the Bible is its own institution.
To simply dismiss institutional life as irrelevant, is to dismiss human history out of hand. Corruption abounds, of course. No argument there. But corruption abounds as easily, even more fundamentally I think, in individuals as it does in collectives. It’s useful to remember that whenever people choose to accomplish a good end they inevitably form structures of common concern to implement positive outcomes. In other words, they make institutions. Because institutions have the ability to survive over time. At its best, the church is one of the towering examples of such accomplishment.
Consider our small brand called Methodism. It has figured prominently in American history as an engine for the development of hospitals, social work, public education and many colleges and universities. Methodists were early abolitionists, helped establish communal commitments to self-improvement, moral development and compassionate engagement with the world. It’s certainly not perfect. It has faults, but also a resilient commitment to the things that matter most of all, calling us to love the way God loves.
I say this as simple observation. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s part of a much wider, broader, deeper consortium of structures, movements, collectives and communities that have organized to advance a profound spiritual perspective energized by Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself energized by an older wisdom tradition. It’s a point of view and way of life in which I’ve immersed myself to clarify and amplify my own potential and to focus my priorities in a life bounded by time.
My disagreements with the organization—and I have several significant ones—don’t diminish the power of this larger frame of reference. Instead, I wrestle and debate with the tradition. In the process, I am found and formed, not as in a plastic mold poured by robots, but as a resilient human man, open, yearning, questing after the most important things; discovering mentors and companions who will support me and challenge me and allow me to flourish while together standing upon a very secure foundation. This has been my experience.
This past week Melissa and I saw the musical Come from Away that tells the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded airline passengers who were grounded midflight on 9/11, and the small town with a large moth-balled airport in Newfoundland, Canada that welcomed them. It was excellent, btw, and I highly recommend it. But it also brought to mind those fateful days.
For me today’s lesson from Isaiah will forever be tied to those days following the attack on our island. We read it here several times in short order back then as part of our worship, including the service of prayer at noon on the Thursday following the fateful Tuesday to which everyone in the nation had been called. Our sanctuary was filled to overflowing—standing room only. As the noon hour struck and we were about to begin I saw a sanitation truck screech to a halt through our glass doors; several men leapt off and ran into the overcrowded space just as I was about to begin at the stroke of 12—such was the power of our mere institutional presence on the corner of Park and 60th.
I knew that a very high percentage of attendees that day likely hadn’t darkened the door of a church for years, maybe ever. But I also understood that when the ground shakes you reach for the very best handhold available. In such moments our thinking shifts to a ground that touches bedrock, a foundation addressed by our tradition’s scriptures. They provide an ancient library of the recurring human discovery that God is. Behind all things lies a fundamental order. Friends who believed that were part of an organization that built this place. And in this way, they gave it forward to the generations that would follow.
That’s why people flocked to churches. They needed to remember something just on the edge of consciousness. And so, the scriptures were opened, and people resonated with ancient poetry: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Those gathered here had an instinct for understanding that these words were forged in the crucible of great human adversity and tragedy. For millennia people confronted with great crises had seen behind and beneath their experience a more fundamental order and others who then followed over the decades and centuries learned the wisdom of their forebears that God is.
Institutions evolve of course. We’re now living in a time of great upheaval in part instigated by technology and the subsequent shattering of old boundaries of knowledge, information, cultures, and epistemologies. We’re in for a very wild ride in the next decades, institutionally speaking.
In the meantime, I assert there are powerful human, even divine, resources that put the ground beneath our feet and inflate our lungs with breath. These have been collected, organized, redacted and edited through a continuous flow of human spiritual energy that even today fills this space. Regardless of your current level of commitment, involvement, interest or understanding, your mere presence here within these walls locates you within this dynamic spiritual flow. And I say, thank God for that! And thank God for the church, battered but unbowed, corrupt but standing on the most solid foundation. Held tenderly in love for the sake of love. Just like you and me.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18, 21 (optional reading); Mark 1:21-28
Yesterday, January 27th, was the 73rd annual Holocaust Memorial Day. It dates from the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945 by the Soviet Army, and the stunning discovery of the incomprehensible systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews.
If you join the next Christ Church pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine in May 2019, among the sites we'll visit in Jerusalem will be the World Holocaust Remembrance Center called Yad Vashem. It's a difficult museum to walk through as it traces the origins of anti-Semitism, especially within Christian sources, and in Christian majority nations like the United States; and the bewildering complicity of the majority of Germans who followed through with maximum efficiency and organization to systematically eliminate an entire ethnic population.
One of the ancillary memorials there is dedicated to the nearly two million children who were victims of the holocaust. I've walked through it now about 8 times and my eyes never fail to leak tears at the staggering incomprehensibility.
Among the things I've wondered about over the years was the paucity of prophetic voices in those days. There were some. We know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christian theologians who wrote the Barmen Declaration that stood against the policies of Christian nationalism. But even in the United States strains of anti-Semitism prevented Jewish refugees from landing on our shores. Politicians all the way to FDR were cowed into refusing their entry for lack of national support - in other words, for brazen, incipient anti-Semitism.
Consider the famed entrepreneur Henry Ford. In 1918, Ford purchased his hometown newspaper, "The Dearborn Independent," and began publishing articles that claimed a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting America. The articles were bound into volumes titled "The International Jew," and he distributed half a million copies to his vast network of Ford dealerships and subscribers. As one of the most famous men in America, Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority.
These were the same days that the Ku Klux Klan claimed at least 4 million members. Virulent strains of anti-black and anti-Jew blended into an amalgam of white supremacy that lingers to this day, 100 years later, as we saw in Charlottesville last year.
And since the Klan liked to burn huge crosses as an emblem of fear, we're reminded that they cast their point of view with a Christian tint. Likely most Klan members were also members of local churches. But then, Christians had long defended segregation, and slavery before it, by piously quoting scripture.
Christians have never been immune to missing the point at the heart of what it means to follow after the way of Jesus. That's simply factual. It's important for us to admit and remember. And that's why it's so essential we remain true to the central organizing principle Jesus set before us with both his words and the content of his life: love God above all things; love your neighbors as yourselves.
Creating enemies and fostering fear and hatred of others is absolutely antithetical to this fundamental proposition. It's completely baffling to me how easily this can get lost as the essential cornerstone of Christian faith.
Everything else flows forward from this: all people have equal standing before God since all have been created in God's image. What's so difficult to comprehend about that? And yet, every generation needs its prophets to proclaim this truth.
Considering the necessity of this prophetic witness of love today we can see how it is that someone like, say, Martin Luther King Jr., rose up from out of the church to call it back to its essential witness, namely, to love as Jesus did, all persons regardless of any distinguishing characteristic. This included, by the way, loving one's enemies. This was the heart of non-violent protest.
How can we misconstrue Paul's meaning when he writes, "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers"?
I know I'm repeating what you just heard a moment ago, but I think it bears hearing again given our propensity to deafness: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.:."
Now look, I think this is what we're called to embody. It's no more complicated than that. This is what we're called to embody amidst the rancor and enmity of our current moment. The insidious tribalism runs counter to our call. We're meant to stand apart from this, not in disinterest or disengagement, but as advocates for healing and reconciliation in the manner of Jesus who spoke as one with authority. We're meant to love God and neighbor. That's it.
Listen to how the Gospel of Mark described the situation after Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. Don't get hung up on the literal specifics. Listen to the response of the amazed witnesses "who kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him…'"
Following his way in the world would put us at odds with current conditions. And we should ask ourselves, what does fidelity to this mission look like? What does it mean for us to comport ourselves in keeping with the prophetic witness of Jesus?
After the Germans overwhelmed France and their policy concerning Jews was being implemented, the response of a certain village of protestant Christians becomes instructive, especially considering that the vast majority of identified Christians aligned themselves with Adolph Hitler's agenda.
From December 1940 to September 1944, the inhabitants of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (population 5,000) and the villages on the surrounding plateau (population 24,000) provided refuge for…3,500 Jews who were fleeing from…Germans.
Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, his wife Magda, and his assistant, Pastor Edouard Theis, the residents of these villages offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and…guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. These actions of rescue were unusual…insofar as they involved the majority of the population of an entire region.
Why did they do this? Why did they risk arrest and imprisonment? A clue is found in a public sermon by Pastor Trocme who said, "the Christian Church must kneel down and ask God to forgive its present failings and cowardice." That was a prophetic voice in a perilous time. A voice calling the church to rekindle faithfulness to its actual message.
As you've heard me say in the past, taking this mission on, living in the manner Paul described and Jesus modeled has the effect of dignifying our humanity and holds the key to human flourishing. Healthy, wholesome communities are built with resilient, sacrificial love. Tribalism, hate, fear-mongering, selfishness, lack of compassionate regard for others, are all viruses that attack the human organism and must be resisted.
There's no question that this message runs counter to current conditions, yet has never seemed more relevant and important.
You've likely heard of Anne Frank, the 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid with her family in Amsterdam during the 2nd World War. She wrote a famous diary that is filled with compassionate wisdom way beyond her years. Eventually Anne and her family were betrayed and carted off to Auschwitz.
An entry dated July 22nd reads, "It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more."
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait to a single moment to start improving the world…"
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
One of the small but enduring personal anecdotes that has stayed with me for several decades occurred at a cocktail party a couple of years into my New York City gig. Some of you have likely heard it before even though it’s just a little, inconsequential story. Nevertheless, it has served as a kind of touchstone for my professional life.
Two hours into the party where I had arrived anonymously, a sophisticated, successful woman asked me what I did for a living. She had had more than a little bit to drink and had shared more of herself than perhaps she had intended, so when I told her I was an ordained Methodist minister she became wide-eyed and speechless—the proverbial “deer-in-headlights” look. Her mouth fell open in complete bewilderment. When she regained her voice she said, “But you don’t look like a minister!”
After a pause she asked, “Don’t you ever wear a collar?” And by the inflection in her voice I could tell she meant, “Don’t you think you should do everyone a favor by warning them ahead of time about the nature of your occupation?!”
Early on I learned that the sudden revelation of my profession in an otherwise anonymous setting could be quite jarring for people. Sometimes that had to do with a vague feeling they had been caught with their pants down, so to speak. For others who lacked religious experience or perspective—especially here in the city—I seemed an oddly exotic specimen inducing incomprehension and stupefaction.
As I said in Faith Matters this week this tracks along the rapid cultural evolution of greater and greater numbers of people with no religious identification. If someone finds religion irrelevant to her life, well, then, stands to reason a professional religionist has an irrelevant occupation. Sometimes I sense this judgment informing a questioner’s point of view.
But then, everyone who identifies as Christian shares a similar burden. From what I’ve heard from parishioners here, Christian New Yorkers are not inclined to readily self-identify in most environments, say, in one’s workplace, for instance—although over time this might leak out.
How about dating sites? I’ve had a lot of chats about that in recent years, the pros and cons of Christian self-disclosure, and more often than not, the cons, due to stereotyped perceptions. Many want to let that out a bit later on when forming a new relationship.
On that front I don’t have any useful advice (just gratitude I’ve graduated from the necessity of using OKCupid). But this does cause me to reflect on what’s at stake in our willingness to self-identify.
A pithy bit of wisdom attributed to St. Francis goes like this: “Preach the gospel: if necessary use words.” He was emphasizing the content of our lives takes precedence over everything else. We demonstrate what we value by the wake we leave behind as we make our way forward in life’s currents, rather than whatever we blather on about in the meantime. As C.S. Lewis put it, “What you do screams so loud I can’t hear what you say”—a crucially relevant bit of wisdom for parents, not to exclude all the rest of us.
But words do matter. How we align our words with our faith seems especially important today. We need to get braver about this, willing to take a risk or two. Let’s not have the fundamentalists on the right or the left define what it means to be Christian, giving up on our language of faith for fear of being misunderstood. The quality of our love-in-action is our proof of what we mean. We should be able to speak to this confidently.
So back at the cocktail party, after recovering her composure, our conversation settled into a rather deep sharing. Inevitably my new friend asked me why I became a minister which has a rather nuanced answer. It didn’t get all theological on her, although God did come up. But this led to my asking her about her life and work and the different directions our lives had taken. And since God was a subtext, did she have any sort of spiritual life?
Rather than answering that directly, after a pause she told me she wasn’t very happy. Though she hadn’t confided this to anyone recently, at the age of 45 she felt lost. “Successful…but lost,” she snorted. I could tell by the look in her eyes that she definitely now felt she had said way too much. Then quietly staring into her drink she mused that had I worn a collar she definitely would have avoided me.
That was about as far as our conversation was going to go under the circumstance. She thanked me for this little unexpected chat. But then, if only I had worn a collar she could have avoided all the introspection. As it was, she said she was now headed home with more than just a few drinks in her system...and oh, maybe I might see her some Sunday.
Well, as I said, that was quite a few years ago. Eventually she moved away, but not before she wound up joining our ranks and becoming actively involved, especially in our outreach efforts.
One of the enduring riddles of the life of Jesus concerns his selection of his disciples, that core group of companions. We know a few details about the twelve men closest to him. We know there were a group of women who also were part of the inner circle. We know that as a whole these friends didn’t have a well-established pedigree. Some had a borderline relationship with the laws of government and religion.
As the story is told, what do you suppose Jesus looked like when he called those first fishermen? I imagine he looked very much like the village carpenter—rough hands, hard and strong, like the hands of the fishermen. I imagine he had spoken with these men before, perhaps as they dried their nets at the end of a day. And in the course of conversation Jesus did what he did better than anyone else—he related their lives to the life of the Spirit, to the things that matter most of all in the midst of the living of their days.
Given how we’ve cleaned him up and mythologized him to a fare-thee-well, building extravagant marble-encrusted buildings in his name and emblazing his image in glittering mosaics, its important to remember that he didn’t appear out of nowhere, walking out of the sunrise making sacred esoteric declarations while the heavenly chorus sang “alleluia” in the background so that these fishermen might be sufficiently impressed to drop everything and follow him into the sunset and beyond.
It seems Jesus was an uncommonly wise carpenter who found his voice as he grew in years until one day it became clear that when he spoke you really had better listen, because if you did, you wound up learning things about yourself and the world that completely altered the goal of your life.
In the biblical stories we hear him saying that the Spirit of God could be found in very homely settings—in the tale of a shepherd, a farmer, a tax collector, a businessman, politician, even an embezzler and a prostitute…all the types of people there are, and in our day, those we could meet at a bar or cocktail party. His stories were the stories of everyday life into which everyone might read the content of their own lives.
While coming to a place like this has great value, where, when we’re at our best, we uncloak the truth and make ourselves available to it, out there beyond these walls is where you spend the great bulk of your time, where you work, go on dates, invest your money, eat, drink, make sense of your sexuality, use your bodies for good or ill, raise children, grapple with death. That’s where God’s claim on your life has its real impact. If God’s call doesn’t have meaning out there in the hurley-burley of your daily lives, it hasn’t yet been heard.
There is no more likely candidate to hear God’s voice than you. In fact, so far as your own corner of the world is concerned, you are the only true candidate. Of course, God’s voice is heard in a wide variety of tonalities. You can hear it as scripture is read and proclaimed, you can hear it in music; you can hear it in nearly any occasion through a vast array of mediums. You can hear it at a cocktail party, on the subway, walking along the sidewalk, taking a friend or lover to dinner.
Here’s a remarkable surprise: sometimes we’re the vessels for God’s voice. I don’t mean that in the sense of the biblical prophet making grand pronouncements. I mean it in the sense of the quality of our love and care, our ability to listen and question, our willingness to be known authentically, to share who we are, what we think and believe with open hands and hearts.
Hearing God’s voice is closely allied to our finding our own voice. These are linked. I’m currently experiencing how my 2-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter is learning to speak. It’s clear that as she struggles to find the words she needs, she’s making sense of who she is. And it occurs to me that this process never really ends. When I call out to little Adeline she hears my voice and invariably finds her own.
I think that’s how it works with faith as well.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51Read MoreLess
Baptism of the Lord
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
In just a few minutes following a rather involved liturgical prayer Leslie, Violet and I will flow through the congregation flicking water at you with evergreen branches. I’m telling you this now so that those who are newcomers to Christ Church might be forewarned because depending upon your point of view or life experience this could seem an absurd activity.
If you’re new to the religious scene, or newly returned to church, I suppose much of our liturgy could appear quite foreign, maybe even requiring a translation. You are likely well-aware that there’s no standard today for what constitutes relevant Christian worship behavior. The options are numerous, running the gamut from praise bands in a bar, to high mass at St. Peter’s in Rome, and everything in between. Worship leaders can dress in Hawaiian shirts and sandals or in elaborate religious regalia with pointy hats and embroidered robes.
A solid case can be made for all these forms and methods, but what matters most is the sincerity of the worshipers in their desire to be fully known to God and vice versa.
In other words, does the worship experience have integrity? Are the leaders and participants speaking authentically? Does the music from time to time open subterranean mystic doorways supporting a faithful expression of heart and mind; does the worship activity hold-up the best of what it means to be human, made in God’s image, and so forth?
Christ Church has been bequeathed a rather remarkable and noble sanctuary here that has always seemed to me to inspire a kind of noble worship. Noble—not to say, opaque or tiresome or disconnected from real people living real lives.
Given the gift of this space we subscribe to some traditional worship patterns, to the best of what our long Christian tradition offers, while remaining alert to current culture; in part, this is why the clergy wear robes and the choir processes – to amplify the idea that what we’re about in here actually matters quite a lot, with a deep taproot to the faith of our forebears. We understand that we stand on the shoulders of others and future generations will follow us. Holy ritual captures this perspective of time as sacred gift and obligation. At its best ritual amplifies the things that matter most of all.
While our themes change from week to week as we follow a pattern of the church year built on the life and times of Jesus, undergirding all of our activity are a few very fundamental affirmations that ennoble our lives out there on the street beyond these walls.
So, for instance, today, like I said, the clergy will be flicking water at you from evergreen branches—an odd sort of thing for several robed people to do, unless you pay close attention to what’s actually being said and proclaimed in the service. And it’s something that you won’t hear outside of these walls; something quite important about you, about all of us, about our human situation.
Today we mark Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, and here at Christ Church, we incorporate a baptismal remembrance service into our liturgy. We do this because this day in particular allows us to remember and affirm something very crucial about our essential identity.
Having been born, every last one of us confronts this essential question: Who am I, really? And this variation: Who am I going to be when I grow up? Interestingly, these questions aren’t static or time-bound. At the age of 65, I can attest to their continuing relevance. I know this from my own experience, and I know it from hearing the experience of hundreds of other people as they make their way forward in their years.
When we baptize several infants in a few minutes, we’ll have in our hearts and minds the beauty of human potential bundled in swaddling clothes. We’ll ask parents the names of these children and tell them that they are loved immeasurably—and in all of this, that they are beloved children of God, that they should never forget this because knowing this gives confidence to live life fully, courageously, and righteously; and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate them from God’s love.
I believe that an inadequate answer to the question, “who am I?” drives most of our human problems and tragedies. Baptism concerns our essential identity. As you heard the story earlier, a voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children – and confers upon us the promise of God’s unconditional regard.
We sentimentalize this notion with babies, but honestly, I’ve known many 70-year-old men and women, not to mention 30 and 40-year-olds, who have either forgotten or never learned the factual answer to the question: Who am I? We probably could say that this question undergirds everything we do here.
Humans have a natural craving to figure out who they are. This drives the burgeoning business model of ancestry.com. People flock to discover their genetic roots. It would be interesting to ask how many of you have had your saliva analyzed. But whether or not you’ve found you’re related to Charlemagne, Genghis Kahn or an Ethiopian prince, baptism reveals that all of us share a sacred genetic ancestry as children of God. Baptism is a tangible sign of our kinship.
There’s nothing magical about it. Baptism doesn’t confer some new mystical power. It names and claims a fundamental truth—each one of us, child of God, precious in our given-ness. And if we will have it, destined for reunion at our true home not made with human hands.
Baptism is God’s work conferring confidence that no matter how often we fall short, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we cannot screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.
In a time when so many of our relationships flounder and fail, which can leave us feeling bereft and beleaguered, hear me when I say that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. By trusting this truth, we’re freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives. Can we trust, do we trust that we are firmly held by God? That first and last we are God’s?
When a drop of water reaches you today remember this. Take it on and in. Let it nourish the root system of your own identity. Let it inform your future. Let it renew your present. Let it remind you that nothing you’ve done, nothing that’s happened, no failing or confusion, no loss or remorse, no weakness or distress can separate you from God’s great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We go to the river now to stake this claim…
The following story appeared in The New York Times (1):
“For a few moments, the sight could have been confused for a miraculous arrival ahead of the Christmas season: A newborn baby, hours old and full term, appeared within a nativity scene at a Queens church on Monday.
“But the story of how the baby got onto the manger stage inside the Holy Child Jesus Church in the Richmond Hill neighborhood was much more earthly, the police said: A woman, seen on video, had arrived with the boy wrapped in a towel, his umbilical cord still attached, and departed without him.
“On Tuesday afternoon, detectives were seeking to speak with the woman, who was believed to be the child’s mother.
“Late Monday morning, a custodian, Jose Moran, arranged the empty manger at the front of the church, facing the pews, the crèche still empty of all the animals and statues of the Christmas story. Then he went to lunch.
“When he returned...he heard the cries of a baby and discovered the child. The baby, whose name was unknown, [was taken to] Jamaica Hospital Center. Doctors said it appeared that he had been born four to five hours earlier.
“The parish priest said he could think of no better place to leave a baby. He said that rather than seeing the mother’s actions as sad, he found them inspirational. ‘I think it’s beautiful,’ [he] said. ‘A church is a home for those in need, and she felt, in this stable — a place where Jesus will find his home — a home for her child.’
Several days later “the mother was found and was told she would not face criminal prosecution. ... The District Attorney said, ‘It appears that the mother felt her newborn child would be found safely in the church and chose to place the baby in the manger because it was the warmest place...’
“A video clip showed the woman, with the infant, entering a dollar store...around the corner from the church. Another video captured her leaving the store with the baby and newly purchased towels” (2). A photo attached to the article showed the mother had chosen purple towels, the color of royalty.
A Christmas story for certain.
I’m thinking that most of you responding to current cultural and political conditions, not to mention the perplexities in your own life, have entered this sanctuary tonight with no small amount of anxiety or anger or fear or confusion. I’m guessing the young mother in the story I just reported was well acquainted with those feelings as she entered the church in Queens and approached the empty manger. As the story is told 2000 years earlier, Joseph and Mary shared that experience as well as they came to their manger.
Contrary to outward appearances, people are not so very different in their frailties, vulnerabilities, and corruptions. We all have them, and we all brought them along with us tonight. That’s a good thing. It’s good to share this truth among friends who’ve gathered in Bethlehem. In a way, they’re our gifts to place at the manger where we know we will be received as we are.
Mary’s child was a miracle, of course, as all children are, like the one laid in a manger in Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens. His mother went there assuming her need would be met, her child would be received and cared for. We can’t second-guess her circumstance. We can only imagine her desperation. And as we glance around this room tonight we mustn’t second-guess anyone’s situation beyond the willingness to come to the light.
I mean, that’s what we’re doing, isn’t it? Coming to the light? That’s the point to the candles that pierce the darkness.
It’s a wonderful thing we get to do at this time of year. To remember that we are not entire unto ourselves, that there is a God who loves and holds us tenderly and that in our own way we are meant to extend this same generous love to others. Tonight we make the audacious claim that God has taken on the same frail flesh as each of us, that our existence, our humanity, has been dignified by God’s condescension. As God comes down to us, as it were, we are lifted up.
And I was reminded of a time early in my ministry when a young pregnant woman had come to my office. It was early December. As she spilled out her story, tears welled in her eyes. She had fallen in love, she said. The young man had spoken of commitment, but when he discovered they had conceived a child, he fled, leaving her very alone. Some combination of instinct and “in-your-face” resolve led her to quickly decide to keep the child.
Now, with about a month to go before delivery, she had fallen into a great depression. She had lost hope. Her job was precarious, and anyway, wasn’t our culture hostile to children? Wasn’t it an impossible task for a single woman of little means to raise an emotionally healthy child?
Because of the time of year, it came to me to remember the story of another young, single, pregnant woman who conceived an infant boy in dangerous days. And though difficult, wasn’t the gift of life the harbinger of hope?
Did she remember the story? I asked if I could share it with her. She nodded her approval and I read what we heard tonight, Luke’s account of Gabriel’s dialogue with Mary. She stopped me when Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary,” and we considered how frequently fear came stomping through our lives as the great enemy, the great interrupter.
We acknowledged that she had chosen to follow a potentially difficult path in the pattern of many women for millennia. She would have decisions ahead, and hard choices. After forthrightly naming our fears, we prayed for strength and courage and love and grace.
She endured. Then thrived, as did her child, and twenty-five years later I had the privilege of baptizing her grandchild.
As Gabriel said to Mary, nothing will be impossible with God.
Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:39-45; Luke 1:46-55
Given the season of the year, the NY Times provided an update on the city of Bethlehem this week (12/23/17). From the time our president officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, protests have broken out in the place of Jesus’ birth.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, part of the territory controlled by the Palestinians. The Christ Church pilgrims who recently traveled to the holy land discovered they had to pass through the graffiti-covered separation wall dividing the territories in order to visit The Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of the manger. Generally overrun with tourists, this Christmas it’s largely devoid of visitors since the smell of tear gas hangs in the air.
It’s a challenging site to visit for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the disjunction between the sweet Christmas pieties we have here in the US confronting the tortured religious/political context of today’s Bethlehem. It’s a jarring disconnect. But then, part of the learning involves the re-discovery that Jesus also was born into a perilous political time. As the story is told, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem as a result of a political decree and we remember that Jesus will ultimately die as an enemy of the state. Our religion is fraught with political overtones.
Sweet pieties aside, Jesus lived a true human life in dangerous days. And his mother was an ordinary, unassuming person from an ordinary, unassuming background with ordinary, unassuming prospects for the future—including an arranged marriage to a carpenter. She was a nobody from nowhere as far as the world’s elites would have known or cared. There are probably several billion women in our world today equivalent to Mary, who draw about the same level of interest from us as she attracted within the Roman Empire.
Despite the mystical trappings, we know our famous story emerges from a real time and place among real people who struggled with real-time issues.
We say something of breathtaking audacity at this time of year—the creator of all that is assumes human form in a startlingly modest fashion. Award-winning children’s author Madeleine L’Engle described the birth of Jesus as "The Glorious Impossible." God entered the world in a fashion that startles the imagination; ignoring the powerful and opting instead to grace a nobody from nowhere. And then according to our story this poor, young peasant woman responds with a great big, “Yes! Here I am, the Lord’s servant; let it be with me according to your word" (1).
This seems one the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable story. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “Mary...asked, ‘How can this be?’ and that is all she asked, but there are several other questions I believe I would have asked, such as: Will Joseph stick around? Will my parents still love me? Will my friends stand by me, or will I get dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around? Will the labor be hard? Will there be someone there to help me when my time comes? You say the child will be king of Israel, but what about me? Will I survive his birth? What about me?”
We’re not told if Mary experienced questions like these. What we are told is that she lived into the call that was placed on her life. She took what was handed to her and received it as her own. In this way she grew into her integrity, her wholeness. She said yes to God and embraced her responsibilities.
The story reports that the angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” And the thoughtful reader muses that this is a very strange blessing. I mean, it’s not as if she’s told, “You’ve won the mega-millions lottery!” or, “God intends to make you famous!” or, even something like, “You will now live happily ever after—favored one of God!”
Instead, Mary’s blessing is that she will conceive a child out of wedlock who will grow into a remarkable man to be sure, but ultimately convicted of a state crime punishable by death. On the face of it, Jesus will die like a nobody from nowhere. On the face of it, Mary was the recipient of a very severe blessing.
Matthew’s version of the Christmas story points a laser on Joseph. He has his own version of blessing to embrace. He’s the one whose fiancé is now pregnant, a major disgrace for him and his family. Matthew reports what happens next this way: “Joseph being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, [one of those pesky angels] appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”and so on.
Joseph resolves to grow into his integrity. That is, he resolves to do the more difficult thing, the thing that’s consistent with the claim of God on his life. This wasn’t the first thing that he thought to do, but it was the better thing to do.
Mary and Joseph are bookends to the same blessing—they each have a call made upon their lives. They have choices to make and each could have chosen differently.
And friends, this is where we enter the story. Medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us” (2).
I suppose that might sound a bit “out there” for some of you. But then, the Christmas story has no true meaning apart from how it lodges within the lives of the living. And God knows that our time seems extremely fertile ground for a new thing to take root, something hopeful and fruitful. The depressing news and our heightened anxiety shouts this out.
Perhaps the Christmas story has been so saturated with sentimentality that we can’t see beyond the gooey sweetness and can’t imagine how it could possibly be relevant to what I will find at home today, or work tomorrow, or with the relatives at a holiday reunion, not to mention with the machinations of the powerful, in matters of politics, justice, and peace.
But sometimes, once in a while, something happens, some startling new thing interrupts our previously devised plan and choices are set before us that are really quite clear once we open our eyes and listen hard. We’re invited to grow into a larger version of ourselves then, to do the better, more difficult thing. In effect, to say yes to God.
That Gabriel spoke to a nobody from nowhere should make plain the fact that no one falls outside the bounds of God’s attention. Everyone is within the range of God’s voice; no prior condition prevents God from breaking into anyone’s life anywhere, even those who have migrated to modern day Rome, aka, New York City; the center of the universe; the city of great expectation; a locus of both astonishing human accomplishment and corruption.
In each of us God desires to be born anew this Christmas. And Gabriel exclaims: “Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you—all of you!”
Each of us confronts a similar predicament as Mary and Joseph. That’s our existential situation and our spiritual work. How shall we grow into our integrity, into wholeness, into God’s intention for our lives? Will we join our voices with Mary and exclaim, “Yes! Here I am, the Lord’s servant; let it be with me according to your word?”
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley, 1995, 151.
(2) Matthew Fox, ed. Meditations with Meister Eckhart, Santa Fe: Bear & Co., 1983, 74 & 81. Also accessed by B.B. Taylor in above.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1st Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
I spend a lot of time waiting. I wait at traffic lights before I cross the street. I wait for a taxi to take me to the airport so I can wait for the go-ahead to board the plane, and then I wait on the runway for takeoff, which leads to waiting for my luggage on the carousel.
I wait for my next paycheck. I wait for my turn in the bathroom. I wait for my family as I stand at the open door ready to leave. I wait for the elevator. Oh, how I wait for the elevator. I wait for people to arrive. Sometimes I can hardly wait until they leave.
One day I waited to be married. Then I waited for the relationship to mature into something that I hoped it might become. I waited for children. I waited until my son and daughter spoke their first words, until they were out of diapers, until they started school. I seemed always to be waiting for them to pass into the next stage of maturation.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember I could hardly wait for Junior High to begin, then Senior High, then college. I waited for summer vacation, I waited for my father to come home from work.
I'm not alone in my waiting, of course. It's a very significant part of all our lives. Sometimes we’re painfully aware of our waiting, other times it occurs unnoticed.
Though it consumes much of our days, we mostly don't like to wait. Conscious and thoughtful waiting is foreign to those accustomed to moving in the fast lane. Waiting seems unnatural, an enemy of progress and success. Knowing how to wait is, at best, an uncommon trait. We hunger for immediate satisfaction. The idea of delayed gratification is a stranger to our thinking.
Waiting is difficult for 21st century people. Today's credo is efficiency, fast delivery, instant satisfaction, immediate payoff. We become ill, we want to be made well now and not later. Medications, physicians, pastoral care, even love are often rejected if they are not swift and immediately potent.
Waiting is a large part of each day for every person. Calling people takes too much time so we text, because the distance between sending and receiving is minimized to a nanosecond. We wait for the groceries to be delivered. We wait for a friend to stop by. We wait for the "right" person to enter our lives, or magically appear on OKCupid.
At the hospital, we pace in front of a swinging door marked "surgery". We wait for what is not yet, but for what is to be (or not to be). Living and waiting go hand in hand.
A friend discovered she had colon cancer. An operation removed the malignancy. But the doctors were not certain. She must endure months, perhaps years of chemotherapy. She must be tested and re-tested. She must wait.
We wait for peace. The world watches and waits as Syria continues its violent disintegration. Israelis and Palestinians wait for the emergence of a credible plan for permanent peace. We wait for the next provocation from North Korea and our president’s response.
We wait to see what the new tax plan will bring. We wait for the market to rise or to fall. We wait for interest rates to go up or down. We wait for a new job, or a promotion, or a raise.
Should we buy the new car or apartment? Will the bonus be big enough? Will I have enough money to put my kids through college? To have a decent life in retirement? And we wait and we see.
Waiting is like living in the meantime. It is like knowing, yet not knowing, living in the present for a future outcome.
How we wait, how we live in the meantime, actually matters quite a lot since waiting is where we spend many hours of many days. If we agree that waiting in one way or another consumes much of our time, doesn't it stand to reason that waiting itself demands our attention? The meantime is, in fact, all we ever really have at any given moment. All we have is now, today, that’s it, really.
Over the years I have noticed that God's time is very different from my time. Often I’ll say I don't like to wait. God, on the other hand, seems rather taken with it. Evidently, waiting - living in the meantime - is the sacred and appropriate place for us. It’s where we live day in and day out.
The word Advent comes from the Latin word advenire (to come to). Advent's message is that God is coming to the world. We say that God did come in a squealing, slippery package one night two thousand years ago. This babe in a manger was a fulfillment of sacred promise, but the fulfillment seems quite ordinary on the face of it—a child born out of wedlock to a poor, young woman in a stable no less. God’s fulfillment looks very much like life as we know it, which ought to teach us something important.
God’s coming is also a present experience. If it were not so, Christmas would have little meaning at all beyond the simple marking of a date in honor of a dead hero, and not much of a hero at that. After the grown man died his disciples waited in confusion and fear for the future to carry them off to a safer place. Instead, they discovered that God's time had been upon them all along and their waiting had actually been part of God’s project.
This season of preparation is a time of sacred waiting for us. How we wait bears some consideration. Living in the meantime doesn't mean there is nothing to be done.
As I mentioned last week, 500 years before the birth of Christ Jerusalem was overthrown and the people were carted off to a foreign country. They waited many decades before returning to their homeland. Isaiah speaks of their hopeful longing while they wait: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners… They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord… They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities… For I the Lord love justice…”
Centuries later Jesus identified himself with this text as he began his ministry. He quoted these words as a way to explain his purpose. You will note that in their time of waiting for God’s fulfillment the people shall become “oaks of righteousness” and they will restore the former devastations because God loves justice. Evidently, the people have no small role to play in God’s plan.
Well that’s quite an agenda for waiting—growing into an oak of righteousness. Let that powerful image seep into your mind and heart… That’s our work while living in the meantime—becoming a forest of oaks of righteousness. A mighty oak tree begins as an acorn, food for a squirrel. But taking root over many years in the meantime, it grows into its glory. We could say that while the acorn waits for the wonderful outcome, a challenging life filled with threats of drought and storm and fire happens in the meantime, yet the sapling endures and thrives. That is the nature of the years of its life, from acorn to tree, from promise to fulfillment.
As we wait for peace, as we long for justice, is there nothing to be done in the meantime? What does it mean to grow into an oak of righteousness, anyway? What would that look like for your life? What does God’s justice require of us? Could our nation benefit from oaks of righteousness? Do you see them anywhere?
If I long to be reconciled with someone, is there nothing I must do as I wait? Is waiting a passive, disengaged posture? Or perhaps an impatient and angry state? If it is, and if waiting fills our days, then most of the time we must go through life either rather passive and disengaged, or impatient and angry. In that case, waiting is closer to whining than to hope. For hope is the most creative form of waiting there is.
Hopeful expectancy - that's what Advent is about. God is coming. That's the strange news we proclaim. God—is—coming. God. Some preparation is in order.
Our lives have this deep yearning, this deep desire for healing and wholeness, for light and joy, for courage and strength, for love and forgiveness, things that define the life of an oak of righteousness. Those things would be worth waiting for, wouldn't they? I bet we’d wait for a very long time for those things. And our waiting would be surprisingly productive.
Advent is a time to honor God's time, which is to say, today. We’re meant to honor today as a holy and sacred gift, to really see it and live it for what it is. And while we wait in hopeful expectation there’s work to be done; there are things to be done in the meantime, today. Today.
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Of the four gospels in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) only two of them have vignettes concerning his birth (Matthew and Luke) but all four of them tell about John the Baptist. Scholars believe the birth narratives started circulating once the Jesus community was around for a couple of decades. But evidently, John was there from the beginning and considered a very significant part of Jesus’ story — more so than telling about his birth and early years.
So much so, that Mark, the earliest of the gospels, announces that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” starts with the messenger in the wilderness. And John is introduced as someone the ancient prophet Isaiah referenced 500 years earlier — which we also heard today — an especially beautiful text, isn’t it?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term… A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…
If you’re fans of Handel’s Messiah you know this text. It anticipates Israel’s restoration following a harrowing captivity among the Babylonians. The Jews had been captured and carted away to a foreign nation. Isaiah speaks a powerful word of hopeful renewal.
Another prophet in the 20th century made good use of the same text. Recall how Martin Luther King Jr. worked it into the climax of his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when he quoted Isaiah saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, the rough places made straight…
Then he added: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope... we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” In the manner of Isaiah, King’s words were a stirring and indelible testament to how the future makes demands of the present.
When you consider the sweep of time from Isaiah’s day 2500 years ago to our present moment, the fact that these words still powerfully resonate speaks to the eternal purposes we address in this space. We know well “that all people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever…”
This eternal condition, the scope of God’s range compared to our few years offers hope for us. We’re held in a grand sweep of time that has forward momentum, anticipating God’s fulfillment calling for a new way of living that more nearly resembles what God has intended all along. That’s the implication.
This is why John’s good news message begins with repentance. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, I suppose, that the good news begins with repentance, because repentance sounds like bad news. But the real reason to repent pertains to situating ourselves for the new thing God intends. Real repentance is aspirational. Letting go of a lesser, corrupt thing to take on the very much better thing.
The good news of Jesus Christ has everything to do with what God intends for the world. And a proper way to think about that is to consider how our lives would need to change in order to exist in such a place as that. That’s what Dr. King was suggesting as something to aspire towards, a community where everyone was judged by the content of their character and not some external difference.
What changes would we need to make in our individual lives in a world where peace and justice and love and hope prevail? What changes would Stephen Bauman need to adopt in order to live in such a place? It gets that personal and that granular.
Think of it like this: suppose you strongly desire to live in a household where everyone is valued and appreciated, where apology and forgiveness were part of the routine arrangements, where mercy and peace prevailed, where no one took advantage of another, where no one tried to take more than they needed from the hands of another. Where you got all the love you ever desired. What sort of person would you need to become to live in such a household as that? What would you need to let go of, and what new thing to aspire to?
Something has been nagging at me for a while: Where has the aspiration for growing in character run off to today? Why is there no public conversation about virtue or qualities of spiritual maturity like honor, integrity, fidelity, truth, compassionate regard, courage, wisdom and humility? Why do these things sound so uncool and déclassé out there? Am I alone in feeling our culture has been stripped of this dialogue, this concern for developing ever-greater human decency and civility?
For a dozen years, I broadcasted radio spots on behalf of Christ Church that reached more than a million people at a time on the subject of values, civility and the common good; this seemed an important and relevant intervention for the church to advance. Now this project appears really prescient in anticipating our current cultural decrepitude. We were ahead of our time I suppose, or maybe, a bit too late. It was but a lone voice in the wilderness, after all.
As you heard today, the phrase “lone voice in the wilderness,” is inspired by Isaiah and John the Baptist. That’s how John was presented in his epic historical moment—a time defined by corrupt political and religious cultures, fractious, violent and indifferent to the welfare of those deemed outside the bounds of one’s tribe. Sound familiar?
Along with John’s searing critique, his lone voice anticipated the arrival of another voice that would outstrip his own. And so Jesus came on the scene. But as you well know, the change Jesus wrought didn’t happen overnight. The darkness had long been advancing, and it would take many years — decades, centuries —for the pinprick of light to grow into a radiant brilliance.
The maddening thing is that we’ve known this bright light for two millennia now and still we strain to the breaking point to hang on the wisdom it reveals. It’s a great mystery as to why this is, but it seems that every generation must contend with its version of an enveloping darkness.
It appears the stakes for wisdom and decency have been doubled, maybe tripled, this year in our season of Advent. I can’t remember a December quite like it at any point in my adult life. Our worship, our scripture, our fellowship, our ministry, our prayer has never seemed more relevant, our reliance on truth and virtue more purposeful, and the Advent refrain, “come quickly Lord Jesus,” more dynamically appropriate.
Perhaps Isaiah’s eloquence touches the spiritual funny bone and stirs us awake again to the idea that just maybe something different is possible, that God will have the day after all. That’s behind all the folderol here. Behind all the music and singing and praising and praying and preaching — God will have the day after all. Every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together…
But in order to “find ourselves thrilled by this promise of the world made right, brings with it the haunting thought that we each know what lurks in our own heart—our role in corrupting this world, the litany of ways in which our own sins have contributed to the heartbreak we’re surrounded by, all those times we hardened our heart and kept right on walking, ignoring the cry of someone in need.” That’s how Rob Bell phrases it (Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person. HarperCollins, 2011, p39).
God’s realm is wonderful, fantastic, nearly unbelievable and as Isaiah said, also comforting, for God does indeed bring the peace that passes all understanding. But this peace confronts all that does not conform to its requirements. It will confront all that does not encourage justice. So it stands to reason that things will need to change, things to which all of us are very attached: prejudices and biases and lack of compassion and desire for revenge and greed and narcissism. We’ll have to give up our strong inclinations for creating tribes of us and them, insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, those that have and those that don’t.
That’s the nature of the repentance John has in mind. A simple, clear admission that we are who we are, and the recognition that who we are today stands somewhat against the requirements for citizenship in God’s realm.
Writing about his change of mind concerning sexual orientation and gender identity, ex-evangelical theologian David Gushee writes that “Every so often an issue comes along that requires a choice be made: for or against slavery, for or against women’s ordination, for or against racial integration, for or against rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, for or against using government power to force better working conditions, for or against mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and so on.” Things for which there really is no middle ground when all is said and done.
“At the moment in which the moral pivot points occur, strong arguments can be made on both sides, and strong passions always arise. ...For Christians, these arguments and passions are always buttressed with Bible quotations. Only later does... history declare who had it right and who did not. Meanwhile, in that instant, morally responsible people have to make their leap and trust God with both the consequences and divine judgment (David Gushee, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism. Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).”
John was announcing a pivot point as Isaiah did before him and as Jesus continues to announce today. This very day, as a matter of fact.
Repentance is good news because in God’s realm every last one of us is loved beyond our wildest imaginings. In God’s household, there is more than enough love and goodwill to go around. Our corruptions ultimately are not held against us. They’re tossed out the window and everyone gets a fresh start. Everyone. Everyone. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God announces that no one is excluded from God’s loving intention.
What we’re supposed to do is act like that was indeed the law of the land.
Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Alice said she had come to talk with me about her father. Or rather, her relationship with her father. Well, that, and her faith or lack thereof. Or maybe she had come to complain about God. Or not so much to complain as to confess her confusion. She was certain about her confusion. She knew she didn’t understand why things worked out the way they did.
Alice outlined her story this way: Her father had been physically and emotionally abusive during much of her childhood. Her mother had been either oblivious, in denial, or in secret collusion. Alice’s older sister, Bernice, had cut off all relationship with her parents as soon as she turned eighteen. Over the last forty years she and Alice had maintained an uneasy, distant connection.
Alice had always felt torn about Bernice’s abandonment. Some days she thought she should have let go of her parents as well, as Bernice had strongly insisted. But when Mom died, her father was in poor health and Alice felt… well, she wasn’t exactly sure what she felt… was it duty? Pity? Or some sort of primal, familial connection?
Whatever the motivation, over the past several decades she had stayed in touch with this emotionally remote man, occasionally taking care of his affairs when health issues required, and for the last year had overseen his care as Alzheimer’s slowly stripped him of his memory and personality. In all of her fifty-something years Alice said she could honestly say she never had liked the man and sometimes, especially early on, had quite hated him. Never felt any guilt over it either.
She had always seen her options as two: washing her hands, like Bernice had done; or, hanging in with him, which she only now was coming to believe might have something to do with working out a few things for herself… important things, spiritual things.
Alice wasn’t sure why she had not been more emotionally damaged than she was. Not that she didn’t have her scars. For instance, in her twenties and thirties she couldn’t work for any man and jobs changed frequently. But over time her anger and bitterness slowly evaporated. Bernice had never let go of her anger even though she thought she had let go of her parents. Bernice had been incensed when Alice took their father into her home in these last days.
Anyway, Alice was now thinking about her father’s death, now a patient of hospice. She wanted to talk about it, reflect on their history together, maybe gain perspective on why she had done what she had done.
All things considered, she was surprised to find herself feeling she had had a pretty good life. Somehow she had managed to marry a loving man. They had lost one son in childbirth, but adopted another. It was no picnic raising him, but eventually he had managed to get his life in order and they now had a decent, loving relationship.
As for God and faith? Well, that was the reason she had come—to talk about God. Early in her life there had been many days she had prayed to God to take her out of her house, to save her from her family, especially her father. Those days evolved into years of believing there was no God listening. But over time that gave way to something deeper, some deeper knowing that God had been with her all along. She couldn’t make sense of the suffering, but somehow she had accepted that God’s grace was the source of her strength to move out of her past. And lately she was aware of a profound hopefulness for what lay ahead.
Alice said she was actually glad she was able to care for her father. She wasn’t sure why. It really didn’t make sense. Still, she believed that some kind of reconciliation had occurred with him and she could pray that God would find him acceptable if imperfect. She did this even though she had never found him acceptable herself. She told God that God could take it from here.
She marveled at how far she had come. Now she had this hopefulness, this sense of heightened expectation for what lay ahead in her life. She was just really hopeful and she knew this was a spiritual gift.
Today we lit our first candle on our wreath of anticipation—the candle of hope. Advent is the season of hope. Although it seems God has been absent from the human scene, we have not been abandoned, only left on our own the way a householder might leave the care of his property to his servants. He will soon return. In the meantime, the servants have work to do as stewards of all that has been placed into their care. As you heard from Mark’s account, that’s the way Jesus described the human situation.
Actually, I’m thinking you might be feeling that our situation seems quite precarious today. The news this week was rife with topics that could show up in a sermon. In addition to the deluge of fallen media and political titans due to sexual harassment and abuse we learned, on Tuesday North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile that could hit Washington, D.C.; then Wednesday we were treated by a Presidential re-tweet of a British far-right extremist; followed by news of Rex Tillerson’s slow-motion political execution; followed by the plea deal worked out with former national security advisor Michael Flynn—not to mention the machinations around a once-in-a-generation tax bill that will impact all of us and our children for years to come.
How rattled we all are, confused, concerned, worried about the state of things. Fractured into political warring camps, now stunned and amazed at the breakneck pace of change otherwise, it can seem there’s little solid ground under our feet. “The sky is falling!” Chicken Little was heard to exclaim...
For the First Sunday of Advent at this uncertain moment, it might seem counter-intuitive I thought of Alice. But here’s the thing: Despite whatever else might be happening in the world, we carry on with our own lives. The larger issues require our thoughtful engagement, and we will make time for that, for certain, but in the meantime we’re working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul instructed his friends.
And Alice came to mind because by the end of her story of fear and trembling she had come to tell me that she was filled with hope for what lay ahead. And she realized this hope came to her as a gift; despite hardship, there was a direction and purpose to her journey. All she had to do was receive it with open hands and heart.
So on this First Sunday in Advent I want to make the simple point that in the days ahead we’ll keep our focus on the deeper things, the things that matter, and the inexplicable hope that bubbles up with the force of a geyser breaking through the hard shell of a crusty life. All of us want and need such hope. That’s the sort of energy that filled Isaiah when he exclaimed to God, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence...”
We need the reminder that God is still God. Note the book on the lap of the exalted Christ up there is open to a page that says, “I am the light of the world.” When lost, it’s helpful to check a compass to reorient and re-establish a correct bearing for the journey ahead. Advent is like that compass.
Many of you know the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. It begins this way: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That’s the part that’s most well known. But it continues like this: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is…not as I would have it. Trusting that [God] will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.”
Recently reminded of this wisdom, I thought it sounded like an Advent prayer. Alice found herself living this prayer. It’s a prayer about truth and hope that could become our own if we are willing to open our minds and hearts to the promises we proclaim in here in the coming weeks. As the holiday folderol ramps up, don’t be anesthetized by the food and the booze and the travel. And don’t fall into a spiral of despair over current conditions.
Instead, pay attention; stay alert; keep your heart and your hands open with expectation that God will have the day at last. In the meantime, there’s work to do; there’s some loving, some giving, and some courageous labor for the sake of our common good that’s been assigned to you. The very best antidote to despair that I know of involves doing someone good and useful.
Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
I’m thinking that Christ the King Sunday sounds really anachronistic today—outdated language announcing a dead concept. Monarchies have been out of favor for a long time having succumbed to the advance of democracy, so kingship seems really dated.
Actually, this day that ends the church year (remember, next week is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the church year) wasn’t introduced into the liturgical calendar until 1925 – when Europe was in massive disarray following World War I and colonialism was at its worst.
Less than 15 years later the world was engulfed in World War II. After that finally ended, no one was clamoring for a return to monarchy, despite the sweet antics of British royalty.
But our scriptures are filled to the brim with talk about kings and queens and kingdoms. And as if to underscore the point, take a look up there in our apse mosaic. That’s King Jesus sitting on a throne. Who does that speak to today? It works within the artistic and architectural program of this space, but we wouldn’t dream up the image of a king today to express our spiritual moment.
Still, the image haunts our tradition. Our Christmas stories will tell us Jesus was born of the house and lineage of David, the righteous king of Israel. And as the gospels report, that’s the question the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, asked Jesus when he stood trial for sedition: “Are you king of the Jews?”
Ultimately, democracies answered the question of political authority by stipulating the people should hold it, and they would choose their leaders who would exercise power on their behalf for a limited time. That way political authority could be temporized.
In order for that to work, the people had to have confidence that the system was reasonably trustworthy to produce competent outcomes, evidently an experiment still in the making. They entrusted authority to a democratic process instead of a genetic lineage of monarchs that produced wildly divergent results.
In the worst-case scenario, a bad president would last only a few years, whereas a lousy monarch could last a generation or more dribbling forward through incompetent offspring. Throw in religious devotion for the divine right of kings, and the stage is set for a particularly noxious outcome.
Democracies have attempted to pull apart the tangle of religion and politics. Our nation is a prime example. We see some really egregious expressions of that struggle today, like the evangelical support for senate candidate, Roy Moore. But we can’t escape the problem by saying our faith has nothing to do with politics, not when we have that picture of a king up in our mosaics.
As our friend Christopher Morse has pointed out, “Jesus is Lord” was the first creed of the early Christians. It sounds like a great affirmation, which it is. But proclaimed in first century Jerusalem, it also rang with the great denial, “Caesar is not Lord!” In other words, to say, Jesus is Lord was as act of sedition; it was siding with him and all that he stood for over the other temporal rulers of the day.
Of course, with the resurrection, the idea of Jesus as Lord ascended into the stratosphere, elevating him into Lordship over all creation, all things. That accounts for our stylized picture way up there. But we might say, so what? What does that even mean to sharp 21st century cynics?
Jesus gives a clue in our gospel lesson. His words are declamatory, but have the ring of a parable: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To the ones on his right hand, the sheep, the King will say, “Come you who are blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing. Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.”
Then to those on his left, the goats, he will send away saying, “You gave me no food or drink nor did you welcome or visit me, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do to me.”
Notice that Jesus does not privilege political tribes here. Nor does he privilege one family, one nation, one race, one gender over another. Notice too, that there is nothing here about creeds and doctrines. And I should emphasize that this is the only description of the so-called Last Judgment in the New Testament.
The key ingredient to the Lord’s judgment boils down to something rather simple really. He privileges the least among us: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned.
But there’s more...he not only privileges the least, but he says that to look them in the face is to see Jesus himself. It’s an intensely personal revelation. Personal and relational, which really makes quite a lot of sense given his earlier command that above all else we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
As you’ve heard as a recurring theme here at Christ Church, love is as love does. Love is principally an action, not a feeling. Feelings may accompany an action, but love is as love does. This remains a very difficult lesson for us. And when earlier we heard him say that we were to love not only our families and friends but our enemies as well, we feel an inward rebellion.
Jesus’ Lordship is unlike anything the world has yet experienced. Even Christians have had a hard time accepting the ramifications over the years, given our propensity to privilege our biases and prejudices.
We privilege our own theological point of view, of course, whatever it might be. Historically we’ve separated peoples into those who have right theologies, right religious allegiances, not to mention right political party affiliations. Our news is saturated with stories about all the ways we slice and dice up the human community. Generally the last thing on our minds is wondering how can we love better. That’s why this passage from Matthew is so striking, and why the church has tended to ignore its ramifications.
You can sense that if we were to follow the pattern Jesus sets forth here all humans would share the same relative standing, that our collective life would be structured around the God-given dignity and value of every human being.
Up there on the throne Jesus seems distant and remote. Sometimes that distance can seem oddly comforting, in the “I’ve got the whole world in my hands” sort of way...at least I have found it so from time to time.
But if we really want an intimate encounter with him then we bring our eyes of faith to looking at the sick, hungry, homeless, oppressed and imprisoned, in person. Look into the face of one of the least—the vulnerable, the weak, the children, and see the face of God.
Friends this instruction is shaping the ministry of Christ Church. This is why we’ve established another ministry in Washington Heights; why we’ve chosen to work with largely immigrant mothers with children 0-3 years of age under the banner of breaking the back of poverty in a zip code.
This is why we built a church and community center in a desperately poor area in Cartagena, Colombia, that feeds more than 100 children every day, and why we created a micro financing program.
This is why we serve the homeless a hot meal here Sunday nights, and why we partner with the Methodist Home for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
In these and many other ways we want to see the face of our king and sovereign lord. "For our part," said Mother Teresa, "what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich." In this sense, rich and poor are relative terms, inviting intimate human community.
Of course, we can do that for each other right here as well. That’s our call. That’s the point.
As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, many of us are turning our attention to the theme of gratitude. Some of you have seen or participated in the “21 Days of Gratitude challenge.” Some of us have listed reasons or committed to be more grateful in the new year.
Several days ago, I found myself reflecting on gratitude while I waited at my children’s piano lesson. At the start of each kid’s lesson, the piano teacher complimented them on how well they had played at their group class. Both children, without missing a beat, paused, looked up, and said absolutely nothing. Somewhat embarrassed, I was tempted to whisper-shout across the room: Say, thank you. And for the next hour, I was caught in the throes of a semi-parenting crisis, questioning the skills and attitude I was cultivating in my young children. Am I failing with something this important? Have I given them too much? Are my kids ungrateful?
There’s no doubt in my mind that if the teacher had said something my kids didn’t like they would have been equipped with all of manner of stank face, body language, and some cross words. (I said cross words, not curse words).
I am still working on my kids, but in today’s gospel, we’re reminded of the orientation we ALL need to be people of gratitude.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem near the border of Samaria and Galilee. As he approached a village, ten men with leprosy began calling out to him. Jesus. Master. Have mercy on us! And the Bible says that Jesus. Saw. Them. He saw the men covered in scaly sores. He saw their blistered feet, their torn clothes, and their matted hair. He saw the men who had been isolated from their families, rejected by their friends, and scorned by the community. Jesus saw them standing on the sidelines of society, desperate for someone to take pity on them.
Jesus saw them, even when others made them invisible. And Jesus sees us. When we feel invisible, he sees us. In a city of 8 million people, he sees us. He sees the pills and the pain, the drinks and the depression, the tears, and the torment. Jesus sees YOU!
When others look away, Jesus sees you. When you’re wondering how you’re going to get through the holidays that make you hurt, Jesus sees you. When friends don’t answer the phone, respond to your texts, or like your Facebook posts, Jesus sees you. And not only does he see us, but Jesus calls us to see each other. To discern the pain others feel. To notice our neighbors relegated to the sidelines. God wants us to see that brother who is sleeping on the sidewalk in a self-made tent. See that girl who’s been sexually abused and never believed. See the teenager who was shot during a routine traffic stop. See people.
You likely saw headlines this week that GQ named Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year. And there were commentators and journalists complaining about this. They just “couldn’t see” why GQ would choose him. There were other athletes doing good work in the world, they said. But the unfortunate reality is that many of the same people who fail to see why he would be Citizen of the Year, also fail to see the money he gives to help young people. They fail to see to see the racism that plagues our country. They fail to see the impact of our Criminal Injustice system on black and brown communities.
People are crying out, people are asking for help, people are demanding justice, and it’s time to open our eyes and discern their plight. See the people God sees. See the causes God sees. See the injustice God sees.
Jesus saw them. But not only did Jesus see them, but Jesus spoke to them. Then, Jesus said to the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” But that’s all he said. No more instructions. Just go show yourselves to the priest. Unlike Naaman in the Old Testament, Jesus didn’t instruct them to bathe in the Jordan. He didn’t tell them to tell others the story. He didn’t even ask them for an offering. He just said Go show yourself to the priest.
Under Levitical Law, only a priest could allow them back into the community. The priests would have to examine the lepers and make sure that they were completely healed from the disease. The priest would have to make sure that the leper didn’t bring the disease back to the community and infect others. The priest could say yes, you’re in or no, you’re out.
And so before any healing was evident, Jesus sent them to be approved. And I just want to pause here and say sometimes God will send you to do something that you don’t understand. Why is God telling you to leave the big job and go teach? Why is God calling you to start a nonprofit? Why is God telling you to move your family to another city? Sometimes, when God tells us to do something, the reason is not initially clear. Other people might even think the calling is crazy. But don’t worry about what other people think. When God says go, you go! It will make sense in due time.
So, the lepers are on their way to meet the priest. And as they’re walking they notice that something is different. Their bodies are starting to change. They looked at their hands, and their hands looked new. They looked at their feet, and they did too. And at least one recognized that this transformation. The lepers’ healing was perhaps unexpected. Maybe undeserved. Certainly unearned. It was by God’s grace that these men were healed.
And there may be someone in here who senses that something different is happening in you. Your faith has changed. Your attitude has improved. Your patience has grown. But before you go thinking that it’s because of your hard work, may I remind you that you are who you are and where you are only because of God’s grace.
Is there anybody in here who can admit that your dashing good looks didn’t get you where you are? Your winning smile didn’t do it. Not even your high IQ score. You’re here today only because of God’s grace and God’s mercy. When your spouse left you, GRACE kept you. When your friends forgot about you, GRACE kept you. When your bank account was empty, GRACE kept you. When you lost that big job, GRACE kept you. When drugs should have taken your mind, GRACE kept you! I’m standing here today, only because grace and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.
Jesus saw the men. He told them to go; and Luke records that “As they went, they were made clean.” All ten of them. But then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back. Ten were healed. One turned back. Now all of my life, I have heard preachers give the other nine men a hard time, and I’ve done it too. But, they were doing what Jesus told them to do. Jesus said go to the priests, so they went toward the priests. And who knows how long they’d been away from the community. Was it six months, a year, five years? Perhaps, they had been away from loved ones so long, they wanted to hurry so they could be restored to the community. And perhaps, they wanted to give thanks in the temple, which was the traditional place of worship.
The nine continued toward the priest, but one turned back. And when he returned, we learn that he is a Samaritan. When they were all lepers--when they were all outcasts— they had one identity and one voice. The distinction between Jews and Samaritan didn’t matter. But now that they’re healed, we learn that one was part of a group even more marginalized that the Palestinian Jews. Now that they’re healed, they are no longer one group or one voice. Now that they’re healed, the Jews have gone one way, and the Samaritan went another.
We will often stick together when we’re down and out; but once we make it, we distance ourselves from those who were on the bottom with us. When the Pilgrims came to this land, and when Italian, Irish, and Eastern Europeans came in the 18-and 1900s, nobody was crying out “Build a wall!” But when our Hispanic and Latino sisters and brothers come, when Middle Eastern and North African folks come, now we want a border around our nation. How quickly we forget that at some point, we wanted to be embraced, because we were the outsider.
It took the Samaritan to recognize who Jesus was, to realize that God was with them not just in the temple, but on the outskirts of the city too. The Samaritan, the one who wasn’t even a second-class citizen like the Jews, but a show-nuff outsider. A Samaritan leper in a Jewish leper colony—he came back to say thank you.
There’s something to be learned from outsiders; people locked out of spheres of influences, preyed on as public piñatas, and demonized because of their difference. But many outsiders possess a hermeneutic of hope that transcends the halls of power and the reach of the oppressor.
As a Black woman in America, I am part of a community of outsiders. The testimony of my ancestors, from Chattel Slavery to Reaganomics, demonstrated how outsiders see Jesus as a Transcendent Liberator. We see Calvary as a place higher than the auction block, higher than Capitol Hill, and higher than the White House.
And if you are an outsider know this: God is on the side of the outsider. Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman were outsiders that moved Lincoln. Cesar Chavez was an outsider who moved the labor movement. Edith Windsor was an outsider who moved the Supreme Court. Jesus was an outsider who moved the world. I am glad to be a member of a community of outsiders, a people with an alternative vision for the world.
Further, lest we get caught up looking down on the ones who did not turn back to say thank you, the question we all need to ask is, how often have we turned back? How often have we helped someone to show God that we are grateful? It’s good if we praise God for what God has done for us. But it’s Christ-like if we turn around and go back and help somebody else. When was the last time that we helped those who get treated like modern-day lepers: an addict who can’t seem to break the habit? A high-school drop out that everyone has counted out? A teenager with a baby and no family support, an ex-con who can’t catch a break because of a record? Undocumented parents trying to make their way in a new country? When was the last time, we went back to help someone else?
The story is told of a woman who came to church sang and praised and said, “Lord I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, down the block, got on the bus and went home.
The next Sunday she came back, she said, “Lord, I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, down the block, got on the bus and went home.
The third Sunday she came back. She said, “Lord I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, and down the steps, but she had missed the bus. When the pastor came out, she said, "Sister Smith, I’ve noticed that you’ve been thanking God for your new car. Why don’t you drive the car to church?"
"Is it that we don’t have enough parking?" She said, "No pastor; that’s not it." The pastor said, "Is it because you don’t want any of us to see how well you’re doing?" She said, "No pastor, that’s not it." The pastor said, "Is it because it’s being customized?" She said, "No pastor, that’s not it." The pastor said, "Well what is it then?" She said, "I haven’t driven the car to church because I don’t have it yet."
And the pastor said, "Well why are you thanking God for something you don’t even have?" And Sister Smith said, "Because I already know that God is going to provide what I need. You see, when my husband was sick, God made a way. When my child was in trouble, God made a way. When my job was eliminated, God made a way. And now, God has given me a heart to reach out to young women in prison, and the prison is two hours each way. So, I’m thanking God now because God knows what I need."
Brothers and Sisters, I’m just here to tell you, that even if you don’t have what you need, thank God, anyway. If you’re trying to help somebody, thank God anyway. If your problems seem insurmountable, thank God anyway!
You may not know what all God did for me. And I may not know the details of what God did for you. But I’m looking around this sanctuary, and I can tell you’ve been blessed. And I believe that there are some grateful people all over this building. I dare you to open your mouth, join your voice with mine, and take this moment to tell God, "THANK YOU!"
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13
I want to lift one idea from the parable of the so-called wise and foolish virgins you heard a moment ago and let it settle in to the backdrop of my comments today. I want to focus on the fact that the story concludes with a shut door, and the five who had run off to get more oil were left out in the cold. The thing I’d like you to consider is the common fantasy that we have all the time in the world to tend to something that matters. Experience often teaches otherwise.
We could imagine the five young women shut out from the wedding feast commiserating with one another that they hadn’t been better prepared. My life is littered with lots of that small-scale stuff due to either procrastination or distraction or a lively combination of the two—call it: procrastraction.
We make plans with varying degrees of sincerity and plod along with a lazy conviction that life will work out somehow in the long run. Along the way we discover the future isn’t nearly as predictable as we imagine or desire, and we learn that our decisions and behaviors in the present actually mattered more than we knew.
Jesus concludes his parable by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” He may have been referring to history’s consummation or his eventual return, but regardless the principle stands as a bit of universal wisdom. Keep awake... Or I might say it in the imperative: wake up! See what’s actually in front of you. Be alert, self-aware, prepared.
When Amos thunders that God hates the worship of the Israelites he means to wake them up to something that’s been right in front of them, namely, that above all else God wants the people to reflect God’s love for justice and righteousness. That’s the heart of the matter.
It’s not worship per se that offends him, but worship that exists in a hermetically sealed bubble with little relationship to what actually matters most of all. If the people worship God, they should care about what God cares about. Excellent worship should always lead us out into the world as God’s emissaries of love and justice. That’s the point of it—to become spiritually formed in the likeness of Christ.
We’re meant to encounter God in such a manner that over time, week by week, our gratitude and praise as the gathered community makes us more and more alert to what matters most. In here we’ve encapsulated that into love of God and neighbor, understanding that we can’t love God without loving our neighbor. And likewise, loving our neighbor invites us into God’s heart.
Any time we gather as God’s people and wind up excluding or diminishing others we’re doing something other than worshiping God; likely we’re worshiping some reflection of ourselves and our tribe. That was Amos’ accusation against the Israelites. And he wanted them to wake up. But as Jesus’ parable points out, sometimes it’s only the door slammed in our face that grabs our attention. Only then, when it’s way late do we say something like, “Oh, now I get it.”
We’re having a moment like that across our nation just now. As I pointed out in my Faith Matters column this week, it seems the dam has burst in the realm of sexual harassment/abuse. The jig is up. There will be no going back to former days and ways. For one thing, women have been mobilized. For another, technology has made disclosure inevitable; things formerly hidden come to light—instantly, for better and worse—for thousands, millions at a time, under the ironic medical moniker, “going viral”.
I’m imagining many closet harassers are quaking. Others will be as the dawn of understanding breaks out. So be it. As though anticipating our Facebook/Twitter world, Jesus once said to his disciples, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known.”
The entertainment industry has been ground zero in this eruption. It’s the most flamboyantly egregious harassing environment, but certainly not the only one. Currently politics comes in at a close second. But each of us knows someone or something related to this topic, which in itself is an astonishing confession at how universally complicit we have been.
Lately I have been considering the cultural realm of men and manliness, how certain roles and behaviors are so deeply embedded they don’t rise to consciousness. I’ve known many unconscious men over the years.
Of course, to some degree, all of us are unconscious. That’s an aspect of our human predicament. I certainly include myself in this. One of the life assignments I chose in my early twenties involved a commitment to becoming increasingly conscious and self-aware. This included a willingness to face my own darkness and weakness. As the years advanced I’ve experienced this as a matter of some spiritual importance and urgency.
Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, "Repent one day before your death." One of them then asked, "How will we know when that day is?" To which he replied, "All the more reason to repent today, lest you die tomorrow."
Some days have been easier than others. Some days I don’t want to know what I don’t know. Once in a while what I don’t know breaks down the front door demanding an audience. Sometimes that comes in the form of another person; say, one’s spouse, or child, or co-worker. It took a while, but eventually I came to understand those moments as great gifts. And of course, once you know a thing, you can’t un-know it.
So we’re getting clearer and clearer about gender dynamics in our culture; about destructive systems of behavior that co-mingle power and lust; and roles and patterns of engagement at work, in media, and in families—oh, my! In families!—that debase and demean those whose power is less than, who can be exploited and manipulated and shut out of opportunity and self-actualizing pathways.
It would seem Christians should have a bead on this given our love ethic and knowing our God’s delight in justice and righteousness. But Christians are people too. We can be as dim-witted—unconscious—as the next guy.
Thankfully, though, we can choose to wake up as Jesus admonished those who followed along his path. That’s a great and high calling—simply to wake up, to see what is and then bravely chart a course based on a clearer understanding of our actual situation. I believe waking up lies at the heart of the spiritual journey.
I’ve had many conversations over these last months in which people express great perplexity at our current cultural moment. They’re agitated and confused, they say, bewildered by outrageous destructive weather; a cascade of record-breaking mass shootings; a broken political culture sinking into a bog of decaying values and character; nuclear saber-rattling; in addition to the daily revelations concerning harassment and abuse.
But I’ve been thinking there’s a creative, generative way to approach this. We’re in the midst of a breakout moment of historic proportion. There’s enormous opportunity for waking up today, for seeing what is and aligning our values and actions accordingly. Disciples of Jesus should be leading the way with the content of our commitments. Why? Because our love of God draws us into the world for the sake of love and justice. Friends, this is very clear, very compelling.
Given the state of things, can you think of a more important agenda than this? That’s what our new members have signed on for, what we’ve all agreed has the highest claim on our life. This is what we want to model for our children. This shapes the character of our love seeping into every corner of our lives. This defines the pledge we make on Commitment Sunday. Stands to reason the more woke we are, the more generous we’ll be. Too much is at stake. So much opportunity ahead.
I’m so very thankful to be a part of this community of faith. As we say in the larger Bauman family, “gratitude abounds, thanks be to God!”
All Saints Sunday
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Among the less important, but interesting news bits in the last month concerned the death of Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, at 90-years-of age. This coincided with the Harvey Weinstein revelations and catalyzed some soul-searching analysis among boomers, sociologists, and pundits about things like gender roles, the commodification of sex, Weinstein’s defensive comment how he had been formed in the riotous 70’s and so forth. But Hefner’s obituary brought to mind another death closer to the Bauman’s on this day we remember saints of the church. You’ll understand why in a couple of minutes.
A number of years ago Melissa and I along with our son and daughter flew to Los Angeles to inter the ashes of Melissa’s aunt. She had been under Melissa’s care for some time, eventually moving to New York and the Methodist Church Home in Riverdale for her final year. Some years prior Mary Anna had made arrangements with Pierce Brothers Mortuary and Memorial Park in LA to receive her ashes in a small rose garden where her sister’s—Melissa’s mother’s—had been interred several years earlier.
This turned out to be quite a nice trip, something like rehearsing a script for “This Is Your Life Melissa” as we tracked over several days the important locations of her childhood, meeting childhood friends, culminating with a visit to Occidental College where I first met and kissed her hand at the age of nineteen in what she calls one of my only spontaneous romantic gestures.
Mary’s ashes were poured out into the loam of the rose garden, which in the warm California sun was in full bloom. By most standards we would say she had lived a very small, constrained life, but nevertheless had some true friends and a not-large but loving family from the opposite side of the country that had come to honor her.
A couple of years earlier she had asked me to baptize her. I think she wanted to have faith more than she had faith, if you know what I mean. But in that, I suspect she was little different from most of the rest of us. And as for that it was good to be able to make our Christian assertions together at her memorial, a little band of family and friends, confidently claiming that life and death cohered in God’s loving embrace. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Long live Mary. Thanks be to God.
Pierce Brothers Mortuary and Memorial Park turned out to be more interesting than it first appeared. If Los Angeles has a main thoroughfare slicing from the beach into downtown, it would surely be Wilshire Blvd. Pierce Brothers is located in the trendy Westwood section of LA, three minutes from Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive where the Boulevard sprouts gleaming high-rise condominiums and hotels.
The cemetery is situated on a small plot of land that can’t be much more than an acre immediately behind a block of this development. It’s an unexpected place in an unusual location. And walking around the small acre of green I learned that Mary Anna had chosen an unusual company in which to be permanently received. Glancing at grave markers I noticed names like Jack Lemon, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Dean Martin. On the small square of lawn I stepped over brass plaques with names like Donna Reed, Roy Orbison and Natalie Wood. Here was Peggy Lee, Burt Lancaster, and Truman Capote.
And as a kind of coup de grace, on a row of marble crypts at eye level I read the name, Marilyn Monroe. I noticed that the facing of her crypt was much darker than the rest; inquiring about this I learned that it needed routine cleaning given how often it was kissed by persons wearing red lipstick. And indeed, on this day a bright red imprint decorated her vault.
I thought it was curious that the crypt next to hers was vacant—a mortician informed me that Hugh Hefner had reserved it—that’s why this memory came to mind. Hefner’s obituary mentioned this crypt. And BTW, he described his family as "Midwestern Methodist." His mother had wanted him to become a missionary. Coincidentally the building where I live happens to have been the home of Marilyn Monroe and playwright, Arthur Miller. You can still find this on tourist maps.
By comparison to all of this hot fame inspired by Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Mary Anna lived in one room above a garage for most of her adult life not far from this garden. As the community mutated into its culturally iconic status, she stayed put in a very small space that remained unchanged for decades.
It was an odd juxtaposition for Mary and us, yet we were there for her and for ourselves because of the sacred mystery we all shared regardless of anyone’s relative station in life. Everyone’s dust and ash looks the same in the end. Commingled in the earth, there’s no telling whose feeds the bright color of the flowers.
I remembered Mary’s quiet, almost whimpering tears when I baptized her. It was in some ways an awkward moment—finding a bowl in her cluttered room, filling it with water, then dripping baptism on her head, claiming her as God’s own beloved child at the age of 84. Her needs and neediness had always loomed large for those who cared for her. The day of her baptism was no different.
But honestly that memory of authentic, fragile humility won the day for me at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, an acre of permanent respite for the stars. I don’t know if it’s truer to say that Mary Anna is now with them, or that all of them are now resting with her. But the latter seems to have the harder pull on my heart.
One day when Jesus saw the crowds following him, he went up a mountain and after he sat down he began to speak and taught them saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.(1)”
In retrospect these would have been the right words to recite on Mary’s day. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and she was meek in many of the ways we think of it, and in material fact did inherit the earth and all that it held, including those spectacular roses.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful…the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers…those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…(2)”
Of course, Jesus had more in mind than simply espousing a philosophy of life, something more than a way to find comfort in the here and now. He was saying something quite radical about how the world was actually tilted, how it was poised toward a future fashioned by God. That was the meaning embedded within his sense of the kingdom of heaven—God’s home in our yet-to-be-disclosed future.
Our faith has a kind of directionality. It has forward movement. Today is pregnant with tomorrow. Today’s blessing anticipates tomorrow’s consummation. These famous beatitudes of Jesus have a future tense. Those who mourn are blessed today for they will be comforted. The meek are blessed today, for they will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst are blessed today, for they will be filled. The pure in heart are blessed today, because they will see God, and so too, the peacemakers are blessed because they will be called children of God.
Eugene Boring points out that, “Christianity is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance in one’s career, or preserve one from illness. Christian faith, instead, is a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness, righteousness, and peace will finally prevail, that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty,(3)” and our call is to align ourselves with God’s intentions. Blessed are we who attempt to live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish or dangerous or we’re boxed in by conditions beyond our control, by our own frail limitations, even our faults and failures, for our future lies in God’s loving consummation.
The old African-American spirituals, many of the old slave songs, ring with this future tense. If you think about this, it makes great sense and speaks to the very heart of what authentic faith is all about. There’s great power in the hope this draws forward for people that otherwise had such limited options in their present moment. This sort of hope is what fueled Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
And for those of us sitting in this room listening to these words, when we’re at our best, this faith in God and Jesus—however small or struggling it might be—draws us into a future where poverty and hunger and oppressions of every sort have finally been vanquished. And where even small, constrained lives find their fulfillment.
Friends, to claim and then attempt to live God’s future redounds in our present as a blessing of hope and peace and mercy and love and joy, and miraculously brings that day ever closer when we shall at last be blessed beyond our wildest imaginings.
(1) Matthew 5:1-5.
(2) Matthew 5: 6-10.
(3) M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, V. VIII, Nashville, Abingdon, 1995.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40
I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine with 20 or so folks attached to this congregation. We had a terrific experience. And by the way, we’re tentatively scheduling our next one eighteen months from now in May of 2019. If you’ve been around Christ Church for any period of time you know that I strongly encourage people to make this trek as an important component of their spiritual formation.
As I mentioned in a recent Faith Matters column, we fashion these journeys as spiritual adventures as opposed to religious tourism. We still visit important sites that inform our faith tradition, and these can be deeply stirring (and challenging), but we embed this experience within current cultural arrangements. Otherwise, our faith can seem a disembodied thing, separate from actual lived experience, a kind of fantasy kingdom, as though fashioned by Disney imagineers who have conjured a time long, long ago in a land, far, far, away.
We need the regular reminder that Jesus walked a true human life within a specific cultural moment. The politics of his time were complicated, fractious and divisive—just like today. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan nexus incubating powerful religious crosscurrents—just like today. He advanced a simple, but searing message of redemptive love for all, challenging the powers and principalities to a greater righteousness while eschewing political authority for himself.
He was a highly original, disruptive figure, calling people to follow humbly in his footsteps as he walked through the land. And ultimately he was crucified through a political process as an enemy of the state.
If we fail to make these connections, we’ll fail to understand our place in our own specific cultural context right here. After all, we live in a highly complicated political/religious culture that’s extremely fractious and divisive. The tradition Jesus taught will not allow us an escape route from current conditions. Instead, we’re flung headfirst into engagement with the powers and principalities in our own time and place, learning how to love our neighbors as ourselves as we deepen our partnership with God.
That’s how Jesus explained the human project after all, as you heard in the gospel lesson. When a lawyer tried to entrap him with the question pertaining to the greatest law, Jesus famously replied, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind.” And, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When all was said and done that was the point of it all: love. Love God, love your neighbors…all of them. Which was reminiscent of what he had declared in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember how he said, “to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… Give to everyone who asks… Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that… But love your enemies, do good to them… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
That’s pretty radical stuff. But its important we recognize he said that in real time to real people in real difficult circumstance. And the passage we read today occurred on Monday of the last week of his life, shortly before he was condemned to death as an enemy of the state.
Christians tend to hear his words as though spoken in a hermetically sealed spiritual bubble; beautiful in their way, and refreshingly idealistic, but not applicable in the real world. After all, how on earth is that supposed to be applied in our individual environments at work, at home, on the street, and so forth.
On the one hand, we have an instinctual sense that love is the heart of the matter, but then, on the other, to actually apply it in real time seems so very difficult, and actually threatening.
When I did my doctoral research on forgiveness, which involved interviewing high profile leaders, every one of them said that while forgiveness was essential to living well, even in the workplace, it was not possible to say that in their organizations because it would be perceived as weakness.
Forgiveness is a facet of love. To love seems to put one at a political disadvantage in a culture that generally rewards cutthroat, ruthless behaviors. Consider Jesus’ fate. As a result, Christians tend to compartmentalize the concept, as in, “well, I’ll try to love my spouse and kids, but that’s pretty much the beginning and end of it.” And routinely fail to understand how love is related to justice, human dignity and equality. In this way, for several centuries the church could tolerate slavery, for instance. All it took was a massive compartmentalization.
But my point today isn’t to carp about the church’s failings in its call to love, but to simply reaffirm that call lies at the heart of what it means to be human in the highest and best sense. As you read on your bulletin cover this morning, Richard Rohr explains that, “The people who know God well…those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a tyrannical mother, but always a lover who is more than we dared hope for.”
When Jesus claims that love of God is our first order of business and love of neighbor our second, he’s stating the most elemental aspect of our existence. Everything else stands on that.
Given our current political environment it’s worth noting that Abraham Lincoln held to a similar viewpoint. He famously avoided joining any church in his day because he had difficulty giving his assent to complicated statements of doctrine, which seemed what church membership entailed—competing claims about correct doctrine.
However, Lincoln was quoted as saying on more than one occasion something like this: “When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and the Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself—that church will I join with all my heart and soul.’”
And as you’ve heard me say ad nauseam, that’s the quote we have embedded in our mosaics above our altar and serves as the mission statement of Christ Church. Its not complicated. But it’s not easy either. Again, consider Jesus.
And this mission isn’t owned by any particular denomination, or religion for that matter. As it is, Jesus quoted Hebrew scripture when he pronounced his answer to the scheming lawyer. Peal away the doctrinal layers of all the world’s great religions and you will find a variation of this love at their core. Why? Because it reflects creation energy, the realization that everything that is has come to us as gift; that God is a lover, and we’re meant to be lovers as well.
Some years ago I watched an interview with Richard Dawkins on British television. Dawkins is the famous atheist biologist who has written several aggressive anti-religious diatribes. The interviewer was clearly of like mind and his questions were served as lightly tossed softballs that Dawkins could smash out of the religious ballpark.
But at the end, the interviewer sucked in a deep breath and said something like this: “Well then Dr. Dawkins, here at the end, when all is said and done then, what really matters about life? What’s it all about anyway?” Without skipping a beat Dawkins gave a most remarkable, nearly unbelievable answer, at least in terms of his own logic system. He said something like, “Oh, well, you know that’s actually quite easy. Very easy. Love. That’s the heart of the matter. It all boils down to love.”
I nearly fell out of my chair because everything that preceded this last comment could hardly logically lead to this conclusion. In other words, why should love be privileged above every other evolutionary system? Why not hate, or dominance, or something else reflective of survival of the fittest?
But if love is Dawkin’s answer, we have something to talk about that points to the fundamental religious principle that Jesus enunciated. Evidently Dawkins cannot escape the elemental instinct about what matters most. And here’s the irony: 1 John 4:8 says explicitly, “God is love.”
And that’s about as good a place to end as I can fashion…