Each week our clergy, and occasional guest preachers, attempt to faithfully proclaim God’s Word in fresh, aspirational, and practical ways. In essence, they explore what it means to live our mission: We seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We hope that audio and text files you will find here will aid your own Christian journey.
Please share them with others, and if you’d like to participate in an ongoing discussion about the content of the weekly sermon, do so on our Facebook page, which you can access by clicking here.
You can subscribe to our sermon podcast in iTunes here.
You can subscribe to our sermon podcast in Stitcher here.
This page has the last five months of sermons at Christ Church. You can access prior sermons on Soundcloud here.
Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Here we are in the middle of our holiday season of over-indulgence and once more John the Baptist bursts on the scene to wreck the party atmosphere. Regular church-goers know that he re-appears every year about now to bring his grim tidings of no joy as precursor to the glad tidings of great joy on Christmas Eve. For those of you who are new to the Advent tradition, it’s a bit like taking our bitter medicine today in order to feel really good in about a week.
John’s style has been so parodied over the years that twenty-first century cynics find it hard to take him seriously. His language is arch: “You brood of vipers!” Today nothing like that would ever be advanced in any school of communications as a method of gaining someone’s attention.
The interesting thing to note, however, is that the people of his day went out into the desert to listen to him. And then he verbally beat them up. Still, more came. And the people listened hard. They had to scrabble out beyond the towns’ borders and make their way into the wilderness where John held forth. And he attracted followers. They brought friends. And everybody listened.
We have a problem with listening hard today. It’s a cultural phenomenon. We’ve talked about this quite a lot. We’re so overloaded with information and media and materialism and whatnot and hooha that we barely hear our spouses or children or friends or lovers when they’re three feet away speaking directly to us. That’s an aspect of our cultural life that I have to consider as a preacher: people’s desire and ability to listen to anything being said. Of course, you’re thinking I ought to say something useful I suppose. Fair enough.
For our purposes today let’s assume that the first century Jews expected something from John after traipsing out into no-man’s-land. And they got an earful. He told them a thing or two about their priorities. He said they were turned backwards. And because they were turned backwards they were in for some very tough times. They were headed in the wrong direction – they were headed over a cliff, as a matter of fact. He told them they should wake up and turn around. Repent. That’s what the word from Greek actually means: turn around; take a new direction, and this time, get it right.
Now most of us most of the time wouldn’t put up with such talk. That is, unless we went to church during Advent and gave half a listen to John. But it’s hard to take him seriously. And then, his words don’t have the same ring and cadence said from a marble pulpit amidst glittering mosaics on the corner of Park and 60th, New York City. Sort of incongruous. We lit a pink candle signifying joy; we have sharp musicians and a fancy building. We made our way into the opposite of the wilderness, right?
And in coming did you expect me to tell you it was time to get it right!!—that we’re headed over a cliff and it might be a good thing to reconsider our direction, our priorities, our ethics and values, our commitments? And that this is a matter of some urgency because God is about to make an appearance?
Whatever else we might think about him, John is an agent of change. He thinks change ought to be made and that change can be made. And the change he believes in sets the stage for what God intends for the world.
Change agent is a very popular concept in business and among entrepreneurs. It’s become an iconic component of leadership studies. Organizations of every kind, both for profit and not-for-profit, seek change agent leaders in fast evolving environments like we’re experiencing.
Today the kind of change the so-called agent generally advances concerns organizational efficiencies and bottom-line profits. In this way, in our day, change agents will be judged largely in terms of economic results. Better organization equals better bottom line. If it doesn’t, a different change agent is brought in.
Clearly that’s not the sort of change John was about. His focus was of a different order of magnitude altogether. John was interested in changing the human heart, and then expanding outward into communal systems of justice and righteousness.
That’s where I wound up this week—thinking about change. How does it happen really? How is it that we can change our direction for the better? I’m wondering if the people who went out to hear John had a predilection for change, say, more so than we do. I’m thinking we’re more likely to have a predilection for keeping things pretty much as they are, unless we’ve already stepped over the edge of the cliff and find ourselves in freefall.
Sometimes religion is used to protect ourselves from the kind of radical change John addresses, the change of the human heart that allows us to expand our circle of care. Consider the church’s role in slavery and then segregation, women’s suffrage and today, matters of sexual identity and orientation.
It should not be lost to us that someone like Martin Luther King Jr. arose from out of the prophetic wing of the church a la John the Baptist to confront the majority church with its inverted gospel perversion concerning the dignity of all people. King spoke the language of John.
And John spoke the same prophetic language in which he had been steeped, that called for justice, for all persons to be treated fairly, equitably and for those who had much, to share with those who had little; we should have rigorous integrity, care about the other, live sacrificially on behalf of the whole; in short, we should live righteous, loving lives and a righteous society should be organized accordingly. That’s the bottom line for John. And man, does that ever sound radical in today’s culture.
Sounds good and right to me. But then, what does that look like in any given life? Say, your life, or mine. What are the stakes for us? Often I hear people say, “Well, its all well and good that I should be for a just society, but what am I supposed to do? Me, one lone person…”
That’s what I was thinking about this week when I recalled a poignant memoir that Calvin Trillin wrote about his wife, Alice. It’s an especially loving portrait of a deeply humane and loving woman that is full of rich insight in how a life is structured around the things that matter most. His observations are human scale, not monumental, and therefore readily accessible.
At one point he says, “When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child—a subject of some considerable discussion among some parents we knew—we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either at the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.
Later he relates that, “Alice always said that parents had a huge influence on children when it came to what she called ‘the big things.’ Essentially, she meant values. In a letter to [our] girls she once included among the messages we’d been trying to send them ‘to worry about being kind and generous to other people, to be honest with yourself and with others, to find meaning in the work you do, not to over-value financial success.’” That’s homely and poignant wisdom.
No “brood of viper” talk for her children, but when I read those words I heard a translation of John’s harangue in language meant to change the world. Because true to form when confronted with the imperative to live righteous lives, the crowds asked John what they should do and he said, Well, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation…be satisfied with your wages.”
Pretty homely wisdom, right? Sounds like Alice, doesn’t it? Be kind and generous to other people, be honest with yourself and with others, don’t over-value financial success…
How does that take hold in a life? How does someone change, evolve into a more righteous version of him or herself? How do we help one another listen to that message?
Trillin continues: “Although we never discussed it in these terms, I think [Alice] believed in the transformative power of pure, undiluted love.” Alice volunteered at a camp for children with genetic disorders. One summer she was especially drawn “to Lauren, a magical child who was severely disabled.” …Alice reported that Lauren “had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food. She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart…One day when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind Lauren and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle…I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom…I did something truly awful…I decided to read the note. I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered….my eyes fell on this sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, Lauren, we would only have chosen you.’” Trillin was sitting next to Alice at the time. Before Lauren got back to her place in the circle Alice showed him the note and said, ‘Quick. Read this. It’s the secret of life.’”
I think Alice had it exactly right, and that by any other name she had described the case for Christmas. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” Out of love, for love, so that we might love, Christ came. And his cousin, John, was all about preparing for his arrival. Get ready, he said. Wake up to the facts of your lives. Take stock. Turn around. Time to get it right. Time to get it right. Time to get it right.
How do we change? One decision, one action at a time. One little move in a different direction, one intentional act of kindness that leads to another, and then another, and so on. One choice today and another tomorrow. One very generous act of giving some of what we have away. And before you know it, a community of care develops that honors the dignity of all persons.
Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Some years ago, quite unexpectedly, someone thanked me for something I didn’t know I had done. He showed up at my office one morning looking vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t even close to placing how I might have known him. He said, “You probably don’t remember me. My name is David.” He told me we had met on a city bus 18 months earlier at a time when he had been in a particularly tough personal place facing an excruciating decision. He recounted how embarrassed he had been at the time when tears welled up in his eyes as he tried to verbalize his situation.
A foggy memory began to clear. Taking a long ride home from uptown on the M15, he had dropped something near my feet, as I recalled, which led us into conversation. He was highly agitated, and I remembered that I said very little as he spilled out his story. I simply listened, murmuring a comment or question once in a while. We spoke for no more than 30 minutes or so.
Now in my office eighteen months later, he reported that moment had been a critical turning point for him. By the time he stepped from the bus to the curb, he had arrived at a decision. He was clear. And free.
And now David returned to thank me. Evidently, I had given him a business card in case he had wanted any follow-up conversation. I didn’t remember doing that. Usually I’m out of cards, forgetting to re-load my wallet. I never seem to have one when needed. He said he stuck the card in a jacket pocket and lost track of it, until recently, when wearing that same jacket, the card appeared as he pulled out a glove.
I was rather taken aback by his effort to track me down. I thought my small part in his tale was truly minimal compared to the size of his gratitude, or so it seemed to me. But in his effort to find me I learned something I haven’t forgotten over the years. It has to do with a thankful heart. That’s what David had—a thankful heart. He was a thankful man. Full of gratitude. He made a generous contribution to the church. But more than that, I could tell that to a large degree this spirit of generous gratitude defined his orientation towards life.
Now I suppose one lesson drawn from this little episode might relate to how every moment is pregnant with potential. Every single one. You just never know. Even a ride home on the bus. But, while that’s a pithy bit of practical wisdom, that isn’t my focus today. Instead, I want to stick with this matter of thankfulness. I think it deserves serious attention.
After David said his piece and went on his way, I was left with some questions: What’s the status of my heart’s gratitude quotient? How good am I at saying thanks to the people who populate my life and work? How gratitude-oriented am I in relation to God and to the mission I’ve claimed, namely, to love very well, God and neighbor. How sacrificially generous am I? How mindful of so many who have so little mired in many privations? And I recognized this was a matter of some spiritual importance.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is my favorite biblical epistle. That’s due largely to the obvious gratitude that permeates every paragraph. Paul clearly loves these friends and he can’t help letting his gratitude for them spill over. You heard him begin like this: “I thank my God every time I remember you….” And, from there his sentiments explode with joy, goodwill, and love.
And this is all the more remarkable given that Paul wrote this letter from prison. Whenever it shows up in our lectionary, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the gratitude that pours out of this man even though he is locked behind bars. Thankfulness, joy, goodwill and love ooze from its few pages and the man writes from a first century Roman prison.
Now part of the reason we read this during Advent is Paul’s confident expectation of his vindication at the coming of Christ. As well as the vindication of the Philippians. But this is wrapped in a spirit of thanksgiving for the community they share together, how they have mutually supported one another; how they have attempted to advance the cause of Christ by loving God above all things and their neighbors as themselves.
Though his life is one of great hardship Paul is full of thanksgiving, love, goodwill and joy. Next week we’ll read another passage written from prison in which he instructs the Philippians to rejoice always. Always. I suppose that’s hyperbole, I mean, how could anyone rejoice always? Still, it points to deep spiritual wisdom about our essential relationship towards life. Call it our fundamental point of view. Gratitude.
That’s what occurred to me when David walked through my door those years ago. You know how this is, you can think a thing is true until you smack up against it for real in your own experience.
Which reminds me of a story I heard about a pastor who was talking to one of his rural parishioners about the need to raise money for the church building fund. Trying to work into the subject subtly, he asked the farmer, “Now Bill suppose you had 100 horses, would you give me 50?
The farmer said, “Certainly.”
The pastor asked, “And if you had 100 cows, would you give me 50 of those?”
The farmer said, “Well, of course.”
Then the pastor asked, “Well now, if you had two pigs, would you give me one?”
The farmer said, “Now cut that out, pastor; you know I have two pigs!”
As you well know, there’s nothing like factual experience to clarify what’s really at stake with those things we say actually count.
It was a small thing for sure, this encounter with David in my office, but a window opened on the matter of the thankful heart. I hadn’t been expecting it, but there it was.
All of us have met persons with this fundamental disposition towards life. That is, persons with what I’m calling a thankful heart. I bet if I asked, most everyone here could think of such a person they’ve known. Inevitably we enjoy their company. They are life-enhancers, aren’t they? They’re givers, not takers.
And it isn’t dependent upon one’s material position. All of us know that stuff and things do not make a thankful heart. The consumerist mindset of more and more often leads to its opposite. A thankful heart is instead an inner disposition, or orientation, towards life no matter what we have or where we are, even imprisoned behind bars of some sort or another.
Here’s the other thing to note from Paul’s letter to his friends: their evident care for one another and Paul’s expression of thanksgiving are evidence of God’s presence with and among them. In other words, their thankful community is already a harbinger of Christ’s coming. As they await their vindication, they are already living in a manner that’s consistent with the qualities of his kingdom. Thankfulness and gratitude characterize the household of God. That’s why Paul can tell them to rejoice in all things.
Well if this is true, then you can see pretty clearly one way of responding to John’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” at this time of year. We can prepare by considering this matter of thanksgiving—reflecting on the matter of “our thankful hearts”, such as they are, or aren’t.
Here’s the good news no matter your particular situation at the moment: thankfulness is especially susceptible to the practice of the folk wisdom to “fake it till you make it.” If you sincerely desire to develop the heart muscle of gratitude, then simply start practicing it. There is no better season, no better time to re-establish your basic orientation towards life. The desire for a thankful heart is a very noble desire. One of the noblest.
Part of this spiritual practice includes developing a prayer of thanksgiving. Make it an Advent mantra. Keep it to a sentence. Something like, “Loving God, thank you for this day,” or maybe, “Generous God, give me a thankful heart today.” That sounds too simple, perhaps. But I guarantee that if you surround that short prayer with silent intention you will discover transformative power. It will change you. It’s not every proposition that can guarantee such an outcome.
And then, every day purposefully thank someone for something. Every day. Be intentional. It would be fine to make a list if that’s your style. In fact, when you go home today I encourage you to jot down three names of people you should thank. The simple act of writing
Here’s something I don’t have to fake at all: my great gratitude for really wonderful colleagues here. I have great colleagues—professional and volunteer alike. I have really good work among an increasingly thankful community. I have a loving, supportive and challenging family. I have good friends. I’m deeply thankful that all of us have each other.
And I’m increasingly aware that embedded within these good things resides the spirit of Christ. And I sense that the more I exercise my thankfulness, the closer Christ draws near. There’s mystery in this. But then, mystery is part of the wonder of this season.
You want to experience the true spirit of Christmas? A thankful heart is the one essential ingredient. If you have that, Christ will come for certain.
1st Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
She was 39-years-old. That was one of the first things the woman said to me as she reported feeling spiritually flat and anxious. As we continued our conversation, I learned that she had tracked pretty well career-wise. She hadn’t set the world on fire, but she had achieved a position that matched her goals. She had a sense of accomplishment about that. Originally from the Midwest she was attracted to the “bright lights, big city” adventure of New York, and for the most part, things had gone pretty well.
But a couple of months ago she realized she had lost the taste in her mouth. Everything had a cast of grey, like a brooding winter sky, as she described the feeling. She was unnerved, uncertain what to make of it. Was this depression? And if it was, where did it come from? She had never felt this way before. She had experienced plenty of bad stuff in her life and gotten through that. This was different. This seemed bigger, as though some larger thing was going on.
On any given Sunday, today for instance, the people sitting in the pews, like all of you, have brought with them wide-ranging sets of personal circumstances. We share certain larger cultural experiences, like our current political mishigosh, but individually we’re all over the map with what’s going on in our lives. Some would have good things to report about their lives—job promotion, news of a pregnancy, great year-end bonus, and so on. Others would report life was pretty much status quo, nothing much new going on, same old, same old; and still others would report a health crisis, unhappiness with work, or marriage, or parenting, or romance, or maybe some personal failure.
Yet, no matter the particular details of our life circumstance this morning, all of us could identify certain times in our lives that were more difficult, times we were lost in confusion and not understanding why, waking up one day and discovering we had been wandering in the wilderness.
This can take many forms, but everyone has experienced times of anxiety, depression, or as my new acquaintance said, a prolonged season with a brooding, wintry sky. Sometimes as we live into this season, and though occasioned by a vexing issue or two, we sense it has less to do with any particularly disturbing event from past or present than a realization that the current “me” is slipping away, and the new “me” has yet to fully emerge. We feel raw, exposed and vulnerable.
At that point we can choose to move into it and through it, or attempt to turn our back, cover our eyes and flail around for a while in a state of bewilderment—maybe even for quite a long while, decades even. (Do you know anything about that flailing around?)
That’s what I wound up talking about with my new acquaintance. Over time she came to the realization that while certain issues may have prompted her dis-ease, at root her wintry season was a life-stage transition, another opportunity for growing up. I shared that I had experienced a couple of times like that in my life and I imagined that one or two remained.
I also allowed how there was a really potent spiritual component to this that had to do with hope. We usually don’t think about this, but hope is what allows us to let go of the old in order to embrace the new, I said. We tend to experience this implicitly rather than explicitly, but hope is our most powerful engine for change, and hope is a deeply spiritual value. Hope is the harbinger of the new day even as dark clouds hang low.
That made sense to her. She said she would pray for hope. I said that was a very good prayer, a very important prayer. I returned to it all of the time myself.
Hope is an essential component of human existence. Not much would be accomplished without it. Little suffering could be endured, little striving over impossible-seeming obstacles. That’s true, isn’t it? Think about the details of your own struggles. Wouldn’t it be true to say that in order to make it through some dark episode in your life, hope is what allowed you to muddle forward? It may not have seemed like much at the time, but now, looking back, you can see that without just a sliver of hope, the new day would have been impossible.
When something doesn’t work out and we try, try again, all that trying has an intimate relationship with hope. In the process, we’ll likely learn a thing or two, but hope makes the learning possible.
Not many marriages would endure without hope. In a hopeless world, no one would have a child I imagine—except by accident. Why buy stocks and bonds, or own a mortgage? Though we rarely think of it, hope animates all of our life-affirming decisions, small and large alike.
Still, for all of this hope induced behavior, sometimes we enter the season of low-hanging dark and ominous clouds, and we wonder and question. After all, we’re only frail flesh with a certain number of years to our span of life. And so, we stumble in our confidence.
To complicate the picture a bit, instead of sitting within the beauty and comfort here on Park Avenue, New York City, imagine we were in a caravan of refugees fleeing intolerable conditions in our homeland with our families at risk; or in an upstate federal prison cell; or suffering with famine in Yemen. We see clearly that without hope those circumstances, and our politics as well, for that matter, are dead, stillborn. Hope seems reckless, even arrogant considering the scale of the problems in our world. Still hope lives. How does hope live? Why does hope live?
In here we have a rather odd answer, and yet it’s an answer that has completely captured the world’s attention. It’s called Christmas. This seems perplexing in the extreme, especially given how we abuse it by our excesses. Still, that’s the answer we proclaim here. We say that at the core of all things our God intends to bring redemption out of destruction. If not today, then tomorrow for certain. We say the child of Bethlehem is our hope and reveals the hope that continues into our misty future.
We invite people to share the faith which is grounded in hope—the hope that God will have the day. We know from Jesus’ own life that hope is rooted in the exigencies of human experience. Meaning, hope isn’t an owner’s guarantee that life will always be easy. Rather, that life is held securely in God’s hands. That’s what hope proclaims, no matter what, God will have the day.
Jesus spoke of the future in a variety of ways. Today we heard how he examined the dark and ominous sky and experienced the future with a sense of foreboding. As Luke tells the story, this morning’s gospel comes just a few verses before Jesus’ arrest. Still, for all of the roaring of the sea, distress among the nations and shaking of the heavens, he says to “stand and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” …Which sounds like a proclamation of hope in the midst of current distress.
No question the Jews of 1st century Palestine lived in dangerous times. Just a few decades away their city was sacked and their temple torn down. Those ruins can be seen to this day.
How can one be hopeful when the sky itself seems to be falling? Because God looms far larger than the sky with all of its stars and planets. And God intends for life to prevail. Even my life and your life. We go so far as to say that we shall prevail even after our very last breath has been spent. That’s the promise imbedded within Advent. Easter is imbedded within Advent. This transcendent hope is woven into every single strand of creation fabric. We couldn’t escape it even if we wanted to. God will have the day. Period.
That’s our theology: life triumphing. Get on board! Get with the program! Even in the midst of crisis and catastrophe. Hope knows this deep truth. Robust hope is not undone by suffering or grief. In part, suffering and grief form the anvil upon which authentic hope is forged. Hope has no truck with Pollyanna philosophies. It’s no sentimental Christmas card. It is at least equal to the worst that life can dish out, more than equal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about hope today. We’d be peddling despair.
Hope lies close to the heart of life. They go together. Hope and life; life and hope. Their dance animates our worship, inspires our musicians, fuels our passions, and prompts our desire to grow into the better version of ourselves that we suspect was intended in the first place. Hope is the mother of second and third and fourth chances.
God will have the day!
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
A young couple sat at my elbow having dinner in a mid-town restaurant. Their communication was intense. Sarah was upset, emotional. David was awkward, embarrassed. He was trying to change the nature of their relationship. Sarah wasn’t buying it. David said he still loved her, still cared about her, he was just allergic to commitment; it made him feel claustrophobic. Sarah shot back that he was making her out to be a smothering shrew, well, actually, she used other words. Didn’t he think they had good times and spoke the same language.
David paused a long while before he summoned up a line I’ve heard more than once over the years. I could tell David was reaching somewhere for just the right thing to say. Finally, with great animation in his face and body he said, “Sarah, I’m not backing out of the friendship, I’m backing out of the relationship.”
David was running scared.
“People Who Run Sacred” is a club for everyone at least some of the time. And, relationships are like that sometimes... threatening, challenging, even occasionally terrifying, especially for twenty-somethings un-used to making deep commitments.
Not just speaking of romantic relationships here. All kinds. Every kind. All human interactions are fraught with complexities. The snapshot of Sarah and David lingers in my memory as a certain kind of prototype. Two individuals trying to move into their futures, uncertain of commitment and afraid to uncover whatever deep truth lurks beneath the surface. They struggle to name their truth
Maybe I’ve overanalyzed their circumstance. It’s just that I know my own experience and I’ve heard the experiences of many, many others over the years. Beyond acts of nature or your genetics, aren’t most of your problems, issues, or concerns relational in nature? Don’t most of your vexing concerns involve others, directly or indirectly? This is what keeps pastors and counselors and psychologists and life coaches busy. We need help to see others clearly. Don’t we tend to put people in boxes that help us organize our thinking and our feelings? We view others through personalized and highly efficient filters so that we wind up seeing what we want to see.
You’ve heard me say that this often accounts for romantic love. Romantic love at least partially consists of a projection of ourselves onto another. We think we see the other, but eventually come to discover that someone else, someone more complex, someone often less likeable frankly, has possession of the person we thought we knew. I tell couples that’s when real love might actually take over, for that’s when each has the opportunity to see the truth of the other and of themselves. And robust love is all about truth. Authentic love and truth go hand in hand.
But as you know, romance isn’t the only relational quagmire. Whenever we engage others, we package them for our own purposes. We name, label, categorize them to satisfy our needs, missing the larger truth of the other. What is racism but a form of packaging? What or whom do we see when someone is identified as a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, and so on... any label lends itself to abuse, to seeing someone other than who is actually there. We all know this since we all do this.
And it’s equally true in speaking of our God relationship. If ever there was a place we should seek to set aside our preconceptions, it’s there. But all of us come to God with biases based upon who we need or want or expect to see. Who is it that you think we’re addressing in here, anyway? Who is this God we speak of here?
All we have to do is cast a glance around the nation at all the people who call themselves Christian to realize that there’s an astonishing range of variations on a theme. Honestly, some who bear the name Christian seem to worship an entirely different God than I do. We use a lot of the same language but arrive at very different, in some cases, even diametrically opposed viewpoints on just who God is. I suppose it’s inevitable that we all have a tendency to create a god in our own image.
Anne Lamott has it right, I think, when she says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Now pity the position of poor Pontius Pilate. If ever a man had need of categorizing another person, of putting him in a box, of seeing someone he might recognize from out of his own experience, it was this Roman Governor. Who do you imagine he saw when looking at the bedraggled Jew who had been brought before him? Surely Pontius Pilate had his opinions about Jews. Was Pilate able to look through the filters of his biases to see the actual man standing there?
But then, it wasn’t just a Jew, he was told, but a man who also purported to be a king. A king! Well, that would have tripped his trigger. After all, Pilate was an important and imperious government official, a Governor, assigned at the pleasure of the Roman emperor. Pilate knew all about kings and kingdoms. He knew real power when he saw it. Didn’t he have some himself, if only over backwater Palestine? Still, he was in charge. The people brought this Jesus to him. Not that he liked getting involved in all their petty squabbles. Tricky business: manipulating the pieces on his game board, keeping the crowds reasonably content while still exerting enough power to show who was boss. Tricky relationships to manage.
Pilate knew this Jesus was no king. Didn’t look like one, didn’t act like one, didn’t sound like one. Still, this was perplexing because the local leaders brought him as one who was said to have royal ambition. So, Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
As the story is told Jesus gives a mystical answer, something about a kingdom from another world. Not the answer of any king Pilate knew. It was the answer of a dreamer. Kings were practical. They saw what was needed to be done and they did it. They knew the relative value of human life; one here or there didn’t matter much. What mattered was the amassing and manipulation of power. And Pilate had power over this silly Jew.
And so, in the end, he would turn over this man to be put to death in the usual manner of the day as an enemy of the state. And he would have words inscribed in three different languages at the top of his cross which said, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Was this done in sarcasm, irony, confession? All we know is that today we remember Pilate solely because he put this particular man to death.
Lo and behold, two thousand years later this same supposed enemy of the state sits emblazoned on a throne in our mosaics and lends our church his name. At the very least we could say Pilate missed something really crucial in his relationship with Jesus. He didn’t see a larger truth. Pilate saw what he wanted, or better, needed to see to shore up his worldview, which is no different than what any of us do most of the time. The truth is, it’s quite remarkable that we allow ourselves to take in any new information given the fragile nature of our egos which we’re constantly shoring up.
According to the church’s calendar, today is the last Sunday of our year – next Sunday begins another year on the First Sunday of Advent. But today, the last Sunday is designated, Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, named for the man pictured up there sitting on a throne. Who do you see when you look up there? Squint your eyes in just the right light and you’ll notice the book on his lap is opened to a page that reads: “I am the light of the world.”
When Pilate looked at Jesus he intended his question as hip, first century, philosophical sarcasm when he asked, “What is truth?” Yet that is the relevant question. It’s always the relevant question. Always, everywhere in all of our relationships. What is truth? —At home, on the job, at play, at dinner with someone we say we care about, and in the quiet of our own contemplation. Keeping an eye on the truth is an excruciating discipline. Jesus said, “People who know the truth listen to me.”
I disagree with those who say there is no truth, not really, that all truth is relative. To say there is no truth is itself a truth claim and all truth claims compete for our allegiance. Jesus Christ is up there in our mosaics because many, many people over many hundreds of years have listened to him. They don’t do this especially well, because, as I’ve said, we all suffer from the same human propensity to see what we want or need to see, like Pilate. That’s the engine of our corruption.
Still, if we actually give ourselves permission to listen and to follow along – if we actually would like to see and to hear the truth, we can’t avoid contending with this man. And at the end of it we won’t be the same because truth will always and finally have its way. Always. Thank God…
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8Read MoreLess
Deuteronomy 8:1-18; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Matthew 5:13-16, 6:19-21
As I mentioned in my Faith Matters blog on Friday, you might be interested to know that both Stacey Abrams, first African American woman candidate for Governor of Georgia, as well as Jeff Sessions, recently fired Attorney General, identify as United Methodists—as do both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.
Our denomination hoists a big tent. Your favorite search engine will reveal that the Methodist movement has been home to an astonishingly broad range of diverse Americans. Sometimes the tent ripped under the strain, as happened over the issue of slavery when a church of the north and a church of the south sundered the unity while holding opposing points of view on the matter. There really was no way around that at the time given there wasn’t a true middle ground on the matter of slavery—one either is or is not a slave; there is no in-between state.
In his Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln famously observed that, “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
I mention this as a reminder that our national tribalistic moment has had a number of antecedents, some worse than others, but all leading to an eventual reunion of sorts—not perfectly, of course, but generally sufficient to secure for another generation a commitment to the common good of all. From break-up to reunion took the Methodists about a hundred years.
Today we’re caught in a time of fierce polarization both inside and outside the church. I am working hard to listen to God’s voice in the midst of the din. I am anchoring myself to the path Jesus blazed fashioned from love of God and neighbor. This leads me to a set of conclusions about a few things and some questions about others. I seek to stay committed to the path regardless of the cost. I also recognize that, as in the words of Paul, I only see in a mirror dimly. Here’s the thing though: no one today (except Kanye, maybe) supports slavery as a social construct. One side had it right in theory if not always in execution, and the other had it appallingly wrong.
I’m wanting to pay attention to this fact, knowing full well that I’m capable of getting something appalling wrong as well. That doesn’t prevent me from advancing my understanding of the truth, but it helps me hold it with open hands and heart in the spirit of Lincoln’s conclusion: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
He didn’t say this, but implicit within Lincoln’s reasoning is the idea that everyone is a child of God—Yankees and Confederates, people north and south, east and west and everyone else, including the enslaved Africans. For how could a child of God be treated less than any other child of God? Clearly all persons were bound together by common sacred genetics.
That remains the most basic affirmation we make in here, that we are all beloved children of God of equal worth. There’s nothing we’ve ever done to deserve that status, it’s just a given. Scripture affirms this, as does our intuition. Jesus taught this, lived this. Each one of us, child of God. We frequently speak of this here.
This affirmation lies behind the meaning of our mission to love God and neighbor and our core value of dynamic hospitality. All are welcome here because each one has been pre-certified as a member of the same family, emerging from the same spiritual DNA, all of us, children of God. Everyone who walks through these doors and throws their lot in with us—child of God. Even the late-comers. Everywhere you look a child of God! And the only work we have to accomplish in relation to this truth lies in accepting it.
Now learning that one is a child of God—really taking that on and letting it sink in—has a rather powerful impact, especially for those among us who have wondered deep down if they have ever really belonged anywhere. This wondering is part of the universal human experience. You likely wondered about this at some point in your lives. You might recognize it as that lonely anxiety that awakened you in the middle of the night during a fevered dream. Or the existential dread generated by the knowledge that one day you will die, which in turn prompts the question, Well, what’s it all about anyway?
Many spend much of their energy running from questions like these, smothering them in any number of ways, and you know all the ways there are to anesthetize yourselves from these questions. Work is a good way that many can identify with in New York. Work, booze, drugs, sex, money and so forth, all the standard stuff. And then we should make note of the individualized ways we’ve all dreamt up over the years, all of our personalized coping mechanisms.
And then, we’re very good at finding alternative means for propping ourselves up by putting others down—THE classic methodology for feeling better about our relative position in the world. Again, since it’s on my mind, think slavery for instance, an extreme version of radical exclusion, implicitly asserting that everyone does not share the same sacred DNA. I’m in, you’re out.
Human history is littered with these radical eruptions which are, at heart, a pathetic attempt to assert one’s essential humanity as inherently superior to another’s for a trumped-up and largely whack-a-do reason. Pathetic, but deadly nevertheless, and deadly serious.
So, children of God. And now add to that, salt and light. By virtue of our sacred genetics we are salt and light as well. Salt and light are so basic and essential to human life that Jesus felt no need to spell out what this meant. Although, as he says, salt can lose its integrity, its identifying quality as salt. This does not occur suddenly, but so gradually that those to whom it happens do not perceive themselves as changing and cannot identify later a single time or place when the rejection of their birthright occurred. The loss was not intentional; it was more a matter of drifting away.
Putting a lamp under a bushel certainly reduces the chance of having it blown out, but the price for such protection is darkness. In other words, God’s way in the world as exemplified by Christ, is mission: we’re meant to spread the word and make a difference. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world, let the light shine in the hopeful trust that word of each person’s essential and sacred identity can be spread across the land. Love and justice are the bywords of this movement.
That’s what accepting our birthright entails. Allowing our essence as salt and light to advance the message to others that they, too, are part of God’s beloved community. And this isn’t coercive or manipulative. It’s declarative. Here’s the good news! Believe it and live it!
Accepting this good news sets up an “if…, then” logic equation: If child of God, then salt and light. Since we’re all children of God it follows that we’re also salt and light. Our work and worship here allow this truth to seep way down into our deepest recesses. If child of God, stands to reason this truth will show up in our lives, what we do, in our life commitments, how we live, who we throw in with, how generous our love.
With this in mind then, Commitment Sunday isn’t about coercing our attitudes or squeezing our bank accounts against our will. It’s not about what we ought to be or try to be. Instead it’s a moment to acknowledge, to declare, who we are, to boldly assert our identity, our birthright and our work. To affirm the astonishing diversity of our family, naming and embracing our actual sisters and brothers to whom we are bound by virtue of sharing the same spiritual DNA.
…To align our priorities with the priorities of the enormous trust we’ve inherited. To remember, as Moses admonished the wandering Israelites entering their promised land, that God is the source of every good thing, including their various powers at manipulating the physical world into wealth and prosperity.
The scripture thunders: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God 17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” We are derivative creatures of God’s astonishing love who has been very pleased to shower us with every good thing.
So, here’s where we join together in common cause writing this sermon as sisters and brothers enjoying the same inheritance. It’s a small gesture, I know, but when we stand together during the final hymn and choose to join the parade down the center aisle, we’re making a statement about our essential commitments, bound in common purpose as agents of salt and light in a world that so clearly and so desperately needs this intrusion of grace. Bracing, inspiring, affirming – feel that deeply as you take the short walk to the altar…
Then the sermon opens exponentially as we leave this space and walk out onto the street as salt and light for the transforming of our world…
Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Revelations 21:1-6a; Mark 12:28-34
I received an anonymous letter, portions of which read as follows: “A note for Stephen Bauman, Senior Minister at Christ Church –
“I am writing to tell you how your church has made an impact on my life for the last seven years. I work not too far from the church, and would visit sometimes on my breaks or lunches. During the last seven years at this job, I have experienced some of the best times of my life such as meeting my husband to be, the birth of nieces and nephews…to some of my worst (my father’s heart attack, my grandmother dying, my mother-in-law’s breast cancer.) When I needed a safe place to think, pray, find hope, get space…I would go to your church and light a candle and look at the beautiful mosaics, or write names down on your prayer cards.
“This might not seem out of the ordinary, but I am not a member of your church, or any church for that matter…I am not one for organized religion…but I do like churches…for their community aspect, their refuge, their being a gathering place for hope. I have found all those things at your church and now that I am moving on to a new chapter in my life, I wanted to say thank you and would like this anonymous donation to be put towards candles, please….as I am sure over my time here I have lit nearly 100…
“Thank you to your church for being a place of hope and solace. My dear friend also found the road to your church when she moved to New York and she and I would discuss what a special place it is, from our two different worlds, perspectives, faiths. I told her I wanted to thank your church for years now and now that I will not be here much anymore since I am moving on to a new career, its time I did it.
“So there it is – a nutshell snapshot of how your church has been an important place to me and I thank you for that. I hope this donation helps bring light into other lives….”
Of course, this is as much your church as it is my church. Our anonymous friend could just as easily have addressed her letter to each of you who have joined our ranks. That’s one good reason to pass on the thank you. Periodically I receive this sort of correspondence and it’s useful for you to know that if you’re a contributing member here you minister in ways you hardly suspect.
This points to how Christ Church serves as a true sanctuary for the city. That’s one of its ministries—its physical presence, open and hospitable, directing all who enter into a space of both spiritual depth and transcendence. Many of you know this for yourselves.
But I note a glaring mistake in our anonymous friend’s logic. It comes when she claims she is no fan of organized religion but loves what our church does for her and evidently embodies. She doesn’t see the disconnect.
It’s a common occurrence, of course; I regularly hear a phrase like, “the problem with organized religion is…” You probably hear it as well, maybe even said it yourself at some point along the way in exasperation. My favorite tongue-in-cheek rejoinder goes, “Well, I suppose you prefer disorganized religion, then.” And we’d have to agree there’s plenty of that floating around in our culture; disorganized, superficial religion, or its more common moniker today, spirituality.
But I still understand the feeling in the complaint. I’ve said it more than once: there’s certainly bad religion in the world. And there are a lot of flawed individuals practicing what is essentially good religion. In fact, the only sort of people I know practicing good religion are flawed, which makes “organized religion” subject to the full range of human potentials. Much like an organized government, hospital, PTA, hedge fund, or basketball team.
The Al Queda terrorists had to be organized in order to pull off the World Trade Center bombing. Had they been disorganized, they would never have had the necessary disciplined precision.
Still, that’s less a condemnation of organization than it is about what their organization was designed to deliver. In other words, it was the content of their devotion that was at fault.
A couple of Sundays ago I mentioned that everyone has a religion whether or not they’re aware of it. It might be organized or disorganized, but there’s no question every person has a fundamental set of core operating principles that motivates their various activities and perceptions of how the world works. Everyone has their god or gods to whom they offer daily obeisance.
Our anonymous friend has hers—this was implied within her thank you. She was susceptible to receiving what we offer here. I say this because what we offer is embedded within these very walls and she deeply appreciated what the enclosure of these walls afforded her.
And these walls reflect an astonishingly long trajectory of human history. The story of Moses up there holding the Ten Commandments over Violet probably dates from around 1400 BCE. That’s 3500 years ago. The rest of our tradition flows forward from there. So-called organized religion has produced this space we now inhabit. And that forward flow from the distant past involved many, many individuals—flawed though they be—passing on what they knew to a new generation.
We call what has been passed on wisdom, or truth, embedded within a spiritual language involving symbols and rituals. The wisdom speaks of mystery, of things that are larger than our comprehension. Holy things, sacred things, things that matter most of all. Things like love, for instance, as you heard Jesus recount today.
When I stop to deeply consider this, this flow of history arriving at my place here, now, I’m quite taken with the scope of it, with the sheer numbers of persons who are responsible for my standing here. The church has a word for these people. We call them saints. We call them this, not because of their perfection, because surely none of them were. But because of their faithfulness despite their imperfections. Because of their willingness to give themselves, what they had and what they knew, to those who would follow them.
You see this clearly when bringing to mind one or two specific persons who are most responsible for your sitting here this morning—living or dead. Persons whose authentic love for you made you available, susceptible to the overtures of the God of love. Persons who gave you a language in which to make sense of the most important things. Persons who instigated faith, hope, and love in your life —the things we treasure most in here. And even if no one person comes to mind immediately, you can still sense your spiritual forebears surrounding you, can you not, giving you this place now as your own? Here, take it. It’s yours, they say. Make something of it. Make something of the faith it proclaims. The world is in desperate need of it.
Last Monday evening I participated in an interfaith prayer service at Sutton Place Synagogue about ten blocks from here as a response to the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. The service followed a traditional Jewish pattern but was attended and partially led by a number of Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics. A standing room only crowd assembled, every seat filled upstairs and down, the walls completely lined with people. It was a moving experience.
Sitting there listening to the cantor intone the prayer for the dead, it occurred to me how important houses of worship are to the communal life of our city. If they did not exist, what could possibly take their place as points of assembly where the things that matter most were celebrated and valued? Where ancient texts were shared that speak of the mystery of life and death and our place within the created order of things.
It brought back the memory of the service we held here after the 9/11 catastrophe, the sanctuary crammed with people at noon on the Thursday following that fateful Tuesday. Most I had never seen before, but they wanted to be here, and I was aware that they came because where else would they go to bring their profound anguish, confusion and yearning? Where else?
And who makes a congregation like this possible? The saints. In other words, us. And if not us, then no one. Bound together by love of God and neighbor we continue in the long wisdom tradition brought forward and honored by the saints, by us now, just us. We’re it. We’re the culminating generation. What we do matters. Our commitments matter. We’re the saints…
Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, wanted to see. He called out to Jesus who was on his way to Jerusalem. The crowds told him to keep quiet, but he called out all the louder, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He replied, “Let me see.”
Unlike every other healing story in Mark’s gospel, this one names the person who was healed. Over the years commentators have said this naming suggests that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, was still known within the Christian community at the time of the gospel’s writing. Unlike most all the others who cross Jesus’ path seeking his help, Bartimaeus is remembered. The clue for the reason why is in the last sentence in his short story. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” In other words, once Jesus caused him to ‘see,’ Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, became one of those who followed him – he followed Jesus on the way.
That’s how Mark describes the gospel—it’s ‘the way.’ To have faith in Jesus and what he taught was to follow him on ‘the way.’ And Mark’s gospel is largely presented as a journey. As a result, Bartimaeus was written into the story of Jesus’ road trip.
Thoughtful biblical interpreters at this point will say that physical blindness as it’s portrayed in the gospels is a metaphor for spiritual blindness. And this episode is no exception. This vignette follows three different stories about the disciples’ inability to understand who Jesus is and what he’s about. They’re caught bickering about who was the greatest among them and who would get the best goodies at the end of the day. You may recall that I’ve recently spoken about this.
Mark places today’s story as a punctuation mark on the disciples’ ineptness, or we might say their blindness, for although Bartimaeus is physically blind, he has spiritual sight that reveals to him Jesus’ true nature. When Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you? Bartimaeus responds, “My teacher, let me see.”
One clear lesson here is this: a righteous prayer for all of us repeats Bartimaeus’ request, “Teacher, let me see.” And you might ask, “Well, see what?” And the answer is, “the truth.” To see what is… what is true. Let me see you, Jesus, for who you are; let see my life for what it is; when I look in the mirror let me see the wide angle version; and let me see my sisters and brothers for who they are and my place in the scheme of things.
In another time, in a very different land and under very different circumstances, Stephen, son of Adeline and Melvin, thought he desired to see in this way. And at some point along the road after leaving home he encountered Jesus who shined a bright light on Stephen’s life that burned away part of the cataracts blurring his vision and then invited him to follow the way.
Having gained a bit of clarity, Stephen set out in fits and starts to do that. Years later, it brought him into the company of Violet, daughter of Malloy and Beulah, and a whole sanctuary of others who wanted to see in the manner of Baritmaeus.
Sometimes this band of travelers was blinded by imagining that Jesus wanted for them what they wanted—a problem-free existence, plenty of really, really good stuff, great success – whatever it took—or just plain happiness and good times. Wandering off the road in this manner, they heard Jesus calling to rejoin him on the way, sharing the road again on his journey to Jerusalem and beyond. And they wondered about this, wondered about the difference between wanting stuff and things on their terms, and Jesus’ desire for them to follow his way.
Sometimes they wondered if they really wanted to fully “see” in the manner of Jesus. Did they really want to see their lives without benefit of snazzy filters and fake settings and scenery? Did they really want to see themselves as they were? And were a few cataracts all that bad anyway given the ubiquity of suffering in the world? Did they want to see the world as it was? And come to think of it, where was Jesus headed anyway? What was up with what went down in Jerusalem at the end of his life?
But let’s pause here for a minute and consider current conditions, what we see today in our land. Consider the chaos and violence in our civic culture. First, join me in a moment of silent prayer for the victims at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh… A terrible anguishing event while we’re still digesting the pipe bomb terrorism in a time of aggressive political rancor, the worst I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
The 60’s were bad, the Vietnam era a devastating catastrophic time. But the public vitriol seems worse today. Political language has been stripped of decency and sense of common purpose. The violence this week seems an inevitable outcome given current conditions.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement yesterday that “These senseless acts of violence aren’t who we are as Americans…” And I immediately thought to myself, “I beg to differ Governor. I think we can’t ignore the truth that these senseless acts of violence are in fact part of who we are as Americans today.”
I say this because seeing “things as they are” really does matter. It’s the important first step in choosing a different outcome. It’s akin to waking up from a long coma. Part of “things as they are” is ugly. This was true in Jesus’ day as well, which provided the context for his loving intervention, to set things right, as it were. His life trajectory led him to crucifixion underscoring the ugliness factor that inspires violence and death. Yet he was on a relentless quest to open people’s eyes to the truth, and to the wonderful, hopeful opportunity that lay beyond.
Part of our job as Christians is to see this full on, even seeing the strains of ugliness in our own lives, our own tendency for enemy formation, for belittling our enemies, for falling headlong into the inky well of our shadow selves where power, fear, and self-absorption trump compassion, empathy, and personal integrity.
As followers after the way of Jesus, we must keep our wits in the midst of the chaos—our wits, our courage, our clarity, and our dignity coupled with a compassionate regard for all persons. We need each other to stay clear and focused in these days; that’s one important purpose of the church. Honestly, in times like these the habit of regular worship is more relevant than ever. The discipline of staying close to what matters most remains crucially important.
Judging by recent events, we humans are prone to stew in the darkness of our own blindness, hunkering down ever deeper into narrowly defined tribal wells of like-mindedness. Followers after the way of Jesus should be willing to confess this and then remember their commitment to love God and neighbor above all things, ordering the days of their lives accordingly, recommitting themselves to God’s justice rooted in our common genetics having been created in God’s image, every last one of us, in here and out there—every single one, a beloved child of God.
So, we continue the journey, discovering that following Jesus produces “a way of life.” This way of life is consistent with the goal of the journey, reunion with our God. As Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi from a prison cell, this way of life shapes our ethos of being of one mind, having the same love, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves, each looking to the interests of others.
This isn’t easy; it’s radically counter cultural today. We learn that life requires us to constantly work out our salvation with fear and trembling, confident that the Spirit of Christ works within us, honing and refining us into becoming better versions of ourselves.
Along the way, we discover there is no circumstance we encounter that’s beyond the range of God’s grace. We learn how to do the more difficult thing in service of love, the courageous thing, the nobler thing. We don’t succumb to the dark angels of our lesser selves. This journey re-arranges our priorities and attitudes, growing our love larger than our fear. It makes us generous and oddly hopeful despite many adversities.
This story is very much in-progress—as of yet unfinished. No way of knowing how many stand-ins for Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, may yet join the journey. But judging current conditions, we could really use a lot more folks with his request on their lips, “My teacher, let me see…”
Mark 10:17-31Read MoreLess
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
As a life-stage kind of thing, Melissa and I recently went through a complete financial analysis with a team of professionals including an accountant, a finance guy and a lawyer. Our goal was to gain a fresh and thorough understanding of how the components of our financial and retirement structures intersect as we approach the years of social security, Medicare and beyond.
We had some anxiety going into this process, and honestly, it had the feel of an astonishingly intimate striptease. The team garnered a much clearer picture of our finances than anyone has of our current President’s. We necessarily had to provide several years of tax returns along with every other shred of info that could be construed as having any relevance whatsoever for our planning.
In the main, our situation is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. Although, we did go through the exercise of establishing our spending habits. Have you ever done that? Done an exhaustive analysis of all the purposes for which your money has been deployed over the course of a year? I mean absolutely everything, including the cash you sequester as a secret stash? It was sobering as well as enlightening, not as though we didn’t have any idea, of course. But the focused exercise led to a heightened level of conscious objective clarity about our relationship with our money and stuff, and the habits that crept in over the decades that now seem set in cement.
Truth is, I’ve always had some anxiety about money. I remember reporting this during the process leading up to my ordination. There was some question I had to answer about any matter for which I had concern as I contemplated the adventure into ordained ministry. At 26-years-old I recall mentioning that this choice was going to lock me out of substantial prosperity, notwithstanding certain high-profile clergy peddling the prosperity gospel perversion. I knew I likely wasn’t going to inherit wealth and I could choose a different occupation to climb a more lucrative ladder. But that wasn’t how I was wired. And then I went and married a professional singer and my financial fate seemed sealed.
Over the years Melissa and I have confronted some financial complications, accompanied by sleepless nights over months and years, but overall things have worked out about as well as I could have imagined under the circumstance. Funny, though, how the anxiety still hangs around the edges.
I suspect that’s true for most of us, regardless of our occupations or how much we’ve accumulated. I’m pretty certain that far richer people than me have at least as much anxiety over money as I do, likely more. And here’s the thing, while not wealthy by American standards, Melissa and I are nevertheless at the summit of prosperity when considering the entire globe. If that’s the case, why any anxiety at all?
As I have mentioned before, of all the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, one-sixth of them pertain to money and its derivatives – the only subject he speaks about more is the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows well that money is the most potent symbol of our secret selves, deepest loyalties and greatest anxieties. His larger lesson reveals that money, per se, is not the problem, but our attachments to it. We are not free. We are in thralldom. And we covet the thralldom we have chosen. This thralldom breeds anxiety.
And let me add something here, lest we’re tempted to think the story we read today does not pertain to us due to the law of relative magnitude. This is the little trick we play by trying to decide just how rich, rich is, so that we might conclude we’re not the focus of conversation. The facts are these: 71% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day; nearly 2 and a half billion live on less than $2 a day. By inference, what does that make most all of us sitting here?
I do not presume to know how this works out in your individual lives. The choice placed before the rich young man is so extreme that I find myself enumerating the reasons why what Jesus proposes would be entirely out of reach in 2018. I mean, how is it that any one of us could actually sell all that we have in order to follow Jesus? What about our families? What about health insurance? What about the fact that our apartments might not sell in this market anyway? And given my profession how could I possibly serve Jesus without transportation, cellphone and laptop? It is beyond the reach of my imagination. I expect this was also true for the man in the story.
I’ve already confessed my own anxieties, but I do not know the specific word you need to hear for your particular variation on this theme. But we all heard the word Jesus gave the young man on the road to Jerusalem. We’re told what he said to the disciples afterwards.
Let’s be clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in charity in his exchange with the young man in our story. He wasn’t on a fundraising campaign trying to make people give more. (Although, if after thinking about this you do actually give more away, that’s a very good thing.) He was interested in the man. The text said he loved him. That’s telling. Jesus cared about him and loved him.
After digesting the troubling teaching about the difficulty of a camel making it through the eye of a needle, Peter blurts out like a misunderstood child: “Well, we’ve left everything behind, Jesus.” We did good.
From my reading of the Gospel, I have the impression the disciples did not embrace poverty as a virtue. They fully expected their day would come when they would be rewarded in very tangible ways after Jesus finally came into his full power. We might say they thought of themselves like entrepreneurs biding their time and managing their investments. I could see that this saying of Jesus might have brought them nearly to the brink of despair.
“You mean we’re not on this journey for tangible material reward? That isn’t a sweet result of our blood and sweat, Jesus?”
In the paradox of the Gospel, one can only win by surrender and only gain by forfeiting everything. What does that mean for you?
I do know that someone has to manage the money of the world. I am not necessarily more sanguine about the morality of bankers and money managers than individual investors. I am not persuaded that government necessarily has greater virtue in its decisions than a given person. I certainly do not think prosperity is a bad thing. I’m all for prosperity. Poor people yearn for prosperity.
But as prophet Amos makes clear, often the rich make their wealth on the backs of the poor. Do we need a crystal clear example? Consider slavery in America: wealth literally drawn from the sweat and blood of the enslaved. That’s the most egregious form of economic and social abuse, but the pattern of those who have taking from those who don’t continues to the present day.
If I had a choice in the matter, I would prefer the world’s money and the power that money bestows, in the hands of surrendered persons, persons who know from whence their life came in the first place, and whither it will be going at the last. Persons who locate their identity somewhere other than in their material means. Humble persons who have a robust spiritual, confessional life, who understand their value is not found fundamentally in what they do or do not have. Persons who have a heart for God’s justice.
Still we must not over-simplify the teaching. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “The poor cannot buy [the kingdom] with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift…”
Yet there is a deep challenge in Jesus’ confrontation – the message here is to get real.
Whatever one’s riches – however they are defined – in our world it’s hard to have an identity other than a self-made identity. Your worth, your righteousness, your wealth, power, children, job, fame, whatever – there is no freedom of real living until you hand it all over, as Jesus would have it. It is the heart of generosity that he wants to teach. This heart is what he wants to give the young man on the road. His riches stand in the way not because they are evil, but because they prevent him from identification with both the cause and the gift Jesus offers.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus was filled with love for the young man. Who knows how that love played out for him after he stepped away? I’d like to think that Jesus’ love followed after him and hounded him with relentless compassion.
Friends, in hearing a teaching like this, the honest thing for us is to confess our weakness and willful ignorance – “Yes, you nailed me, Jesus!” – and then to pray for wisdom and a generous heart, that is, a surrendered heart. That’s what I do. I pray for a surrendered heart.
Authentic generosity comes with an inner awareness of our dependence upon God, the source of every good thing, including our very lives. Without that inner awareness, without a surrendered heart, we’re prone to persuade ourselves and others that we have more virtue than we have, as though giving away the little bits we share can win us points in heaven.
The generous heart that recognizes the shores of eternity comes only with identification with the extravagant generosity of our God in Jesus Christ who said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s what he did. That’s our model. And we’re all counted among his friends. To be listening to this story two thousand years later is a form of his compassion and love for us, hard as it is. Why? Because it takes us to the truthful place, the heart of our anxiety, the heart of our idolatry. And paradoxically, the heart of our salvation.
Ephesians 4:17-21,25-27, 30-5:2; Mark 10:13-16
It’s been a wild and crazy week, right? It was impossible to escape the tribal hyper-ventilating emanating from Washington D.C., amplified a thousand-fold across all news and social media platforms. It’s been addictive and exhausting. '
Of course, underneath the Kavanaugh hearings life continued as usual—night followed day and we went about our business; the subway had shutdowns, the streets were clogged, the Yanks squared off with the Red Sox, and lots of other stuff happened that didn’t quite catch our attention because of the noise. We likely missed a few things that went down besides the senate vote.
For instance, you may have missed the story earlier in the week concerning how 1,600 children from across the country were transferred to a tent city in west Texas . They were loaded onto buses and moved in the middle of the night, with minimal warning, to offset the likelihood that they would try to escape.
A record 13,000 migrant children are currently detained in shelters across the United States. The numbers are increasing rapidly due to the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents at the border. The night-time move is reportedly intended to make room for additional children that are being detained, with the older ones being sent to the tent camp. But unlike in the other locations, this does not provide the children with the same care.
This camp is not licensed, nor is it monitored by state child welfare authorities. There is no access to formal schooling. And whereas in their previous shelters the children had legal representatives assigned to their individual cases, they now face limited legal services.
It occurs to me to lift up this particular news item because of that sweet passage assigned today from Mark concerning children. I say sweet because of how it’s been sentimentalized over the years, but the truth is, Jesus meant it as a serious rebuke given the status children had in first century culture.
The familiar picture of Jesus taking a child in his arms and receiving him with love portrays an attitude of care and concern for children found nowhere else in the ancient world. Children, along with women, old men, and slaves, were viewed as physically weak burdens on society who had little value to the wider life of the community. In Greece and Rome, it was an accepted practice to abandon unwanted children along the roadsides to die.
So, the passage we heard was very much in keeping with other radical things Jesus said like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s what it means to enter the kingdom of God like a child. It’s a radical posture that requires adopting a certain attitude about what matters most and then aligning the content of our commitments accordingly. So, for instance, followers after the way of Jesus would necessarily care about public policy effecting children. They would care quite a lot.
But that’s not my main point today…it’s more of an example of what it can mean to say I belong to Christ, or I am a Christian. That’s what captured the attention of the writer to Ephesians. He wrote, “My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to Christ, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus.” And, “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ we’re all connected to each other…Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children…Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love…”
That’s the way it works, I think, this Christian thing. It’s not so much about what I say I believe, although that’s not unimportant. It’s more about picking up and following along, watching what God does, and since mostly what God does is love us, we then follow that lead. Great faith is proved less by what we profess with our lips than the actual content of our lives—what we actually do.
The thirty-year-old man had come to talk with me about tensions in his life. Tensions around life decisions. He felt very conflicted about his options. On the one hand, he was very clear about the sort of material success he was after. But he was not certain about much of anything else. So, I asked him what he thought he was committed too. What path did he think he was on? Could he describe it? He warned me that he wasn’t going to fall for some sappy religious angle (evidently missing the irony that I was a minister…)
So, I told him about a plumber I knew, in his late forties, who over some years, had built into his schedule late afternoons and some weekends of tutoring at a school for difficult kids. A number of these kids he mentored into college, even guaranteeing their tuition. He had built a solid small business, but he was certainly not a member of the famous .1%.
And I also told him about a cocky financier, about the same age, who had built into his schedule several nights a week cruising bars, something he could manage wherever his work took him. Can’t tell whether he is proud or appalled at the number of hook-ups he’s had over the years—probably a little of both. Made a lot of money. He was a part of the .1%. By his own admission he had no real lasting relationships, though, and was now discovering that single malt scotch was the most likely candidate to be named as his best friend.
Both guys had established certain commitments, I explained. Each had been captured by a vision of what life was about. Each had set out on a path and managed the daily routines their path required. Each had acquired the skills, partly through trial and error, that they needed to succeed on the path they had chosen. Each had learned a thing or two. Each was on his way to somewhere.
I told my young friend that in my experience everyone has a religion, sappy or otherwise. Everyone functions from a grand operating principle whether or not they knew it or admitted it. Mostly that principle could be inferred by the wake they left as they passed through their lives. The tangible, material content of what we actually do tells the tale for all of us, notwithstanding our words. Both of these men were old enough to see what they had wrought with their lives thus far.
In here we say we’re following along the path Jesus blazed through the world. For me the great attraction is his truth-telling, his ability to cut through the world’s humbug and flimflam and his embodiment of the truth he tells, things like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Seems to me a life that is aligned with Truth like that is a life that is congruent with itself and with all of creation.
I suppose I’m rather like the disciples--not entirely certain of the deepest meanings of the words I use in here. Still, the hope is in the following. And in the following I continue to learn to expect the near impossible. And I learn more and more how to take the hands of others who, however tentatively, have also chosen to walk the path.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
I can’t remember a time when tribalist tendencies have been more pronounced. Fueled now by awesome and invasive technology, we’ve splintered into tribal collections of passionate like-mindedness, like never before. And this cuts across all cultural forms. Political parties, churches, clubs, corporations, sports teams, independent schools, fraternities and most organizations with a bumper sticker express facets of this tribalist tendency; some benign, but many others toxic.
It’s hard to step out of this toxicity. We seem hard-wired to slice and dice the world into the saved and the damned, allowing ourselves the privilege of being among the saved, of course. That’s the endgame of tribalism after all, the amassing of power and privilege for the select group.
When considering how this can work out in church, I like to tell a story from the first year of my ministry, a time that now seems quite tame by comparison to current conditions. My first pastoral appointment was to a little church located in a small Connecticut town. True to form of all that divides us, mine wasn’t the only little church in this small town. Across the street was the little Catholic church. A block or two over was little Trinity Lutheran and two doors away from them was the little Congregational church. Lastly, at the main crossroads was the independent Bible church that proudly flew a flag of fundamentalism.
All the ministers excepting the fundamentalist were quite friendly, as were the congregations, and occasionally we would band together for some community-wide event. Our most significant joint undertaking while I was there involved the resettlement of a large extended family of Cambodian refugees. Pooling the resources of our congregations, we were barely able to handle the project. Realizing we could use all the help we could muster, we decided that I should approach the pastor of the independent church to see if they would like to help.
One Saturday morning I walked over to the parsonage and knocked on his door. After a brief exchange of greetings I launched into an invitation for his church’s participation. Without so much as a nano-second of hesitation he responded that he didn’t see how that would be possible given that we didn’t agree on many points of theology. Taken aback by his quick, curt reply I asked if there was anyone he could throw in with on a joint project.
He became thoughtful for a moment and then mentioned one church about an hour and a half a way in the westerly direction and another about an hour away in the easterly direction. But then catching himself, added with a chortle, “Well, actually they probably couldn’t work together after all because the minister there believed the millennium came before the rapture and the Bible was clear -- the rapture came first.”
(For those in need of a little primer in the conflicts in fundamentalism, the rapture and millennium refer to the end times and whether or not a period of a thousand years of peace comes before or after the saved are taken from the earth…)
I was dumbstruck. Eventually I said, “You mean to tell me, that disagreement would prevent you from working together, say, to re-settle a Cambodian family?” He shook his head yes. I backed out the door mumbling some incoherent thing, stumbled down the steps, and began my life-long fascination with the human propensity to draw boundaries of exclusion.
And I suppose this simply could have confirmed my opinion of certain fundamentalists, but instead had the effect of planting a pebble in my shoe. I began wondering how I reflected similar patterns, only very pleased with myself that I wasn’t nearly as obvious in my arrogance as my ignorant brother down the street.
Because fundamentalist, or what I’ll refer to here as tribalist tendencies, actually comes in many varieties. It wears all sorts of clothes – liberal and conservative alike, republican and democrat, Christian and Muslim and Jew – persons with exclusionary opinions and practice that favor those in the “know”, those that have the special advantage, those who through some enlightened state, or birthright or heritage challenge the essential validity of others. What is white nationalism other than a tribalist outburst on hyperdrive?
Recently I had a surprisingly frank conversation with an older white woman active in her church concerning racism. After a while she finally admitted that, probably, we really should try to see everyone the same and that maybe the next generations would be able to do it. Her real point being that she had no intention of addressing her own culpability in the matter. She was quite comfortable with her prejudices, thank you, with the way she had constructed her world view, and she thought not even Jesus had the power to alter that.
In my pondering over the years, what has become quite clear is that all of us suffer from this tendency to greater or lesser degrees, this tendency to draw tribal boundaries concerning the saved and the damned; the in and the out; those that deserve our compassionate regard and those that don’t, and so forth—although, few of us sitting in this room, if asked, would consider ourselves close-minded. Still, race, ethnicity, occupation, education, gender, marital state, orientation, political ideologies, and, of course, religious orthodoxy, are not only expressions of difference among us, but deployed as powerful weapons of exclusion.
Surely this human weakness lies close to the heart of most of the world’s agony and violence.
Now I would be the first among us to claim that all so-called truths are not equal, that some things are truer than others, that some expressed truths are in fact, false, and ought to be exposed as such. I believe this strongly, even passionately. In part that’s why I’m in this line of work. I believe when at my best, I’m in an occupation that helps uncover what is profoundly true. For instance, I find the deepest of truths in the witness of Jesus, and I’m committed to understanding and proclaiming this with greater depth and maturity as the years advance.
But at the same time this requires a sort of militant humility of approach. Being on the look-out for truth means being careful to hold it lightly, hold it with a certain humility, lest one forgets that despite disagreements, all of us remain linked in ways that transcend our differences. The church has always been at its worst when it has weaponized its doctrines.
In our gospel lesson today the disciples approach Jesus with this report: “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus answered, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
You see the humanity in disciples’ response: “He was not one of us…” You see how they so quickly moved to exclude this fellow, to put him down and keep him out. Jesus thought otherwise, and in his words we catch a glimpse of what it means for us to be curative and life-giving agents in the world. We catch a glimpse of a larger truth, which involves a spirit of inclusion, of hospitality – as we say here at Christ Church, dynamic hospitality. We also realize from the same exchange that God’s purposes are always larger than our own definitions. Godly, loving compassion exists in other guises and arenas beyond our normal comfort zones.
Now the history of Christianity is littered with failure on this point. It’s important to confess this. Once it found alignment with worldly power, this wisdom of inclusion was lost from time to time amid the rubble of human self aggrandizement, often to very deadly effect. Still, the early church struggled to learn Jesus’ lesson. Paul wrote that in God’s kingdom there was no distinguishing between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; the church came to accept this as the logical outcome of Jesus’ witness. There was no prior condition that excluded one from God’s love. That said, over the centuries we found all sorts of reasons to parse the human family into hierarchies of value. It is so very hard to let that go.
The story of Esther we heard read earlier is the story of how one race of people treated another. It’s a story about deadly human arrogance, injustice and abuse of power, and about issues of inclusion and exclusion. This predates our own time by 2500 years, the majority of those subsequent years steeped in the teachings of Christ, with his followers now numbering in excess of two billion, and still the last century is remembered as the bloodiest in human history.
This is among the most difficult lessons for us.
The Christian difference with the world does not mean that we think the world is more evil than us; that those inside the church are redeemed and the world is fallen. Instead, the mature Christian believes that the world and the church are both fallen and redeemed by the cross of Christ. That’s the language we use. All are held by our Creator God. It’s just that, when at its best, the church seeks to know this and then attempts to live in light of that knowledge. The old cliché rings true: We’re all in the same boat.
If that’s true, then the difference between “them” and “us” begins to evaporate with wisdom born of humility. And it will cause us to be on the lookout for evidence of God’s activity in the world regardless of the garb it wears, the language it speaks, or the temples it inhabits. We should be more than glad to find friends and comrades in the most unlikely of places, for in such manner God’s transcending purposes are advanced.
Good morning. My name is Jason Byassee and I’m honored to preach in this beautiful church. Thank you Stephen for having me and Christ Church for listening to me. I’m told this church, this city, this country are eaten up with a certain judge’s nomination to the supreme court, and the drama over whether he will become a Justice. I don’t really know anything about that. I live in some other country, and I have an accent that shows I’m not from here, though President Trump regularly mocks my adopted country Canada and people with my native accent, southern. So tempted as I am to weigh in on President Trump, Judge-maybe-Justice Kavanaugh, and a certain Senate hearing that may or may not include the testimony that matters, you didn’t bring me here to opine about politics and I’m no expert on any of it. In the church the question is this: is there a word from the Lord. And I believe there is. It is about wisdom. Lady wisdom. Let us listen to and believe this woman.
31:10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions to her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. 31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I did my first ever funeral 20 years ago, the family chose this passage from Proverbs 31. They wanted to say they loved and honored their mother and grandmother and this passage gave them the best words to do so. I’ll never forget the woman’s name: Mary Stuart Fowlkes: may light perpetual fall on her face. The interrogative mood of the first verse is perfect: “A virtuous woman who can find?” We found one, I said, and her name is Mary Stuart Fowlkes. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. It’s enough to make you wonder—what passage do you want read at your funeral? Because that day is coming, sooner than any of us wants. What do you want the whole arc of your life to look like looking back from the end?
May all of our lives add up to the glory of this one woman’s life in scripture. Ellen Davis, my Old Testament teacher at Duke, says this woman in Proverbs 31 is praised more highly than any other human being in the entire bible other than Jesus Christ himself. Moses is wonderful, but makes mistakes and is punished. David too, and the apostles. Even Jesus’ mother Mary is gently rebuked a time or too. Not the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Nothing but praise for her.
In Orthodox Jewish households, this passage is read as part of the Shabbat blessing on Friday night. After Sabbath candles are lit, the father blesses the children with words from scripture. Then he turns to his wife, looks in her eyes over candlelight, and says these words of blessing that I just read. Every week. All their lives. Then when she dies, the family often says these same words over her at her funeral. She is clothed in these words from scripture. Words of dignity and honour and respect. I suspect we should listen to the woman, don’t you think?
Our New Testament passage also refers to wisdom, it shows Jesus has listened, but it’s a bit less dignified, a bit more like our rough and tumble political climate. It starts with John the Baptist. He’s disappointed in Jesus. He baptized Jesus, he pumped him up to his friends, and then Jesus seems more interested in having parties than in saving the world. The messiah’s job is to be a king like David and make Israel great again. But Jesus is too busy partying fat and drunk to do the job. There’s a clue in this: the church should be known by the quality of our parties. I think we’re more often thought of for being frowny-faced judges of others. But man, did Jesus ever love a party. He eats and drinks his way through the gospels. You can hardly open a page of the gospels where there is no reference to Jesus eating. John is impatient. He wants Jesus to act. And Jesus will not. We may want a God who does what we want. Protests what we protest. Gets outraged at what outrages us. But instead Jesus does what he wants, not what we want. We serve him, not the reverse. He endlessly forgives sins. Honours women. Builds a church of outcasts and losers not a country club for kings and judges. Because everyone is invited to Jesus’s parties. The only ones not there have chosen not to be there. Of course, if you invite religious people to a party they say they prefer funerals. So Jesus says this strange thing in our text. He says. . .
Luke 7:18-35 John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” . . . At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” . . . 31 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
“Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Jesus is drawing on the wisdom tradition in Israel’s scripture. He is proving wisdom true. He asks John to look around. Signs of the kingdom are blooming everywhere: the blind see, the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news. Be wise, John. Sure, there’s a party going on. It’s a party of people using eyes for the first time. Dead people staggered they’re alive again. Sick people dancing with crutches and canes. Yeah it’s a lot of noise and ruckus, but what do you expect John? This isn’t a morgue, it’s a paradise. John’s people are not convinced, and they go home grumbling. And Jesus doesn’t mind, he praises John, that’s a real man, he says. An Old Testament mensch. But the least in the kingdom is greater than he. John sums up all that has come before and been good. Jesus is the new normal. Jesus is wisdom in flesh. Wisdom has always been with us, in every religion and culture, foolishness too, but now what’s new is wisdom has a pancreas and a spleen and a Jewish mom. The very sketch by which God made the world, the blueprint the architect used, is here as a human being. Everyone should delight. So the way God intends things for all humanity is breaking out in our midst. No illness. No death. No misery. Only joy. Tell me that’s not a party. Jesus understands that John can’t see it and doesn’t blame him. Maybe even us religious types, like John the Baptist and Franklin Graham and Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford and Baptists in Vancouver and Methodists in New York and all Christians and all religious people and all irreligious people, will also rejoice with Jesus one day.
Introduction over. Time for the sermon. Just kidding. Sort of. What to say? Wisdom is a powerful woman in the bible who helps Christians imagine what the Son of God is like before his incarnation from the virgin Mary. Proverbs says God has always had his wisdom, God made the world according to wisdom, wisdom danced and delighted in creation like a little girl helping her daddy. Well, the church has imagined, that personified figure is sort of like the Son of God before Jesus’ birth. She is with God, advising God, delighting in God, while God sparks Adam to life. Wisdom is older than Adam, full of mirth, God’s right-hand woman. And Jesus himself says “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Proved right is a very important Christian word, it’s the same word translated elsewhere as . . . “justified.” Wisdom is justified by all her children. What on earth does that mean?!
There is a powerful woman at the heart of the bible, justified, proved right, by her children. And that woman is the church. The best, maybe the only argument, for why the gospel is true is a church that acts like we believe it. An ancient church teacher said “No one can have God for a father without the church for a mother.” The church births wisdom in us. That’s why we meet for worship, for bible study, for prayer groups, why we visit the elderly and have camps for kids. It’s why we founded schools and universities. We’re trying to grow in wisdom, trying to be disciples, to have our whole life, even our minds, wrapped around Jesus. “Wisdom is justified by all her children,” in other words, the quality of the church’s life shows whether the gospel is true. Let me say that again . . . There is a place for arguing about the truth of faith. We have libraries and start colleges for a reason. But the best way to show the gospel’s truth is to live it out as a community. To throw parties where people are invited and treasured who aren’t treasured or invited anywhere else. To heal and teach good news and raise the dead like Jesus. Let’s show our city by our life together that there is more to life than money. That there’s something more important than being fit and young and superficially beautiful. That the grave is conquered by Christ. We can do that, can’t we church?
But maybe our neighbours aren’t interested. They’ve heard the bible is what justifies abusing, ignoring, dishonouring women. I’m here this morning, Canadian address and southern accent and all, to tell you that’s a myth, a lie actually: The claim that the bible says women should stay at home, cook, clean, and make babies is not in the bible. Now those are all good things—every household needs food, cleanliness, and if there are no babies, soon there will be no households! But the bible does not teach that those are the only things women can do. Or that women have to do those things to be valid women. Lots of Christians and non-Christians think that’s what the bible says. They just disagree on whether the bible is right. Meanwhile where the church is growing in many places worldwide outside New York or western Canada or North Carolina it’s because of the place of honour Christianity affords for women. God is born of a woman after all. The passage from Proverbs 31 shows how and why we honour women.
The passage is about an eshet hayil in Hebrew. The translation I read calls her a “wife of noble character,” and that’s right, but hayil means more than that. The same word is used in scripture to describe military leaders, people of moral renown, governors. In social media lingo today, we’d call her a boss. If she was an athlete, we would admiringly call her a beast. Verse 15 says this of her: “She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family.” The Hebrew is meant to evoke prey hunted by animals, or booty carried off by conquering soldiers. This woman is a mother lion, a victorious general. And when 31:17 says she “She sets about her work vigorously,” the Hebrew has that she is robed in splendor. Clothed in majesty. Like God almighty. Some of the most ancient language we have for baptism in the church, is that we come up out of the water naked as newborns, and are clothed with Christ, wrapped up with the one who is wrapped up with God. That’s how the eshet hayil, the “woman of valor,” is clothed in Proverbs 31. With splendor and majesty.
We had family friends in town from North Carolina earlier in the summer, and took them to Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver. It’s how British Columbians impress guests—with tall trees and suspension bridges. There’s a boulder there our boys love to try to run up and scale. So we started to say hey look at this rock . . . and our friends’ 11-year old girl tore off before I could finish the sentence. She didn’t make it. She came back, took a breath, bared her teeth, and was off again. She hit the top and roared. Now, in a few years time, many people will evaluate her on one question alone. Her looks, very narrowly defined. The bible says no. She is a soul, stamped with the image of God. She can be powerful, and needs apologize to no one. Her looks don’t matter. Her virtue does. Listen to her.
This is something else about the eshet hayil, the virtuous woman. Her physical beauty is not remarked upon. Israel’s neighbours have poetry praising women but it’s usually for their looks. Proverbs is not interested in superficial things. Verse 31:30 says this: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Now the passage does comment on her body, it comments again and again on her hands. “She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.” Seven times it mentions her hands—she makes her own fabric, before she sows clothes for her family. And as if that weren’t enough, she dyes it all, in purple and scarlet! Royal colours. She reminds me of a woman from the frozen prairie in the 1800s where it’d be 30 degrees below zero so she’d make quilts for her family. She said “I make them warm to keep my family from freezing and I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.” She’s a businesswoman. She sells in the marketplace: “she sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” She’s active in multiple businesses, “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Ellen Davis says this is the most detailed description of an ordinary person’s work we have anywhere in the bible or in the ancient world. And the very best thing she does with her hands is this: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” In other words . . . she’s a lot like God.
Now, as I talk I can feel some of you women feeling very, very, tired, if Proverbs 31 is the model for how to be a woman. ‘So I already have to run a household, make it look effortless, and now I also have to be able to be a soldier and run multiple businesses and be cheerful too? Life is hard enough already!’ This is one of the ironies of modernity. It’s right to say women can do what men can. But often in the 20th century we just added stereotypical male roles to women’s portfolios and didn’t take anything away. Women can be soldiers and CEO’s now but they still have to look sexy. Folks used to say with great solemnity that behind every great man was a great woman. Then we made fun of that: behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Now we say, wait, she can be the man. And of course that’s true. But even the old great man had a supportive spouse keeping the house afloat. This is a ridiculous set of demands for one person. No one can do it all. No wonder you’re tired.
Here’s the thing. The gospel does not say “try harder!” The gospel says God has done everything we need. We respond with awe, delight, and love. But we don’t have to do anything. Because God has already done everything. God is mending back together every fault line we human beings have ripped open, including gender, politics, religion, and God is doing it through the church. There is not a hurt that will not be healed one day.
The church has long noticed aspects of God in this eshet hayil, this virtuous woman. And I think this is wise. No mere human being is praised this highly anywhere else in the bible, and maybe there’s a reason for that. She’s no mere human being. Wisdom in the bible is a figure of speech, a personification. Then it becomes a person. When we realize Jesus is God in our flesh, after he dies and is raised for our salvation, we see wisdom in the bible is a glimpse beforehand of God in our skin. So when we see wisdom we think Jesus, God working to save.
The church has long been spoken of as a feminine figure, a mother, the one who births us and nurses us in faith. Women have always played a disproportionate role in educating children, first their own children, then other people’s. I sometimes joke that we men kept ordination to ourselves for so long, until the 1950s in United Methodism, because otherwise women would run the whole church. They always have. Jesus speaks of himself in feminine figures at times—he longs to gather up Israel like a hen does her chicks. And the church has sometimes wondered about the Holy Spirit as the feminine face of God. She’s the shy person of the Trinity. You can’t see her, because she’s always getting out of the way—pointing to Jesus. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit don’t want attention for themselves, they want us looking at Christ, becoming like Christ, loving Christ. And that takes women and men in the body of Christ to do it.
So don’t look at this list of the virtuous woman’s characteristics and despair at falling short. Look at it and see God. God who never falls short. God who empowers us to do more than we can ask or imagine—even if we can’t imagine getting out of bed for another day. Look at her and see the church, who births us in faith and nurtures us to maturity in Christ. Look at her and see God, who protects and provides and loves. No individual alone can be the bible’s eshet hayil. All of us, church, can together be the woman God dreams about, the eshet hayil, full of valor and might and beauty. A virtuous woman who can find? We found one. We are one. And her name is the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
For about twenty years Tom Clancy created a not-insignificant cottage industry of techno spy-thrillers with more than 100 million copies of his novels currently in print. A number of these books made their way into top-grossing films with titles like, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger & the Sum of All Fears, which tracked the arrival into the Port of Baltimore—and eventual explosion—of a nuclear device designed to catastrophically destabilize the U.S./Russian détente.
His worldview was nurtured through the cold war, but his storylines kept pace with evolving conditions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he had a masterful knack for exploiting national anxieties which took on new life post 9/11.
Though he died in 2013, his crackling narratives have stayed popular as evidenced by their frequent reappearance on premium channel television and continuing robust book sales. Probably, the majority of you have seen at least one of the films which have featured several of our culture’s more popular male leads in the role of Clancy’s now iconic hero, Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and more recently, Chris Pine, have all taken a turn at playing the unassuming CIA analyst with history as a marine and a Ph.D. in economics.
Underscoring the enduring popularity of this character, Amazon Prime has just released an 8 episode update they’ve called, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, now starring John Krasinski in the title role. Krasinski caught fame in the wildly successful series, The Office.
The reviews have been interesting, covering the political gamut from left to right, and several exploring the personality traits of the protagonist. Some find Ryan self-righteous, and he is routinely touted as a boy scout, often in less-than-flattering terms. Of course, Clancy builds that critique into his narratives.
There’s a lot that could be useful as fodder for assessing many current political and current flashpoints. One reviewer in Vanity Fair said, “Jack Ryan is an astonishing case study in toxic narratives. I watched it twice, slack-jawed in amazement; I do not know if this is an endorsement or not.” Although, she was clearly engaged and energized as she rips its assumptions apart.
And I get that. But like that reviewer, I have now seen the series through and I was struck by something in particular—Jack Ryan is actually a very decent guy, a man of integrity. You could disagree with the undergirding geo-politico framework, I suppose, but he speaks the truth, holds others accountable to the truth and valiantly tries to do the right thing as he understands it. As he says more than once, he wants to make a difference from inside the belly of the beast.
On NPR, Eric Deggens said that “Jack Ryan is the perfect public servant, smart enough to solve everything from the drug war to international terrorism without compromising his ideals… At a time when so many government officials are mired with gaffes, scandals and corruption investigations, it feels good to see a government employee dedicated to making the right decisions for the right reasons…”
Honestly, I had that same response when Melissa and I binged watched the season last week. Sure, there are lots of things to analyze about the presumptions and prescriptions embedded in the plot. But I guess it’s the timing—how refreshing to actually find a character with personal integrity! How unusual.
Our news is jam-packed with corruptions of every sort. One political operative after another indicted and found guilty; pervasive disregard of truth; clerical sex abuse of children; and the mounting number of narcissists toppled by the #metoo moment.
As I mentioned last week, I don’t know that our time is more corrupt than others, but it certainly seems as though we’re inundated with a relentless cascade of public and private disclosures of personal and systemic corruptions. It’s exhausting.
So maybe we can be forgiven if we find relief in a character who tries to do right. Even saying this out loud sounds a bit jarring given current conditions. Are you like me in this? Do you feel bereft of mentors in the public realm who model a different way of organizing a set of life commitments?
Our passage from Proverbs announced: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out, at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge… I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind…”
How quaint this appeal to wisdom sounds today! I note the writer insists wisdom speaks right in the midst of the busiest intersection of the city. We could think of it like the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street, in the heart of the city in the heart of the world. Right there. As if to say, right in here, among us. Call it essential, practical wisdom. The wisdom that’s consistent with human flourishing.
And as though right on cue to current conditions our reading from James tells us that the tongue—our speech—reflects our character, the direction our lives have taken. Choose your words well, he argues. Don’t let your words lead you to evil deeds.
Speech directs action; action reflects character. Oh my. This reading is pure coincidence, or, I suppose, serendipity.
As we heard last week, James reveals the hypocrisy of “faith” that is merely professed without corresponding actions that inevitably manifest from authentic faith. He says that faith without works is dead and religion without compassion is worthless.
Now he aims a little deeper: the hypocrite who says one thing and does another is actively practicing deceit. It may be self-deception or it may be deliberate lies, but the water at the source is polluted. No matter how eloquently crafted, speech that springs from polluted water cannot be clean.
As Jeanyne Slettom summarizes, “Speech that uplifts, that encourages, that teaches wisdom, that resonates as true, is speech that springs from a pure heart. And that is what James is ultimately aiming for. His fuming against hypocrisy is a plea for its opposite: integrity.”
And so there you have the point of it today. A plea for integrity from the source of our faith.
And let’s be very clear here: integrity is not perfection. None of us is perfect. None of us knows the whole truth. Each of us, myself included, suffers personal corruptions to greater or lesser degrees. That’s why we often share in prayers of confession in our worship, to set the record straight. If we say these with sincerity we’re properly situating ourselves before God and one another, the opposite of hypocrisy.
So, integrity begins with humble confession of our limitations. But from there we seek with open hands and hearts to live lives that are consistent with our mission to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. Love of this sort requires a kind of transparency, or purity of intention. Now again, we don’t do this perfectly, but if we earnestly seek to love well, we can’t help but continue to evolve in a manner that honors God’s original design specifications.
In my Faith Matters blog this week, I quoted Susan Howatch, another author of fiction whose characters grapple with integrity. She wrote: “We die and we die and we die in this life, not only physically—within seven years every cell in our body is renewed—but emotionally and spiritually as change seizes us by the scruff of the neck and drags us forward into another life. We are not here simply to exist. We are here in order to become. It is the essence of the creative process: it is in the deepest nature of things.”
In one sense, our becoming is a process of integrity, of growing increasingly congruent with the things that matter most of all. This doesn’t happen all at once. Along the way we learn to slough off the bad stuff, the stuff that prevents us from loving well. We become more familiar with our limitations and weaknesses. We learn to honor what God honors, to seek justice and equity, to acknowledge the human dignity of all persons.
As this evolves we wind up embodying Jesus’ instruction to take up a cross, “For what will it profit…to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
He’s the voice of wisdom on the busy street corner calling people to wake up and see what’s most real, most vital, most important for human flourishing.
And it seems we hear his voice not a moment too soon…
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
Back in 2005, Senator John McCain wrote a book entitled, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember. I was reminded of this through all of the media coverage of his funeral and editorializing about his life which clearly hit a resonant chord in our cultural moment. The phrase, “character is destiny,” was coined by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and refers to the idea that all of us actually participate in choosing the future that comes to us—we’re not simply victims of fate.
In the book’s introduction McCain writes this: “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.”
And now I’m reminded of an exchange I had with a young man who was preparing for college. He asked me if I thought he was foolish for not taking advantage of an opportunity to cheat on the SAT. He said the proctor was very encouraging of the students to take more time than officially allotted to be sure they had done all they could on each of the sections. “Go ahead, help each other out,” he said.
The majority availed themselves of the proctor’s offer. However, he had stuck with the formal time restraints and was now wondering if that was foolish given the cutthroat competition of the college admissions process.
On a very basic level he was asking me whether dishonest success or integrity was more important. I was impressed he was questioning this at all given the cultural climate being so heavily weighted on the side of success-at-any-and-all-costs. Was he a fool? Well, I said in a sense he was, but it was just this sort of foolishness that helped the human race grow into its greatest glory. If only we had more fools like him.
You could try out a thought experiment: Had you been in this young man’s shoes, what would you have done and why? And then I’ll ask you to hold to the side of consciousness your perspective on the current state of our national character and that of our various leaders. There’s a whole lot we could talk about there, but for our purposes today that would take us down a rabbit hole of infinite dimensions.
Our scriptures today remind us that what we hold as our deepest values shapes the character choices we make. We just heard our ancient texts speak some very homely things like this: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor [or reputation] is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Simple. Pithy. And damning of current conditions.
Some scholars think that the book of Proverbs arose during a time of corruption and moral weakening. I suppose some of us today might feel that description characterizes our own time. Personally, I’m not certain that our time is especially corrupt. What I am certain of is that we’re subject to the same sort of corruption today as our forebears were over two thousand years ago. It’s quite compelling to consider that their hard-won wisdom is as relevant today as it was then.
Would you rather have a name associated with wealth, or one associated with great character? We want to believe these are not mutually exclusive goals, of course; but still, in a forced choice test, which comes out on top? The text functions subversively in our context, where two of the mightiest capitalist symbols came crashing down seventeen years ago in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest nation in the world. Be reminded that the anniversary of that calamity arrives on Tuesday. It was also a Tuesday in 2001. I remember it vividly.
Proverbs places the moral life squarely within the realm of choice. We have choices to make. All of the time. Every day presents us with myriad choices, many of which carry moral freight. That is, they carry some component of meaning that is larger than our individual selfish desire. What am I going to do in this situation? How shall I live? To what ends shall I direct my time and energy? What commitments and behaviors actually hallow life? Who am I in relation to everyone else? How do we belong to one another?
Since you’ve taken the time to be here this morning, you likely entertain these questions, at least from time to time. And I also know that a good chunk of the population out beyond these walls has these questions lurking around the fringe of consciousness. It must be so given our belief we were all formed by the same loving Creator whose very breath pumps our lungs. We can’t help ourselves, our moral intuition is written into our DNA.
We can’t help ourselves wondering about what a life is for, really. Well, we can put the question off, we can smother it over with every sort of preoccupation, we can stuff it, drown it, ignore it, but then something happens, say something terrible and shocking, and, at least for a moment, the clutter is ripped away, and we see our choices more starkly exposed. That happened en masse on our island seventeen years ago. People flocked to churches because they had become instantly unmoored.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of people our culture would identify as leaders. One of them, Samuel Pisar, was one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. Captured and incarcerated at the age of 12 he lost his entire family to Hitler’s horrors before escaping from Auschwitz at the age of 16. By his own recounting, in order to survive he nurtured a very clever and canny personality and his life could have turned out very differently than it did. He told me he had become a feral child.
But somehow, through the nurturing of the larger community, he managed to achieve doctorates at both Harvard and the Sorbonne, eventually writing the treatise that became the west’s blueprint for economic engagement with Russia, China and the Far East. He became a US citizen by an act of congress and was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Post 9/11, and struggling mightily with the meanings and tensions of retribution and forgiveness, he became an advocate for finding pathways into a reconciled future; he feared the world was once again veering into camps of depraved indifference for human life.
Samuel Pisar was not a perfect man, if such a thing could be conceived, but he was a man who made a series of choices over the course of his life that clearly answered the question, “What is a life for, really?” in a way that dignified the global human community. And I wonder: how did that happen? He could have chosen so very differently… I’m thinking John McCain was cut from a similar cloth… As in a much smaller way the young man who came to ask me if he was a fool because he chose integrity over a kind of dishonest success. All of them, fools for certain…
And I’m reminded of another small story told by Rabbi Shifra Penzia, about her great aunt Sussie, who rode a bus home on a snowy evening in Munich during the Nazi pogroms. Suddenly, SS storm troopers stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into the truck around the corner.
Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he asked her why.
“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid (expletive deleted),” he roared. I can’t stand being near you!”
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
“Damn her, the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again!” I’m so fed up. She always does this!”
The soldiers laughed and moved on. Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name (Homiletics, Sept.-Oct. 2000, p.17).
In that moment some larger frame of reference, some big answer to the question, “what is a life for?” grabbed hold of this man. Something other than his own immediate self-interest directed his actions. He placed himself squarely against the prevailing corruption of his own society. That’s not a small thing. Would that we could see much more of that in our own society, a squaring off from the corruption that engulfs us.
Perhaps some otherwise trite sounding yet profoundly true aphorisms expressed his thinking. For instance, something about a good name—maybe a name associated with compassion, courage, integrity—was worth more than, well, at the moment, maybe even more than life itself.
Or, maybe he had taken to heart the admonition we heard from James this morning who wrote, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matters of character receive far too little focused attention in our culture. We rarely speak of virtue, which isn’t to say there is none anywhere to be discovered. But few seem ready to hold themselves accountable to virtuous ends. Perhaps that’s due to how technology strips away our privacy. It seems everyone can know anything about any one of us. In a world that transparent, who dares set a high bar for virtue? Feet of clay abound.
No one withstands The Great Scrutiny. No one. Nevertheless, in such a culture as ours, great character comes with humble self-awareness while striving to hear and to act upon the voices of the better angels of our nature. As James wrote to his friends, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” In other words, if what you say you believe doesn’t actually show up in the content of your life…
A great church invests itself in helping to create a great people formed by the faith that calls us into our better selves. That’s a fundamental reason for our existence—helping each grow into the persons God intended from the beginning…
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23Read MoreLess
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
A recurring theme from this pulpit for a while now concerns the incredible changes taking place within our culture impacting every arena of human experience. In particular, enormous cultural tectonic shifts are rocking all institutional structures, including every religious tradition.
Within the church world this topic overwhelms nearly everything else—how people’s behaviors are shifting in subtle but profound ways due to the technology tsunami impacting everything from how we shop, how we organize time, how we date, how we construct friendships and important relationships, how we parent, how we learn, how we teach. Most everything evolves at a rate that’s now visible in 3-year time frames, as in our saying, well, 3 years ago we did it this way, but now…
No one, no organization, remains immune from this crushing blitzkrieg because of the enormity and ubiquity of the changes that are rushing at us.
Yet for all of this change, the foundational matters pertaining to our essential humanity remain intact. Each of us still must contend with what it means to be born and having to die. Each of us still attempts to make sense of the days of our lives, addressing the questions of fundamental identity and purpose. Those questions aren’t going away any time soon. We still must choose what matters most of all to us.
And for that reason, I am basically bullish on Christianity over the longer haul. I’m less bullish in the shorter run. That is, I think the church in all of its current structures are in for a wild ride as it struggles to re-form and re-imagine itself in an unstable environment.
The profundity of Jesus’ enduring power and presence will not end if a denomination or two or three go under water. In fact, looking to his own timeframe, the very center of Jewish faith—and Jesus’ own faith—the temple of Jerusalem was overwhelmed and torn down shortly after he died, the remnants on view today 2000 years later. But his powerful legacy took root in peoples’ lives nevertheless continuing to the present moment.
Back then the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?” wasn’t freighted with the fine points of creeds and denominationalism, which isn’t to say there weren’t early disagreements among Jesus’ followers—there surely were, as we heard in our gospel lesson.
Did you catch it? Some of the disciples reported that Jesus’ teachings were difficult, and many turned back and no longer went about with him. This led Jesus to ask the remaining 12, “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
As I read that this week, it seemed oddly apropos of our cultural moment. So many distractions, so many alternatives for our time and attention. But it occurred to me that I have no real alternative answer to Jesus’ question of Peter, who said: “Lord, where else would I go?” Some may turn back and follow a seemingly easier path, but in the words of Joshua, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
I’m thinking we’re living in a time when many find Jesus’ teachings too hard, that is, too retrograde for current conditions, requiring too much commitment and effort. This doesn’t alter the fact that our choosing whom or what to follow remains an indelible necessity. None of us escapes the imperative of this choice. All of us chooses something as most important every single day.
We may not choose the Lord, but something will take God’s place. Check it out in your own life, in the lives of your friends and co-workers. Scan the media of all the personalities who‘ve captured our addicted attention. See if you can’t make out what they value most of all by the content of their character and the wake they leave traveling through the river of life.
Paul instructed the Ephesians to “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us… Be strong in the Lord… Put on the whole armor of God…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…”
That’s the fundamental business we’re in here. The forms and structures of our institutional life will inevitably morph into something that responds to current conditions, but the essential call on our life remains as it has for millennia. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua implores, repeating his call 3 different times.
The church’s first order of business has always involved the call to renewal of our covenantal relationship with God and the affirmation of our identity as the people of God. Unfortunately, the church has performed this role imperfectly over the centuries, sometimes succumbing to the enticements of current conditions, succumbing to the dark powers and principalities of its time. We see evidence of its corruptions today.
But other times it rises to its call, or at least some portion of the church, some remnant that stays close to God’s heart of love. In here we organize our life around our mission of seeking to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We return to this theme over and over again, because quite frankly, it’s very, very easy to forget, get distracted, captured by the dark powers of our time, to slip away because this sort of love can seem so costly. And sometimes it is.
Charles Raynal recalls how a segment of the German church rose up to confront the Third Reich (Charles Raynor, Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 Commentary in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4). Karl Barth, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest theologian, “was teaching at the University of Bonn when Adolf Hitler was named as chancellor of Germany. …He wrote to a friend that the German political situation was ‘like sitting in a car which is driven by a man who is either incompetent or drunk.’ …I felt it my duty to join in helping the church to carry on its work in the changed national situation, in other words, to maintain the biblical gospel in the face of the new regime...’”
This led Barth to join the Confessing Church movement which wrote the Barmen Declaration repudiating all the malevolent powers and authorities of the day. Earlier you heard Paul tell his friends that the struggle is not so much “against enemies of blood and flesh, but the cosmic powers of the present darkness…”
That sounds sorta woo-woo out there, but on the other hand, how do we name and contend with systems like the Third Reich that systematically slaughtered 6 million people, or how do we speak of the powers and principalities that brought forth a world-wide economy based on slavery? How do we name and contend with any power or authority that strips dignity from people?
Our choices matter. A lot. They have consequences. Choose this day whom you will serve, and let that service flow out in the content of your character and commitments.
As I said, at Christ Church we claim our most essential commitment is to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it: that’s our fundamental organizing principle. It’s so simple anyone can remember it. Simple, but not easy. That’s because love is a kind of work. It requires time, attention, thoughtfulness and effort, oftentimes, very great effort. To love well means intentionally establishing certain reinforcing habits. This is the point behind practicing spiritual disciplines.
For instance: Why attend worship regularly? Well, for one thing, it honors our very first commitment to love God above all things. Is attending a worship service the only, or even the most important way I love God? Well, maybe not. On the other hand, it seems a necessary recurrent practice that helps me keep a bead on the prize, or the point of it all. And it regularly places me in the company of a rather unlikely group of people who are also attempting to keep their eye on the prize. Honestly, it never ceases to amaze who shows up, where they’re from, what they’ve been up to and why they think they’ve come.
Here’s the question of the moment given changing patterns of behavior these days: what does it mean to show up? And I mean this question across the boards, as in, not just in terms of showing up for God in worship… But also, What does it mean to show up in marriage? In parenting? In friendship? In a life full to the brim of love and gratitude? In compassionate regard for others? In deeply caring about the common good? Each requires choosing the oftentimes more difficult, yet better way.
I’m beginning to think the ubiquitous text, “sorry dude, can’t make it today,” may be the hallmark epigram for these first decades of the 21st century. A life with that response always, always at the ready is a life that will forever skirt along the surface of what it means to be a human being fully alive. Choosing to show up may be the one essential necessity for anything that really matters to us, and the foundational requirement for imitating God’s love as demonstrated in the life of Jesus.
What does it mean to love well? First off, it means showing up.
Mark 8:27-38Read MoreLess
John 6:35, 41-51Read MoreLess
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
An article in Christianity Today magazine reports that 53% of Pentecostal Christians and 41% of evangelical Christians believe that if they give more to their church God will reward them financially. In common parlance this is known as the prosperity gospel which could be defined like this: “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”
Hundreds of churches now promote the 90-day challenge: tithe 10% of your income to the church and if you are not blessed by God in 90 days, they guarantee to return all the money you’ve donated. As one pastor put it, “God says, ‘Test me out. See if I’m God.’”
Even if they don’t see a direct link between offerings and blessings, many churchgoers say God wants them to do well. Across all categories, including mainline Protestants, sixty-nine percent agree with the statement, “God wants me to prosper financially.” Twenty percent disagree. Ten percent are not sure.
The more people go to church, the more likely they are to think God wants them to do well. Among those who attend at least once a week, 71 percent say God wants them to prosper financially. That drops to 56 percent for those who go to church once or twice a month. And churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs are more likely to believe this, with Pentecostals out ahead of everyone else.
Evidently the 90-day challenge is picking up steam. And of course, in a land saturated with lottery hype, you can see why this theology appeals to people, because it’s sort of a nicer version of the lottery. Sure, you’re putting out substantially more cash, but it’s for a good cause and the money-back guarantee sounds pretty solid. Although, pastors who’ve gone this route report that just a small percentage of folks actually ask for their money back. I imagine that once caught with the bug of potential prosperity, it’s hard to shake.
Benjamin Sparks(1) relates that back in the 19th century there was a name for persons in Asia who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met. But once their situation improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Missionaries called them “rice Christians.”
Of course, just as today’s prosperity evangelists often take advantage of their congregants accruing wealth for themselves, missionaries could also abuse the people by bribing them with material means for the express purpose of converting them. A somewhat cynical tit-for-tat kind of theology. This ploy has been long discredited now. The faithful follower of Jesus doesn’t need a payback for doing good, for loving one’s neighbor.
At our Sunday sharing table where we serve homeless and hungry folks we don’t require conversion as the natural outcome for our provision. Not to say we wouldn’t be glad to have any and all join us in our walk following after the way Jesus blazed. Y’all come...
And in Flor de Campo, our partner church outside of Cartagena, Colombia doesn’t require membership in the congregation for the daily meal served to 100 children, or for the recipients of the loans in our micro lending program. And we don’t ask them to tithe to the church so that God can prove his bona fides. God doesn’t require a down payment, as it were, to release a flood of blessings.
The Colombian Methodist Church has a laser focus on the poor in their nation. They’re clear about the mandate to love God and neighbor. They still need money, of course, the clergy work for next to nothing, but they love God and they want to live the gospel. I’ve learned from them in this. And some of you have as well. It’s hard to reconcile, to make sense of, the great material disparity.
It is true, as Mahatma Gandhi observed, that “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except as bread.”
But there are levels of revelation beyond that, beyond sating physical hunger. There’s another hunger we all humans share, something deeper, broader, higher and wider. Something that gnaws at our souls. Hard to describe, really; hard to pin down exactly, this sense of something important, transcendent that pervades our existence. It defies tangibility.
Just prior to the passage we read from John this morning, more than 5000 people had dinner on a hillside as they had gathered to hear the increasingly famous preacher, Jesus from Nazareth—a local guy who surprised everyone. He had blessed a couple of loaves and fish and low and behold all had been fed.
As the story is told, Jesus and his friends then tried to find some solitude, because the people wanted to make him king. But that wasn’t Jesus’ schtick. The text put it this way, “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain.” Then he slips away with the disciples across the sea to Capernaum.
That’s how our passage began today with the crowds trying to find him. Eventually they do find him, and they question him about his intentions. Jesus responds that the only reason they want him is because he fed their bellies, which leads him to say cryptically, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
Still not getting it, they ask him, well, what sign will you give us that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do for us? What more are you going to do for us Jesus? Will you bless us with material prosperity, for instance? Do that and we’ll believe. And they mention how Moses provided food for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Eventually this conversation leads Jesus to say that he is the bread of life—a supremely wild metaphor, really. He’s prodding them to consider their deepest hunger, namely, the longing for reunion with the One who gave them life in the first place. The food Jesus provides is already present and powerful in their midst. He is their sign.
Now we’re as fixated on the material aspect of our existence as the crowd in Jesus’ time. Throughout John’s gospel he tries to redirect their attention to the things that matter most of all, those things pertaining to the inner person, the essence of their human dignity and purpose, the location of their identity as God’s own beloved children. And God’s children need spiritual food.
This sort of food doesn’t come by way of marketing a material payoff. Faith is the actual goal here, but today we’re prone to approach the matter like consumers, because that’s how we’ve been trained and nurtured, to be consumers, and picky ones at that. I buy and accumulate, therefore I am.
I fight the same tendency. I’m a product of the same culture you are. We have an extremely difficult time seeing our situation objectively, say from a vantage point 30,000 feet in the air, looking down on the context of our time, taking stock of what preoccupies our attention, how we hand over our allegiances so easily to things that simply don’t matter much at all.
Quite apart from any political perspective, I have been fascinated with the unfolding trial of Paul Manafort, the international lobbyist and erstwhile presidential campaign manager. It seems that among other things, Mr. Manafort was a consummate consumer, and it was this very quality that led him into a rabbit hole of needing, wanting to accumulate more and more stuff, ultimately bending, if not breaking the rules of the game.
Emblematic of this hunger for material things we learned this week that he spent over $1M on clothes over the last several years—an astonishing sum. This seems such an apt metaphor for our time. I predict that this will be remembered years from now as emblem of life in the first decades of the 21st century.
But I honestly don’t want to pick on Mr. Manafort. Rather, I’d like to relearn the lesson about which hungers matter most of all. I want to be pointed back to examining my own heart and mind, my own preoccupations. I want to refocus my attention on true food that sates my deepest hunger. I want to remember that no one is excluded from the food that Jesus offers, and by way of example, I want to remember that everyone is invited to the meal we are about to share.
At Christ Church we practice an open communion table, meaning there is no precondition for receiving the true food that’s offered. We believe this reflects Jesus’ own practice. There is no ticket, no confession or proposition to agree to, no obstacle at all from receiving this good gift, save by your own choosing. Rather than talking about it, let’s just experience it.
And as you come forward today hold this famous aphorism in your heart and mind: you are what you eat…
(1) Benjamin Sparks in “Pastoral Perspective”, John 6:24-35, Feasting on the Word, Year B, v. 3, p.308, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
If you’ve been overwhelmed by national and world affairs this week, it’s possible you came to church today to get away from all the news feeds and social media. After all, this space is called a sanctuary, meaning among other things, a safe haven, a place of peace and security. I have found it so over the years for myself. I do find it a true sanctuary, a safe place.
But then, I’m also aware that the world still does follow me in here. I never have been able to completely check the world at the door like my coat at a nice restaurant. Try as I might, I find the world insists on taking my hand as I cross the threshold, almost as though, it’s also desperate for sanctuary.
Jesus and the disciples had something of that problem, according to our story from Mark. He wanted them to come away to a deserted place all by themselves, so they might rest, getting away from the trials of their days. So, they got into a boat to travel to a place that would be for them a sanctuary. But as it was, the crowds seeing where they were headed, hurried by another route and arrived ahead of them. And so, arriving at their “sanctuary” Jesus and his friends were greeted by the world. And the writer adds, hopefully, I think: “[Jesus] had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.”
Most of you know we have candles to light in this space during the week. I often light one for someone, as I did for my father this week who turns 96 today. Sometimes I’ll light a candle for one of you when I’ve become aware of some need or difficulty, some pain or conflict that has arisen in your life.
I suppose you should know that I do this. Sometimes I’ll tell you when I’ve lit a candle with your name on it. Sometimes I won’t. But the thing is, it does very much feel like I’ve brought the concern from out there into a safe place where it can be named, honored, heard and received. It’s a small thing, I suppose, but then I happen to believe that small gestures of compassionate regard provide the mortar holding the structure of healthy human community together.
On Wednesdays, a team from Christ Church offers prayers for the concerns you write on the connection cards. And people drop concerns into our prayer box in the entryway during the week. All in, there’s quite a lot of spiritual aspiration due to our physical presence here at Park and 60, made possible by the commitment of all our members and friends to provide sanctuary for the citizens of our city.
And I was thinking this week that what we offer here with our open doors, open hearts, hands and minds, seems especially timely given the state of things. Are you not overwhelmed by the chaos in our national life, and within the echo chambers of social media? Don’t you feel sort of beat up by all the raucous noise in our media? Hasn’t the political rancor and hostility ratcheted up into, I don’t know, a kind of wacky circus act, yet, having real-time consequences? Aren’t we riven into rivaling camps, divided and sequestered in every imaginable way?
This awareness was enhanced as I was thinking about the passage from Ephesians which proclaims that Christ has broken down the “wall of hostility” that separated the Gentiles from God, and Jews and Gentiles from one another “so that he might create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile everyone to God through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility...” The writer boldly proclaims, “Christ is our peace…So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” And we’re told he did this from compassion, for we were like sheep without a shepherd.
Given how worked up I am about current state of our national life, I’m not entirely sure how to hear such a radical and hopeful sounding word as this today. But I do know several things quite certainly. This place is called Christ Church. That’s a rather stylized depiction in our mosaics of our namesake, this prince of peace, as he was called. Because he is our peace it seems especially relevant to bring the world in here with us today.
Of course, among the things we’ve brought in today include our own personal walls of hostility. That’s right, isn’t it? Those came in here with us. It won’t do any good to say we don’t have any. Each one of us can name at least some of the walls that separate us from each other and by default, from a closer relationship with God. And those are only the walls about which we have conscious awareness. The Gospel proclaims that through the cross, Christ has the power to break down those walls. What do you make of that?
Quite apart from our puny powers, Christ shatters these walls of hostility. That’s why this place can be sanctuary for anyone who walks in. Christ has already done the heavy lifting, we say. All we must do is accept the obvious condition of our lives and receive the gift of his hammer blows that bring down our walls of hostility.
But it’s not just for our individual lives that Christ wields his hammer of peace. Clearly, he also has a much larger agenda. Look beyond the ragged edge of our national politics, say, at our own borders, for instance, populated with children stripped from their families. And then, out beyond where so many millions of refugee families seek some kind of hopeful future from out of the violent wreckage of their homelands. So many places around our world cordoned by walls of hostility.
Maybe you feel as I do. Maybe as a result of our dyspeptic cultural/political moment, and the world’s chaos you carry around a kind of background anxiety, agitation, anger and don’t know quite what to do with it. But it’s very, very tempting to indulge a chronic state of enemy formation, of knowing for certain who does not deserve our compassionate regard.
Jesus resisted the movement to divide the world into the good people and the bad. His ruined body lifted high, visible to aggressive foe and cowardly friend alike, gave evidence to that. The cross was God’s unilateral disarmament, God’s ultimate rebuke to every wall that divides people into enemies instead of revealing them as neighbors, even sisters and brothers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. allowed, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. 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.”
Now I am not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. Sometimes I wish I could be, but living in a fallen world is a complicated matter that often requires complicated and difficult decisions, decisions we might, in some cases, even loath, but for them, see no reasonable alternative. Still, I very much bewail our weak human tendency to insist on hostility as our first, second, and third strategic, defensive or impulsive position in the world. Because here’s the elusive truth, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (MLK) I have lived long enough now to know this with absolute certainty.
These are the sorts of lessons we learn in this sanctuary sitting at this man’s feet, gathered at the base of the cross. Here we learn to love God and neighbor. Here we learn the hard lessons pertaining to human sin, and here, too, learn of the astonishing hope in the power of God’s love.
Now this is no mere naiveté or sentimentalism. Instead it’s the very energy of creation that burns away the dross in love’s refining fire. Sometimes we get singed in the heat of it. The cross is no sentimental token only to be worn as decoration. It is instead the very power of God set loose in the world.
We best be aware of just who or what we’re addressing in this sanctuary. In one sense, it is indeed the safest place in the world. But it is also a place to set the world’s agenda on its ear—actually, that’s what makes it the safest place in the world. In the Gospel of John, near the end of his time, Jesus addresses his disciples saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
He does not give to us as the world gives…. Thank God. That’s why this place is so important.
In the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the Ephesians, we read this: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”3 Imagine for a moment, what it would take for you to be an agent for the gospel of peace. Imagine if we were a church full of persons who upon leaving the sanctuary, put on new pairs of shoes, as it were, that set us on that very course into our corners of the world. That’s part of our burden, our responsibility, our joy, as children of the God of love.
It’s a small gesture, I know. But in the spirit of all the candles that are lit in this space throughout the week, giving evidence that this is indeed a place of prayer and sanctuary, I will light this candle on our altar as a reminder for us that Christ is our peace. That he breaks down the walls of our hostility. That he comes to proclaim peace to those who are near and those who are far.
We’ll keep this lit each day for a number of weeks—at least through the remainder of the summer—as testimony to the fact that Christ is our peace. That he is the bringer of peace and that we have been admonished to become agents of peace. Perhaps it will keep a prayer alive within you for our world and for yourselves.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman was pleased to welcome Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens to Christ Church on Sunday, July 15th.
L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An ordained United Methodist minister, Roger served rural and urban congregations in North Carolina before moving to Pittsburgh. He is the author of a number of books including most recently, A New Day in the City: Urban Church Revival. He is married to Rev. Ginger Thomas, and they are the parents of Simeon, Silas, and Mary Clare.
From Ephesians 1:3-14; John 17:6-21
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
A few years into my ministry here—when I was in my late 30’s—I found myself in a very dark personal place. It was all-encompassing, and I was wracked by debilitating anxiety, a condition that periodically has occurred over the course of my life, although much less in later years. I was an emotional mess and spiritually adrift.
Stuck in this dark place, I felt at a loss to affect a positive outcome. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried, the less effective the outcome. Old motivational strategies felt hollow, even untrue. An aphorism like, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and all of its cousins, left a bitter taste on my tongue. The fact that I was a Christian minister actually exacerbated the experience, amplifying my profound frustration and helplessness. On the surface, things seemed fine, but on the inside, I was a mess.
I’m guessing there’s more than one person present who has some sense of what I’m talking about—maybe not in its detail, but in its genre. Interesting, isn’t it, how uniquely personal experiences among a variety of persons can seem to play the same melody. I suppose that’s why anything we say in a place like this, anything that attempts to speak to deep meaning and our existential predicament can be understood by others.
Back to my days of darkness. I began to have a series of dreams. It’s the only time in my life I’ve had such a series. Over the course of several days, I dreamt that I was venturing on a journey into the desert. Each night I experienced a short, startling vignette; the first began in a non-descript town, while during successive nights I began to methodically walk into an increasingly desolate expanse. Initially I had no idea why, but eventually I thought that I was going into the desert to meet Jesus. Now I had never had a dream about Jesus before, and never since.
At first, the landscape was lush and green. Gradually, as the week wore on, I entered an increasingly arid landscape leaving friends and family behind, uncertain of my direction, but clear that I had to let go of anything that encumbered my progress. I needed to push on.
Finally, one night, in a landscape like the Arizona desert with little scrub brush and cacti, I stumbled into a campfire that seemed a temporary home for a single person. I noticed the bedroll and cooking implements, a small fire under a tripod with a pot, and, in the dream, I realized these belonged to Jesus. He was physically there, I never did see him, but I received the intuition that this wasn’t my final destination in any case. I wasn’t supposed to linger here and chat. My journey was not yet ended. He wanted me to go further out into the desert.
In the final dream, I was now in what appeared to be the vast emptiness of the Saharan wasteland. Only sand dunes as far as the eye could see. I had wandered into an impossible circumstance and would not survive. In unbearable heat, I was starving and thirsting. I could not understand why I had been sent here. It felt like a death sentence. I could not save myself – there was no escape route.
Collapsing into the sand, the earth began to shake and rumble. And from out of the ground a glistening, gleaming and beautiful city erupted all around. Beneath my feet came a tower and as I stood it rose to a great height. Soon the city flowed with rivers and streams and fountains. It was a startling experience.
I jerked awake into a sitting position in bewilderment. And this phrase came to my mind, the phrase that concluded our passage from Corinthians today. The short phrase that summarized Paul’s faith: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong… My grace is sufficient for you.”
Whatever happened during that dream sequence brought me out of my dark place, and reframed my point of view. It’s hard to describe really, but it had something to do with trusting God no matter what. I know this story doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but honestly, it came to me as a great gift that I’ve never forgotten.
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong. My grace is sufficient for you.” That’s a troubling sentence for many people. It smacks of failure, incompetence. More than one person has asked, how could weakness ever be strength? The answer: It’s a spiritual paradox. In Paul’s case, he suffered from something he named “a thorn in the flesh”, something from which he had prayed to be delivered. He reports he prayed over and over again. I could imagine Paul as chronically anxiety-ridden, although, no doubt that’s a simple projection on my part.
Still, he finds he is in an untenable situation – he can’t deliver himself from the affliction, whatever it is. And the answer that came to him was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Grace speaks through his weakness which, in a paradoxical way, is proof of God’s activity, for left to his own limitations, he couldn’t accomplish what God could. My grace is sufficient for you – that was the lesson imbedded in my dream. That was nearly 30 years ago, and the insight has never left. As a matter of fact, I cherish it as one of the best gifts I have ever received.
More often than not we take a very different approach to life. Many take it on like some giant wrestling match, something to conquer by force of will and dint of hard conditioning. And there is no question that there is much for us to do with all we’ve been given. A lot is asked and expected of us. We ought to train and work hard.
Elsewhere in his letters, Paul exhorts his readers to run the race in such a way that they may win it… “I do not run aimlessly,” he writes, “nor do I box as though beating the air, but I punish my body and enslave it…” Paul is no slouch when it comes to working hard and long for goals that matter to him.
Still, at the end of the day, no matter how well trained, no matter how gifted, no matter how perfected in his skills, his best work, his noblest work, his enduring work came through the agency of his human weakness as a gift of grace that spoke out of his weakness. That exposes a spiritual truth that is among the most difficult for Christians to accept.
Indeed, much of the time, we function as though only the strong and successful are worthy of God’s attention. Even if we say otherwise, we very much secretly believe it. How else to explain all the ways we slice and dice one another into the haves and have nots, the elect and the damned, the in and the out, the blessed and the cursed, the black and the white, the gay and the straight, the rich and the poor? Unfortunately, Christians are at least as good at that slicing and dicing as anything else they profess to be and do. We might as well confess it.
But you can sense how potent an antidote to that very human failing it is to say, “when I am weak, then I am strong…God’s grace is sufficient for me,” because this locates our actual situation in the scheme of things. It’s in our weakness, our limitations, offered to God, that our true strength emerges, for it’s a strength born on the wings of grace.
Isn’t that what happens at our death? We can no more prevent our death than we can plan our birth. It comes, that’s all. Evidence of our ultimate limitation. And yet the Christian hope stipulates that this weakness offered to God is gifted back to us as life with him eternally. Do you see?
And didn’t we learn this from a great failure of a would-be spiritual giant? Didn’t Jesus live a small-scale life in a backwater country and die like a criminal? Isn’t that our model for understanding how grace intercedes in the midst of human weakness and limitation? And don’t those who gather around at the base of the cross find more in common with their brothers and sisters in their fundamental human need than in all the many ways they would rather demonstrate their superiority? At the base of the cross, we all look alike in our naked, vulnerable humanity.
This past week David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times about the new documentary on Fred Rogers, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?" And, by the way, if you need a jolt of goodness at this depressing cultural, political moment, I strongly suggest you get yourself to a theater to see this. Of his own experience viewing the movie, Brooks writes, “the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
“Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
“Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
“And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”
That discovery lies at the heart of the deepest Christian spirituality...
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
So, we made the move! We moved out of our home of nearly eight years for a Manhattan apartment. I hear some of you wondering to yourselves, “How have they survived?” It’s an excellent question, indeed. Yes, we are still swimming in boxes! It has been a decidedly eventful week, as moves can go. As you can imagine, there’s lots and lots of unpacking for the set-up of a new home. Our children have already begun to ask questions which are prefaced by, “When we move back into a house…?”
As we struggle to get our bearings and find a new sense of normal, learn a new community, the adventure has been good for the family. Yes, even when we are getting on each other’s nerves with fewer spaces to retreat and recreate, we have found pleasure in each other’s company. One of the week’s highlights has been the preparation of family meals. Anyone here today who has a memory of moving, will understand how difficult it can be to get yourself organized to cook a meal. I have convinced my children that some of life’s greatest dinners are breakfasts! That’s right, breakfast for dinner. Not only do I have fond memories from my childhood, I find it easier to whip up a pot of hot grits, fried or scrambled eggs, toast, turkey bacon or sausage, than to try to pull a well prepared and seasoned meal together. Maybe you’re not a “Girl Raised in the South” Southerner like me and grits are not your thing (pun intended). Maybe you’re partial to pancakes, old fashioned French Toast, or a waffle with special toppings. Or perhaps you like the vegetable omelet, a bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, with a glass of cranberry juice? No matter your favorite meal, the fast-food service industry has begun to capitalize on the late-night appeal of the New York Diners. Back in college, where there was a shortage of diners, we’d end up at the local Waffle House or Huddle House for a breakfast meal, anytime day or night.
While we don’t know the exact time of day the second healing takes place, we are clear that Jesus commands that the recipient of his healing touch receive food. That’s like the breakfast meal, that meal which breaks the fast; the most important meal of the day. This wasn’t merely to extend his compassion upon the little girl. Neither was it to prove to onlookers that she really had survived a near death coma and there was no longer a need to plan her funeral. It had more to do with giving her the nutrients needed to live an abundant life! We don’t know of any dietary restrictions, food allergies, or preferences. What we know is, breakfast helps to replenish your body with the fuel it needs to start the day. As nutritionists and physicians tell us, “When you wake up, the blood sugar your body needs to make your muscles and brain work their best is usually low”. It’s time for breakfast!
In the Gospel according to Mark, the power of God is made evident in the healing powers of Jesus. The gospel writer gives us a powerful sampling of Jesus prerogative to heal the haves and the have-nots. The stories of a 12-year-old girl and a woman with an issue of blood for 12 years are both very compelling. The wealthy, elite, and powerful leader is juxtaposed to the impoverished, unnamed, and vulnerable in a way that proves that God is no respector of persons. God will and can heal the fortunate and the less fortunate, the insured and the uninsured, those documented and undocumented, the named and the unnamed. In fact, as Jesus is summoned to the aid of Jairus’s daughter, he interrupts his initial plan and timetable to acknowledge the healing of the destitute woman in today’s text, calling her “daughter.” There’s enough healing to go around when Jesus is on the scene. This is the lesson learned by the synagogue ruler’s messengers and the mourners. While his messengers think it appropriate for Jairus to go on and return home to properly grieve and prepare for his daughter’s burial rites, Jesus is not directly addressed, but overhears them. They say to him, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further” (v.35c)? Jesus responds to Jairus, directly, “Do not fear, only believe” (v.36). No miracle can be performed in your life and no healing effectuated if you don’t believe. Remember, Jesus couldn’t do any work of healing power in his own town among his own people because of their unbelief.
Yes, Jairus was probably accustomed to responding to all types of concerns and requests for favors, but here, he is no different than our unnamed sister who pressed her way in for her personal healing. She knew where the source of her strength came from and new the strength of her life was in Him. Healing is always a personal experience, even when it takes place in a communal setting. Jesus dismisses all the cynics, professional mourners, and skeptics when he arrives at Jairus’s house. A public scene becomes a private healing as he initiates a prayer circle. Her parents are invited and the disciples for whom Jesus will call upon at the Transfiguration, but as for all others, your services are no longer needed. The one who is the author and the finisher of her faith, takes her by the hand and says in his native Aramaic, “Talitha, cum…or little girl, get up!” Your potential has not been realized! Your being on this earth has yet to make an impact on others! Your wealth does not dictate your power, the spirit that has been awakened in you dictates your power! So, don’t sleep too long! It’s time to be about the business of glorifying God! It’s time to serve your neighbors! It’s time to live an abundant life, according to the power that works within you! “Through food God signals not random provision or pleasure but rather a certain intended order to life” (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, Editors Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Illionois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 297.) The bible gives us some instruction about the need to eat for the role we play in the kingdom building enterprise:
1) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Mt 5:6).
2) For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things (Psalm 107:9).
3) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
4) He says to his disciples in John, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4:34, NIV).
If you’ve been skipping on breakfast, you shouldn’t. It helps to get your metabolism going, have the energy needed to focus whether at work or at school, and burn the necessary calories throughout the day. Don’t deprive yourself of breakfast. Jesus needs daughters and sons in the work of ministry, ready to do every good work for the sake of the gospel.
But I would say to you on this day; do not deprive yourself of God’s heavenly food. Food that will not only sustain your physical body, but your soul. This spiritual food, called The Lord’s Supper, which you will receive in a moment, is the “real” food which helps to give us that abundant life! Yes, it is the Lord’s Supper, but today it will serve as breakfast for dinner.