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Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Over the years of my ministry several experiences have been indelibly linked with certain scripture readings. One in particular comes to mind today prompted by our readings from Ezekiel and John. I was attending a workshop in New Orleans at an organization for recently paroled prisoners transitioning back into society.
The program used some traditional methods such as re-education and mentoring, but the founder located its real power in a process of mutual self-help and spiritual encouragement he called “community building.” Sitting in a circle for a number of hours several times a week, these 50 prisoners spilled out their stories, sharing their defeats, celebrating their victories as they engaged the long hard process of rebuilding their identities and place in the world.
The stories I heard were severe: the 21-year-old sitting next to me, tried and convicted as an adult at the age of 14, released just 6 months earlier; the 45-year-old woman across the circle who became a crack addict at the age of nine; other stories recalled murdered brothers, parents dead by overdose, the devastations of crushing poverty, all manner of human calamity and depravation.
The stories leaked out as the men and women told of how their lives had been transformed by the love and care they found in through this program. Their gratitude was overflowing. One man spoke simply and eloquently for the group when he said that what the program had given him—something that he had thought was gone forever—was his dignity.
I shed many tears as they shared their stories. At some point I realized these tears were not about the suffering. Instead, they were a response to the palpable opportunity for resurrection. Through their surrender to a spirit larger than their own, and their willingness to reach out to one another, this unlikely company made the plain industrial room in which we met a sacred space. From the moment I walked through the door and first experienced their respectful silence, I felt that space was far holier than many churches I had been in over the years. I'm especially mindful of that today since we're all sequestered in our own homes made holy by our gathering in this manner.
At one point during their sharing, one of the participants recalled the story of the bone-rattling imagery from Ezekiel you heard a moment ago. She must have dug it out from a childhood memory of Sunday school, and honestly I swear to God I nearly heard the rattling and clattering of bones coming together. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them...and the breath came into them and they lived...” (37:8, 10)
Their lives were not easy by any reasonable measure. They spoke of many failures as well as successes. But they were filled with a vital hope—it struck me as a lot more hope than many persons who had been blessed by a far richer environment, education and material prosperity It occurred to me at the time that this experience would have brought tears even to the eyes of cynics.
And strangely, these might be the tears of identification. I say “strangely” because most of us probably wouldn’t automatically identify with these people. But when actually bearing witness to something dead being brought back to life, most of us will feel a strum on a deep inner chord. All of us, at least once in a while, sense death lurking about whether or not we ever speak of it, and long for a word of hope.
Ezekiel had gone into long exile with his people around 2600 years ago. Sharing their devastating experience he knows their state of mind. He has heard their complaints. The people say, our bones are dried up and our hope is lost. Their God resides elsewhere; they have been cut off at the root. The smell of death hangs in the air. And Ezekiel hears God’s voice inquire, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I’m thinking Mary and Martha may have heard a similar voice in their despair over the death of their brother Lazarus.
Now concerning the matter of death, we are completely the same regardless of background or present status. Whether you have a doctorate from Harvard or failed to get a high school diploma, whether you have a hundred million dollars or just ten, whether you are blessed with dazzling physical beauty or not, whether you command the attention of thousands or only your cat, and then only occasionally, each of us has a finite number of hours on this earth.
As the story is told, Jesus will raise Lazarus to physical life; but, really, it’s only a postponement for a more permanent change. In a few more months, or years, or even another decade or two, Lazarus’ earthly life will leave him for good. Jesus has another order of magnitude in mind when he speaks as the one who is the resurrection and the life. We know this because of what will soon befall him. Easter is just a few short weeks away. This story from John is a bit of an Easter tease here as Jesus continues his dramatic journey to Jerusalem and we continue our season of Lent.
Death has many guises, of course. From Jesus’ perspective it’s entirely possible to have physical life and still be mostly dead. Have you ever seen that? Or, have you ever known that yourself in some desperate time? I’ve spoken with many people over the years that have been in some stage of decay, despair or hopelessness. It’s not so very uncommon. I suspect a condition like this visits nearly everyone at some time or another before our final death.
Virginia Mollenkott, emeritus professor of English and theologian said that she loved to watch students come alive. “One of the courses I teach is freshman English,” she once wrote, “and that’s a place where you can empower people. They often come to you beaten down...Before I pass back their first graded paper, I give them a little speech. ‘This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in.’
“Then I ask them if they want to know what I think of them, and usually they want to. So I continue, ‘I think you’re made in the image of God and of inestimable worth. There’s no way anything I could put in my grade book could ever begin to estimate you.’
“I learned to do this after I read Flannery O’Connor’s story about the boy who went up in the attic and drew a circle with a big ‘F’ in the middle…and hanged himself over the ‘F’. He didn’t distinguish between the grade he was getting and who he was.
“For me, the meaning of life is to share with people the wonderful news that we are the daughters and sons of God.”
That’s what many of the paroled men and women in the re-entry program were discovering. In fact, though this was not a faith-based program, I was struck by how many of them made off-hand references to God in their storytelling. No hyper religious soliloquies, but respectful, hopeful references to faith, and a source of hope beyond themselves, as though this was a common language of life for them.
In addition to the Ezekiel passage I heard a reference to Lazarus as well. At one point one of the participants said to the young man next to me, “Jeff, I swear to God, you’re Lazarus come out of the grave!” I doubt the majority of those present knew the reference, but I did, and it’s the reason I remember it so well on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Desolation and hope co-mingled in that room, but there was no question that hope, the spirit of life, had the larger claim on the intentions of their hearts.
Ezekiel’s vision of a desecrated valley fully restored is a powerful metaphor of what God accomplishes with another set of lifeless bones nailed to a wooden crossbeam in first century Palestine. And remarkably, it foreshadows what’s possible for anyone who feels, at any moment, that he or she is part of the company of the walking dead.
If that has ever defined your situation, take heart! Breathe deeply. It’s God’s pleasure to fill your lungs with his very breath. And considering the state of our world today, let’s take heart together. Let’s claim the promise that’s found on the other side of every death-dealing circumstance, joining forces with the breath of life.
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
I'm guessing that somewhere within your agitated hearts and minds a question has occurred to you concerning the COVID virus that goes something like this: Why? Why us? Why me? Why now--just why?? It's a question pastors routinely hear from people when they're hurting or experiencing an inexplicable distress.
The Bible is filled with people asking it in all sorts of situations. We know there isn't a completely satisfying answer. We hack at it from a number of angles, but eventually we'll likely find ourselves falling into the arms of God exhausted by the mystery of our fragile nature. Now as it turns out, Nicole Armstrong, the reader you just heard and our Director of Spiritual Formation, is leading a class on a variation of this question Sundays at 10a. You can tune in on zoom. Find the connect at christchurchnyc.online...
Well this question got me thinking about several matters as we situated for sheltering. And I especially I got to wondering about the issue of entitlements. Now that’s a loaded word within our political culture, as in, the so-called entitlements of health care and social security. But shifting our focus a bit, I have in mind a subtler association with the word that occurred to me thinking about the blind man in our gospel lesson and the lie most of us tell ourselves much of the time that flips the question of suffering upside down.
It's the lie pertaining to matters of what I’ll call “elemental entitlements”—not the political variety. This lie fuels the illusion that we deserve the various positive things that have accrued to us, including gifts and abilities we were born with, in addition to whatever we’ve managed to accumulate through the exercise of our various powers.
As far as I can tell this seems a near universal human misconception. If we’re somewhat prosperous we believe we deserve it. If we’re not, we believe we deserve to be. In either case, it’s the idea that we deserve anything at all that captures my attention.
This same lie sits beneath the story we heard Nicole read. As Frederick Niedner points out, “Most of us assume that we deserve the ability to see…” The Pharisees in the story believed that “somehow this blind man, and everyone else like him, must have forfeited sight through some error in judgment. We’ll surely see to it that we never make that mistake,” they likely think to themselves. That’s why the disciples asked, "Who sinned?" Since we deserve to see, goes the logic, then someone must have really messed up.
Shattering the delusion of complete control over our destinies, along comes something like the corona virus to set us straight. But then we also believe we deserve all the gifts that have come to us, including all of our basic senses, even life itself. The idea that we deserve a healthy, reasonably happy and uncomplicated life dies very hard. This is especially true for those of us who have had access to more than life’s simple necessities, which likely includes the majority tuning in to this message.
Surely our political talk about so-called entitlements is laced with a patchwork of powerful projections of our latent fantasies about our own inherently deserved elemental entitlements--who should have them and who shouldn't. Who do you suppose receives more lavish governmental attention: the billionaire or out-of-work construction worker?
But politics aren’t my main focus here. I simply want to make the point that most, probably all of us to some degree, suffer from the faulty supposition that we deserve anything at all, starting with life itself. I’m thinking here about our fundamental, stripped down to the nubs, spiritual situation.
It’s clear in our story that the Pharisees think the healing this man received came on the wrong day, to the wrong person, from an unlicensed and renegade healer. Lost in the mix is the fact that the man can now, and for real, see. Even his parents get tangled up in the discourse about who deserves what. They don’t want to find themselves on the wrong side of the community spirit. (Neidner again.)
Now having said that we suffer from the absurd conviction that we actually deserve all the gifts we’ve received, I want to quickly add that it’s also clear God is pleased to shower us with an astonishing array of gifts. What we do with them is very important. Here’s where justice emerges as an essential spiritual commitment, let alone, political. But from the spiritual side of things it’s essential to get this foundational point right, lest we have an improper relationship with the gifts themselves, thinking we somehow inherently deserved them. We don't.
There’s a text in Deuteronomy that’s often read during the Thanksgiving season. It comes as God’s word spoken through Moses to the Israelites who says, “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God…When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth,’ but remember the Lord your God, for it is God who gives you power to get wealth…”
We’ve not been on the receiving end of a wonderful array of gifts because we deserved them. But having whatever it is that we have, whether it seems great or small, we hold an awesome responsibility to live with an attitude of extravagant gratitude in a spirit of generous abundance. And, this has ramifications about how we are to love our neighbors.
When Tertullian, a third century pagan historian exclaimed, “See how the Christians love one another!” he was responding to the evidence of how they lived their lives. They walked their talk, in other words. They understood the proper ordering of things, that no one deserved anything, so that even life itself was understood as an absolutely astonishing gift. Holding this clearly in mind shaped their attitude and relationship to all of their various powers. It showed up in their priorities and commitment to the common good.
What we learn from our tradition is that the proper orientation towards life is rooted in the soil of spiritual humility in which we acknowledge life is a gift from start to finish. That all our various powers are gifts. That God is the source point. That we ourselves are gifts given to the larger community. That’s a fundamentally very different way to think about our relationship to one another, isn’t it? What on earth does it mean to say, I am a gift from God to the wider community for the greater good?
Well, in the story of the blind man, we learn it all depends on how we look at things, and in our looking, what we actually see…
March 15, 2020
Third Sunday in Lent
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-5; John 4:5-42
While in college back in the early 1970’s I worked on the oil fields outside of Corsicana, Texas, whose only claim to fame, so far as I knew, was being home to the Collin Street Bakery, the maker of a legendary fruitcake. In fact, it’s the largest maker of fruitcake in the world and has been featured in the Food Networks “Best Thing I Ever Ate” segment. If you’re a connoisseur of fruitcake, chances are that you’ve had one made in Corsicana.
Other than that one anomaly, the rest of the Corsicanan geography was given over to the oil industry, where, during the especially hot summer months roustabouts took their vacations and college kids were brought in to fill their shoes. Among the crew I joined there were only four 19-year-old recruits to fill the slack. It was tough, awful work, made all the harder by the mandatory hazing we had to endure. This included such fun antics as arranging a work activity so that some greenhorn—me, for instance—wound up falling into a pit of oil sludge.
Or, driving more than two hours into the desert at the crack of dawn with a pick and shovel to work a spot in the pipeline that popped up from the ground with no supplies one Friday that hit 110 degrees. Dropped off with the word that our friendly co-workers would be back in a jiff with water, we languished for the better part of the day before anyone showed up. There was no shade anywhere. Eventually we stopped all movement. We considered and then discarded the idea of attempting to walk back, certain they would show up at any moment. I have never experienced such powerful thirst.
We must have looked awful when finally picked up because we were taken to the company medic and checked for dehydration. I was aware that had they not come when they did, the crew’s little joke at our expense could have turned into something much uglier. (Just this week I read an obituary of a reporter on assignment in Uganda who was tracking an explorer walking the length of the Nile. Evidently he was overcome by heatstroke and dehydration and died.) The older crew members did sort of apologize and then told us we had passed into the brotherhood of roustabouts. I’m not certain why, but all of us showed up Monday morning.
Thirst is a powerful sensation. That makes good sense considering a healthy adult body is 60% water. Basically, we humans are water-based organisms, which, by the way, is why we’re al supposed to drink a half gallon every day—at least that’s what some nutritionists recommend. Our blood alone is 75% water. Since water determines our fundamental physical nature it stands to reason thirst is an elemental human driver. We thirst for what we’re made of and therefore need.
After a strenuous journey Jesus sat down by a well outside a town in Samaria. Jesus, like all the rest of us, thirsted for what he was made of, so when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well he asked for a drink. As the story is told, this request led to the longest recorded dialogue between two persons in the gospels.
Several things should be mentioned to more fully understand this episode:
First, Jews despised Samaritans. Their quarrel had been simmering for over 400 years. Jews thought they were apostates, half-breeds and worse. Good Jews would have avoided Samaria altogether. Jesus had no such problem.
Second there is the matter of speaking with a woman in public. Men did not speak with women openly. So, for Jesus to do this in a public place disrespected community and religious mores.
Third, this woman had a notorious lifestyle. Married five times before and currently living with a man who was not her husband. It doesn’t take much imagination to arrive at an understanding of her place within her community.
We’re told the disciples were astonished to find Jesus speaking with her when they returned from town with something to eat.
Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ response to the woman. “The time is coming,” Jesus says, “it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
So, I’m thinking that we have a physical thirst based in our biology, and we have another thirst based in our spiritual selves, as Peterson has it, based on “sheer being itself.” Spiritually speaking, we have powerful thirst for what we’re made of and need—spirit. We are also spirit and we need spirit just as we are and need water.
When Jesus said to the woman that he would give to her the living water, he was referencing this deeper, spiritual thirst. And in this moment she was authentically herself. Nothing was hidden. And shockingly, she was found acceptable. You will note that Jesus did not say that she had to confess her sins, or renounce her people before he would give her the living water, or that she needed to recite a creed. No, what she needed in order to receive the living water was to be herself in spirit and in truth.
Jesus offers himself to the woman despite all the reasons he shouldn’t because he’s present to her in spirit and in truth and she to him. Deep speaks to deep. All the surface barriers do not matter. With great care and authenticity, out of his own thirst, he offers himself and, evidently the woman at the well takes a deep draught. Stripped of their masquerades, Jesus sees the woman for who she is and she sees who he is.
Seeker and author, Anne Lamott had something of her own experience discovering the living water. She tells her spiritual story in her autobiographical reflection, Traveling Mercies. She writes of a time she was an active alcoholic and passed by a small church where she hears music that draws her inside. “I just went and listened to the music. And the people just let me be. They didn’t force anything on me. I went for months without any real engagement, just letting the music wash over me.”
Then, late one night in bed she reports this:
After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years when I was frightened and alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there; of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
And I was appalled…I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”
I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with. Finally I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.
This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze and loss of blood… One week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape. It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scare kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
I began to cry and left before the benediction and I raced home…I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said… “I quit.” I took a long, deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”
Like the Samaritan woman Anne Lamott finally allowed herself a long draught from a deep well. And the lesson of course, is that all of us are the Samaritan woman. All of us have our masquerades, all of us are found unacceptable by someone, somewhere, sometime. And all of us project this unacceptability out into the world and assign it to others.
All of us have powerful spiritual thirst that we attempt to slake in any number of superficial and counterfeit ways. Lamott’s way was partly through booze. But all of us have our anesthetizing methods. Could be anything at all, really. The astonishing news is that underneath all that detritus we’ve collected to hide behind flow streams of living water. If we let ourselves fall into those streams our deepest thirst will finally be satisfied since we thirst for what we are, and need.
Here’s a Lenten prayer mantra the Samaritan woman teaches us: Lord, give me the living water that I might truly live.
March 8, 2020Read MoreLess
Ashes to Ashes
March 1, 2020
First Sunday in Lent
Lent is upon us--a season of reflection and repentance. It began last Wednesday and culminates in Holy Week—a commemoration of the Passover feast—during which Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, was condemned and crucified by the Roman authorities, and in the Christian understanding of the world, rose from the dead.
Christians have a variety of practices concerning the Christian year and since we represent a rather diverse group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds there’s a good chance that some of you don’t have much knowledge about or experience with the traditions of Lent beyond a sort of vague idea that it’s a time when we're supposed to give something up for some reason. I hope you read the introduction to this season in the back of your bulletin today to either refresh your memory or learn a new thing.
Lent always starts on a Wednesday because it lasts for forty days leading up to Easter—not counting Sundays, since in the language of the church, Sundays are mini-resurrection celebrations.
If you’ve never attended an Ash Wednesday service here, you won’t know that participants are asked to write down on a slip of paper those things that block them from living into loving relationships with God and neighbor. They might think of this block as sin, but they could also think of it as any impediment that prevents them from moving into the place of forgiveness, or acceptance, love, wholeness, integrity and health--keeping them separated from God, separated from the people who populate their lives.
We do this odd activity because it makes explicit our intention to do some serious reflecting about our lives. We should always practice serious reflecting, of course, but since we're a bit lazy, we set up this Lenten season to help us accomplish this important spiritual work.
So, on Ash Wednesday everyone is invited to jot down the things that block them from living full and holy lives on a slip of paper they’re given when entering. In past years, these slips are collected, brought forward in the middle of the service where they’re burned in a basin up front by the communion rail in our sanctuary. The ashes from these offerings are then mingled with the ashes that are imposed on the foreheads of those who come forward.
This year, since fire codes prevented us from having our mini bonfire down here, participants were invited to pin their bits of paper to the cross--that's what you see up here. Then leaving the cross, they received ashes printed on their foreheads. Honestly, I find this a deeply stirring activity for me. The majority look directly into my eyes as I intone these words: Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. A small but searing acknowledgement our mortality.
Participants routinely report that this service is one of the most significant markers in the year for them. First-timers say how surprisingly real the experience is, how intimate and challenging, how the ashes of their own brokenness mingle with the brokenness of Christ and mark them in an important way that defies words; that they do this in the company of others; that together in a spirit of humility everyone present collectively takes stock of their fragile humanity.
I know from my own experience that there's a kind of nakedness to this transaction that points to the promise held in resurrection. BTW, if you want, you can add your own pin to the cross during communion. You've been provided a pen and slip of paper...
One year in particular was especially poignant for me. The day before Ash Wednesday a close friend of mine told me he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He quietly asked me if I would accompany him in his final months. The next day during the service I wrote on my slip of paper the word “fear”— too many sorts of fears to list, so I let the solitary word suffice.
But in my program I jotted down several prayers as well: “Holy One, allow me to be present to my friend, conscious of my own mortality; to be available, loving and alert. Let this alertness spill into the rest of my life, my daily encounters, and what I care about in the larger world. Help me to remember that each us are companions for our homeward journey regardless of how many days we have yet to live. Make us more conscious. Help us to face our fear of death and offer it up. Help us to honor the life remaining by listening to the better angels of our nature.
That prayer attended my jotting the word fear and receiving the tattoo of an ashen cross traced on my forehead.
I wrote a few other words as well on my slip of paper: courage, responsibility, forgiveness, repentance. These captured a number of intentions, some of which had to do with my relationship with the Christ Church family—like all of you— with myself and with the wider world.
A good gift was given to me eventually. I was able to be present when my friend died. A stirring serendipity. As these things go, he died very, very well. Cradled in love. I would tell you it even had beauty. It came as a kind of culmination to my Ash Wednesday prayer. I was humbled and grateful and changed.
We participate in these odd activities to offer ourselves an opportunity to honestly take our lives and the lives of others completely, utterly, seriously. We make the effort to set aside our cynicism, awkwardness, laziness, distractedness, or some other foolishness, to actually think, pray and meditate deeply on the condition of our lives, our place in the world, and our fundamental identity as citizens of the kin-dom of God, people who intend to follow along the path blazed by Jesus.
As Matthew reminds us this morning, immediately following his baptism Jesus walked out into the desert where he did his own personal spiritual homework. He confronted his own demons of power and who knows what else. He looked at them straight in the face and chose another path. This story tells us that like the rest of humanity, Jesus had to make sense of his fundamental identity. In this he was just like us. He had to situate himself. He had choices to make.
Who am I really? is the agitating question. What matters to me anyway? How will I employ the various powers that have been embedded within me? How shall I use or abuse my mind, my body, my spirit? To what end shall I focus my energy? And so on.
You know friends, invariably these questions get answered by each of us, one way or another, whether or not we choose to remain conscious. And they never really go away. Sometimes a kind of awkward truce among options masquerades for a real identity, but usually a masquerade falls apart somewhere along the line.
Underlying many factors that we might label psychological, or sociological, or environmental, or developmental is the more fundamental realm of the spiritual. Get the spiritual aligned with reality and we have a much better chance with the rest of it. There’s good reason why the early steps in AA include these: "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God."
So, Jesus wandered into the desert. The scripture says the Spirit led him out there, which indicates this was a necessary bit of work Jesus had to accomplish. And let's be clear that it was work. And let's also be clear its work we all have to accomplish.
Sometimes we post-modern seekers fall into the trap of thinking this spiritual thing should be rather easy and pleasant, leading to all sorts of nice outcomes like happiness, financial gain and whatnot. And while I certainly believe there is astonishing glory to witness and experience—absolutely astonishing—this does not come without a certain price. It’s the price of our personal work. We ignore this at our peril—our own peril of course, but also the peril of those with whom we share our lives. The closer they are, the greater the peril they’re in from our own frailty and our unwillingness to do the work that has been assigned to us.
As Jesus wandered into the desert we wander into church, which, is a poor substitute, I suppose, but the best option at the present moment. And we take stock of our lives and our situation in the world, maybe for the first time in a very long time…
February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
While brooding on the story of Jesus' transfiguration this week, a small, indelible memory came to mind. It involves a pleasant relationship I developed with a retired teacher more than 35 years ago. Betty was a warm, garrulous woman, a tad eccentric, but well-liked. She also had a deep spiritual restlessness, and though she was close to 50 years older than me, she often came around to my office agitating for conversation about God and life and death. Her husband had died several years earlier, and she had the need to talk about that and a bunch of other things as well. I came to like her quite a lot and found that her questions revealed a homespun wisdom.
One day Betty told me she didn’t know what she believed about God and faith, and this worried her. When she spoke of her husband, which she did often, her eyes would well up with tears; she feared her sense of deep loss would never lessen. She fretted about her remaining days, about her loneliness and about her relationship with God. She wondered where her life was headed. I surmised that a roving, dynamic faith flowed underneath her questions. We always wound up laughing a lot.
Actually, I found her questions strangely resonant with my own inner life. It began to dawn that we had some things in common that I would not have guessed initially, a kind of innate spiritual curiosity. So, I learned how to listen to her questions. I was less good at providing satisfactory answers, but Betty was O.K. with that. It was enough she had a safe place to ask them she said, with someone who wouldn’t think she was, as she put it, “off her rocker.”
One day she walked into my office especially euphoric and after closing the door recounted in hushed tones how she had experienced a spiritual vision two days earlier. Something like this had never happened to her before. And it came while she was driving to the store, of all places. She described a certain stretch of two-lane highway with which I was familiar, unexceptional in its landscape, except for a sharp rise that topped on a small hill revealing a far, unobstructed view. By coincidence it was a road I drove this past weekend.
Betty said it wouldn’t sound like much in the telling, and that she hoped I didn’t think she was nuts, but as she came over that hill the landscape had been transformed into a vista of breathtaking beauty. The dull winter-gray sky had become a brilliant blue and the land was lush and verdant stretching off into the distance. It felt holy. And eternal. She had no words to adequately describe what she saw. She pulled the car to the side of the road and sat as the experience seeped into her. She was filled with a sense of overwhelming peace and gratitude. God was there, she said. She knew it with absolute certainty. And though the vision eventually faded back into a mid-winter gloom, her sense of God did not fade, even to the present moment of her reporting it to me.
Normally very chatty, for the first time in our relationship she became very still and sat for many minutes in silence, her eyes focused on that far place. A palpable peacefulness settled in. Eventually she said quietly that I probably thought she was just some batty old lady, but by God she knew what she knew. I replied that on the contrary, she seemed eminently sane.
This proved to be a life-altering moment for Betty. There was no doubt about that. And I found that every time I drove over that stretch of road in the weeks that followed, I slowed down, secretly hoping that what she caught there might be contagious. Her experience, as small as it was in scope, nevertheless opened into a realm that was vast, and even holy. I was sure of that. Imagine, Route 32 on the way to Kingston, NY…the realm of God.
Over the years I came to understand that an important aspect of what I try to do in my role is to stimulate the spiritual imagination – prodding, agitating for a deeper engagement with that realm that lies beyond our material senses.
That’s one of the reasons we gather for worship. With an open heart and mind the liturgy and prayer and music, and that wonderful space upstairs, soften our defenses against God, hopefully opening spiritual windows and doors. People that show up regularly discover that over time the worship discipline effects how they function in the world. Just as regular exercise stimulates increased physical stamina, exercising our spiritual imagination provokes the deepest appreciation of the content of our lives—the good, the bad and the ugly—sometimes punctuated with moments of profound insight.
If, as I believe, it’s our spiritual imagination that reveals the meaning and direction of our days, stands to reason there are no more important activities that could occupy our time than the sorts of things we’re doing here. So let’s affirm that what we do together here matters, and will continue to matter long after we have breathed our last.
As our Gospel lesson tells the tale, Peter, James and John had been hanging out with Jesus for a while when they took a walk up a mountain and are surprised by a transfiguring vision. They had been steeped in the life of the temple of course; they knew the stories of Torah well. And now their own imaginations have been stimulated into overdrive; as though the scrim on the stage set has been raised allowing them to see things as they really are--the larger thing, the truer thing, the holy thing. And their lives are changed – but not immediately.
At first, they’re confused and afraid. They’ll go back down the mountain and argue about who’s the greatest among them, who should be shown special favors and so on. It won’t be until some months later, after their own betrayal of this transfigured Jesus, that this vision will be understood and will take its place among the stories we now tell about him and his friends, that it might stimulate our own imaginations.
At Christ Church we say our mission is to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves—that’s our mission statement. Well, to claim and then actually attempt to embody such a thing requires spiritual imagination. You can’t get to it through any other means. From the world’s point of view this is a counter-intuitive life mission, where, the reasonable directive might more nearly resemble, “Love yourself, and to hell with everyone else.” In order to get to our mission, we have to see the world peeled of its outer appearance so as to witness the glorious vista beyond.
When Jesus says things like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled; blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” – to really hear and embody that way of living requires spiritual imagination. You can’t take in this wisdom through any other medium. Peacemaking, in a world of war? Humility, in a world of astonishing arrogance? Hungering and thirsting for righteousness, in a world where personal and corporate corruption is the norm?
You can see how bereft our world would truly be without at least a few people developing their spiritual imaginations. Ultimately, they are the ones who make it a better place, who see its potential and who commit themselves to living into the vision that has been revealed.
February is Black History Month and Martin Luther King’s speech, “I Have a Dream” comes to mind revealing an amazingly vital spiritual imagination. Remember how he said: I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
King had a vision of our culture peeled of its cracked veneer to see the glorious vista beyond. He had his eyes fixed on that far away place. This vision had been nurtured by the church, practiced through worship, and encouraged by others who were also possessed by an active spiritual imagination.
Dreams of things to come through the grace of God have a way of taking tangible form. Not easily, not perfectly, not without false starts and obstacles along the way. But in the same manner this congregation, and each of us, stride into the future in a time of great uncertainty about so-called, organized religion. More than ever we need to stir our spiritual imaginations to see God’s realm beyond the mid-winter gloom.
On the night before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded his speech in Memphis by saying: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter…because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land… Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Can you see it, too? As it turns out, Betty could.
The Heart of Healthy Religion
February 16, 2020
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Given the turbulent chaos in our current political environment I found Mitt Romney’s speech last week, explaining his position on President Trump’s impeachment, a striking anomaly. To make sure we’re all working off the same page here, Romney, a former presidential candidate, now senator from Utah, was the only Republican senator who found President Trump guilty of abuse of power, the first article of impeachment.
Speaking with journalist McKay Coppins of Atlantic Magazine 24 hours before the vote, Romney told him, “‘This has been the most difficult decision I have ever had to make in my life.’...[Coppins writes that] For weeks [Romney] had sat silently in the impeachment trial alongside his 99 colleagues, reviewing the evidence at night and praying for guidance. The gravity of the moment weighed on him, as did the pressure from members of his own party to acquit their leader. As his conscience tugged at him, he said, the exercise took on a spiritual dimension.”
Coppins continues: “Romney, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, described...the power of taking an oath before God: ‘It’s something which I take very seriously,’ [he said.] ...I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process. But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.’
“For months, Romney’s detractors on both the right and the left have searched for an ulterior motive to his maneuvering, convinced that a secret cynicism lurked beneath his lofty appeals to conscience and principle... But as he thought about [all the criticism and second-guessing of his motives a hymn came to mind in his conversation with Coppins]: Do what is right; let the consequences follow.’”
Among my acquaintances from across the political spectrum, I’ve heard a variety of opinions about Romney’s speech, including a couple of people who found the appeal to spiritual conviction inappropriate in such a jumbled political moment. For me, I found it sincere; and when he choked up after saying, “My faith is at the heart of who I am,” I felt he was speaking truthfully, that his emotion was genuine, driven by his vulnerability in outing the core of his identity.
Now I’m guessing there are a variety of opinions in general about Mitt Romney represented here this morning. Opinions about Mormonism and Utah and Romney’s political history. And opinions about the whole impeachment process. But bracketing all that business for a moment, I found his testimony a bracing antidote to all of the cacophonous noise and clatter that’s otherwise bombarding us.
In today’s cultural climate, the impeachment proceedings were an odd occasion for stating one’s moral, spiritual ground. But there it was. And on second thought, a refreshing reminder that standing on one’s first principles seems a lost art in our day of “everything’s for sale” and truth is whatever I say it is, or in other words, there’s no such thing...
I mention this today not to make a political point, but a spiritual one. This sort of thing happens so infrequently in our current culture that I didn’t want to let it slip by unnoticed in here. And as it happens, the lectionary readings provide a useful context.
As the story is told, near the end of Moses’ life, as the Israelites are finally ending their 40 years in the wilderness and about to settle in the land of Canaan, Moses reminds them that they have a fundamental decision ahead of them. He starkly tells them they have options about the sort of people they will become. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors.”
This reaffirms the constituting promise for the Hebrew people, reminding them of their most basic value commitment. The Hebrew Scriptures tell story after story of their individual and collective tendency to let other matters, other gods, if you will, capture their attention, causing them to forget this core value at the heart of life. But the stories also tell of God’s relentless pursuit of his people because God wants nothing more than their flourishing.
The heart of healthy religion keeps a laser focus on what matters most of all: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s the core insight from our tradition. From this flow all the qualities that reveal the glory of our humanity. Things like humility, integrity, courage, fidelity, kindness, compassion and justice.
This is the religious impulse at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. He invites everyone who will listen to strip away all the life-sucking accretions that prevent human flourishing. That’s the underlying agenda behind the Sermon on the Mount. In the portion we heard today he radicalizes the law so that no one can escape judgment.
Who hasn’t been viciously angry with someone wishing them great harm; who hasn’t lied or lusted or tried to take unfair advantage of someone? Who hasn’t fallen into the trap from time to time of self-delusional corruption? Jesus means to level the playing field, stripping away all our defenses and conceits so we can see clearly the heart of the matter.
And here’s the heart of the matter: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s it. You want to know the secret of a meaningful, joyful life filled with love and hope? You want to know the Grand Unified Theory to abundant life? Love God and love everything God loves.
Man, that sounds so simple! But I know from personal experience that attempting to hold on to it cuts to the bone. This is not a sentimental discipline because after the manner of Jesus, it calls us to hold ourselves accountable to what we say we value most of all. And all sorts of things that have captured our attention and allegiance don’t measure up; some are actually antithetical to love; these need to be named and discarded for the sake of our flourishing. Sometimes we call this justice.
Here’s the wonderful thing. Every single day provides a fresh opportunity for us to choose life. Every day. Today, for instance, is a fantastic day to say yes to life and to love. I choose to love God and all the things that God loves; that’s my foundational commitment. And we discover that oftentimes that sets us against the values of our environment.
So it’s very good that we do this choosing in the presence of others who are also choosing the way of abundant life. I’m heartened and strengthened by your presence and your willingness to join my imperfect intentions, and hopefully you are heartened and strengthened by the others in this room as well. We’re meant to do this in a company of friends. We call it church, but at the heart of it we’re just a band of pilgrims seeking to live and promote abundant life for all.
Now, if when you go home today the only thing you remember is the rabbit hole you traveled down when I spoke about Mitt Romney, you will have missed the point. The risk in mentioning his story is the potential for your over-focusing on the political environment and your point of view on all the players including our President. But that’s a distraction from what I’m really after here.
I’m hoping that we’ll actually think hard and deep about what matters most of all to us. That we’ll reaffirm the ground beneath our feet, as it were, and recognize that today is a very good day to offer this prayer: Holy God of life, I choose you as the ground of my being, the source of my hope, and I will seek to live and love in the manner of Jesus. Amen.
Salt and Light
February 9, 2020
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1-12; 1st Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” That’s what Jesus said to the people who had come to check him out. As Matthew tells the tale, Jesus has gone up to the top of a natural amphitheater to deliver a message we've named the Sermon on the Mount, an extremely compelling summary of ethics and spirituality. After telling the poor in spirit, the meek, all who mourn, the merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted that they were all blessed, Jesus announced that everyone present was salt of the earth and light of the world. He said it as a statement of fact—you are…
I’m guessing most of the people had never really considered such a thing. Likely they had gone to hear Jesus for their own idiosyncratic reasons not unlike how all of us have gathered here this morning. A Sunday morning worship service in 2020 gathers up a whole lot of different purposes and expectations among attendees. Each of us has our reasons for being here this morning.
Someone here searches for comfort. Another comes for a paycheck. Someone else desires inspiration. The guy in the back comes for the music. The woman on my left wants an alert sermon. The young gay man on my right wants acceptance. The 86-year-old seeks peace of mind and heart while the 22-year-old awash in anxiety is on fire for deep purpose and direction. And all the various needs, wants, desires and expectations fall within the bounds of these walls that have been dedicated to the life, teachings and character of the same one who told that 1st century congregation they were all salt and light.
So we now hear the same announcement—each one of us, salt and light. You likely didn’t come today with that particular thought in mind and now as you hear it you might wonder how that could possibly be true and if it matters. I’m guessing in the original telling the same range of questions were present. Who, me? Salt and light? Is that right?
A strong affirmation is imbedded within that naming. We might think of it as a kind of spiritual self-esteem related to the idea that we’ve all been created in the image of God—the famous imago dei. In this sense we could be said to share the same middle name—Glen Child-of-God Collins, Rick Child-of-God Ketchum, Liza Child-of-God Horstman, and so forth. Each one of us sharing the same family name. That we often don’t live into the meaning of that family name makes it no less true.
Likewise, each one of us, salt and light, says Jesus. Salt of the earth, light of the world. We know how naming can work in reverse.
I recently told you the story of a young boy who told me his name was stupid because that's what everyone called him... Later in the day I witnessed his father scream at him, “My God, you are just so stupid!’ as they left the building. But not before the boy glanced up and caught my eye for a long moment, then shrugged his shoulders and walked out the door.
That happened a long time ago. I’ve never forgotten the knowing look in the boy’s eyes and the pain and insight we shared for just a moment.
Jesus accomplished the exact opposite with his naming. He re-dignified the lowly, the poor, the merciful and so on by reasserting their place within the created order. No one was worth less than another, no one was inherently greater than another, no one fell outside the bounds of the extended family. All were meant to be included within God’s kin-dom. All children of God, all salt and light.
Each one of us, salt and light. And as Jesus said, if salt loses its taste, it’s worthless, as is a light under a bushel. In other words, for God's sake, live into your birthright, claim it, make it your own.
In a book entitled The Hole in the Gospel Richard Stearns tells his story of his relationship with a Christian humanitarian relief organization called World Vision. This organization’s mission is dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice, serving alongside the poor and oppressed reflecting God’s unconditional love for all people. This mission has evolved over the years, especially focusing on eradicating the ravages of AIDS and under Stearns' leadership grew into the largest private independent relief organization in the world.
What’s especially compelling about this story concerns Stearns himself and his life journey that presented him with a choice related to his identity as salt and light. A man of humble origins, he aggressively climbed his way to CEO of a large corporation that made luxury goods. He lived well in a mansion with all ancillary accouterments of the great American success story. He accomplished what many of us in this room would like to accomplish. He was a striver, competent, driven and self-satisfied, he also identified as Christian.
One day a head-hunter invited him to consider leaving his lucrative career, lifestyle and limitless potential to become President of World Vision. Stearns reports he thought the request was ludicrous, even humorous. He knew nothing about the real needs of poor people and certainly nothing about how to lead an organization dedicated to addressing those needs. But he then unravels a complicated, deeply moving and wrenching story of how he came to actually consider the position that would reduce his income by close to 80%.
On the very same day he was leaving on a fact-finding mission that would determine his decision, he was visited by an acquaintance, a wealthy investor, who was purchasing and amalgamating several large businesses. He invited Stearns to join him as CEO with a stake vesting at around 50 million dollars.
The meat of Stearns’ personal story concerns his awakening to what it meant for him to be salt and light for the world, his discovery that the gospel he had been following had a large hole in the middle of it with a rather self-serving, perhaps even self-righteous end. He awakened to the meaning of his actual sacred identity and he wound up turning down his friend’s lucrative offer, instead taking on the new challenge that would radically alter his understanding of Jesus’ way in the world. As AIDS activist-rocker Bono reports, “Stearns’ form of worship is to be the eyes of the blind and the feet of the lame. He is much more than a powerful voice in the fight against AIDS and extreme poverty, he is an action hero.” And for our purposes today, I add, he awoke to what it meant to live as salt and light, identifying himself with the same concerns Jesus had.
Stearns’ story is really compelling, but I’m thinking I won’t be receiving a call from a headhunter this week inviting me to consider a radical change from my rather comfortable life. On the other hand, I just heard for the thousandth time, as though for the first time, that I am salt of the earth and light of the world. And you heard it, too. All of us together, salt and light. For whatever set of reasons brought us here, that’s the message the namesake of this church wants us to hear this morning—I feel certain about this.
All of us can sense the sadness of the young boy named Stupid as he left the church with his father. We could imagine what he took out into the world with him. That this happened in church is a bleak irony, but one with which we’re all acquainted having, from time to time, lost track of who’s who and what’s what—revealing a hole in the middle of whatever gospel we’ve been following.
But now suppose all of us took out into the world our identities as salt of the earth and light of the world. Suppose we actually did that. Suppose we went home and thought about the ramifications of our birthright, setting aside our pretensions and superior airs and obfuscations and sophistications and self-importance and self-righteousness and so on. What would happen if we did that? And then, suppose we returned and found common cause as salt and light together, here. What might we do and become?
You heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim: "[Let] your light...break forth like the dawn... [Let] the glory of the Lord...be your rear guard… If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness... Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach..."
That's what it means to be salt and light: Repairers of the breach. This doesn't require a call from a headhunter. It begins by accepting your birthright.
Sweet Smell of Success
February 2, 2020
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Micah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
We just read several of the most seminal passages in our scriptures. I'm thinking most everyone present this morning has heard of the “blesseds”, or beattitudes, that inaugurate Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. And likely you've heard the wisdom from prophet Micah who announced, “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” By the way, Micah's words are inscribed on the building opposite Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue at 65th Street. You can see them every time you cross the Central Park transverse in a bus, cab or car. You might look for this statement as a small spiritual discipline.
All three readings this morning reveal elemental components of our faith, the deep wisdom our tradition teaches. They present themes I return to again and again in my life and ministry. If you’ve been around for a while, you’ll hear a familiar refrain today. But it bears repeating precisely because it's so fundamental--especially so in New York City.
Whether you are newly arrived in New York or have lived here for decades chances are way better than even that you want to be successful. We likely all have this in common. The city functions like a great homing beacon for strivers of every sort. We want excellent work. We want strong, loving relationships, good friends, health, long life, great sex. We want to be highly regarded by our peers.
We want to be successful and we value those who are. We’re enamored by the rich, the famous, the glamorous, the wise, the powerful, those who have somehow managed to make it to the top of the heap and we emulate them hoping their success might rub off on us. We pile honors and accolades upon them. We want to be around them. Actually, many of us secretly yearn to be them.
It’s hard to argue with the proposition that success is a potent god in our land and most of us, much of the time, worship at its altar. And why not? Why shouldn’t we strive to be all we can be and have all we can have? Why shouldn’t we max out our talents and abilities and turn a cool profit in the meantime? This is one of the startling characteristics of a congregation like this--it's rife with smart, talented, creative, driven people--people attracted to the pulsing energy of New York.
So, I say to one and all, go for it! Run to the limits of your endurance and accomplish what you can. Stretch, reach, achieve. Long time church member, Ward Smith, who was a leader here when I first came to Christ Church was fond of saying that New York is a city of finishers. I was 34 years old and excited that I had landed in New York even though Christ Church was near internal collapse. He was offering a tip. He wanted me to know what I would be up against, that the city attracted high achievers--people who start the race and run it hard to break the finish tape. He was trying to prepare me. I would add to his observation that it’s also a city of beginners; those with big dreams and a taste for adventure.
Lawyers, doctors, venture capitalists, artists, actors, producers, singers, retailers, restaurateurs, students, social workers, dotcom coders, corporate business strivers of every kind. And yes, even religionists and clerics, all drawn to the city of superlatives, the city some immodestly claim is the center of the universe. Those with oversized dreams flock to the city the way paper clips rush to attach themselves to a powerful magnet.
I admit it – that’s part of the reason I love it here so much. This city pulsates with this energy of driven-ness. It throbs with cultural expression of great passion and excellence. It serves as a homing beacon for immigrants the world over. Even homeless folks are drawn here. Odd to consider, but terrorists were attracted for similar reasons some twenty years ago. They were also success driven.
But here's the thing: You’ll notice that in Jesus’ list of who is blessed there isn’t a word about success. Not a word about being rich in spirit, or rich in anything, for that matter. It’s the poor in spirit that get the blessing and not just any blessing, mind you, but they get the whole kingdom of God. Within the hierarchy of all things, that’s a tad sight better than the kingdom of Bloomingdale’s, Wall Street, Google, Amazon, Broadway, or even Park Avenue.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are you when you’re persecuted…Blessed are you when people revile you.”
Frankly, this is problematic for us adventurous strivers. Sounds sweet, but I'm thinking we're not entirely sold on it. I’m glad we’re all hearing this together today, old-timers and newcomers alike, because it’s hard to really hear when you’re off by yourself doing your own thing, striving after your own dream. But then, it also can be problematic for the church, because like other institutions in our land, the church is committed to success, and this at a time when church in the city has never seemed less culturally relevant.
I've wanted this church to be successful and I hope you do, too. The thing is, from the lips of Jesus, it seems that the people who are truly able to receive his blessing are the spiritually needy, those who know their brokenness and feel it, those who understand their emptiness and their distance from true, authentic fulfillment. And I'm thinking this morning that this may then set up our condition perfectly.
The prophet Micah describes the spiritual conundrum this way: he asks, what does successful worship look like in the eyes of God? Are a thousand rams, or ten thousand rivers of oil, or perhaps the offering of my first-born child, would that be enough to find favor with God? The prophet answers with those famous words that have rumbled down to us from three millennia ago: What is required of us is “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” It's been three thousand years and that still seems both stirring and terribly elusive.
It doesn’t take much hard thinking to realize that authentic justice and mercy are dependent upon the level of humility we maintain in our walk with God. Justice, mercy, humility. Walking humbly with God is the key. But that doesn't sell so well in our success market. Humility--what a lost cause that seems today...
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount took place not in the magnificent temple in Jerusalem, from a marble pulpit, but on a mountainside in the vicinity of Capernaum. And do you suppose it was the spiritual giants, learned scholars and successful venture capitalists who crowded the natural amphitheater to listen to this topsy-turvy wisdom? Well, maybe there were some. Maybe so. Perhaps about as many then on a percentage basis as are attending church today in New York this morning.
But if so, then perhaps they, too, knew of their own poverty and could identify with the poverty of others no matter the form it took. The fact is, we are more alike in our poverties than we are in our successes. As you know, one of the less noble reasons to succeed is to demonstrate our superiority over others, our exalted “otherness”. Yet prick the skin of any successful individual and you will discover the genetic predisposition for death just like everyone else.
Experience suggests that often our passion to maximize our potential takes a dangerous turn in the road and becomes instead a frantic race to distance ourselves from a gnawing emptiness that we fear might otherwise overwhelm us if we’re not worshiping at some human-scale altar, like success for instance. I've got to prove I'm worth something. It seems so logical, so alluring. And who would deny that success is a good thing? I wouldn’t. We should all be successful. But like any other potentially good thing, it is not God. And when it is worshiped it becomes a devil.
Any anyway, from Jesus’ perspective, and Micah’s and Paul’s, it does matter what we choose to be successful at. How about justice, mercy and humility? Where are those things on our hierarchy of values?
Earlier we heard Paul say that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Who brought this radical message? The learned scholar from the University of Jerusalem? The Temple’s Senior Minister? The King of Israel? The chairman of the Board? No, it was the simple carpenter from Nazareth. Yes, he was a charismatic preacher, but no success story; crucifixion was his destiny; he died as an enemy of the state. Not the successful career trajectory my mother had in mind for her son.
Strange religion, this Christianity. Makes one wonder who could possibly have dreamed it up. It relentlessly proclaims a message of hope in the midst of failure, of resurrection in the midst of death, of abundant, overwhelming blessing in the midst of many, many poverties.
Sounds to me as though that would embrace just about everyone who wanted to be embraced. Certainly, everyone here this morning. This is the solid ground beneath our feet and the air we breath in here. It’s the music we sing. I admit it: you’ll hear me return to this foundational refrain time and again. You should know that every time I do, it’s as though I’m the one that needed the reminder. Hopefully you’ll forgive the self-centeredness. I figure this isn’t a bad reason to repeat it. Not a bad reason at all.
January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
Sometimes people can be curious about my journey into ordained ministry. We haven’t spoken about this, but it’s a good guess that Violet has been questioned about this from time to time. As people come to know us their curiosity can be tweaked: How did you decide to get ordained? And this can be accompanied by a sense of incredulity, as in: You seem such an interesting pleasant, even normal sort of person. How, or, for what-on-earth reason did you get ordained? That’s especially true in a place like New York City, which the Barna research organization tells us is among the “least Bible-minded cities in the US.”
Even among Christians the standing of clergy can run the gamut from “sorry loser” to “exalted man on a pedestal.” And I say man intentionally, because Violet, of course, has the added feature of being an ordained woman, which carries its own special freight in many Christian environments and beyond.
In the ordination discernment process elder clergy like to ask the neophytes to tell them about their “call.” That is, they want to hear a clear description or delineation of God’s claim on their life as an authenticating requirement for ordination. If pressed, Violet and I a well-rehearsed story to tell about this.
But having been on selection boards and committees over many years, I can tell you that a dramatic call story is not the only or even principal criteria for ordination. I've been in the position more than once of explaining to an earnest candidate that while I’m quite certain God has called them to something useful in life, they should consider a role other than that of ordained clergy.
Over the years I’ve had a lot of conversations with people about what it means to be called to something in life, something useful, relevant to them andothers. I'll often say that our tradition teaches that the God who created all, calls all, in as many different voices as there are different types of people, no two outcomes identical. In a sense, the call was about finding one’s true home. This may or may not have something to do with the content of one’s actual work. Showing up at church often has something to do with this.
Spiritual author and seeker Frederick Buechner put it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Or this: “Go where your best prayers take you.” If you do that, you’ll be responding to God’s call on your life.
One of the enduring riddles of the life of Jesus concerns his selection of disciples, that core group he chose to follow his path. We know few details about the twelve unexceptional men closest to him. We know there were a group of women who also were part of the inner circle. We know that as a whole these friends didn’t have a well-established pedigree. Some had a borderline relationship with the laws of government and religion.
As the story is told, what do you suppose Jesus looked like when he called those first guys Violet read about earlier? I imagine he looked very much like the village carpenter with rough, strong hands, similar to fishermen’s hands. I imagine he had spoken with these men before, perhaps as they dried their nets at the end of a day. And in the course of conversation I'm thinking Jesus did what he did better than anyone else—he related their lives to the things that matter most.
Given how we’ve cleaned him up and mythologized him to a fare-thee-well, building extravagant marble-encrusted buildings in his name, and emblazing his image in glittering mosaics, its useful to remember that he didn’t appear walking out of the sunrise making sacred esoteric declarations accompanied by a heavenly chorus so these fishermen might be sufficiently impressed to drop everything and follow him into the sunset and beyond. There were no production values in his presentation; no lights, music, cameras and folderol. Just honest human
For some people, the expectation that God’s call is reserved for a select few who have highly refined ears is a tempting scenario that keeps them at a safe distance from spiritual engagement. For others who have practiced a religious discipline the expectation that God will speak in dramatic tones at unusual times and places, preferably accompanied by a small miracle, keeps their attention fixed everywhere but on the specific content of their daily lives. In this sense their religion can actually become a distraction.
It seems Jesus was an uncommonly wise carpenter who found his voice as he grew in years until one day it became clear that when he spoke you really had better listen, because if you did, you wound up learning things about yourself and the world that completely altered the goal of your life. And the uncanny thing was that no one was excluded from his concern. Oh, he had confrontational things to say about some folks, but it seemed all he wanted was to shake them out of their hardness and rigidity, their pride and arrogance, so for the first time in their lives they might hear something that actually made a difference.
In the recorded stories we hear him saying that the Spirit of God could be found in very homely settings—in the tale of a shepherd, a farmer, a tax collector, a couple of sisters, a businessman, a very poor woman, a politician, even an embezzler and a prostitute…all the types of people there are, and in our day, those we could meet at a bar or cocktail party, at work or on the street. His stories dealt with mundane life into which everyone might read the content of their own lives. In fact, we can’t really hear this voice except how it finds connection with our daily experience. That’s what makes it so dangerous, and simultaneously so spectacularly hopeful.
While coming to a place like this has great value, where—when we’re at our best—we uncloak the truth and make ourselves available to it, out there beyond these walls is where you spend out your lives, where you work, invest your time and money, eat and drink, make sense of your sexuality and attempt to find true love, use your bodies for good or ill, raise children, grapple with death. That’s where God’s claim on your life has its real impact. If God’s call doesn’t have meaning out there in your daily lives, it hasn’t yet been heard.
Quite a few years ago now I saw a documentary about Mother Teresa who you might remember founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India; for five decades she ministered to the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying establishing world-wide renown for compassionate care. The film stuck in my memory because the wife of a famous television producer, a woman well known for throwing brilliant parties, interviewed her.
As soon as the interviewer appeared on screen, it was obvious that she had given tremendous attention to what she should wear, reaching for a mixture of elegance and simplicity, looking for a way to fit in with such austere conditions while showing taste and flair at the same time. I suppose the cynic might think she seemed bent on using a background of human suffering to make a fashion statement.
Within maybe twenty seconds of the start of the interview, though, Mother Teresa was asking most of the questions; her concern and tenderness for the interviewer showed in her every expression and gesture.
At one point she reached up and brushed a few strands of hair out of the interviewer’s eyes, as a mother would do for a daughter, and the viewer could see that the hands of this socialite were trembling. I'm thinking some depth of pain and need were being touched by the only force that is ever allowed to strike that deep: truth and love.
The interviewer didn’t expect what she got in her conversation. Going about her business she was surprised to hear something more profound than the details of an arranged conversation. She heard a voice speaking to her…to her…calling her…a voice that went deep under her skin covered with such elegant good taste. And her hands shook…
On a day when we welcome new friends into our family, it's useful, important even, to say there is no more likely candidate to hear God’s voice than you. In fact, so far as your own corner of the world is concerned, you are the only real candidate. The call comes in a wide variety of voices. You can hear it in scripture, a sermon or music; you can hear it in nearly any occasion through a vast array of mediums, walking out on the street and onto the subway, for instance. Or perhaps you hear it in your sleep. Maybe you awaken one morning to realize the voice has been speaking for quite some time only you hadn’t heard it until just this moment… and the air seems to tremble… or maybe your hands…
Here’s a test as to whether or not you’ve actually heard it: you know you can’t stay the same. Something’s up…something important. You sense there’s a truer version of yourself just up ahead. You sense that if you gave it a second to think about, you’d recognize this was resonant with your very best prayer.
We Who Believe in Freedom…
Sunday, January 19, 2020
My Name Is Stupid
January 12, 2020
Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Early in my pastoral career I spied a young boy standing off by himself near the church entrance. He looked lost and bereft, sad. I went over to him and introduced myself. I asked him his name. He told me his name was "Stupid." I said I couldn't believe that was his real name, but he quickly retorted that I could believe what I wanted, but his name was "Stupid" because that's what everyone called him. Said with a sadly quiet finality, he walked away.
Later, I spotted him on his way out the door with a man I understood was his father. I don't know what preceded this exact moment, but I witnessed his father turning a very ugly face toward his son and hissing, "My god, you are just so stupid!"
The boy glanced up and caught my eye for a long, knowing moment, then shrugged his shoulders and walked out the door. That happened many years ago. At the time, I remember thinking I had just witnessed something important, not to be missed or forgotten, not that it was so very large--I had certainly witnessed far worse behavior. But I guess I was ready for the lesson at that moment, because it was as though a small window opened on a universal human tragedy. And it has stayed with me all these many years later.
You know about this tragedy. You know how people are trained from the time they’re powerless little persons to doubt their essential worth. And how in turn, over years their fragile egos and insecurities lead them to prop themselves up by putting others down in myriad ways, from the exquisitely subtle, to the blatantly abusive. And so, we pass the tragedy from one generation to the next.
We often participate in this universal conspiracy unwittingly, without so much as a nano-second of reflection. It’s part of the source of the struggle between races and classes and religions and genders and orientations and any of the people we wind up defining as the dreaded “other.” These tendencies are so ingrained we’re often unconscious of our own complicity in the tragedy.
When it is brought to our attention we tend to see it as a problem for psychologists, sociologists and educators to sort out, to look at the tragedy through the lens of social scientists so that they might then engineer certain “cures”. We develop elaborate methodologies around self-esteem, for instance. I don’t doubt for an instant that social scientists shed light on this, and offer palliatives, but this is a much larger problem than their tools can fix by themselves. That’s because at its heart this problem is a spiritual disease.
In the Gospel lesson we heard a story with a different outcome. If you were paying attention, you recognize it was also a story about a certain parent and child, in this case, a father and son.
We’re told that a man named John was baptizing people at the Jordan River. Some among the crowds that flocked to him thought John might be the Messiah, the one to lead them to freedom. But John's clear that another is coming who is more powerful than him.
So, while John is doing his thing at the river, Jesus comes to be baptized. And afterwards the story paints that surreal picture that has captured pious Christian artists for centuries—the descending dove embodying God’s Spirit. Its descent is accompanied by this essential detail—the voice of God. Remember what that voice says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Contrast that with, “My god, you are just so stupid!”
At its heart, Christianity is unequivocal about the centrality of love. Love is the glue, the force, the grace, the life and breath of God. In fact, life is one of love’s primary outcomes. Love is the essence of life-force and has its genesis in the Creator of all things.
Love alone has the height and length and breadth and depth to embrace suffering. It calls forth courage and integrity. The way our scriptures speak of it, love is the medium through which all things have come into being and it defines God’s very nature. So, in our scriptures, the Father says to the Son, “You are the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Relating to such a God as this leads to the conclusion that each of us is cherished beyond time and measure. And if this is true, you can see then that the father in my little opening story was suffering a spiritual malaise. But even now, from this clinical distance, I don’t want to pick on him. It’s too easy to heap blame on an easy mark.
Because the truth is, while we pay lip service to this lovely idea of love, in most of us, in our heart of hearts, we secretly don’t quite believe it. We can’t quite believe that we are that valuable in the grand scheme of things. In fact, our routine, earth bound associations lead us to believe just the opposite—that our true worth is suspect.
There’s a very good chance that even the most successful among us may be driven by the secret conviction that no amount of success will in the end prove our true value. And most likely this truth lurks in the gray haze of the unconscious because we don’t want to face it. We keep our suspicions locked down, as it were, where we believe they stay safe. Yet they can’t help breaking out from time to time, like in a "normal" exchange between parent and child on their way out of church.
Do you see why this transcends psychology? Our problem lies in our core, in our soul, with our understanding of the essential organization of the universe and our place within it, and by default, the place of everyone else as well. This is one of the reasons we have the sacramental act of baptism. In a few moments, if we’re wide awake we’ll see how far and how deep it actually intends to reach. If we pay attention, we’ll be reminded of what the deepest truth is, namely, that every last one of us has a sacred genealogy that reaches all the way to God.
If we listen very carefully as a drop of water touches our face, we just might hear a voice that says, “You are my daughter, you are my son, you are my child, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And if that seeps into our souls, then starting from the inside out, we’ll find ourselves changing, literally becoming what we are in our essential nature.
For one thing, we’ll become increasingly conscious. More and more we’ll discover how we have capitulated to the power of fear and attempted to prove our worth either by our own striving, or by propping ourselves up by putting others down. We’ll become increasingly dissatisfied with that way of life. We’ll find our old ways patterns unacceptable. We’ll find the patterns of fear of others in our culture, unacceptable. We’ll find ourselves caring more about how well we receive those who have been rejected. We’ll be thinking less about ourselves and more about others.
Right here in the central act of initiation of our faith is a revelation of the complete truth. That we feel unworthy is understandable; in the presence of such love, a humble sense of our unworthiness is a completely natural response. Most important though, is the full realization that God loves us with an everlasting love that inflated our lungs at the first, set our lives in motion and brought us to this very moment when you are hearing these words about your sacred worth and the sacred worth of everyone else who shares this space, shares our city, shares our world.
There isn’t a grander or more important thing going on anywhere around town this morning than your hearing either for the first or the hundredth time the deep truth at the core of all things.
Friends, its time to gather at the river that flows by the throne of God…
January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
When preparing worship services and sermons, I’m alert to the complexities related to who will be participating and listening—like all of you. I try to keep in mind the names and faces of people who are members and friends of Christ Church while also remembering there will be many people I won't know. I’m aware that whether known to me or not, I can’t assume much of anything about your personal history, your knowledge about Christianity or the spiritual practices with which you are familiar.
This is especially important to remember in a city like New York because of its incredible diversity. I can’t take anything for granted about any participant on any given Sunday morning. I can’t know the various reasons why people have shown up or what their expectations might be.
I learned this lesson in my first year here exemplified by the very first class of new members I welcomed in 1988. Among the seven who joined were individuals who had grown up nominally Hindu, Jewish, atheist, Buddhist, Catholic, Methodist and nothing. That was my very first class. And it caused me to deeply wonder what I had been preaching about in the preceding months, because at the time I was unaware that I'd be speaking to a lot of people who had little knowledge or experience of Christianity, per se.
And then, we were sitting in our splendid architectural jewel box with images and symbols that I realized were, for some people, frankly incomprehensible. I think the way it works is that a space like ours evokes a sense of spiritual transcendence that’s larger than the specific references to the Christian tradition. I think that’s why someone who grew up Hindu, Buddhist or atheist, not to mention Catholic or nothing, could feel somehow at home, which is what they all reported. They felt at home here. Not home in the specifics of the visual language per se, at least not yet, but home in the sense of at-the-heart-of-things, maybe even at the heart of God, although they wouldn’t have put it that way. Loving God above all things and their neighbors as themselves made sense. And they felt at home.
Of course, even those who have been steeped in church life since childhood cover a very diverse territory, no two Christianities exactly alike. Interestingly, it’s the Methodists who initially find our sanctuary a bit baffling. How many times have I been asked if it was always a Methodist church? And in case that question has occurred to you the answer is, yes, always Methodist, but obviously not in any tribal sense. In fact, there was a very self-conscious attempt to create a space in which a great variety of persons would feel welcome. And I guess the evidence suggests the founders succeeded. After nearly dying out some decades ago, this congregation was resuscitated from among a very diverse population of seekers and believers from a geography as wide as the nation and the world beyond.
I’m mentioning this today for a couple of reasons. First, even with a story as seemingly well-anchored in American culture as the wise men visiting the manger in Bethlehem, we can’t assume that everyone present really knows what we’re talking about. A Hindu showing up for the first time brings no pre-conceived ideas or expectations about what she’s hearing.
On the other hand, a sixty-year-old who grew up in South Carolina having experienced as many years of Christmas pageants—including those in which he costumed as every character in the drama save Mary—that guy comes with a very full reservoir of thoughts, feelings, memories and expectations. And these are likely freighted with a whole lot of sentimentality, especially as it’s now his grand-children’s turn to wear a robe or carry a staff.
Here’s the second reason I’m reflecting on this today: the story of the wise men, or kings, or magi, is really a story about Christ Church. Here’s my meaning. Whether you are newly arrived to considering this faith or a seventh decade cradle Christian, we’re all mashed up here having for whatever reason decided to show up at the manger in Bethlehem. Believer, seeker, third-party once removed, unlucky relative, confirmed but curious atheist--in coming today we’ve accompanied the so-called wise men from the east—wherever that is—to see this thing that has taken place. That’s how the shepherds in Luke’s gospel say it—they need to go see the thing that has taken place they heard the angels proclaim.
But look, these so-called wise men really have no business in Bethlehem. They’re exotic strangers, likely from the region we now call Iran, Persian astrologers and scholars, men interested in esoteric spiritual pursuits representing an alien religion. They’re non-Jews, and yet, they are intrigued with Jewish prophecy. And here’s a very compelling aspect of this story: these foreigners are more in tune with the goings-on in Bethlehem than the learned and politically connected people in Jerusalem. The outsiders actually have a bead on the truth that the insiders can’t see.
As the story is told, the magi’s' honest seeking has more integrity than the religious/political machinations of King David’s descendents, whose pedigree Jesus is reported to share. No wonder everyone in Jerusalem is worried—this child is already shaking up the established religious and political protocols. Even exotic strangers find a very warm welcome in his company.
If you follow my logic here you can sense the problem we have. We practice a religious tradition whose founder broke down human religious boundaries and categories. It isn’t as if the wise men came, did their thing and left "Christian" in a way we would recognize. They likely left as they came, returning to their families and communities of care wiser than when they first set out, having entered a cattle-shed of transcendent glory, a space they hadn’t expected yet strangely feeling like home.
And again, as the story is told, the magi saw a truth that was larger than what the majority of Jews at the time could comprehend. Like most people everywhere they were captive of rigid structures of thought and expectation. We know how that happens, how matters of power and control over what people think and believe can obscure the truth that otherwise stands naked to the eye.
That’s how even Christians, followers of the child who will grow up to say that love of God and neighbor are the noblest human aspirations, can hardly wait to divide the human race into those that belong and those that don’t, those who are more deserving of good stuff and those who aren’t, those who are beloved of God and those who have been locked out.
This was a tough lesson for early followers of Jesus who at first were all Jewish— the shocking idea that impure Gentiles were, from God's perspective, on equal footing with them. This is Paul's point in this week's reading from his letter to the Ephesians. His ministry, he writes, is “for the sake of the Gentiles,” people like the Persian foreigners. In Jesus this mystery has now been revealed, “that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
The magi, then—the so-called wise men—"unveil" this mystery and disclose the nature of God's kingdom announced in Jesus. They remind us that it cannot be limited to any singular people. The new king Jesus abolishes not only the barriers of nation, race and ethnicity. He also transcends the boundaries of gender, religion, economics and social stratification, for in Christ, again as Paul will write, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus;” the magi were only the tip of a very big iceberg. That iceberg has rumbled forward in time, not nearly yet finished with its galvanizing work breaking down human-made barriers of every sort. When we’re at our clearest we recognize that iceberg for what it is: the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This lesson remains a daunting challenge, doesn’t it? But then you can see why I think the story of the magi reveals the life and work of Christ Church. We’re an Epiphany church where all comers are welcome. That’s our evangel.
December 22, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Students of the Bible know that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell the story of Jesus and basically agree on the trajectory of his life. The first three are called the synoptic gospels because they share many of the same stories and follow a similar sequence. John is much more densely theological.
Those present who are less familiar with these texts might find it interesting to know that the stories about Jesus' birth are only found in Matthew and Luke. Mark and John don't know anything about a virgin birth in a manger since there was no room in the inn.
Luke is especially interested in Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; he's the one that writes about the shepherds abiding in their fields keeping watch over their flocks by night and the angelic host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven...” Matthew is more keyed in on Joseph and tells the story of the mysterious Magi and the Holy Family’s escape as refugees into Egypt for fear of King Herod.
These birth vignettes from Matthew and Luke blended together form what we have come to know as the beloved Christmas story, but you won’t find this narrative as you know it anywhere in the Bible--only in picture books and carols.
I point this out as a simple reminder that underneath the sentiment of this season prompting a great fascination with cut evergreen trees, round bearded men dressed in red flannel and the incessant clamoring for lots of material stuff, lies a rather complicated and far more compelling story than what’s served up by the culture at this time of year.
Now I’m no Christmas curmudgeon. Up to a point I love the seasonal trappings like the next guy, but I do want to restate the obvious--the so-called “holiday season” has warped way beyond its origins; and, btw, that would be true whether we insist on saying Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays. Amazon and Walmart aren't dependent upon anyone’s piety. The fact is that it’s very hard to find the so-called true meaning of Christmas anywhere beyond these walls. Culturally we've moved way beyond that.
The feast of the birth of Christ, was never about the exchange of gifts. It wasn't until the 19th century that custom took hold in the U.S. But you know how this has been deformed beyond recognition through the capitalist necessity of driving forward an economy based on massive, addictive consumption—the more the merrier, ho, ho, ho. This consumerist piety long ago captured the world’s fealty where more is not only merrier, but even, seemingly, morally better; and much more is much, much better, full speed ahead.
How much was the mega-millions jackpot this week? Did I buy a ticket? On the spur of the moment passing a news kiosk, I did--and I don’t believe in the lottery. It's terrible social policy. Do I lack for anything, need any necessity? That these jackpots accumulate during our Advent season nails the disruptive character of the story that lays at the heart of the Christian faith, namely, God entering the human scene in a brand, spanking new way.
And here’s the thing: according to Matthew this wasn’t simply another round of eggnog among friends. It didn’t involve a Norman Rockwell Christmas tableau. The actual story is a tough sell given our sentimental and capitalist tendencies.
The ancient law called for the death penalty when a woman committed adultery. By rabbinic practice over the centuries that penalty had been reduced to divorce and public disgrace. Matthew reports that Joseph was a “righteous man,” meaning he wanted to protect Mary from humiliation while still getting out of the marriage. He didn’t want to impose an unnecessary hardship.
Certainly within his rights to play out his role as the aggrieved party, Joseph chose another way, the way of trust and love, and in response to a dream, he takes Mary as his wife after all and receives her child as his own.
This was a small act in comparison to the size of decisions within the range of Caesar or Herod the King. But an act that changed the world, nevertheless. Interesting, isn’t it? The juxtaposition of the large, seemingly consequential decisions among the world’s power brokers and the small, seemingly unimportant decision of a simple man caught in a personal dilemma. And then the way the story has it, discovering that God was not cavorting in human affairs on the scale of the Caesar, but in the birth of this single, out-of-the-way child.
This is one of the reasons this story has hung around as long as it has, this revelation that while the world’s powerful gyrating egos play out their narcissistic dramas, holding populations hostage to their whimsies, God slips in to reveal how real power manifests in the world. Considering our current state of affairs, we should be paying very close attention here.
Oh my! Have we ever been swamped with gyrating narcissistic egos of late! Our media is flooded with them, creating a cacophony of noise and distraction. But today we zero in on a small story that actually matters a lot. This bit of information is a lot more important than other bits. Miss this bit from all the other bombarding bits and you’ll miss a whole mess of other really important truths. I’d go so far as to say you’ll miss what it means to be human in the highest and best sense.
In Joseph we have the character in the Christmas story who is most like us. It’s easy to imagine him trying to get to sleep after learning about his fiancé’s pregnancy, spent, exhausted from anger and humiliation, grappling with his conscience, tossing and turning, unable to find the position that will give him peace. Do you ever have sweaty nights like that? In his restlessness a dream angel whispers in his ear.
Victimized by circumstance beyond his control Joseph is presented with a variation of life he would not have chosen for himself, trapped by his options yet surprisingly, wanting to do the right thing. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests the whispering angel says something like this: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God will be born here, too, if you permit it.”
So, Joseph does the unexpected thing. On the face of it, he takes the more difficult path, the narrow road as Jesus will describe it about thirty years later. Joseph will take Mary’s predicament on himself, and together they will give birth to love.
That’s a rather powerful idea and foreshadows the kind of love Jesus will embody and teach. Love means this at least: no one stands outside God’s grace. No one. And everyone is welcome to God’s table. Everyone is related to the sacred lineage, by adoption, as Jesus the refugee was. And everyone can be made pregnant with love by God.
The story does not tell us how Joseph's relatives and friends responded to his magnanimity, but given human behavior, we could imagine it wasn't pretty. Not only would Joseph be shamed, but his family as well. So as the story is told, God’s entry into the world was disruptive to the religious and cultural protocols of the day—imagine that!—God broke the religious rules of the day--at least that’s how the story reads.
The birth happened disruptively, requiring Jesus’ parents to learn and adapt, to live in a spirit of compassionate regard for one another. Jesus’ life depended upon this. And so it has always been for orphans and refugees and the dispossessed of every sort. Jesus’ arrival in the world was inconveniently troublesome and so it has always seemed when God’s truth comes a-callin' requiring people to change and grow into God’s limitless love themselves.
In a burst of disruptive insight, the Medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhardt, came to understand that “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace and if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
I think that's it, friends. That's the lesson we're supposed to learn in this season of disruptive hope and love. How shall we give birth to love in our own lives?
i Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing the Impossible,” Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley, 1995.
The Third Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 15, 2019
Every once in a while, something brand new leaps out at me from biblical texts I’ve read and digested for decades. I’ve been at this gig since 1979 so this will be my 40th Christmas in this role. Leading up to that big day the Sundays in Advent tell the story of John the Baptist and we hear the ancient prophecies of Isaiah. These passages are so familiar to me that I almost don’t hear them. But once in a while, maybe due to my life circumstance, or just by chance, like catching something out of the corner of your eye you weren’t expecting, I’ll hear a phrase as though for the first time.
That happened this week as I sat with the oracle from Isaiah you heard read earlier. The prophet tells of the glorious restoration of Israel. The people had been carted off into captivity—this is centuries before Jesus enters the scene—but now something new is emerging, a rebirth of the nation, a return to their land; the text brims with joyful hope in strikingly beautiful imagery. The people as well as the very land will be healed, restored and all shall see the glory of God. Then this sentence: A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; …it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.” That’s the phrase that caught my attention: “not even fools shall go astray…”
Normally that just whizzes right by, as kind of a throw-away line, but this year for some reason I heard it as an especially hopeful proclamation. Anyone here ever felt foolish? Done something really stupid? Well, according to Isaiah in God’s future even fools will find their way home. I guess that means that no one here this morning would be excluded, not that I have anyone particularly in mind other than myself, because from time to time I have counted myself among the ranks of the fools. But then I see how foolish the entire human race seems in its captivity to its less-noble traits and behaviors. We're awash in abject foolishness.
We don’t have to look further than any media feed on our phones for evidence of this. From world events—wars and rumors of wars, political slights and parochial arrogance and violence—to the American congress, to business corruption, to the guy arrested for drunk driving, to any wife or husband who has ever bald-faced lied to their partner, to the parent screaming just plain stupid narcissistic claptrap to their child, to undermining of colleagues at work, to hiding in plain sight with multiple masquerades. Honestly, but for the fact that the future belongs to God, we would seem to have no hope at all finding our way home left to our own devices.
Isaiah captures the grand sweep of God’s intention. Even the earth will be restored. Joy shall prevail. Of course, if this were ever to occur in the fullness of the vision, we humans would have to leave our foolishness behind. Fools will travel the path home but once arrived the foolishness would have come to an end. And I suppose that’s one of the important lessons we glean at this time of year. Part of the restoration God intends is our own restoration, our own coming to terms with our foolishness--as in, you and me--our own foolishness.
Christians read Isaiah at this time of year in part because of the hopeful future orientation of God’s will for the world and the human race. Jesus, we say, continues in this great prophetic tradition, even its crown jewel. Last week we heard John the Baptist reference Isaiah and the holy highway of God saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” In response we say we’re awaiting Bethlehem’s child—that’s what our candle countdown is all about. And today we learn that John wondered if he had it right, if this Jesus was the one upon whom all of time had been focused. Was Jesus the fulfillment of God’s intention with the world? Would he show the way home that even fools could not resist?
I think John had good reason to question whether Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah. He didn’t fit the expectation mold. He had the grace and charisma, of course. But was he the one, really? Eventually Jesus walked into a disastrous outcome arranged by foolish humans, surely not what anyone had hoped for, prayed for. A crucified Messiah was not on anyone’s radar. But from the cross came those haunting words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing…” Said in a less generous way, or perhaps more like Isaiah, “The fools don’t get it, God, but love them anyway and even they may find their way home one day.”
Let’s try a thought experiment here. Let’s shift our focus to a smaller scene, say, to your bedroom, for instance, when you’ve awakened in the middle of the night. You’re aware that you’ve been sweating profusely. You have a searing insight that what you did was stupid and wrong. There is no escaping this. It isn’t a matter of blaming anyone else like your parents, the bad influence of others or even the fates. You are unusually clear.
Interestingly, ethics did not really concern you during the actionable timeframe. Only now, during a restless night did this awareness slap you awake. And this in itself is interesting because normally you don’t suffer your conscience very much about the things you do. You’re very much better at finding and cataloguing the faults in others.
You think to yourself you should undo what has been done. On the other hand, you could let it go, like you have on most other occasions. You could probably get away with it after all. But the knowing would fester, and the festering could turn to poison. Still, you wager with yourself that tolerating some poison might be the better path. In fact, you recognize you’ve had that taste in your mouth for a long while now. You’re surprised to realize that you have been drinking this poison for the better part of your lifetime. You’ve succeeded in fooling a lot of people about your true nature. You’re good at the realistic disguise.
But now, during the night of surprising insight, you see it clearly, very clearly, and you realize you don’t have to live this way anymore; you sense that if you could let this foolishness go it could lead to something altogether different, something very, very much better. The foolishness could give way to a new start, and to having life and love in all of its fullness. All the pretending BS could evaporate. Completely out of character, it occurs to you that you could ask God for help. So, in an extremely rare moment of humble vulnerability, you do quietly ask: "God, please help me become the person I'm meant to be after all." And just like that, you re-start the journey home.
Or, let’s tweak the scene a bit. Let’s suppose you’re the victim of some bad behavior--something that happened a while ago. Something that festers, something that has grabbed your heart, or your lungs, or your brain and squeezes these organs, constricting your ability to live fully, sometimes interfering with work or personal relationships. This gnaws at you and haunts you. You feel righteous and justified in your residual resentment. Some of the time you fantasize about getting back, getting even, getting your due. Sometimes you hate. Maybe all of the time. For shorter or longer periods, you don’t think about it directly but its affect never dissipates.
Suppose, dear victim, you awaken in the night and see all of this clearly and it occurs to you that a decision has been set before you. You didn’t ask for it, but there it is. You’re staring at the ceiling and you feel the seductive temptation to travel one more time to the place of revenge and payback, wallowing like an addict in resentment, or, you can simply let it go. That is, let go of your attachment to the pain.
It occurs to you that this has held you captive. That it owns you, that this attachment has bred a dark, angry even violent sensibility. But now you have a choice. In the moment, you can actually sense a better place beyond the horizon of your present experience. You can feel it. You can choose it. You see it opening before you as the gift of the future. You can sense the hope in this, the hope for something very much better. Maybe for the first time you realize that you can actually help create that better place. You can pray to God to make it so, and you do.
It occurs to you how foolish you’ve been. Then a smile spreads across your face because you recognize that it's possible the fool can stay on track and go the distance. And, oh my, the relief is awesome, even joyful. Tears well up in your eyes.
Friends, that’s one way to explain the sensibility of this season. As we look to the coming of Christ we see that something different—something very much better—really is possible, even inevitable, if we open our hearts. All the fools are on their way to the manger. The new thing is coming. It’s nearly impossible to believe, and yet we see that the highway, the holy way, opens up before us; no traveler, not even fools, will go astray. I think that’s very good news for all of us. Thank God. And I’ll say it again: thank God…
The Second Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 08, 2019
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“When Bruce Hardy’s kidney cancer spread to his lung, his doctor recommended an expensive new pill…but…the British health authorities refused to buy the medicine. His wife has been distraught. ‘Everybody should be allowed to have as much life as they can,’ she said in the couple’s modest home outside London.’”
A clinical trial showed that the pill delays cancer progression for six months at an estimated treatment cost of $54,000. But according to a government agency, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, otherwise known by the acronym NICE, the nation can afford only about $22,750 to save six months of a person’s life.
The same issues exist in our country of course: skyrocketing prices for drugs and medical devices have led a growing number of nations to ask the hardest of questions: How much is life worth?” Mrs. Hardy reflected, “’It’s hard to know that there is something out there that could help but they’re saying you can’t have it because of cost… What price is life?’ she asked.”
After reading this I sat quietly for a bit and thought about my life and the lives of those closest to me, then out into an ever-widening spiral of life, say, all the way to the farthest reaches and poorest villages of the world. I just sat with it. What price is life? I let the matter settle into my consciousness.
And lost in my thoughts it occurred to me that Mrs. Hardy had asked an Advent question—What price is life?
It’s an Advent question because this is our season for anticipating the birth of a seeming illegitimate child—remember that as the story is told, Mary became pregnant before marriage, embarrassing Joseph, her betrothed, who had decided to quietly divorce her. She had cheated on him, after all. Yet that little vulnerable life was deemed worthy of a loving reception and the child would grow into a man who would come to be known as the very embodiment of abundant life only to die horribly thirty-some years later as a victim of political corruption.
And the irascible character known as John the Baptist who we heard from today, the one who points to Jesus, the guy up there above my head, also had an early and dramatic end to his life following the famous dance by Salome who demanded John’s head for payment. Another dramatic political corruption. Do you remember? And we might ask, “What price is life?”
That question has specific economic considerations in the 21st century that confound ethical formulations. But it also has a timeless, existential quality as well. If we listen deeply we’ll hear much of the world’s trauma in that question. Listen close and we’ll hear about the astonishing cost of war—our nation has spent 6 trillion dollars on war since 9/11—6 trillion—a number so big we can’t actually imagine it. Listening further we’ll hear voices from prison cells and the voices of the hungry, the dispossessed and the voices refugee children. What price is life? Are some worth more than others?
Writing to the Roman church Paul strenuously emphasized that gentiles were as worthy as Jews of God’s grace and favor. All were the same. All were children of God, no one above another. In this way, Paul was admonishing the church to prepare God’s way in the world. You heard it clearly.
This question has been asked in every language in every time. What price is life? The words of Isaiah we heard Nahal read were addressed to people who were suffering great turmoil. Soon they’d be hauled off to Babylon in exile. They yearned for someone to take notice that their lives were worth a lot more than what they were experiencing. They longed for justice. In the midst of their suffering from corrupt leaders Isaiah spoke a word of hope about a time when God’s justice and peace would return to them, and righteousness would be the coin of the realm. A righteousness that would address the question, “What price is life?”
Centuries later John the Baptist repeated this word of hope in the wilderness outside Jerusalem. Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! The word of life, renewal and restoration is timeless in its urgency for answering the question, “What price is life?” The answer lies with the source of life itself, with God, who shows us a pattern, a way of living in the world—a way of justice and righteousness. This is the way Jesus walked. It was the way of love and hope, trust and faith. These are the tools we’ve been given for making paths straight.
Today we repeat the same word of God in a timeless cadence that sets forth the human situation: we are creatures who sprang to life from God’s own breath. In this way our time is no different than any former time; this explains why these ancient texts still ring with such clarity concerning our situational predicament. Prepare the way of the lord. Make his paths straight still names the work before us.
Annie Dillard points out, “There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation… There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.
“There is no less holiness at this time than there was the day the Red Sea parted…There is no whit less might in heaven or on earth than there was the day Jesus said, ‘Maid, arise,’ to the [girl who had been left for dead]… In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger… In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss, or endure torture.” Any day. A day just like today for instance. Any day is a good one to choose to follow the way Jesus walked, to help him make straight paths in a crooked world. To wrestle with the question, “What price is life?”
Theologian Paul Tillich once said that “’If [eternity] is not seen in the present, it cannot be seen at all,’” As I said last week, the time zone we live in is called eternity. It’s right here, right now, in this present moment, pregnant in the very same way Mary was pregnant. What does eternity look like? It looks like love in action. It looks like Joseph overcoming his doubt and fear and taking Mary as his wife and her baby as his own.
Noted biblical scholar NT Wright was recently asked what made him most hopeful about modern Christianity right now. He said, “When the world is in serious pain, you will find Christians [following the straight path Jesus walked, a path of justice and righteousness.] That’s why the gospel spread in the first place, with ordinary Christians doing the ordinary Christian things. It transforms society and is much more than any number of appointments to the Supreme Court.” (Washington Post 12/5/19)
In Luke’s gospel when John the Baptist is asked what the people should do to make the paths straight for God he offers very homely wisdom: “’Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.’” In other words, live righteous lives and you’ll change the world. Treat one another well, as equals, construct communities of fairness, equanimity. Or as Jesus will put it, “Love God above everything else, love your neighbor as yourself.” Make love real. That’s what it means to prepare God’s way in the world.
An old fable tells of a wise rabbi who asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” the rabbi answered again. “Then when is it?” the pupils demanded. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
The Rabbi had the eternal word of God on his mind when he told that parable. He had in mind making the way straight in the desert, preparing the road for the Lord, as it were. On that day the price of a life would be known for certain, and the glory of the Lord would be revealed, and all people would see it together.
Gardiner Harris, “British Balance Benefit vs. Cost of Latest Drugs,” The New York Times, 12/3/08, A1.
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 88-89.
The First Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 01, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
As I’m closing in on the last years of my seventh decade, I’ve been aware that my sense of time has shifted. Initially I thought this was just a momentary emotional blip of acknowledgment that time was rushing forward, that I was way beyond the halfway point, more like I had hit at least the two thirds marker in a reasonable “best case” scenario.
Some years ago, my then 85-year-old father told me that retiring at the age of 62 was the worst decision he had ever made. Now he's 97. He's now been retired nearly as many years as he worked. His comment came at the end of a routine check-in conversation. I'm thinking he wanted to impart this bit of wisdom to me while I still could do something about it. He had been considering how his work-life seemed focused on the day he could retire, the sooner the better, as though retirement was the goal of his life.
A lot of this thinking has changed within our culture over the last decades and I certainly never developed the idea that golf was my destiny. Which reminds me of another small but pithy comment my father made some months after he had told me about the fallacy of his retirement decision. I was visiting my folks in their Florida condominium; awakening in the morning I got a cup of coffee and stepped out onto the lanai. In a short while my father emerged in golf attire and in a quietly wistful and earnest manner said, “You know Steve, there’s something wrong when you wake up and you think to yourself, ‘I’ve gotta go play golf today…’” I took his meaning that golf had become his obligation, his duty, as it were.
Don’t get me wrong: my father has had a long run of now 97 years and most of those years were reasonably fulfilling for him. I remember another time when he was about 60—on the occasion of his last parent’s death. I asked him what he was feeling. His response went something like this: “Well, what I’ve been thinking about is that I’m next in line;” meaning, there was no buffer, no elders to mask the inevitable march of time.
I have a vivid memory from a moment at a high school graduation party when I was all of 17-years-old. I had stepped outside for a break from beer and boasting to fasten onto my own thoughts. It was a warm, clear night in late June and the Milky Way was especially resplendent stretching out in all of its glory. As I looked up into the darkness, I had an overwhelming sense of the span of years that lay ahead of me. I gasped when it hit me, that sensibility of time, its pregnancy, immediacy and potency. The sensation was thrilling and awesome and mysterious. I was blown away. For a long while I just sat there wondering and marveling and eventually said to myself, “Steve, remember this night.” And I have often returned to it as I’ve considered the path I’ve tracked. The memory has been a wonderful gift to me.
And here’s the thing: though it’s now 50 years later, that sense of awe and wonder and mystery still lingers. Oh, I’ve learned a thing or two, of course, like all of us, through peaks and valleys of experience, but what’s emerged is a deeper sense of gratitude for each day, as well as recognition that so much of what comes down the pike, both good and bad, could not have been predicted. At 17 in the backyard of a friend’s house in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I certainly had no inkling of what I’d be up to at the age of 67, that New York City would be the place I’d spend most of my adult years, and in this get-up no less.
I’m guessing that most of you would report something similar, age dependent. If you’re in your 20’s, maybe you’ve had the itch for New York since your teens, or maybe landing here was an accident. If you’re over 60, well, you have your story to tell, and a unique sensibility about the meaning of time in the unfolding drama of your life.
In our reading from Romans Paul said, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…the night is far gone, the day is near.” The question haunts for young and old alike: “Do you know what time it is?” Or maybe asked this way: “Just what time is it, anyway?”
Time’s a funny thing. We often find ourselves saying we don’t have enough of it, whatever that means. We complain about wasting time, or worse, other people wasting our time. Most people, I think, want to control the outcome of time’s advance. A few things are somewhat in our control, of course, but a whole lot of stuff lies outside our control.
I consider my options at the age of 67, situating my decisions in a lifespan of maybe 90 years. Or not. We play the actuarial tables and plot our finances along a timeline model. Few people will actually follow the model crafted for themselves exactly. Most contend with health or financial reversals, or, sometimes, surprising good fortune.
My good friend Thomas Lane Butts spoke here in 2010 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publishing of To Kill a Mockingbird. A close friend of the author, Harper Lee, Tom endured cross-burnings and life-threatening situations in Jim Crow Alabama. At the age of 17 he likely would not have sensed those events in his future. When he turned 82, he called to tell me that he had met a friend for lunch at a local casino. As he was leaving, he dropped a coin in a slot and hit a jackpot worth $2.2 million dollars—just like that. Tom's a great storyteller and he had me laughing in no time. But at the end he said he didn’t need the money and intended to give most of it away.
Of course, all things are relative. There are a lot of folks in this town who make two million dollars or more a year. Lots of others go hungry and homeless. Time passes along at the same rate for people at both ends of the spectrum and for everyone in between. And all of us make choices within the range of our powers. But this question lingers: Do we know what time it is?
My close friend Forrest Church had been the minister of All Souls Church at Lexington and 79th Street for 30 years. At the age of 58 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He told me he wanted to make it to the age of 60 because both his father and grandfather had died at the age of 59. He made it with time to spare, but not a lot. I was privileged to be present when he died. And I think Forrest had a pretty good handle on what time it was—I don’t mean that especially as a matter of how many actual days he had, but as a function of being alert to the things that mattered most of all. And as a result he died well. He lived and learned a thing or two, and he died well. That is, he knew what time it was.
I got to thinking about these things given we’re starting a new church year today. The old year has come to an end and we cycle into the season of expectancy for the new thing God has in store. The Advent proclamation could be summed up like this: the future belongs to God! Get ready! That’s what each of our passages exclaimed today. How could swords be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks unless the future belonged to God?
Paul’s proclamation depends on the same logic: We shall lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light living honorably as in the day—why? Because the future belongs to God. That’s the correct answer to the question, 'Do you know what time it is?' It’s God’s time. That’s the message in Bethlehem’s child, in what we call the incarnation, God taking on frail flesh. God’s time is at hand. Live the truth of it!
However my next years unfold I tell you that first and foremost I will try to remember that whatever days I have are pure gift and that the time zone in which I live and move and have my being is called eternity. There’s a paradox here: perceiving time in this manner makes my decisions simultaneously more important but also less ridden with anxiety. Important because nothing less than the goals of eternity are at stake—less anxious because no matter what, the future belongs to God, and that being the case, what on earth do I have to fear?
I think that’s what I sensed looking into the Milky Way so many years ago. I couldn’t have put it into words like this, of course, but I think I sensed eternity impinging on my life. That may sound grandiose, I suppose, but then I’d say the same holds true for each one of us. In fact, any authentic spiritual experience involves the in-breaking of eternity on our perception of time.
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment to wake from sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near…put on the armor of light…
Reign of Christ
Sunday, November 24, 2019
Sunday, November 17, 2019
So, there are an unusually large number of mayors who’ve expressed interest in the presidential campaign this year: there’s Mayor Pete, of course; there was Mayor de Blasio; former Mayor of Burlington Vermont, Bernie Sanders; and now we’re teased by former Mayor Bloomberg who may or may not join the race. BTW, the last time a former mayor actually won came in 1924 in the form of Calvin Coolidge. Who knows how this resolves by next year.
With Bloomberg’s flirtation I got to thinking about mayors this week, what a critical component of our civil infrastructure they are, and how we judge their competence. In conversation with a friend who lives in Boston about the mayor situation, I was reminded of Boston’s Mayor, Martin Walsh, who first came to office in 2014. I remembered his first campaign attracting attention because of his back story.
At the time the Boston Globe summarized it this way: “In a race that lacked substantial policy differences, Walsh won as an affable everyman with a compelling life story. The 46-year-old spoke often about his immigrant roots, his battle with childhood cancer, his brush with a stray bullet that grazed his leg after a night of drinking, and his struggle as a young man to overcome alcoholism.”
“Evidently bullets, cancer and alcoholism can give a man perspective. ‘Subconsciously, it builds up strong character,’ Walsh said at the time.” That piece of his story connected with a wide cross-section of Boston’s population, and as an active participant in Alcoholics Anonymous, Walsh had the very strong backing of the recovery community which slices across all segments of society, from top to bottom.
I’m a big fan of the various Anonymous programs. Early in my ministry I learned how effective they were in providing context and community for addicts of every sort and the broad range of people they impacted, including extended family members and friends. Many of you may not know that on Tuesday evenings we host one of the largest meetings in the city right here in this sanctuary. It’s often standing room only, sort of like Easter Sunday, only it’s every Tuesday night. This is one of the oldest continuous meetings in New York, its founding dating from the early 1940’s. I’m glad we’re able to offer this hospitality. Powerful stories are shared, and people find hopeful community in support of their intention to evolve into greater health.
Walsh has been sober for over 20 years now, and the thing that I want to highlight this morning, is that this success could not be sustained without his intentional habits of attending to things that matter most of all while contending with issues of integrity, health, wholeness, and compassionate regard.
The first 3 steps of the famous twelve steps into sobriety are these: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable; came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
Week after week after week, these and other practices are rehearsed, discussed, modeled and supported and then sometimes, someone who intentionally adopts and maintains them for 20 years can emerge as the Mayor of Boston. That’s a pretty successful program isn’t it? You’ll notice in the first three steps that it is very much a spiritual program and the disciplines trace out a spiritual path. People go to meetings to remind themselves of the principles that lead to health, wholeness and integrity and to gather with others for support and encouragement. Then they go back out into their lives, their work and relationships and try to intentionally stay on track. Intentionality is key. Well, intentionality and follow-through.
So, true to the spirit of AA, there are many stories about Martin Walsh helping others. Like this one: “One night 16 years ago, a cocaine and whiskey addict was thrown out of a detox center… It was below zero and he had nowhere to go, so he slipped into Boston Medical Center to get warm. There, by chance, he met Walsh, who was helping [someone else]. Walsh made a quick phone call and got his new friend into a halfway house. Later, he helped him find a job.
“‘This guy didn’t know me from Adam, and he embraced me,’ Jim Taylor said of Walsh as he knocked on doors [on behalf of Walsh’s candidacy]... ‘He’s not a phony, he’s not a fake — he’s kept his word, and he’s followed through.”’ Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if someone said that about me.
In my conversation with my Boston friend I learned that Walsh receives mixed reviews on policy outcomes, but near universal approval of his character and transparency which accounts in part for his landslide win in 2017. In stark contrast to current political conditions, his story reveals the power of intentional spiritual commitment. I suppose I should mention here that Walsh is an actively identified Christian. We should pay attention to how intentional practice builds character and character builds healthy community and healthy politics as well.
There’s a very simple point here for our purposes today. It’s related to this matter of intentional spirituality which is mostly unsupported by the larger culture. That’s right, isn’t it? You’d agree with me that there are now no cultural supports for spiritual practice in New York City today, right? Religious identity is draining out from our urban culture faster than landline telephones. As far as many of your friends and co-workers are concerned your going to church on a Sunday morning is an odd affectation, and I’m guessing you may not talk about it all that much. Maybe the equivalent of CCA, as in, Christ Church Anonymous. Even so, if you take it with any degree of seriousness this requires intentionality and follow-through.
For most here today attendance is not as imperative as it might be for an alcoholic finding a meeting, but honestly, if faith has a claim on our lives, if loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves is the ground beneath our feet and the air we breathe, it stands to reason that intentional spiritual practice becomes a true necessity.
As it is with any relationship we say really, really matters--it’s the habits of the heart, the behaviors, the commitments of time and attention and integrity that tell the truth. Here’s where that blunt assessment of C.S Lewis comes in handy: “What you do screams so loud I can’t hear what you say!” Which begs this question this morning: When it comes to our spiritual lives, what is it that we’re actually doing? How do our intentions get exercised in follow-through behaviors?
In today’s gospel lesson Jesus says to the crowds, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid... let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory [to God].”
This speaks of developing habits concerning the things that matter most. You’re not going to hear about this in the normal course of a typical day unless you intentionally seek it out.
I’ve learned over the years that addictive behaviors come in all shapes and configurations. Experience teaches that everyone has their own unique set of addictive distractions that keep them from addressing the things that matter most of all. This is true for all of us. The people at AA are only one variation on a theme. But, honestly, is it worse than an addiction to money? Sex? Sleep? Pills? Work? Adrenalin? Pretending we’re someone we’re not? Lying? Ego? Anyone present addicted to technology?
What we say here is that developing spiritual disciplines throws open the bars of our self-imposed prisons. Life awaits! Life in all of its spectacular glory! Stepping out we learn what love really is and how intentional disciplines make lives of meaning possible. We can’t really love well without a bracing set of disciplines.
And here I want to highlight three essential practices: the practice of worship; the practice of prayer; and the practice of generosity.
There are other disciplines we could list of course. But as a simple practical matter, these 3 are essential: worship, prayer, and generosity. I call them practices because they only have meaning if we actually do them. Worship is a large concept that encompasses a fundamental ordering of the cosmos, remembering who’s who and how we fit into the scheme of things, but a component of worship is doing what we’re doing here this morning with the community of faith. Prayer is our explicit and intentional awareness of God’s presence in our lives—it’s the language of spiritual relationship.
The practice of generosity flows out of God’s astonishing generosity towards us including our very lives. Giving is God’s way of entrusting us to make a difference... assuming you want to make a difference...To be salt and light requires the discipline of regularly giving yourself away. In a few minutes you’ll have an opportunity to practice this discipline. There’s a reason we ask for a pledge of support. The pledge becomes a tangible discipline over time—it binds your intention to practice.
Worship, prayer, generosity, practices that will take us the distance, all the way home at last. What are they again? Write them on your hearts and minds…
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Job 19:23-27a; 2nd Thessalonians 2:13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Some time ago, an old friend of mine, Delmar Chilton, retired southern pastor, shared a magazine article concerning what it called “mysterious traffic stops and starts;” those times when interstate traffic just slows and stops and then speeds back up, though there is no wreck or construction to cause it. We've all experienced that phenomenon. Well, a group of traffic engineers investigated this problem. They tested a number of theories, and here’s their conclusion: they don’t know. They honestly don’t know why it happens. It just does sometimes – for no apparent, detectable reason.
Now maybe you're like me: When I'm on the road and that pattern takes over, I immediately wonder what's going on. I'm wanting to know the reason for the slowdown. Since I learned there may be no specific cause sort of exacerbates the irritation when it occurs. We want to know the reason for why things are the way they are and, short of certain knowledge, we'll fantasize all sorts of reasons. It's our nature to fill in the blanks of life's mysteries.
Take Job for instance. Remember his story? Scholars tell us the Book of Job may be the oldest written text in the Bible which suggests that the problem Job addresses, namely, why do bad things happen to good people? has haunted the human imagination for thousands of years. As the story is told, Job suffers terribly though he is a good man and his friends offer up several different explanations concerning why.
I agree with my friend, Delmar, when he says there’s something within him that rebels against the notion that things can happen with no cause and no purpose. But all of us know that from time to time life feels like that. "There are times when it feels like we’re buzzing down life’s highway making good time, purposefully going about our business, when suddenly things happen which cause life to appear totally meaningless."
That’s why Job's story has captured human attention for as long as it has. When "the book opens, Job’s really making good time on the highway of life; things are great. Wife, kids, job, spiritual life; everything’s wonderful! Then it all grinds to a halt, the wheels fall off, and he’s left sitting on the side of the road in the burned-out shell of his life.
"No rhyme, no reason, no poetic justice, no novelistic irony, no cinematic climax; just meaningless disaster. His friends explore a number of theories as to the why of his predicament. Most of these ideas have to do with either Job’s hidden sinfulness or God’s lack of justice. Even Job’s wife tells him he should just curse God and die."
And yet, it’s at this moment that Job makes his impassioned statement of hope, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives.”
In the midst of his darkest night, Job holds on to hope. And this hope has the ring of eternal truth. No matter what happens, God is still God and just on the other side of a disastrous dead end, there remains a truth that's larger still.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “The worst isn't the last thing about the world. It's the next to the last thing. The last thing is the best. It's the power from on high that comes down into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring."
That's a pretty good definition of hope, I think. Maybe you know someone who lives from that hopeful space; that despite great adversity of one sort or another they live expectantly, gratefully, and hopefully. People like that have an enormous impact on those who know them. They seem to know something that the rest of us don't.
The gospel lesson takes us for a drive down a similar road. We're told some people approached Jesus with a silly question. As it is today, there were different religious/political factions in Jesus' day. The Sadducees were the conservative, well-off partisans, the power brokers and officeholders. They want to trap the up-start Jesus using his own teaching against him. They perceive he believes there is life beyond death; the Sadducees do not.
They concoct a fanciful fiction about a childless woman whose husband dies. According to Jewish law her husband's brother is bound to marry her. In this case her husband has seven brothers and each dies in succession leaving her vulnerable and childless when she dies. So, “In the resurrection,” the Sadducees ask smugly, certain that they’ve ensnared Jesus, “whose wife will she be?”
Now they don't really care about the answer. They're simply trying to trap Jesus into saying something objectionable; the way news reporters ask leading questions today trying to get public figures to say something that will offend somebody enough to make news. That seems the go-to methodology for most interviewers especially in these highly partisan times. And the Sadducees' question is offered like a joke to show how absurd it is to believe in resurrection.
As usual in these confrontations, Jesus doesn't fall for the trap and, in this case, answers their question as though they meant it. He tells them they're not thinking big enough...they're trapped by their own cramped opinions. When we die we are no longer conformed to the patterns of this world. Yes, there is resurrection because God is a God life, but this life shatters our puny constructs.
His answer likely offended some, even as it does to this day. Or if not exactly offend, at least confound. I mean how many people attending Easter services aren't simply perplexed by the idea of resurrection. It is perplexing. The fact is, the Sadducees are at least partly right, resurrection makes no sense on strictly human terms.
But hope makes sense. Hope in the God of life is a rebellion against everything that's points toward death. Resurrection is the ultimate expression of hope rooted in the revelation that God is the God of life.
When Job finally exclaims at the depth of his misery, “O that my words were written down...that they were inscribed in a book...[that] they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my redeemer lives,” he's rebelling against all the foolishness of his friends and everything that runs in the direction of death because he knows God is larger than death itself.
We can't say much more about the specifics of resurrection except, following the conclusion Jesus draws, we learn all are received as equals. Here's the thing: the Sadducees ask their question from a privileged position using an unfortunate and vulnerable woman as their foil. That's the way of the world to this day. That's how privilege works--unconscious of its corruption. Remember that in first century Palestine, widow was a code word for someone in need, a less-than person in bondage to a greater-than person. Jesus turns that upside down which would not have been lost on his listeners. The woman no longer needs a man to justify her existence.
The God of life receives everyone equally. Human distinctions of greater and lessor, of privileged and oppressed, of those that belong and those that don't, disappear in the realm of the God of life. As Jesus says, they are children of God, after all... "he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to God all of them are alive." Each one, child of God. The God of newness, forgiveness and liberation. So when we pray, "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," you can see that this was actually a call to arms for resurrection to take root today.
You know who came to understand this very well? The African American slaves and their descendants. Their theology was embedded within the spirituals, songs written in slavery, that were forward looking, hopeful about what lay ahead for them. Song after song long for the justice that will one day be theirs. As Nancy Westfield observes, "In these songs we hear the profound hope of a people who knew personally and passionately the good news of Jesus' resurrection and who understood themselves to be children of God, even while the world told them they were two-thirds human." (Feasting of the Word)
Like the spiritual, "I've got a Robe" that goes like this:
"I've got a robe, you've got a robe,
All of God's children got a robe.
When I get to heaven goin' to put on my robe,
Goin' to shout all over God's heaven."
I've got shoes, you've got shoes,
all of God's children got shoes.
When I get to heaven goin' to put on my shoes,
goin' to walk all over God's heaven.
From out of their miserable condition they clearly got the simple but profound message somehow, much more satisfactorily I might add, than their white owners who had more in common with the too-clever Sadducees than with the man they were trying to trap. And this wisdom was rooted in recognizing that God was the God of the living who infuses a spirit of hope in the midst of everything that reeks of death.
Reverse Mid-Life Crisis
November 3, 2019
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost | All Saints Sunday
2nd Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Some years ago, an older middle-aged man sat in my office reporting a lifetime series of failed relationships with his several wives, children and business partners. He had lived life to the fullest, he said, made a whole mountain of money, and though he should probably feel more guilt than he did, he wasn’t entirely displeased with what he had experienced. Interesting experience after all, is what gave zest to his life. He loved the freedom to do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased--he was something of a modern libertine.
"So, then what we should talk about," I asked. With that he fell silent for a moment, eventually offering that a gnawing emptiness had crept up on him over the last months. Among other things he realized he wanted a relationship with his children who wanted nothing to do with him. Of course, he’d been absent for much of their lives. While he had many other sorts of relationships, he realized none of them deeply mattered all that much, and he felt adrift despite his wealth.
Maybe it was a kind of mid-life crisis, he offered, but of an opposite variety from what we normally hear about, like some middle-aged guy acting out, stepping out of a rut in some big-time way. With a smirking laugh he added that he had been acting out his whole life.
What brought him to my door was a kind of awakening, or, well, he was hard-pressed to say just what exactly had whomped him on the side of the head. A couple of weeks ago he awoke with a start in the middle of the night with two words in his mind: “Come home.” They still felt as fresh today as they did that morning. He didn’t remember anything else he had dreamt—just those two words.
Often walking by this church on his way to work he stepped through the doors a month earlier and sat down. He hadn’t consciously connected any dots to cause this short step from the sidewalk to sanctuary—just a spontaneous decision. But here’s where it got a little silly, he added.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to a church. Long ago he’d thrown off any sort of interest in religion. Thought it was mostly a lot of baloney and anyway, would likely interfere with the sort of life he wanted. And like he said, it wasn’t that he was feeling especially guilty, just empty. Really empty.
And teary. Now that really shocked him. When he sat down in here and looked around his eyes welled up with tears. Something like that had never happened before. He rarely cried. Couldn’t remember the last time. Tears weren’t part of his normal experience. But somehow they linked up with that short phrase, “come home,” which now clobbered him with a headache.
For the next several mornings he stepped into this space and then on the following Sunday made a completely counter-intuitive decision to go to a worship service. He was stunned when the message that morning was all about our existential and spiritual experience of finding our true home. He said that in the sermon I even mentioned that many who stuck around this place reported how they felt at home here when first crossing the threshold. That’s the track that brought him to my office.
Stories like his keep me humble and alert to the fact that I’m at my best when I recognize God is already three steps ahead of where I might think I ought to be. I can suffer from feeling this spiritual quest is all about my effort and forget that but for God’s graciousness all my effort would mean nothing.
Here’s another confession. I wasn’t initially sure how to take this guy, and I told him so. Of course, I was intrigued and sort of blown away by his story which seemed completely guileless. That was the challenge—by his own admission, this was a man who was normally full of guile, but through his recent experience had been disarmed. He wouldn’t have come to speak with me, an anonymous minister, if this disarmament hadn’t taken place. And I’ve learned over the years that when this sort of disarmament happens, I need to disarm as well. I have to let go of my judgments and biases. In fact, disarmament is an essential spiritual discipline if we seek to have an honest relationship with God or anyone else.
It’s hard to say what makes someone open up to a truth that’s larger than they've known. What cracks them open? Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been cracked open with the rush of a new truth? One of the first things that’s acknowledged, I suppose, is that there actually is a truth that’s larger than we've known.
I know by personal experience and reasoning my way through our tradition and scriptures, that there is a Truth larger than what I know, that this Truth should be spelled with a capital “T”, and that the best language we have for this Truth is what we refer to as religious, or spiritual/mystical language—language that reaches beyond material experience. And I've discovered that our scriptures remain relentlessly valuable in helping us unlock the meanings of our lives even in the 21st century.
Take the famous story of Zaccheus Violet read for us. We heard about a certain rich man, a chief tax collector. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and Zaccheus wanted to catch a glimpse of him. In Roman times, tax collecting was rented out to the highest bidder who could extort whatever he could from the general populace. As a Roman lackey and a greedy profiteer, Zaccheus was a much despised man as well as too short to see over the crowds gathered to see Jesus enter Jericho.
He might have been pelted with stones had he tried to approach the crowd following Jesus. But Zaccheus just climbed the tree so he could have a better vantage point to see Jesus as he passed by. Was he becoming vaguely conscious of the deep loneliness his profession had created? Did he have the faintest beginnings of a guilty conscience? Or was he feeling empty though he was very rich?
Zaccheus was captured by the moment and oddly guileless. Yet this was a man who was normally full of guile; I'm thinking that in his desire to meet Jesus he had been disarmed and he wouldn’t have received Jesus into his home if this disarmament hadn’t taken place.
For his part Jesus saw a man awakening to a truth he hadn't acknowledged before. Although he risked being ostracized himself, Jesus sought this man out, inviting himself to the man’s house for a meal. Interesting, isn’t it, how the idea of home comes into play here. In effect, Jesus made a home with this man that everyone else reviled. No word about whether or not he liked Zaccheus. But he surely loved Zaccheus. His history was irrelevant in the moment.
We're told this encounter shook Zaccheus into a grace-filled response. In the excitement of what had happened to him, he promised to be more than generous and repay many times over whatever he had taken by fraud. And Jesus praised him as a son of Abraham, the Jewish ideal of a faithful servant of God. In other words, Zaccheus came home, as it were, and his life took on a very different character. We might say he had a reverse mid-life crisis.
Suppose as you went home today Jesus invited himself over for brunch. Play out that little fiction as a kind of home-work. Could you imagine him saying, “Today salvation has come to your house; for the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost?” or maybe, the homeless, or the empty…
This being All Saints Sunday we might consider that Zaccheus could be accounted among the saints. He had been lost but found his way home. It strikes me that some of us are likely somewhere on that particular journey. Like the guy that showed up in my office wanting conversation. Eventually he re-focused his energy on re-engaging with his children. He had to be patient and open. Required adapting a different set of priorities of a number of months and he met with some success before an untimely heart attack. And I’m thinking the work he did with his kids was preparation for the homecoming he finally received.
Note John Shearman’s paraphrase at: http://seemslikegod.org/lectionary/archives/twenty-third-sunday-after-pentecost-october-31-2010
October 27, 2019
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Joel 2:23-32; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14
What does it mean to live a good life? If you knew you were coming up on the end of yours, what do you suppose would matter most of all in the living of your days? And would that equate with anything we might call “good” in here? If you haven’t asked these questions of yourself for a while, you could try this little exercise on your way home today, or sometime this week with friends or family. If you’re in a connection group you could give it a go at your next meeting. Ask the question of one another, What makes for a good life?
In a letter to his friend Timothy, the apostle Paul shares something of a last will and testament, evidently sensing his approaching death. He wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is a reserved for me the crown of righteousness…” Those are somewhat famous words, often recited at funerals and memorials, as they were at the service for congressman Elijah Cummings on Friday. Good timing since they were assigned for today.
They struck me with poignant force this week. I wondered if I could say something similar about my own life and actually mean it. And as with Elijah Cummings, these phrases are announced most often postmortem on behalf of another, whether or not the deceased would have claimed the sentiment for him or herself.
What do you suppose Paul meant by the “good fight”? We’re likely inclined to think of it as the amount of time we’re able to endure on this earth, as though endurance is the greatest good we can think of. I suppose there may be circumstances where that’s true. Endurance can be virtuous. But Paul had something more specific in mind, something that actually had to do with doing good, promoting good, advancing good in a world that didn't readily recognize it, then spending out his life on behalf of that good.
By the way, you’ll notice that he didn’t say anything about winning the fight, only that he had fought it. And that he had kept faith. By that, I think he meant keeping faith with the good as he had come to understand it. And the crown he references isn’t one reserved for monarchs, but for athletes. As he said, he finished the race and now would receive his crown, that is, his runner’s award.
Another way to ask the question I started with might go like this: To what end are you spending your life? Is there some equivalent of a crown of righteousness for you at the end of life? We all have jobs and so forth, develop reasonably responsible habits for self-maintenance and so on, but beyond these rudimentary conditions, at the end of your days, what most of all would have captured your attention and focus? With which undergirding principles, or truths, or “good” would you have kept faith? And what does keeping faith actually mean, anyway?
Paul kept faith with the good he came to know through Jesus. That’s an obvious conclusion. But it's useful to consider what that actually meant for him in his day. I thought it might be interesting to briefly reflect on Paul’s actual situation.
The first thing to reiterate is that Paul is writing from prison, likely in empire’s capital city of Rome. The circumstances are intense and dangerous because these are the days of Emperor Nero’s ruthless persecution of Christians following a catastrophic fire that burned down much of the city. Many Romans suspected Nero of starting the conflagration because of an ambition to rebuild the city, but the fire grew out of control.
Nero was among the most ruthless and cruel of the emperors. He came to the throne through murder and he would retain power by having his former counselors killed as well as his wife, even arranging the assassination of his mother who was the very one who plotted his ascendancy to power. His depravity and corruption were over-the-top. Whenever anyone references the decadence of the Roman Empire, Nero’s reign serves as an archetype. He instituted daily contests for gladiators which became increasingly violent and bloody in the Roman circus. After attending one of these contests, the famous philosopher, Seneca, who had been Nero’s tutor wrote, “I felt as if I had been in a sewer.”
Following the great fire, Nero blamed the Christians and began a ruthless pogrom. The Roman senator, Tacitus, reports what happened:
To get rid of the rumor of the fire, Nero set up as the culprits and punished with the utmost refinement of cruelty, a class...who are commonly called Christians. Christus, from whom their name is derived, was executed at the hands of Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. Checked for the moment, this pernicious superstition again broke out, not only in Judea, the source of that evil, but even in Rome, that receptacle for everything that is sordid and degrading from every quarter of the globe... Accordingly, arrest was first made of those who confessed [to being Christians]...
Besides being put to death, they were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beasts and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display and was putting on a show in the circus where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer.
All this gave rise to a feeling of pity…for it was felt that the Christians were being destroyed not for the public good but to gratify the cruelty of an individual.
This was the capital city of the known world in which Paul was keeping faith, fighting the good fight and finishing the race. We know from his letters that he worked among the guards, some of whom, at least, were captured by the same good Paul had been captured by—the grace of a loving God.
We don't have direct knowledge of Paul’s death, but piecing the sources together he was likely martyred in Rome. That’s what keeping faith entailed for Paul.
Now his story is not our story, of course. On the other hand, it does illuminate the meaning of his words. It gives us a context and a frame of reference for understanding what he meant. And as you can see, he meant something substantial. It was no mere gloss of words about things that sort of mattered but not really within a context of easy pleasures, lots of money, and physical well-being, as it is for many of us.
A couple of thousand years later, we’re now gathered in a different environment in another city, although most of us here still claiming some allegiance to the same gospel. In fact, we’re very dependent upon Paul for our knowing about this Jesus.
Interesting, isn’t it? He couldn’t have known what would come of his work. But here we sit. His keeping faith in his context has brought about our own faith, such as it is, in our context. The manner in which he spent out his life has impacted us directly. And not only us, but billions of others. Billions. By keeping faith, by fighting the good fight, by finishing the race.
So, with that as a prime example, I come 'round to ask you again: to which good ends are you keeping faith? What is the principle race you’re running, and which prize do you covet most of all? How would you wish to be remembered?
You know Friends, I think I’ve been hired by you to ask questions like this. To find as many different clever, and not-so-clever ways to slip these questions in over the transom of your consciousness so that they might lodge somewhere inside and noodle around, poking here, agitating there.
Of course, these questions can be found beyond these walls, in fact, encountering those questions out there, might be the cause that coaxed you in here—we certainly have no patent on the big questions. But we do have something to offer by way of answers. They’re the same ones Paul discovered. The same ones he committed himself to. He kept faith with the answer he found and by so doing we have access to this answer as well. He valued keeping faith. Do we?
Our circumstance isn’t nearly as raw and life-threatening as Paul’s. In some ways, our situation is more akin to the Pharisee’s problem in the little parable Jesus told; he had just enough religion for establishing a self-righteous piety, and a narcissistic cult of one, but not enough to take him all the way into humility which, according to Jesus, seems the essential ingredient for keeping faith with the God of grace who is pleased to offer himself, in love, for our sakes and for the sake of the world.
Paul caught hold of that same humble grace and spent out his life on its behalf. That’s the good for which he fought and kept faith and ran the race. Bracing to think about, isn’t it? Bracing, demanding, inspiring. I want my life to mean something finally. And I don't mean that like I need monument. And I want to be satisfied that I kept true to the things that matter most.
1. 2 Timothy 4:7-8.
2. as recounted by Earl Palmer in The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdmans, 2001.
3. Tacitus, Annals 90.44.
Whoever Knocks Persistently, Ends by Entering
October 20, 2019
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Several years ago my son, Luke, served as a hospital chaplain at Westchester Medical Center about 30 miles north of here. The Center is an advanced medical care and referral hospital serving nearly 4 million people covering Westchester County, Hudson Valley, parts of metro New York and Fairfield County, CT. And it’s the major trauma center for this territory with helicopters regularly ferrying desperate victims in severe medical crisis.
That can be a pretty intense environment for a chaplain—those of you that know the classic sitcom MASH about an army field hospital will remember how the humor was punctuated and framed out by severe war trauma. And you’ll recall that a chaplain was part of the core team. A major trauma center duplicates that kind of dramatic life and death scenario.
Recently, Luke was remembering this environment of running between neo-natal intensive care and emergency room crises when he interrupted himself and asked what I thought about intercessory prayer. In particular, those desperate prayers people ask for that are logically and obviously impossible—wanting some seeming magical intervention—and the chaplain’s obligation or responsibility is exactly what? What do you think, Dad?
But without taking a breath he then recounted how he had been in neo-natal intensive care one day and got a page from emergency—they needed a chaplain quick. Racing down he entered a room filled with wailing, nearly uncontrollable family and friends of a man lying on a stretcher whose body and face were covered with stained linens. He had been in a severe motorcycle accident and Luke was informed the man’s face had been nearly destroyed and he suffered massive, inoperable brain trauma.
Stepping into this situation Luke offered that he was a chaplain. The family wanted prayer. He quickly surmised they were Afro-Caribbean Pentecostal Christians, who were accustomed to very aggressive and ecstatic praying—something had to be done to save the victim. Those of you who know my son will recognize that this prayer vocabulary was outside his experience and that fact evidently became clear to the family who determined they needed a better pray-er and so called a distant relative on the hospital telephone. The phone’s speaker was then held above the victim as ecstatic prayer was offered on his behalf somewhere at the other end of the telephone connection.
Luke understood that what the hospital needed and what was in this man’s best interest was a DNR—a "do not resuscitate" directive, and the family’s permission to remove intravenous life-support that had been deployed on route to the hospital.
Eventually the presiding matriarch cut off the praying and as it came to an end another man again asked Luke his reason for being there. Luke replied that he was prepared to provide whatever support they might need. The man then said that the victim was actually not Christian despite all the invoking of Jesus’ name, but Rastafarian. Did Luke know anything about Rasta? Admitting ignorance Luke said he would try to discover if there was a Rasta ritual that might be useful. Still, what needed to happen for this poor man’s sake and the sake of the family was removal from life support, to prevent a suffering death.
He left the room to do a little research. By the time he returned the room had emptied, someone in the family had finally provided the hospital with the permissions they needed. (And by the way, Luke found no useful Rasta ritual under the circumstance.)
Do I believe in intercessory prayer? Well, yes, I do, if by “believe in” is meant that I do it. Even the disembodied prayer coming out of the phone from some distant believer has authenticity. The heart of that person was likely right for sure. She wanted what she thought was best for the victim. It’s just that she didn’t have all the facts.
But honestly, I'd say that captures my own personal experience over the years…that is, throwing passionate prayers at God that are somehow off point since I’m not entirely aware of all the facts, including the facts of my own deepest need.
Of course, come to think of it, much of the time I’m off-point expressing myself to my wife, Melissa. It’s only in the on-going engagement that clarity begins to emerge over time if I’m willing to be quiet every now and then and listen to her, if I’m willing to learn a thing or two and not simply ask or demand a thing or two. I have to trust she has good things, useful things, important things to say to me. I need to trust that.
Eventually in that emergency room a prayer was expressed in some form that this family would find courage to accept what needed to be done out of love for the victim. And it was accomplished. That prayer was likely never said out loud, but I can feel its presence in recounting this story because I felt it within Luke for certain. God was in the mix there, just like God is in the mix here, among us. A larger wisdom prevailed. And if we’re wise, we’ll ask that a larger wisdom prevails in here as well in the midst of all of our prayers.
I note that at the end of Jesus’ little parable about persisting in prayer his point seems focused on the matter of faith—that’s how he ends: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” From this perspective, the woman’s persistence is evidence of faith—she will be heard, she will have her justice. And by the way, it’s not a small matter that justice is what she’s demanding, since the widow in her culture would have been among the most vulnerable in society. “Widow” was a code word for the most vulnerable and defenseless. She had no position, no leverage, no clout. She had nothing but her dogged perseverance to gain her justice.
Even atheists are known to offer up a prayer in a desperate moment of spontaneous forgetfulness. Afterwards they might chide themselves for their knee-jerk childishness for throwing themselves on God’s mercy. But as Harry Emerson Fosdick once put it, “the instinct for a relationship with a Divine Ally, with Someone who cares about our race in its conflicts and defeats, persists.”
If God is, and if we know God relationally the way in which we propose in here, it stands to reason that prayer would become as natural as the air inflating our lungs.
To complain we don’t know how to do it, how to communicate with God, is just a bit like saying we don’t know how to communicate with our spouse, or partner, or children or friend or co-worker, which, of course, generally has at least a germ of the truth, and often is the truth. We don’t know how to communicate with them. But even in those relationships, if we persist in trust and faith we stand a good chance of deepening the relationship, discovering ever greater means for expressing the yearnings of our heart. It is only in persistent trying that a relationship advances.
“Patience is the companion of wisdom,” St. Augustine wrote. Whoever knocks persistently ends by entering. That’s something you may want to jot down on a post-it note and stick to your computer screen: Whoever knocks persistently, ends by entering. Jesus told a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart.
We have prayer cards at Christ Church that are meant to be deposited in a small box in our entryway. Recently, walking out of the church a rather desperate and harried looking man asked me where the prayer box was, where should he put his card? I saw the box was missing so I told him to give it to me. Later I learned that the box had been broken – occasionally this happens on the mistaken assumption it’s a donation box. A replacement was on its way. In the meantime, I held on to this man’s request…a prayer for someone named Marilyn. I didn’t mind holding her before God. I assumed God already held her close but perhaps my willingness to participate in her care shared in God’s gracious intention for her, and for the man who also held her in heart and mind. I said a prayer for him as well. He looked as though he could use a bit of care himself.
For years cards have appeared each week for a trio named Priscilla, Kyle and Raney. We have no idea who these three are, but consider that generally every week for more than a decade these three persons have been on the heart and mind of someone who enters this space to pray, perhaps on the way to work, lifting them before God. Twelve, thirteen years of prayer for Priscilla, Kyle and Raney.
Does this seem an impotent bit of wasted effort? After a while one becomes bemused by the relentlessly recurring names. But not so very much time passes when a different attitude sets in, an attitude forged by the patient persistence of the earnest sentiment of the one who writes the names on a card week after week after week. God bless Priscilla, Kyle and Raney.
Some cards are written by those who have obvious psychological issues; some are written by the homeless—those that have no power, no position, no clout in our society, and often, no justice. Their prayers are instructive. One cannot pray with them and not be changed.
Some cards are written in languages we can’t read, some in the characters of Korean and Chinese, some in Cyrillic, some in Arabic, others not as identifiable. It doesn’t matter. In this small gesture of hospitality we’ve accumulated the universal human longing for connection with that Divine Ally, packaged in highly individualized containers, each container important, cherished.
And friends, that includes all of you...
Sunday, October 13, 2019Read MoreLess
World Communion Sunday
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2nd Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17: 5-10
As I mentioned in my Faith Matters blog on Friday, in my work I have been privy to crucial moments in people's lives. Births, weddings, various life events, and, of course, death. I have always considered this a very, very great privilege, an honor, really. It has kept me close to things that matter most, close to a wide arc of profound human experience.
Recently I was speaking with someone whose good friend was in the final stage of an advanced cancer. My acquaintance had been emotionally attentive and caring. A reflective person, she said that her friend's premature end was causing her to think about her own life, and it occurred to her that if she herself were to die today, that she could honestly say she had, in her words, "taken care of business." That is, she had addressed and accomplished much of the personal, emotional and relational work that had been presented to her in her lifetime thus far. Not perfectly, she added, but sufficiently. I said that must give her a great sense of peace. She said the awareness came as a little gift in the midst of her grief.
We sat quietly for a while.
Afterwards, I began my own inner reflection, wondering how sufficiently I had "taken care of business." In a deafening silence I realized this was a very mature perspective. She had recognized something of very great importance that many will miss as they blunder forward into the days of their lives.
I concluded my Faith Matters reflection by observing that healthy religion arises between the dynamic poles of being born and having to die. And living well in the meantime requires taking care of the business that is uniquely ours to accomplish in the limited days we've been given.
Which is all well and good but, given the brevity of the piece, there were things I left out the short story. For instance, I didn't tell you my acquaintance was an only child from a dysfunctional family where she never received the nurturing love we all crave as children due to absent and damaged, highly narcissistic parents--the love that convinces us of our essential worth and beloved-ness.
Nevertheless, as she grew into her adulthood, she had been captured by a divine lure that brought her into relationship with a loving God and along with this came relationships in which she was able to practice the kind of love she had not received from her own family, but that she now understood was part of creation itself.
This didn't come easily, but her commitment to the practice of love ultimately allowed her to see things in a fresh way, to experience life as a gift that came with an obligation to treat it, and the lives of all others, with compassionate respect.
Her life could have gone differently than it has. She doesn't readily speak of it like this, but I observe that faith saved her. That is, faith gave her a place to belong to herself, and to others, and to God. And it was faith that revealed to her the importance of taking care of the business that is uniquely ours to accomplish in the limited days we've been given.
Like I said, I've always found my work with people a very great privilege since I end up having conversations and relationships involving things that actually matter. And among the things that matter a whole lot is this matter of faith.
This past week while looking for something else, an old tattered volume fell out of my bookshelf entitled, The Meaning of Faith, written by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1917. Fosdick was the favorite of John D. Rockefeller who built the Riverside Church on the upper west side in the same era Christ Church would eventually be planted on this corner. It was the day of the high profile learned preacher; the day when New York City papers published front-page articles on Monday summarizing the content of one of the big steeple stars from Sunday. Hard to imagine that today.
Here’s how he began: “A book on faith has been for years my hope and intention. And now it comes to final form during the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed... Since the conflict had to come, I am glad for this book’s sake that it was not written until it had Europe’s holocaust for a background.”
Given the copyright, the war he’s referencing is the 1st World War, one that he will later call, “The Great War.” And the holocaust he mentions predates the devastation of the Jews in the 2nd World War, which came several decades later capturing forever the meaning of that word.
The War was Fosdick’s present circumstance stirring him to consider the meaning of faith that, as he said, “is sorely tried and deeply needed.” We’re a more diverse audience today than he had, but this matter of faith remains core to human necessity; we still yearn for that robust connection to something larger than ourselves that reliably organizes and empowers our lives, something we still call faith.
If I were to write a new volume on the meaning of faith today the human struggle with hardship would still figure prominently. Even a brief engagement with the Bible reveals that human hardship and struggle frames it out, frames the human cycle of birth and death; the anvil upon which faith is forged. That's how it is for all of us, I think.
So, it’s not surprising that Paul, writing from prison to Timothy, should mention that he remembers Timothy’s tears as he also fortifies Timothy’s faith. “Timothy, my beloved child…I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day recalling your tears…I am reminded of your sincere faith…rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love…”
Sprung from the fragile human condition, tears express the universal human yearning we all have for a place to belong to ourselves, and to others, and to God. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ friends exclaim, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Fosdick put it this way: Don’t we hunger for the confidence that Someone cares about our race in its conflicts and defeats? Don’t we hunger for an intimate Friend, a Divine Ally, who, in the midst of the world’s darkness and our own, assures us that life is not chance and chaos, but rooted in a Great Design and don’t we yearn for the gift to live our lives with confidence and joy no matter what, capable of true grace and real love?
I have felt these needs vibrating my heart and soul my whole life. God, if you’re out there, or in here, increase my faith! Surely you have shared this experience in some form. …So this is where you help me write this sermon. This is where you insert your own story, your bit of the larger human drama, the part that matters deeply and desperately to you. Bring your story, your heartache, your struggle, your concern, your faltering steps at love and forgiveness and courage and integrity…bring that to mind. Consider the business that is uniquely yours to accomplish in the limited days you've been given.
Maybe you’ve never said these words out loud: “Lord, increase my faith!” It’s an important prayer. The disciples give us permission to say it insistently. It reflects the deep hunger that wells up from within. You may feel that hunger now, or perhaps you will on your way home, or when you wake up tomorrow morning, or the day after that. It’s an honest hunger. I say, let it come. Feel your stomach rumble for real food. Feel your need. Lord, increase my faith.
And Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Ironically it would seem that by asking their question the disciples reveal they already have faith the size of a grain of mustard. They think that’s their problem—what they have is too small. Jesus says that the faith they have is already the faith they need. A tiny bit in the hands of God is the same thing as a whole lot.
Locked within the confines of an impossibly small and dead-looking thing lays the potential for abundant, triumphant life. Like a kind of cosmic spiritual genetics, imbedded within the tiny speck of our embryonic faith is the complete code of everything we might become as we nourish ourselves from God’s bounty.
And on this point, it does not matter who we are. Age, life circumstance, gender, race, favorite sins—at this most basic level we are alike. The biblical drama could use all of us for its source material. We’re the last act currently being written. The biblical story continues to write us, as it were, as the latest testament to faith. Our tears could express the biblical lament, our bit of faith, our fledgling courage and faltering love could be the seeds that Jesus nurtures into transformed life. We’re now the stumbling, bumbling disciples who learn about the things that matter most the hard way, but learn we will, and we will thrive in love for love’s sake
That’s really the point of all this, friends. That’s why we come here, isn’t it? Isn’t that why we come to this reunion table month after month, to feed our souls on rich food that will sate the deepest hunger? And imagine, it’s open to everyone who will come. Everyone.
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
“Steve, who am I?” I had never heard this question so fiercely and baldly asked within the first minutes of a scheduled conversation. This 40-something woman possessed a PhD in physics but by her 30th birthday had made a career decision for investment banking. She had opted for the money thing instead of the science thing. And she had made a lot.
But over the last couple of months she was feeling dry as dust about her life. Sure, she had succeeded way beyond her initial goals but somehow that didn’t satisfy a growing inner hunger, or desire, or—well, she didn’t really know how to describe what she was feeling. A kind of emptiness, I guess.
Recently she awakened in the morning with that question looming in her consciousness and it wouldn’t let go. She said it boomed in her inner being as in, Who the hell am I?!! She couldn’t shake it. That’s why she wanted some conversation. She didn’t know where else to bring the question.
I learned that as a child her parents practiced a kind of lukewarm religion for several years that never really stuck or meant anything. Eventually she became a scientist, and then, a practical, no-nonsense achiever believing that was the route to a life worth living. I observed that she must feel very much at home in New York City since that kind of mindset predominates here—the Great Attractor of over-achievers. We talk about that from time to time in here.
Well, she snorted at that comment and said that didn’t give her much comfort. The truth was, she didn’t really have all that much respect for a lot of the people she had worked with over the years. Initially the ones she found most intriguing and most helpful were those who had mastered certain traits like dogged determination, focused attention on tangible outcomes, and a well-organized, disciplined life targeted for success. Success, after all, was the coin of the realm. “Everyone wanted it, didn’t they? Don’t you, Steve?” Her tone at that point was competitive, confrontational.
Sure, I replied. Nothing wrong with success as far as it goes. I’m all for it. But here you are, hounded by sleepless nights so I guess it doesn’t go as far as you thought it might. And anyway, this conversation isn’t some kind of competition. It’s just two people thinking aloud about things that matter most. Right?
In his latest book, The Second Mountain , David Brooks reports that after having achieved “far more professional success than I ever expected to” his life came unglued. His marriage fell apart and he awoke to the realization that he had lost sight of himself becoming “aloof, invulnerable, and uncommunicative sidestepping responsibilities of relationship.”
2013 is the year it crashed in on him. Brooks didn’t frame it this way, but he might just as well have said he awoke one morning and thought, “Who the hell am I?!?” then falling into the valley of despond, in his words, “unplanted, lonely, humiliated, scattered.” He spent the next five years thinking and reading about “how to give your life meaning after worldly success has failed to fulfill.” The book emerges from this search.
Brooks recounts that he’s a product of his time, our time; a time idolizing narcissistic hyper-individualism where people are disconnected from one another, living fragmented lives in the pursuit of self-actualized achievement of one sort or another. That’s the grand cultural expectation, anyway. We’re each on our own making a lonely journey devoid of an overarching moral framework binding us together in common cause.
But hidden within this formulation lies a two-edged sword slicing up both those who do achieve some measure of success as well as those who secretly believe they’re losers because they haven’t achieved enough. Sometimes that’s one in the same person. That’s because success, however it’s defined, is a false god for a life’s ultimate purpose. And sometimes the false floor falls away like it did for Brooks and my new friend, leaving them lost, ungrounded, floating and unmoored.
Organizing frameworks based in rich and thick relationships don’t matter as much in these days, the frameworks that used to stimulate our meaning-making. Things like family, community, religious faith and belonging—things that weave a moral structure with dense layering of relationships. Nope. We’re all on our own, baby. And what have you got to show for yourself…
Brooks writes: “In a hyper-individualistic society, people are not measured by how they conform to a shared moral code. They are not measured by how fully they have submerged themselves in thick relationships. They are measured by what they have individually achieved. Status, admiration, and being loved follow personal achievement. Selfishness is accepted, because taking care of and promoting the self is the prime mission…
“Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently asked ten thousand middle and high school students if their parents cared more about personal achievements or whether they were kind. Eighty percent said their parents cared more about achievements—individual success over relational bonds.” How might you answer the same question…
This reminds me of another conversation I had a number of years ago with a young man 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,” the proctor said. The majority availed themselves of the proctor’s offer, but he stuck with the formal time restraints and was now wondering if that was really, really stupid given the cutthroat competition of the college process.
On a very baseline level he was asking me whether a so-called “success” was more important than integrity rooted in a shared moral framework. At the time I was impressed he was questioning this at all because the current cultural climate is so heavily weighted on the side of success-at-all-costs… Do whatever you need to do to get ahead, for god’s sake…
And now several years forward from that conversation we have the specter of parents investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to fraudulently misrepresent their children’s college applications to get them into prestigious schools. You’ve seen those news reports, right? That’s a great snapshot defining our current cultural moment.
Earlier you heard Paul urge his protégé Timothy to pursue “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” Man, does that ever sound retrograde in these days. But it is the true antidote for the current malaise. “Fight the good fight of the faith,” he wrote; “take hold of the eternal life… tell the people who are rich and successful to set their hopes on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. All are to do good, rich in good works, generous and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life…
Taking hold of the life that really is life. That could be the motto of Christ Church. That’s the business we’re in—helping, encouraging, prodding everyone to take hold of real life.
Though she didn’t have words for it at the time, that’s why my new friend came to talk with me when she had a crisis of identity and purpose. And that’s what David Brooks sensed when the bottom fell out of his life that had been so very successful up to the moment of crisis when the floor fell away and he realized that nothing truly meaningful was under his feet after all.
That’s where a place like this comes in. We keep our focus on the things that matter most. Jesus distilled this down for us into a single sentence since we’re so dense. Luckily Christ Church has made his wisdom our mission: loving God above all things, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That’s how we take hold of life that really is life. That’s it.
Amos 8:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
The manager of a wealthy man's estate is about to get fired. The owner calls for a complete audit of his manager’s affairs to be handed in at his exit interview, and that would be that. Too lazy or weak for manual labor, too proud to beg, this man has to think fast. Since the boss wants one last presentation of the ledgers before he gets canned, the manager decides that now is as good a time as any to cook the books in such a way as to feather his own future nest.
So he calls in a number of the boss's wealthier clients and cuts their debt-loads in half. When they ask why, the manager winks at them and says, "Don't ask, but just remember I did you a favor once, all right?" In this way the man curries some goodwill with people who could lend him money, give him a new job, and maybe even house him when he finds himself out on his ear.
Surprisingly, when the boss gets wind of these shenanigans, he’s not angry! He actually seems to approve, clapping the manager on the shoulder saying, "Hey, you've done well for yourself, man!" And we’re left wondering whether the manager ended up retaining his job after all. The owner recognized a fellow wheeler-dealer when he saw one, and he liked what he saw! Anyone this shrewd, this clever at working the angles, was just the sort of character he liked. No doubt, he saw himself in the manager’s quick thinking.
In the world of work and business this kind of ethically ambiguous story is not uncommon. What is uncommon is what Jesus says about it. We might expect him to say something like, "Verily I tell you, cheats like this will one day find themselves alone in a very hot place…" Instead he finishes this little story of corruption, takes a breath, and says to the disciples, "You see! There's something to that approach. Folks like this are a lot shrewder at dealing with this world than you guys are!"
As you heard Eugene Peterson put it: “Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They’re on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in this same way---but for what is right--using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just getting by on good behavior”.
Jesus is having some serious fun with his disciples here. Heard within the context of his entire teaching he’s hardly throwing ethics out the window, but he is playing with their heads in a twisty logic that could also translate as, “It’s better to be a resourceful rascal than a saintly schlemiel.” They should use all of their shrewdness, skill and finesse to advance the cause of God’s kingdom. There was nothing passive about God’s intention for the world, and for their lives. Passive piety didn’t reflect a realistic appraisal of their circumstance. God was moving among them—God was moving among them! Passive piety alone just doesn’t cut it…
Consider this: Given market upheavals over the last ten years, Wall Streeters, bankers, financiers of every type and at every level have been jumping and jiving as fast as they can, bringing to bear every shred of shrewdness they have to maximize their situation as we emerged from the great recession into our current unsettled time of tariffs and income inequality. Those of us who have investments, own a home, or aspire to, are counting on brokers and financial counselors to advance our relative positions. And this matters a whole lot to us.
Imagine if this level of intensity was brought to bear on matters of the spirit, matters of the heart, and the tangible matters of the kingdom like justice and the common good we say we honor in here. That, I think, comes close to the point Jesus makes with this parable.
Or consider the energy our current crop of political contenders put into their campaigns. We could imagine a parable about the slippery politician wending his or her way through an election—at the end, tweaking us with the candidate’s cunning. Jesus might conclude that the people of this age are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than are the people of the light, meaning people like us, since we’ve chosen to sit in these pews. Could we emulate their decisiveness responding to shifting political dynamics? Could we do this on behalf of the crisis that the coming of God’s kingdom of love and justice always provokes?
Jesus certainly provoked a crisis for his disciples, and the record shows that it was at least a political crisis—the manner of his death gives this away; he was arrested by the authorities, hauled off to prison and executed as an enemy of the state. He was a political prisoner crucified for treason.
Now still following along the path he blazed reveals that the crisis was much larger than one generation’s struggle; it pervades every time and place, confronting every heart even to the present day. And this crisis has everything to do with what we might call kingdom values based in the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. How committed are we to that as it works out in the world’s political and economic structures? Or just in our own daily commitments?
Fred Craddock says, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week coming will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice,” give a bunch of money to worthy causes …
Yet every one of these activities requires a set of decisions rooted in the core values of our lives. How did Luke report it? “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things. If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”
You see how these pithy bits of wisdom cleverly twist human experience. Luke has them climax with that famous blunt aphorism, “No slave can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.” —which is a variation on the first of the Ten Commandments: You shall have no other Gods before me.
This boils down to asking a rather basic set of questions: How does our faith in God, in Jesus, show up in the actual, tangible commitments of our lives? What on earth are we doing? Having claimed God’s grace, how and what are we actually doing in the departments of loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves? It’s all well and good to claim God’s grace as our own. The question then becomes, now what?
Ten years ago Bernie Madoff was sentenced to prison for 150 years for perpetrating the largest Ponzi scheme in world history, and the largest financial fraud in U.S. history, thought to be worth about $65 billion. What, do you suppose, was the animating focus for his life? He cleverly disguised his essential character. Ostensibly a family man who sustained a lengthy marriage and relationships with his sons; he was quite generous, wonderfully affable, big man around town, even had a modest religious practice. When the dust settled all that remained was a simple fraud and a hell of a lot of broken lives, including his sons and their families—a fraud remarkable in size, but stupid and banal at its core.
Still, we can be impressed by the amount of energy Bernie brought to bear over four decades amassing an immense fortune. By comparison, consider the energy necessary to create and sustain healthy communities of compassion, care, fairness and respect, values that reflect citizenship in God’s economy. That requires a far greater level of commitment from a whole lot of people; their small, mundane decisions and actions accumulating into a way of life reflecting the best of what humans might manage. Imagine if all of us brought to bear the same level of commitment to that as Bernie Madoff did to his hoax.
Mature Christians finally come to realize that the fate of the world actually does rest within their hands—it always has. Indeed, if not us, then who steps into the fray for the sake of love and justice? That’s the nature of the crisis the kingdom of God presents. Jesus says, “for God’s sake get to work with the same level of energy and intensity to advance the cause of the kingdom that the world gives to matters of far less importance.”
Paraphrased from the paraphrase of Scott Hoezee at: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php.
Eugene Petersen, The Message.
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper and Row, 1973. 67.
Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, Westminster/JohnKnox, 1990, 92.
Isaiah 40:28-31; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
I had been chatting with my son and daughter and their friends about the relative merits of Facebook. I was surprised to learn that a number of them, including my kids, said that they had never signed on, or had recently signed off, although everyone had a highly curated group of friends and family on Instagram. Following the conversation my daughter pointed me to a blog addressing the “7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook” in which the blogger describes how annoying statuses reek of motivations like: Image Crafting, Narcissism, Attention Craving, and Jealousy Inducing.
…Which got me thinking about all the ways we market ourselves. After all, what’s shared in social media projects a personally constructed presentation of oneself—a photo-shopped picture. And, as the blog suggests, this picture can reek of hiding-in-plain-sight, a somewhat bogus image masquerading as authentic.
Of course, we don’t need technology and social media to reveal that we have an innate tendency to hide behind projected images of ourselves. We humans have played the game of masquerade forever. That we’re all liars and pretenders to varying degrees can hardly be denied, can it? We let others see what we want them to see and we hide the rest.
Take me, for instance. I’m an okay minister and have achieved a certain station as evidenced by the address of this modest house of worship, accumulated academic degrees, participated in assembling a diverse and talented staff and congregation. And you know, left to my own devises I’m inclined to take credit for all of it. Not only that, but credit for growing up in a reasonably loving and stable home in the wealthiest nation in the world; credit for the astonishing opportunities I was presented with; credit for your presence; credit for this place. I take credit for speaking the word of God, even on those days I know for certain I speak for no one but myself.
Actually, wearing this robe is something of a two-edged sword. On the one hand it serves the useful purpose of minimizing the individual and accentuating the long history of the robust tradition I represent. That's the point of this outfit. On the other hand, I tell you for certain that it’s a disguise, a masquerade. Will the real Stephen Bauman step out from behind the pulpit please.
But if instead I were to wear faded jeans and a flannel shirt like many hip preachers today would I be more fully disclosed to you? Or in the guise of a humble aw-shucks, just plain 'ol me persona, had I simply exchanged one costume for another with no one the wiser about the inner person?
From the perspective of our spiritual tradition--there’s a good one-word descriptor for me. And it’s a word I rarely ever use in reference to myself. Sinner. That word has fallen out of fashion, of course. I don’t know if that’s because we feel as though we’re beyond it, or that we’ve concluded sin was part of a faulty theological system. Certainly it’s a word prone to abuse.
In these last decades we’ve been weaned on more positive ideas such as people are all basically good. We emphasize the importance of positive self-esteem. That’s a useful psychological concept up to a point—the power of positive thinking and so forth. Buit it’s hard to make complete sense of the gospel without making some sense of sin.
For one thing, Jesus is frequently accused of hanging out with people that are referred to as sinners. They seem to be his friends. That’s what the righteous types were saying about him in today’s lesson: “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." And I bet he drinks with them, too, since on another occasion he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Lots of eating and lots of drinking going down with the wrong sorts of people.
What’s interesting is that those who are identified as the sinners are the ones who get Jesus’ attention as opposed to the men of the temple. Evidently the scribes think hanging out with the riffraff taints Jesus. These righteous types have already determined who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor. And true to form, Jesus overturns their suppositions.
The Apostle Paul in writing to his friend Timothy referred to himself as a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But the Spirit of Jesus hung out with him for a while which eventually led Paul to write, “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
Now as I stand here today I would not go so far as to say that I’m the foremost sinner present. But I will say that I think I’m in good company. And the use of the word “good” here, has an ironic sensibility. We’re all in the same boat. While I have my disguises, without even knowing what yours are I would bet the house that you have them. And while I suspect that a pretty good sampling of the varieties of human weakness is represented here this morning hidden behind our screen identities, from one perspective, that’s all to the good.
I mean, there’s very little that actually separates us from those who are outside these walls other than we know who our real friends are, friends who can see behind the disguise and still love us, and we know for certain that among them is this man named Jesus. If anyone sees us as we are, he does.
You might recall that, John Newton, the composer of that famous hymn we just sang, Amazing Grace, was a slaver who eventually renounced his profession and became an active abolitionist. His tombstone epitaph sums up his experience: “John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”
John Newton is part of the good sinner company. Jesus evidently hung out with him and probably sat at his table sharing food and drink. I find some comfort in that.
Here’s the good news of the gospel: no masquerade artist stands beyond God’s reach. This is called grace. Amazing grace. There is no so-called sinner, no outcast, no unworthy person, no one who falls beyond the pale of God’s love.
The wonderful if maddening truth is, there is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.
This sort of God makes us uncomfortable, edgy. Grace throws out our measurements of fairness. Aren’t we often very sure about those who don’t deserve the same as us? We can be quite clear about who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s up and who’s down, who’s our equal and who isn’t. The righteous types in the gospel lesson knew these things for sure. But then, that was part of their disguise…their righteousness…
Tellingly they weren’t part of the good company of friends. They could have been included, of course. All they had to do was pull up a chair and join the party. After all that’s what the wayward do according to the parables. When the lost are found they throw a party. No wonder there’s so much eating and drinking among Jesus’ friends…they’re constantly partying. Those of you that know me know that I find this behavior quite inspirational…
Now there are some persons sitting here disguised who believe they don’t deserve such unconditional love, they know they are beyond God’s reach, or want to remain so, so they’ll hold this grace at arm’s length. Of course, to be beyond God’s reach would make them larger than God. It’s an inverted form of arrogance. Silly, really.
Others sense that to accept such love would result in radical change in their lives, like removing their disguise for good, and so out of a kind of fear they’ll keep the gift wrapped, unopened on a closet shelf, comforted every once in a while by remembering that it’s there, but strangely disquieted by harboring such spiritual dynamite, living a much smaller life than they might, spending out their days exchanging one costume for another.
I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: theologically speaking, I’m a radical grace man. How else to account for the elevation of a criminal loser into the sparkling golden dome sitting on a throne up there? That’s the sort of startling reversal that lies at the heart of the culture of our God. Human’s tried to kill it—radical grace—they still do try to kill it—or ignore it—but it wouldn’t, couldn’t die. It’s stitched into every inch of creation fabric...
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself cannot be my disciple.”
Melissa and I have had a lot of Bauman family activity the last couple of months. Started with my officiating the wedding of a niece in Massachusetts, which, as you know, creates an opportunity for family reunion, champagne toasts and all; and this led to a trip to Ft. Myers to celebrate my father's 97th birthday who is still in remarkably good shape, still driving even. One of my brothers lives near him, as does his daughter and three grandchildren, the newest of which Melissa and I were pleased to meet for the first time. And just a week or two ago my other brother and his wife came and stayed with us for a few days. This is way more family stuff than normal for us, but honestly, it's been rather nice. And of course, we get to see our children and grandchildren all the time since after college they stuck around the city to fashion their lives.
All this was on my mind as I read the gospel text assigned for today and I discovered that rather than continuing in my summer celebrating mode on the first Sunday after Labor Day, I read that I should hate my father, mother, wife and children, brothers, sisters (if I had any), even life itself.
I’m betting that most of you, if given a choice, would just as soon linger in summertime mode, wanting to wring out a few more days or weeks of diverting activity filled with decisions no more demanding than where to have dinner or whether to indulge in a mint chip or butter pecan ice cream cone. (I recommend both, by the way.) Yet here we are, pushed to pondering what theologians refer to as “the cost of discipleship.” And from the sound of it, this is the opposite of summertime sentimental.
Checking my records I noted that in the lectionary cycle, as in this year, this scripture was read the Sunday after Labor Day in 2001, on September 9th. You will remember what happened two days later on a spectacularly beautiful Tuesday morning… on September 11. Summertime sentimental—if it ever had a chance of lingering in 2001—came to a horrifyingly abrupt end on that day.
Of course, life’s fickle like that, isn't it? One day you’re giddy with your fill of wedding champagne and the next day the sky falls down. I know that sounds like an awful downer for the first Sunday after Labor Day when everyone wants the good times to roll on a little bit longer. But with our infamous memorial date less than 72 hours ahead, maybe sobering up isn’t such a bad idea. I mean, we’d all have to agree that 18 years later, the world has become a much more complicated place and we Americans have some pretty important decisions in front of us that still partially emanate as a response to that terrible day. Eighteen years later that event seems the marker for how the 21st century would evolve.
Still, I as thought about all of this, what came up for me was how grateful I am. Very, very grateful. I have wonderful friends, live in a magnificent, if noisy, congested city; I’m supported by a loving family, worship in a glorious spiritual home and share vital community with talented, committed and generous faith siblings who attempt to follow a difficult, but truthful path in the world. Things aren’t perfect, but even so, gratitude and joyful reunion are the feelings I have this morning.
So, here we are in this snapshot moment in our lives, drawn together again, representing a variety of mixed motives and emotions, each of us having brought along a sidecar full of personal baggage that we packed ourselves. We would-be followers of Jesus have plopped ourselves into our seats on this 8th day of September, 2019, in the middle of one the most popular cities on the planet to offer words and songs of praise and to hear what God might say to us from out of the ancient texts.
I’m intrigued how our gospel lesson began this morning: “Now large crowds were traveling with him…” I don’t know if we constitute a crowd, but I take the text to mean that by this point in his ministry Jesus had developed quite a following, created a stir, developed some buzz. He’d been gaining in popularity. Makes me think he must have had a popular message. Amazing grace, and all that.
That’s how it works, right? We’ve talked about this before. The trick is to figure out what the people want and then give it to them. Do that and you’ll get the crowds, the followers, the large audience and the celebrity notoriety.
Look to our current crop of politicians. They can seem prone to multiple personality disorder as they twist into pretzel shapes while accommodating themselves to those whose votes they need.
Jesus is at the height of his popularity. It won’t be long that he passes through the gates of Jerusalem as the conquering hero, friends clinking their champagne glasses in celebration of his imminent triumph. Of course, a few days later the sky falls down on him. Life’s fickle like that. But at this moment as he’s reaching his peak, with his biggest crowd, he pulls out his “cost of discipleship speech.” And I want to ask, Where’s his copy editor and handlers? He’s a smart guy, so doesn’t he know enough to give the people what they want? And he follows it up by saying that whoever does not carry a cross and follow him cannot truly be his friend. I guess he doesn’t really want all that many friends, then. He’s a pretty confusing character. Doesn’t follow the typical script.
Surely whatever the people think they want has nothing to do with hating every important person in their lives. Same could be said of every subsequent generation right up to the present one, right up to us, even me. In fact, you’ve got to wonder if it wasn’t just this sort of statement that twisted his popularity into it’s opposite during that last week of his life. Up to a point he was extremely compelling, but then he had to wreck his advantage by saying things that just went too far, or crossed the wrong people one time too many.
But after his death and continuing year after year after year, attentive people discovered something crucial about his witness: Jesus was never motivated by desire for some personal advantage. He was genuinely and uniquely motivated by the needs of the people around him, by the deepest needs they didn’t even know they had. From start to finish Jesus was relentless in his commitment to the things that matter most, and chief among these were matters of love and justice.
He constantly yanked people, well-meaning people--even those who came out to hear him--out of their complacency. He was on a mission to awaken the better angels of their nature, and more, to literally help them evolve into something closer to the heart of God. And he knew instinctively this would not be easy and might very well cost him his life.
So, Jesus walked the razor’s edge and spoke the truth. And the truth was that above all other commitments, one was paramount. And here we should probably clear up a problem translating an ancient language into the modern. The word “hate” in this passage is not really our emotionally laden word for personal disgust, but a Semitic idiom that expresses detachment, freedom from undue regard. The phrase is hyperbole concerning relative allegiances, not aggressive loathing, as in, I absolutely hate you!!!
In this sense Jesus simply states the obvious: if the God of love and justice is, then nothing else can supplant this love and justice. This would be a logical impossibility even if we wished something other than the God of love and justice was the most important truth or pretended or behaved as though something else mattered more. Claiming the moon is made of green cheese, even intensely believing it were so, would not change the geological facts. Jesus is always laying bare the real facts. Hard to hear in today's cluttered environment of fake news so-called and relentless lying, Jesus was a truth-teller. Truth was his number one methodology for communicating. Remember how he said, "I am the way, the truth and the life..."
So, he tells his admirers that if they wished to follow along the graceful path of love and justice, they had better know the real deal. The real deal was going to cost them something. Something important. It would make demands upon their lives and perhaps they should know that before signing up. He’s a truth-teller. He doesn’t sentimentalize its ramifications, doesn’t dress it up as it were to make it more palatable.
By the way, this creates a significant dilemma for the preacher. Experience reveals that people generally like their truths very palatable, tasty, served creatively with an interesting sauce and a great dessert, in a warm atmosphere, in timely fashion, by friendly people. They like their truths to go down easy causing no indigestion. And they like to be entertained in the meantime.
Carrying this metaphor a bit further, like most preachers, I would like to be known as a pretty good chef who knows how to serve up a wonderful meal that people will love and then tell their friends about it so they might try the cuisine at Bistro Christ Church. But that’s not how my mentor did it. And there was no prior model for the truth he bore.
People could ultimately silence him, but they could not silence his truth about love and justice, because truth can never go away. The great Indian author and close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Truth comes as conqueror only to those who have lost the art of receiving it as a friend.” Have you ever been conquered by a truth you were unable to receive as a friend? I have. Jesus invites us into truth as a beloved friend might, who loves us more than we love ourselves.
The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard complained about the petty preachers of his day who preached artistic sermons, “whereby Jesus…obtained admirers rather than followers.” Friends, here’s the thing: I don’t want to be a petty preacher, and I’m counting on the fact that at least some of you don’t want to be simply admirers of Jesus, but actual followers. So, as the fall season advances, let’s take hands and help each other live into the truth of our God of love and justice. And let’s do this with gratitude for the gift we are to one another. Gratitude abounds…
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56Read MoreLess
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
It's been quite a news cycle, hasn't it? Maybe like me you're feeling especially agitated, disorientated today. We were already stumbling around in a season of dis-ease, right!? I became aware of my own disorientation when the news of Jeffrey Epstein's suicide scrolled into view on my computer screen yesterday morning, a stunning development in an already overwrought story of power, privilege, great wealth, and child abuse dusted with political glitter. We surely haven't heard the end of this sordid mess that describes another dollop of deadly decadent decay in American culture.
Questions gurgle up from the pit of our stomachs like these: How does something this dark and sinister fester as long as it has? Who are these supposedly elite people, really? Where's the moral compass among Epstein's friends, acquaintances, business partners, lawyers and everyone else who joined the party? What a rotten, stinking mess all around.
But then nothing overshadows the carnage in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas and Gilroy, California...not to mention Chicago and over 250 other towns and cities that have experienced mass shootings this year--that's more than one a day. The fact that the Dayton shooter accomplished his murderous rampage in just 30 seconds boggles the mind and stuns our conscience over the national lust for military weapons.
And the emergence of the El Paso gunman's manifesto shatters any lingering naivete anyone might have concerning the unambiguous white tribalist anxiety in our culture. Sure, he's an extremist. But he's part of a cultural continuum of white supremacist demagoguery that stretches back at least 4 centuries when the first slaves arrived on our shores. It so happens that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of that inglorious, contemptible event. Some have mistakenly believed our racist past had largely dissipated. Surprise! Or, we might say, Wake up!
Many of you received a Pastoral Message from me this week in response to these mass shootings. If you'll indulge me, I feel the need to "read it into the record," as it were. Here's what I said:
"Among recurring lessons accompanying the horrific news of mass shootings is this: the common bonds of our national identity are fracturing. We are losing the sense of common cause that binds us together, 'one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' Perpetrators may be described as agitated loners, but they are also harbinger of a larger malaise in our land. The increasing frequency of these acts of terror coupled with white supremacist ideology and massive capacity weaponry sounds the alarm that each of us has a role to play in how our common life shall proceed.
"Up and down the ladders of privilege and power it matters how we speak of one another; if our words and actions reveal a commitment to either building or sundering community. This is as true in each of our houses as it is in the White House. All of us share responsibility for the health and vigor of our national character in providing a safe and wholesome environment for every person and family in our land. The emanations from the El Paso manifesto should send a chill down our spines, insisting violence is the solution to solving white tribalist anxieties.
"Our nation's original sin of racism remains the go-to weapon-of-choice for those bent on fear-mongering. And fear remains our great enemy; it lies behind every sort of tribalist anxiety. Our scriptures lay down the gauntlet on this by proclaiming, 'Perfect love casts out all fear!' (1 John 4:18) Ah yes, love of God above all things, and love of neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27) remains our core value at Christ Church--the perfect-seeming antidote to the tenor of our moment, a resilient bulwark in the face of many adversities, and a call for us to grow into the people God intended in the first place.
"Out of loving concern for those who have died and those who grieve we offer humble, earnest prayers of support. We yearn for their eventual healing. 'Holy God, bless these innocent victims.'
"But let's be very clear that prayer is just a beginning. Prayer also serves as a call to rejoin the ranks of those who are seeking to build wholesome community for all of God's offspring, while standing against tribalist racism of every sort, every sort of fear-mongering of the dreaded 'other.' In this I hope we stand hand in hand, our work of love to the benefit of the common good.
"As always, I persist in gratitude for the community of Christ Church. I find strength in our common bond to love well while standing against the forces that seek to divide and demean and deny human dignity. Joining our hands, hearts and voices amplifies our individual intentions. May God bless us in this continuing endeavor."
This morning it seems to me we have 2 principle tasks in front of us. The first one is to be very clear-eyed about the truth of our situation; to make an unsentimental assessment of our national malaise, to forthrightly identify the rise of white supremacist demagoguery, how tribalist ideas tempt our own allegiances; and to confess our own complicity in separating people into categories of better and worse based on entirely ridiculous criteria, always discovering our own superiority. Holy God, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
But secondly, and importantly, let's be very clear that followers after the way Jesus blazed are bound together in hope. We're anchored in resurrection. We believe we are loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings, and that nothing in life or in death can separate us from God's great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. We align our values with his. We strive to love in the manner that he loved. Listening to God's voice we step out in faith, as we heard Abraham did in our readings this morning, not knowing exactly where he was going, but confident in God's abiding presence and leadership.
And friends, this faith isn't simply an internal self-help program. Sure, there are tangible personal benefits that accrue to those who welcome Christ into their lives, but the most important benefits aren't based in success as described by motivational and prosperity preachers. That's largely a distraction from the real spiritual program. The most important benefits relate to learning how to love well--God, ourselves, and others--and then growing into the people God intended in the first place. From that vantage point, faithful Christianity resembles a character formation project.
We're all works in progress. We're all amalgams of good intentions and bad, but throwing our lot in with Jesus, we're staking a claim on listening to the better angels of our nature, joining hearts and hands with others who struggle to do the same. We listen hard to the wisdom of scripture and the Spirit that whispers in our inner being.
Among the inescapable conclusions we draw is that God is God of all things, all people, everywhere. Everyone shares the same sacred DNA. How could it be otherwise? We are all creatures of the same earth and universe, all dependent upon the same air and water and food. This truth provides the context for understanding God's justice; how justice is an aspect of God's love. When we strive for justice, we're also striving to love well.
And as I've underscored lately, this means that justice should inspire our politics. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an ardent abolitionist, which in his day, was a minority opinion. Being an abolitionist meant he relentlessly advocated for political outcomes for the sake of the enslaved. Why? Because of his faith in the God of love. Like Abraham, he died before he would see the complete vindication of his conviction.
We now take this position for granted, but look at the residual mess that remains...the white supremacist mindset does not die easily. That's now our work, our responsibility for the sake of love and justice. From where I stand it's impossible to draw any other conclusion as I try to follow the pattern Jesus set before us.
There's an obvious connection to why the 20th century's Civil Rights movement drew its inspiration and strength from within the African American Church. The movement was driven by spiritual energy that led quite naturally to dynamic political engagement.
Wesley famous said, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." In other words, there's no compartmentalizing here. We're either all in on this matter of following Jesus, or we're not. We can't sequester the law to love into one precious aspect of life and leave it at that. All in. All the time. Everywhere.
As we baptized little Alyana earlier, did you not sense the faith and love that was present? We were privileged to share with her parents their joy and their hope for their life together. They are like Abraham holding God's promise for their future in their hands and hearts. They have no way of knowing what lies ahead for each of them, but they anchor themselves in love for the sake of love with a confident expectation of God's providential care. That’s what we Christians do. That's where we draw our strength. And that's what we take out into the world...
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42Read MoreLess
Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
I doubt there’s anyone present who hasn’t heard of the Good Samaritan. It’s right up there with the story of the Prodigal Son in terms of notoriety within our culture. Typing "Good Samaritan" into my search engine brought 25 million hits. Among other references, it serves as the name of many medical institutions and a wide variety of Christian organizations devoted to helping others. It’s an important parable, one that every would-be follower of Jesus should know, especially as it follows up the great law to love.
And by way of understanding the parable’s challenging meaning, I think every American Christian should also know the story of the French village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It shines a bright light on how we're to understand Jesus’ radical call to love.
Primarily a town of French protestants, the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon became a haven for Jews fleeing from the Nazis during World War II. Early on in Hitler’s advance on Europe, France became a vassal state of Germany and a sympathetic government was installed. Over the course of the war it’s estimated that French collaborators delivered around 83,000 Jews to the Nazis, including 10,000 children. Even now, from this distance of seven decades, it’s hard to make sense of the numbers and even harder to make sense of the vast number of ordinary persons who collaborated in such a mass transfer of fellow humans.
But Le Chambon-sur-Lignon defied the Nazi regime and French government and over the course of the occupation took in 5,000 Jews, as many as the entire village population. Most homes and farms held strangers—not just for days, but for years. So deep was the villagers’ humanity that it is believed that no resident ever turned away, denounced or betrayed a single refugee. They helped provide forged identity documents and ration cards; and helped the Jews over the border to safety in Switzerland.
Such large-scale resistance was known to the Nazis, but whenever patrols came to the village word spread and villagers hustled the Jews into nearby woods. One of the Chambonais later recalled: “As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard the song the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”
This subterfuge was led by the village pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, Magda; under their leadership villagers acted on their conviction that it was their duty to help their “neighbors” in need. They didn’t attempt to convert them, they simply saved them. Eventually some of the residents were arrested by the Gestapo, including Pastor Trocmé’s cousin, Daniel, who subsequently was killed in a concentration camp. Loving in this radical manner was a dangerous proposition.
After the round-up and deportation of Jews in Paris in 1942, Pastor Trocmé delivered a sermon to his parishioners and said, “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its present incapacity and cowardice.”
Once the war came to an end and the villager’s activities became known, the Chambonais rejected any labeling of their behavior as heroic. They said: “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.”
“Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world….” There are other sorts of stories we could share with one another, stories on a smaller scale, perhaps, that would also model how Jesus’ teaching can become embedded within the hearts and minds of his followers. But, for me, the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon stands out within modern Christian history. It bears repeating and internalizing and teaching to our children and to ourselves.
Because the parable of The Good Samaritan has a tendency to become so sentimentalized as to lose the true scope of the love Jesus lived and taught. Love can be reduced to a schmaltzy lesson about treating people we know decently, which isn’t bad, of course. Or it can be used as a prod to get parishioners to sign up for an occasional romp in doing a bit of good.
But the real stakes in the story are made clearer when quoting the Chambonais, “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” Considering the duplicity and complicity of much of the Christian world, not to mention government and the incredible risk involved, this simple response seems to defy reason. Because, after all, even in our doing good we want to be reasonable about it, don’t we?
Consider the lawyer’s intention in quizzing Jesus. The real set-up of the parable comes when Luke says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself with his question, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, he wanted to know the exact limits of the meaning of the word, neighbor. Clearly, he thinks there are limits, thus his need to justify his position on the matter. And we could surmise that what he’s after is a debate about the finer points of the law, a debate that leaves him well satisfied that he’s got it right. If you happen to be a lawyer or have ever worked with one, you know how this might go.
Frederick Buechner reasoned that the lawyer in our story was looking for a legal outcome that sounded something like this: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as a person of Jewish descent whose residence is within a radius of three statute miles of one’s own residence (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) unless another person of Jewish descent lives between the party of the first part and the party of the second part, in which case, the intervening person shall be considered the neighbor to the party of the first part, hence relieving the party of the second part of any responsibility whatsoever.”
Instead of debating, Jesus told a story that had nothing to do with law, and everything to do with grace. Or we could put it this way: there was only one two-part law that transcended all others—love God with your whole being; and love your neighbor as yourself. But this law was not subject to legal analysis, only the response that love dictated. And if this love was embraced and internalized it would wind up expressed in words like those of the villagers in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. “Things had to be done, and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world…” We could hear the Samaritan in our story saying something just like that had a reporter shown up at the inn to ask him about his motives in coming to the aid of the stranger on the side of the road.
The lawyer in our story would not have understood this sort of behavior. Indeed, Jesus himself was ultimately not understood, or, maybe, understood only too well, to be embraced. For his sort of love would upend the prescribed order of things, considering all the ways he expounded on the theme, “the first shall be last and the last first.” In first century Palestine, the lawyer was among the first and the Samaritan among the last.
The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. That this outsider is the one extending the aid is a radical aspect of the story with both the privileged priest and the Levite passing on the other side of the road. Note Jesus does not say why they passed by. Surely, they had a good, solid reason. Like fear for their lives, for instance. Suppose it was a trap? Or, suppose it was someone other than a Jew? Someone outside their tribe? Some dreaded other?
Of course, by the time of the Second World War, it’s the Jews who are largely beyond the range of neighborliness in western civilization. There’s much to be said about the American silence pertaining to the Holocaust as it evolved in Europe, rooted in an endemic bias within Christian culture. But then, this wasn’t the first time so-called Christian culture failed to learn Jesus’ radical lessons.
About twenty years ago I had a startling awakening about our collective tendency to miss the obvious turning my faith inside out. A large team from Christ Church had traveled to Ghana, West Africa to build homes with new partner neighbors. At one point in our travels we visited the slave castles on the so-called Gold Coast of Africa. These were the points of embarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade where millions were bound and held prisoner crammed into dank cells. I have a searingly vivid memory of standing in the chapel of one of the castles when a cold chill swept through me as I realized the floor of the chapel doubled as the ceiling for the men’s dungeon. It occurred to me in a flash that the story of the Good Samaritan was read in that place.
Inscribed on the chapel wall was a verse of Psalm 132: “For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation.” If you look that up, you'll find that passage continues with these words: “This is my resting place forever. I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread.” This experience remains one of the most powerful and disturbing metaphors of my ministry.
Had I thought of it at the time I might have remembered to share the story there of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Pastor Trocmé’s words: “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its…incapacity and cowardice.”
We begin to see the enormity of the stakes in our beloved parable this morning. It strikes at the heart of our essential commitments as persons who claim to be followers of the way Jesus walked. It prompts us to consider the sort of community we wish to become.
Here’s what I hope: I hope and pray that increasingly we become the sort of family that does the work of love Jesus inspires. Remember, after the lawyer gave the correct answer about loving God and neighbor, Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” I yearn for all of us to have this inscribed within our hearts so that like the Chambonais our response to having provided courageous and generous loving care anywhere to anyone would be like theirs: “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these others.”
2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
When I think back to my seminary days, they’re mostly a blur. I learned the basics, but a lot of details have escaped long-term retention. My decision to attend divinity school at the not-quite-ripe age of 21 and my general state of confusion at the time about my life’s direction has a lot to do with my foggy memory. Still, there are a few moments that have stuck with me.
Dean Harry Adams, a professor of homiletics, was a warm, thoughtful man who was something of a mentor. He had a home-spun manner that belied a quiet wisdom.
One day in the midst of a lecture on sermon preparation Dean Adams suddenly stopped short and became quite still for a long minute. Then he said, “I want to interrupt this lecture with a word about interruptions. They will inevitably happen to you. A day will soon come when you believe you are preparing your most erudite and important message upon which hangs the very souls of your congregation or at least your future ministry among them, when a difficult individual barges into your office or a crisis finds you at home and you will need to drop what you’re doing and attend to the interruption. Let me tell you now that your ministry is all about interruptions.
He continued, "Odd to say in here, I suppose, but your ultimate effectiveness will have little to do with what you happen to say on any given Sunday. And it will have everything to do with interruptions.” After another long pause holding us in his gaze—as if to punctuate and underline what he just said—he picked up his lecture right where he had left it. I don't know why, really, but I distinctly remember that gaze.
This bit of wisdom lodged in my mind that day and over the years it has focused my thinking in ways I couldn’t have initially understood. While in the midst of advancing some aspect of my own agenda, I've discovered that if I'm attentive, interruptions have a way of focusing priorities that my own frail powers can’t get quite right.
What’s the worn cliché? Life is what happens when you’ve planned something else. Such bits of wisdom reach the status of cliché precisely because they’re true. Tracking the course of our lives, many of us could say but for the interruptions to our plans, we would not be the persons we’ve become.
There is deep theological truth here. As I’ve heard a lot of persons tell their tale, most spiritual awakenings come as interruptions, as surprises. That’s why they’re awakenings. After the fact we might see them woven into the fabric of our lives, but at the time these spiritual interruptions occur, they couldn’t have been predicted. In fact, it seems that the most spiritually mature persons are those who are in a constant state of expectation for the surprising new thing God intends regardless of circumstance.
From one vantage point we could say that Jesus was a great interruption to life in ancient Palestine. He remains so today. The only difference now is the range of his impact. He interrupted people’s lives then, he does so today. He stirred up political controversy then, he does so today. He challenged the standard social mores of his day, he does so today. I’m thinking we wouldn’t remember him at all if he hadn’t interrupted the status quo.
As his story is told, Jesus interrupted established norms upending social conventions to create a new sort of community. Everywhere he went announcing the arrival of God's Kingdom, he shattered social expectation and cracked the barriers of inclusion and exclusion, of unclean and clean, of who had access to God’s love and who was considered a part of God’s own family, of who belonged to whom.
He interrupted established religious hierarchies and theologies. Some of you will recall that during his last week alive he interrupted the activities at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the money-changers tables--a religious, social and political scandal.
Remember how he summarized the law--love God above all else and love your neighbors as yourselves. For the sake of love, he broke religious statutes. He taught that everything was interpreted through that supreme law of love. We might say that Jesus went around interrupting religious and cultural mores with love. That was the engine of his intervention.
Of course, he and his closest followers learned that interrupting the established flow of social and religious conventions – even for the most compassionate ends – could be a dangerous proposition. At the time the power brokers thought they could put an end to this interruption. You know how that went down... arrest, crucifixion and all. But here we all sit, nevertheless. So, you can see how the content of much of our theology is found in the wake of a massive spiritual interruption that continues to ripple around the world.
In our gospel lesson we heard how Jesus gathered up 70 followers and sent them out as his advance-men. And what's interesting is that he warns them that the message they will bear, a message of peace expressly, won't necessarily be well received. "I'm sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves."
In effect, these disciples will physically embody the great law of love which means they will not follow the common rules of the day of slicing up the population into those who belong to God and those who don't; those who should receive God's grace and those who shouldn't; those who deserve compassionate care and those who don't.
A new day is dawning, a new kind of community is being born where no one will fall outside the bounds of God's grace. Jesus sends them out with that message interrupting the status quo. And this message has personal, cultural, religious and political consequences. Such is the transcendent effect of divine love.
And this transcendent ethic catapulted Christianity from obscurity, ultimately sweeping the Roman Empire. Justin Martyr, the first great Christian apologist in the first century, a Roman who was introduced to the Christian path at the age of 30 about a hundred years after Jesus' crucifixion, sketched out Christian love this way: We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.
A generation later, another Christian apologist named Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, "See how the Christians love one another!" This was a radical interruption to Roman social order.
It’s in this tradition that Christ Church has established as one of its four core values, the value of dynamic hospitality, which we mean as an extension of this same barrier-breaking compassion Jesus exhibits. If one loves the way Jesus did, one can’t help stepping out of bounds every now and then, stepping on some toes every now and then, interrupting the status quo.
For instance, we couldn’t help but have a contrarian point of view about what’s going on at our borders among desperate immigrant families whose children have been taken away. We might have disagreements about specific policy tactics, but followers after the way of Jesus would begin by acknowledging our common humanity, our common desire for security, safety and dignity for our children. Starting there leads to a different set of outcomes than what has evolved and we should be engaged.
But now I want to interrupt this sermon with the following announcement. No matter who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done, no matter your current condition, you are God’s own child, daughter or son. Reaching out with whatever sort of puny faith you might have, there is no prior condition that is a permanent barrier to your inclusion within God’s family. Nothing separates you from God’s astounding heart of love as revealed in Jesus Christ. Absolutely nothing.
This was a radical, demanding message then, and it remains so now. This truth is fuel for the engine that drives this church. This truth interrupts all other seeming important matters. This truth shatters expectations about how we think about ourselves and how we think about the other persons sitting in our pew and those who will interrupt our walk home or in countless other moments as this week unfolds.
Friends, hear Jesus say to you, “Go in peace. Be healed of your dis-ease, whatever form that takes. Come, see your true family. Find your true home. Love well.”
2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
All of our difficult political and societal problems involve our struggle with the meaning and limits of freedom. Consider: abortion; affirmative action; taxation; gun control; deregulation; environmental concerns; the rights of LGBTQ persons – in all these public issues we grapple with the bounds of freedom within our democracy.
In western culture the Judeo-Christian traditions have greatly informed the philosophical underpinnings of political freedom. Our religious heritage affirms the innate dignity of every individual. As you hear repeatedly within these walls, each person is a child of the Creator, graced with uniqueness worthy of encouragement, even worthy of love. In their innate givenness, no one is less worthy than another. We can pretend or behave otherwise, but send your saliva to be examined for the source of your spiritual DNA, and you’ll learn you are related to the people sitting around you today.
We hear an echo of this sensibility in the words Thomas Jefferson penned in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, we know that in Jefferson’s day, “all men” pertained only to white male property owners, which was a distinct minority population-- Jefferson, himself, a slaveowner. Still, the political intent was planted there nevertheless, spilling forward in a cascade of awakening insight about the breath-taking scope of such an audacious claim.
Our Constitution and resulting body of law were meant to mediate the conflicts that arise as citizens attempt to exercise their prerogatives of freedom. The evolving understanding of "all men are created equal...endowed by their creator with unalienable...rights," eventually led to the abolition of slavery; Women's suffrage and the right to vote, holding equal standing in the eyes of government and employers; and today, the rights and inherent dignity of LGBTQ persons. Later today Christ Church participates in the Pride parade as a testament to our belief that differences of gender or sexual identity do not mitigate our fundamental identity as children of God... worthy of full political standing.
But political freedom is only one of many sorts of freedoms we value. For instance, as popular culture has it, freedom can also be described as the ability to act without restraint. In this sense, we are free from things and exist within a world without many rules in which we are accountable to no one but ourselves.
As many reflective commentators point out, this sounds a lot like the period of time we call adolescence.1 Adolescence is a borderland time between carefree childhood and responsible adulthood; often an experimental time, a breakout time, a time for doing what we please, when we please. A time for challenging rules and proscriptions.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is the popular cliché. The idea is, you are free to do pretty much whatever you want there. Of course, the truth is, you are free to do pretty much whatever you want to do here, or nearly anywhere in this land.
But as you well know from experience, once it sinks in that we really are free from most every restraint, we have the problem of choosing what we will do, and every time we exercise a choice, for the time being, we eliminate all other possibilities. So the question really becomes less about what we are free from and more about what we are free for.
Consider the talented young person choosing a life path who, regardless of initial circumstance, has arrived at a point where life appears to be a smorgasbord of options. Lawyer, singer, doctor, banker, actor, teacher—and then a choice is made. In choosing to become a teacher, say, is she suddenly less free?
If she’s alert, she will discover that freedom has led her to a place of choice. Without the choosing, freedom would have little meaning. And if she’s psychologically robust she’ll know that no choice is ever the last. In fact, if she remains a teacher and wishes to achieve a level of excellence at her craft, she will need to re-choose teaching continually—the choosing is never finished.
Or consider committed relationship. When we reach the so-called age of consent, we are free from officially sanctioned restraints concerning when, where and with whom we’ll have sex. If we choose a permanent partner then, do we become less free? Popular culture suggests that is most definitely the case (part of the backdrop to the Vegas slogan). And there is a sense in which that’s true.
But the fully alert adult understands that only by freely choosing the path of commitment and fidelity in all manner of relationships (marriage, parenting, citizenship, employee, employer, neighbor, etc.) can mature human capacities evolve and blossom; much the way a tree can only grow by putting down roots.
This means the tree is going to be in this place and not that place, and to that extent no longer “free”. Were the tree to wander forever looking for some mystically perfect location, or revel in never landing anywhere, it would never grow into its true nature. And the deeper it sinks an anchoring root system, the stronger, more vital tree it becomes.
The only way to become good at anything is to choose something which releases, we could say “frees up” our innate potential, and every single day provides a refreshed opportunity to choose well...
Paul wrote to his friends in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The context for this proclamation concerned the blending of Gentiles and Jews together into a single family and deciding which rules and laws would guide their lives together. But this led Paul to point to the over-arching principle guiding the church community, and state the ultimate point of human freedom, namely, to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what he wrote. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”.
That’s what the Christian church, at its best, claims as the true focus of a faithful life. We are made free in Christ to love. That’s Christian ethical teaching stripped down to the nubs. That’s the point of freedom. We are made free to love. If, in our freedom, we choose to love, we will grow into what God intended in the first place, much like that healthy tree with its roots planted deeply in rich soil.
Friends, from one vantage point, this Christian thing is remarkably simple. We make it really complicated, and I don’t deny that there are a whole lot of confusing matters that we have to contend with, matters of grave consequence, but if we wanted a short, easy to remember, summary of an organizing principle for the living of our days, for focusing our lives, for directing our energies, for employing our human freedom, Paul states it clearly right here: Christ sets us free that we might love our neighbors as ourselves.
If someone were to ask you why you were a Christian, or what was the point of all that religious mumbo-jumbo, or why you wasted a great Sunday morning going to church, here’s part of the answer: Christ sets me free to love; that’s what I celebrate; that’s what I’m learning and practicing; in my freedom, that’s what I’ve chosen as my principle focus; every thing else in some way or another serves that end.
Now I’ll grant you that not every Christian or Christian church embodies this. Some churches would even seem to turn freedom’s gift into its opposite, yet one more way of condemning our neighbor, excluding our neighbor, or as Paul said it, biting, devouring and consuming our neighbor.
But then, if we’re confident in our freedom, we’re free to admit that the church, though the bearer of this remarkable message, is nevertheless a fragile, human thing, just like you and me, that exhibits much of the weaknesses that are otherwise everywhere within our culture. In fact, in confessing this to one another, we help one another sink our roots ever deeper into freedom’s soil.
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39Read MoreLess
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Several weeks ago, I attended a meeting in Kansas City along with 600 other United Methodist leaders to address the schismatic situation in our denomination caused by the adoption of the so-called Traditional Plan at General Conference in February. You may recall this plan doubles down on our Church Discipline's proscriptions concerning homosexuality (and by implication, the entire LGBTQ community) creating an untenable outcome for very many United Methodist congregations in the US, and certainly for Christ Church.
As you might imagine, a meeting with 600 participants is an unwieldy body to make decisions, and indeed, no specific plans were adopted. We did, however, agree to 4 principles as we returned to our local geographies to organize specific strategies for likely group disaffiliations from the new denominational norms.
1. We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
2. We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
3. We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
4. We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
Along with Christ Church member Karen Prudente, I'm now participating in conversations in the New York region to create opportunities for structural outcomes that provide unfettered welcome, acceptance and empowerment of all persons, period. There's nothing concrete to report on that front yet, but all roads will eventually lead to the next General Conference in May of next year.
But here's the small personal matter I want to report today. Ever since that February meeting that led to such a disastrous outcome orchestrated by a minority of the US delegation in concert with a majority of the international delegation, I have surprised myself with renewed, focused and positive energy.
I'm coming in to the last segment of my professional life as I turn 67 in August. 72 is mandatory retirement; a majority of clergy leave before that point. Over the last year or two I've been chewing on how these latter years should flow with Melissa retiring officially at the end of next school year.
But here's the thing: since February I've never been clearer about my faith and work. I've never been clearer about the mission of the church; about the radical implications of loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves; about my particular gifts and skillsets at this particular moment; and about faith's redemptive power. I'm feeling relevant and keyed in to what matters most in a very fresh way. And honestly, this has come as a bit of a surprise. It falls into the category of "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
I don't want to overstate this, but it seems the disastrous turn of events has renewed my call. Now I can't say for certain what this means, but on the short run it seems to mean that I want to see this thing through, to help steer the church to the other shore over the perilous rapids below.
Now Christ Church is stable and well-positioned as a local congregation. But in the meantime, the Christian church in its many forms in the United States is facing a cultural tsunami. You've heard and read the statistics of decline of interest in organized religion. Battles for denominational identity like we're experiencing in the United Methodist Church exacerbate the problem. Still, I've never felt clearer about the essential necessity of following after the way Jesus blazed, the gospel of grace, truth and love. It seems the message we bear matches the need of our current moment exactly.
Life is funny in this regard, isn't it? Often, when we hit a roadblock or obstacle or stumble into a difficult set of circumstances, we have to make a path without clear sight and in the making we're reshaped by the hardship and emerge renewed, empowered, more competent and capable. As the old cliché has it, no pain, no gain--the engine of resilience.
In here we affirm what we heard Paul write to his friends in Rome. "...since we are justified by faith...we...boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." I believe that. Paul has this right.
As many of you have discovered firsthand, this has personal meaning in the cancer ward or police station; in the aftermath of an employment fiasco or divorce or death or financial setback. And it has great meaning for those suffering injustice and deprivations of every sort. Faith in our God of grace--who knew suffering himself firsthand--is also faith in the God of resurrection hope and that hope reveals that nothing in life or in death can separate us from God's great love for us. Nothing. We are God's. Always have been. Always will be. And this truth dignifies our lives no matter our age or condition.
When describing her faith, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, said, "I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous."
She ingested the truth the Apostle Paul wrote about. That sort of faith seeps way down into our cellular membranes where a kind of awesome alchemy occurs, transforming frail flesh with resilient courage no matter what comes at us. That's why Paul says we can actually boast in our sufferings. Now in Maya Angelou's case, much of what she expressed was nurtured in the struggle for America's soul as a result of its original sin--racist slavery. A struggle we have not yet finished with.
One of her highly prized poems, “I Still Rise,” was read at Nelson Mandela's inauguration as President of South Africa. You will remember he was elected after serving 26 years in prison during apartheid. Somehow during those years his suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character produced hope that in turn produced an astonishing capacity for forgiveness, reconciliation and a gracious magnanimity.
In Proverbs Wisdom is presented with a feminine voice, another image of God. Here’s another woman’s voice of wisdom:
I Still Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Now in the main this was not a message expressly about America's original sin, although, that's a topic that necessarily recurs for American Christians. Instead, it’s a message about resilience, about the life energy that's available to us in the midst of many difficulties. And it’s about faith, resurrection faith that calls us into a future imbued with hope. I am very hopeful! Go figure…
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27
Janice told her story this way: A number of years earlier she had fallen into a defeating depression. No amount of work or therapy relieved the bleakness of her days. Slipping into a spiraling pit and feeling she was pulling her family into it after her, she thought suicide would be her escape. Failing in the first attempt she tried again, only to be saved once more.
She was hospitalized. A once competent woman; a teacher and mother; unable, or unwilling, or…she wasn’t quite sure the reason, except she was utterly powerless over the enveloping gloom. Until the visitation, that is. As she described it, a vision of a celestial being. An angel, she thought. And she was healed. From the moment of the vision the crushing hopelessness lifted and it had not returned now many years later.
She had no personal or cultural context for understanding what had happened to her. But it did awaken her faith in God. It changed her life. I was a minister. She hoped I would receive her story at face value; she hoped there would be understanding and acceptance.
She was a credible, thoughtful sixty-year-old when she spoke to me some years ago now, sharing a very important part of her life’s story—actually, I suppose it was the most important—a transforming moment that brought life from incipient death. She said she didn’t tell most people about it for fear of ridicule or rejection. Honestly, I felt privileged to receive it.
A healing angel? Or, perhaps a symbolic vision of a psychological breakthrough? Or both? Who knows? I’m guessing I hear more edgy stories like this than most people. Often there’s little evidence to suggest anything but indigestion caused a restless night…or maybe too much alcohol. But I had enough experience to respect Janice’s understanding of these events. The outcome was clear. She was gifted with hope and faith. She was a woman who was stalked by death and then, surprised by joy. How do we explain something like that? How do we make sense of spiritual events that defy rational description? – that don’t conform to standard forms?
As it’s reported in Acts, on the Day of Pentecost, God’s spirit filled the early disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem. And 21st century people are hard pressed to make logical sense of what happened that day. It’s a wild story. Peter quoted the prophet Joel: “God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below…”
As the story is told, the disciples were, in fact, accused of having drunk too much wine. But something much more interesting than a morning hangover described their condition; something brought life where there had been death. You remember the plot line: the betrayals, the humiliation, the fear and cowardice, leading to crucifixion. Out of this death state with just a handful of fisher folk, a brand new thing was launched in the world.
The proof of it resides in the outcome of more than two billion people who now claim some relation to these first recipients of God’s holy fire. People like Janice and many of us gathered here. This can seem a very tenuous thread, I suppose. On the other hand, here we are, no denying that, despite our doubts and reservations. Here sits this glorious geode of a sanctuary dedicated to telling the story of astonishing grace, on what realtors proclaim is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. I mean, what’s up with that?
Remember in the story how the spirit-wind caused people from all over the known world to hear and receive the good news of God’s gracious hospitality. If you pay attention to who shows up here over several months you’ll see persons from all over the world. There’s a very good chance you might meet someone with roots in Benin, Ghana, Romania, Korea, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Germany, England, Liberia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Philippines, Panama, Jamaica—too many countries to name, not to mention every corner of our nation.
It’s awesome, really. Communion stewards at the 11 o’clock service frequently comment on how powerful it is to serve such an incredible array of people; and to think we’re all connected somehow, all fed by the same spiritual food. It flies in the face of what is otherwise experienced beyond these walls. When you stop to think about it, there really is no accounting for it other than an in-breaking spirit that blows open locked minds and ignites frozen hearts.
We are not terribly large in numbers, but we are a true Pentecost family, reflective of the international unity gifted on that day 2000 years ago. The only difference between them and us is that we’ve tamed the spirit a bit. When was the last time you were accused of being drunk because you were full to overflowing with the spirit of life? I’m thinking we could benefit from such an accusation every now a then.
It’s no small miracle that in this place wildly diverse people gather together to give thanks and praise to their God who is far larger than any tribal loyalty—a God who will not be constrained by our attempts at taming, caging and chaining him.
Thankfully, the spirit of life breaks in over and over again. That’s what Janice discovered… I’ve discovered it, too, in my own way. That’s why I’m here in this odd get-up. I can’t tell you how many others have told me their own idiosyncratic versions of the same story. No two persons ever have the same spirit-tale to tell. God seems to speak in every language there is. I’m thinking there are as many spirit languages as there are people in the world. The trick is in the hearing. Then, if we hear, when we hear, when we really hear, we become part of the message. We become bearers of the same spirit of life.
Friend of Christ Church, Becca Stevens, the founder and executive director of Magdalene, a two-year residential program for women with a criminal history of prostitution and drug abuse located in Nashville, Tennessee, published a collection of meditations entitled, Sanctuary. This one speaks of how broadly and powerfully the spirit wind blows.
She writes, “I was standing in a small office with Clemmie after her son’s funeral. The office was lit by a fluorescent bulb that made the place look sallow and closed-in. There were two chairs and a laminated desk that was peeling. The walls were a dingy off-white. The room reflected the mood of the day: sad and broken.
“I had known Clemmie for almost four years. She was a loving and compassionate mother. Her son, Rodriguez, was the victim of a senseless homicide in the middle of the night by someone he didn’t even know.
“Rodriguez had been born when Clemmie was only thirteen years old. Both of them had been in and out of the prison system. Mother and son had spoken at Magdalene’s fund-raiser the previous year to talk about finding strength together in their journey toward wholeness. Now, nine months later, Clemmie and I were standing in a borrowed office after burying her only child.
“We exchanged thoughts and feelings about the day. Clemmie said, ‘I wish I could talk to the boy who shot my son. I want to hug him for a long time and tell him I forgive him. I know that he will probably spend the rest of his life in prison, but I want him to know that God has not abandoned him.’
“When you tell people that you would never kill somebody, they often ask, ‘What if someone killed your child?’ Clemmie answered the question as beautifully as I have ever heard. She had suffered more for her faith than even a martyr; she had suffered the death of her son and survived to love the enemy.
I asked her if she would offer a prayer, and we knelt together in front of the desk in the sacred space that love had created.”
I don’t know of a way to adequately account for such a story other than Pentecost. On the one hand, there is deep sadness here, and yet, on the other hand, you also hear the story of Pentecost, don’t you? A story about how far and wide the spirit-wind blows, crossing boundaries we normally don’t cross, touching lives we don’t normally touch. And it’s a story about life in a place scarred by death. That’s the story of the Gospel. It’s a story about grace and love where by all rights there shouldn’t be any. How and when did Clemmie ever hear God’s voice? How did it give birth to such a forgiving heart?
It’s a mystery. Or maybe a miracle. I don’t know. But I imagine when Becca and Clemmie knelt in front of that desk, those with the eyes to see would very likely have witnessed tongues of fire dancing on their heads.
And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, if we tuned our eyesight just right, we might be able to see the same thing glancing around this room. If you do see it, chances are better than even, that a flame is dancing on your head as well.
Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26Read MoreLess