Each week our clergy, and occasional guest preachers, attempt to faithfully proclaim God’s Word in fresh, aspirational, and practical ways. In essence, they explore what it means to live our mission: We seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We hope that audio and text files you will find here will aid your own Christian journey.
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Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28Read MoreLess
1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
Last summer I posted a story about meeting a woman at a cocktail party during a fierce storm. You will understand why it came to mind this week after considering the story you heard Violet read from Matthew. I was meeting Alice for the first time, and an unusually interesting conversation evolved between us in a quiet corner. She was a smart professional—a lawyer, I think—and as small talk among strangers at such a gathering under such conditions might evolve, we began commenting on the weather, and more particularly, our mutual liking of intense storms.
Alice said she had a special affinity for them—in fact, it was during a storm that she experienced a profound spiritual awakening. The spiritual bit had been triggered when she discovered my profession. She said she didn’t speak of it to very many people because, though it was dramatic in a way, she wasn’t certain that, 1) anyone would really believe her, or 2) that she should share it at all anyway since it was such an intensely personal event. My curiosity aroused, I invited her to say more.
Alice then recounted that when she was growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, her family often spent time on their boat sailing up and down the east coast, often venturing into the Caribbean. Both parents were competent sailors and great respecters of their relative frailty in comparison to the elements. But on one occasion, they were caught off guard in a fierce squall. Alice was about 17— old enough to be a seasoned mariner and helpful to the captains, but not quite mature enough to understand her true vulnerability.
And so it happened that while trying to tie down a loosened rope, the boat rocked sharply starboard, allowing a large swell to break over the side of the hull whisking her off the deck. She didn’t know exactly how long she was encased in the swirling blackness—shear terror—maybe 10 seconds? Then, bobbing up in another swell she was set back aboard, just a few feet from where she had been standing. No one else witnessed this. Her parents did not know that for several seconds they had lost their daughter to the sea. Only Alice was left in a completely astonished state.
Well into her thirties when I heard her tale, Alice said she was transformed in that moment—even reborn, she thinks, although it had taken the last twenty years to absorb the meaning of those ten seconds. And then she was sure she would never really completely absorb it, except, perhaps, at her death.
Alice didn’t understand how the equation was put together, but somehow the alchemy of fear, vulnerability, and rescue added up to faith. That was why she loved storms so, because they reminded her of who was who, and what was what. Storms aroused the adrenalin rush of fear, but the fear brought faith. She said she knew it sounded strange, but that’s how it was for her. That’s how it was that she came to know God.
Our story from Matthew reads a bit differently than Alice’s story. For one thing, Jesus didn’t invite Alice into the water. She was simply swept away. That’s a notable difference that I’ll come back to in a minute. But in another important way, their stories are similar, especially as they both seem to hinge on human fear.
In Matthew’s tale we’re told the disciples “were terrified”; “they cried out in fear”; Jesus said, “do not be afraid”; and Peter “became frightened”—all these phrases within the eleven verses of the story. The author would have us know that fear is a primary character.
And that would have made good sense to the 1st-century reader. After all, many of the disciples were fishermen. Fishing was a reasonably hazardous occupation. Surely they had lost comrades, maybe family members to the seas. Beyond a certain point, water was completely unforgiving. Even experienced sailors knew that just one mistake could be one’s last. For a moment Peter was held in that predicament—had he misplaced his trust after all and sink into the waters?
As Alice discovered, in our clearer moments we recognize that every life-saving moment is but a reprieve from the inevitable. We make uneasy peace with this by saying that if only we could live into old age with our various faculties intact, we will have lived well. In a sense, we think of it as a question of fairness, as in, it’s only fair that I live to be a healthy and hearty 90 or more. This attitude focuses our entire medical system. I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment, but I do recognize it is driven by our concern and sometimes despair over the inevitable reality of our ultimate demise.
And so, to greater or lesser degrees, all of us run scared much of the time. As Scott Peck put it, “Many don’t realize how frightened they are. They’ve been running scared for so long they’ve forgotten what it’s like not to. And the macho people who proclaim that they are not sacred of anything are the most frightened of all, because they even fear their own fear. Fear is such a constant companion in the background of our being we are usually neither aware of it nor able to imagine being without it” (M. Scott Peck, What Return Can I Make: The Dimensions of the Christian Experience)
A woman I know had a condition that her doctor said was pre-cancerous. As she told me this, she threw her head back and laughed, recounting how comedian, George Carlin, once remarked that we’re all pre-cancerous. And so we are. Is it impolite to say so?
Indeed, life is fragile, and exhilarating. A boat on a sea is at best a precarious adventure. The sea is mighty and completely indifferent to those who float upon its surface. It would seem to defy reason that we would ever embark upon the sea with no more than the enlarged pea pod of a hull to keep us above the waves. But people have been defying reason in this manner for many thousands of years. We are out of place. We are literally, out of our element.
And this brings me to the matter of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to join him on the water. Sometimes life just happens to us, like it did to Alice during a summer squall. But then there are those volitional choices we make to step out into life, taking risks.
In our story, it’s interesting that Matthew tells us Peter is not completely certain that it’s Jesus out there calling to him. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That’s a curious thing, but completely understandable. It mimics our own experience much of the time. At least that’s true for me.
How many times have I wanted certainty when caught at a decision point? I pray like mad, listen hard, wondering if I’ve got it right. Have I heard God’s voice? At the time I was deciding whether I should embark upon this vocation I paid attention to this story.
By the way, much of the time preachers like to present themselves as serene rocks of faith, models of spiritual probity and confidence. But there’s often a bit of playacting going on. At its best this approaches the “fake it till you make it” dictum of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But here’s the lesson: risking taking-the-plunge, as it were, is part of what it means to be a human fully alive, in relationship with a loving God who only has our best interests at heart and who seeks our partnership in welcoming God’s grace, love, and justice into the world. The reality is that we are held and cherished even if we make the wrong decision, even if doubt overwhelms our resolve—even then God reaches out to save us. Why is this? Well, because our lives have their beginning and their end in God.
Taking this one step further after learning about the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in this morning’s news, following after Jesus comes at a certain price—a price set by the demand we love the way he loves. Christians of good conscience must always listen for this call to love.
White supremacists advancing a virulent recapitulation of our nation’s first sin provides us with a real time opportunity to pay attention and to be clear with whom we stand, to step out onto the water in faith for the cause of justice, because it is Jesus after all who calls us to stand with him among the dispossessed and victims of hate. Love the way he loves. Love whom he loves. What an awful but useful discovery that racism is alive and well in our nation. How many times do we need to learn this?
If you yearn to love Jesus, then you will risk the rough water of our current culture to stand with him. You will take on the unpleasant but completely renewing work of self-examination in these matters. That’s an aspect of what faith instills within us—taking the hand of Jesus and stepping out.
Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Currently Christ Church is the only location in Manhattan that serves a free hot meal to homeless and hungry people on Sunday evenings. We call it the Sunday Sharing Table. The census has fluctuated over the years, but I think we’re at roughly 120 or 130 meals today. When it started my first year here, back in 1987 by the Young Adults Fellowship, the times were so desperate that tickets were handed out starting about 4 o’clock at our side door with a long line snaking all the way around our building halfway down the block on Park Avenue. Not everyone who wanted a meal could be served in those days. The homeless population overwhelmed what few services were then being offered by the city and the religious communities.
But at that time we also had a healthy cadre of older retired persons and available volunteers who served another hot meal on Mondays, in their heyday serving as many as 250 customers. So each week we were serving around 400 meals. And we were a much smaller outfit in those days, still scrambling to rebuild a church family out the ashes of a near congregational collapse. But we were also establishing our identity as a community built on the fundamental mission to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. There was something clear and obvious about providing hospitality and good food to hungry people.
Over the years there has been conversation about the usefulness of providing this meal to people who clearly had many other more overwhelming needs, such as housing, medical, psychological, employment, etc. Occasionally someone asked if we weren’t fostering homelessness by our generosity, but the passion to provide food to hungry people without some litmus test has been a constant thread in our self-understanding at Christ Church.
Of course, we’ve had many other larger scale projects over the years that addressed other human needs in the city, nation, and world. We’ve done good work with a lot of hands and a great outpouring of financial generosity. But this simple work of providing a Sunday meal has maintained a fluctuating but steady stream of volunteers for more than 30 years now, serving as a useful touchstone for our life together.
I got to thinking about that this past week and did some quick math. Over three decades we’ve likely served more than 300,000 meals. I don’t know if that sounds like a lot to you or not. Considering the world’s hungry masses, I suppose it’s a mere proverbial drop in the bucket. On the other hand, as a stand-alone number, it seems like quite a few.
It reminds me of the famous story originally conceived by Loren Eiseley entitled “The Star Thrower.” You’ve likely heard it at some point along the way, and though it borders on cliché, it bears repeating here. By the way, we often discount clichés at our peril since they generally affirm what is fundamentally true.
“A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. As he approached, he called out, ‘Hello! What are you doing?’
The boy looked up and said, ‘I’m throwing starfish into the ocean’.
‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean? asked the man.
‘The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die,’ came the answer.
‘Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.’
The boy listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, ‘It made a difference for that one.’”
I’m imagining that back in 1987 if the original group of 5 or 6 young people had gotten together and said something like, “Let’s make a plan to serve 300,000 meals,” the first one might never have been made. Instead, they said something more like this: “There are hungry people on our streets. Let’s serve some of them a good hot meal with warm hospitality. Let’s see how many will come and if possible we’ll max out our space.” And now for more than 360 continuous months, that’s added up to quite a few starfish back into the sea, as it were.
And, like I said, as a congregation we didn’t just leave it at that given our many significant involvements over the years from Ghana to Colombia to Biloxi to New Orleans to the South Bronx and Harlem, to schools and community centers, refugee camps and decimated neighborhoods, as we took Jesus’ instruction to heart who told his disciples on their last night together that they were to love as he loved.
Setting that train of thought to the side for a minute, shift your attention with me to the gospel lesson; it began this way: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” That seems to be picking up a story we haven’t heart. Turns out he had just been told about the gruesome death of John the Baptist at the hand of King Herod—you might not recall any of the details other than this: beautiful Salome had asked for John’s head on a platter as her gift for dancing for the king. Brutal, ugly death. This news hit Jesus hard. And you likely could identify with a need to withdraw for your emotional recovery. Someone you love has come to an awful end. You need to get away from everything and everyone to process your grief. “Please just let me be alone for a while...”
But Jesus is something of a 1st-century celebrity at this point, and though he’s gone out into the wilderness, the desert, to be by himself, a great crowd learns of his withdrawal and follows after him. Then, rather than responding like we might, the text says, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Not only did he not send them away or retreat further, but instead, moved in among them, touching them, healing them, loving them. Maybe he did it with a tear-streaked face, from his own grief-fueled vulnerability, extending himself to others. That seems right to me, because, honestly, I know from my own experience that I am most deeply compassionate when connecting someone’s pain or difficulty with my own vulnerability.
Of course, the disciples as our stand-ins suggest he send them all away. They saw their opportunity as mealtime approached because the crowd had come into the wilderness where there wasn’t a handy McDonald’s, Shake Shack or nifty bodega. They say this to Jesus directly. “Send them off. We can’t manage them and they need to eat.” To which Jesus directly responds, “You give them something to eat.”
So they bring what they have, he blesses it and they take it and share. Low and behold, there is enough to feed 5000 people and more. By the way, this is the only story other than the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection that’s found in all four gospels, which suggests this story was very important for the early followers, at the heart of their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was about.
It also served as a clear reminder of the Last Supper that evolved into what we now call the Eucharist or Holy Communion, what we’ll be sharing today—taking bread, blessing it in Jesus’ name and memory, and sharing it among us. We each get just a little bit, but no one is to be excluded, all are welcome.
On that hillside in the wilderness, there was no litmus test for a dinner ticket, no questioning of motives or backgrounds. All one required was hunger. I suppose I could do a riff on their spiritual hunger as well, but the fact is their very human, material need was satisfied that day. They needed food. They each got their dinner, and then, eventually, they’d find their way home.
I’m thinking the disciples were likely daunted by the sheer size of the assembly—more than 5000. If maybe 6 or 8 persons had trudged out into the desert, they could imagine sharing what they had. But they thought too small. They weren’t yet connecting the dots on the meaning of Jesus’ compassion—how no one fell beyond the bounds of God’s grace and love.
Paul will later write to Jesus’ followers that they should all share the same mind as in Christ Jesus. We might ask, well what does that really mean? And we could look to the story of the feeding of the 5000 as a touchstone. The friends of Jesus were empowered to participate in Christ’s compassion for the world. And by the world, I mean individual persons with their unique stories and histories, tragedies, failures, and everyday struggles; people who got hungry and thirsty and crabby and lonely, like all of us.
I know it sounds really simple and basic, but this truth seems to escape the attention of otherwise well-meaning Christian folk, that the primary agenda of Jesus’ followers was simply to imitate his way in the world. We tend to make this overly complicated because it requires a daunting level of selflessness and humility, generosity and compassionate regard. We’d rather spend our time parsing doctrines and dogmas about right belief where we can assert our power and privilege and righteousness over against other folks. Honestly, that’s a much easier agenda. Tell me you don’t find it quite natural to judge people rather than love them and serve them. I know I do.
That’s why it’s such a relief to return to our communion table where I remember the essential truth of the matter. I am loved beyond my wildest imaginings…and so are you…and so is everybody else.
Genesis 28:10-19a; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Anyone here ever find yourself in a rut? The kind of rut that prevents you from moving forward, even though you know that it is necessary for you to move from your present situation? At times, the vicissitudes of life can weigh on us so heavily, until we need a little prodding, encouragement, and coaching to help us get moving. Perhaps it has been the experience of defeat or maybe just feelings of despair. Whatever the case, sometimes…
A revered and highly regarded pastor, prophet, and teacher of the 20th Century, The Reverend Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor, once said in a sermon, “Behind every worthy spiritual victory lies many a trial and more times than not many a defeat”(1).
That simple statement of Dr. Taylor lets me know that we often find ourselves facing more defeats than victories.
In our scripture found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, we don’t find an easy to follow a story about a main character or two. We do not find an obvious antagonist and protagonist - a person whose struggle from which we may vicariously learn lessons of faith. What Paul is trying to convey is larger than what we can learn from any one person’s story. Paul’s focus is in God. He is teaching us about the nature and character of God, explaining to us the hope we have in Christ who died for us and the office of the Holy Spirit which continues to advocate for us and guide us today. In fact, Paul has been trying to tell these believers that there is nothing we can do to nullify God’s faithfulness.
So, what we do find is a passage that frames the story of spiritual victory for those who follow God. Paul is like a coach to his followers here in Romans. We may not have proper names of great biblical figures, but there is still a struggle. Here he takes the posture of a spiritual coach trying to help his team to see the goal at the end of the experience before them. Because of his rhetorical language and rapid fire style of questions here, I am imagining a Debate Team, of sorts, for a highly respected college. Paul is that coach trying to impress upon his team that there is indeed a new life in Christ. He stresses the point of “free children of God” and “life as eschatological hope and love”(2).
Reading our lectionary epistle for the day conjures up a Spiritual Life Coach in the way of Paul for me. He reminds me of Denzel Washington’s character in the 2007 movie, "The Great Debaters." In his 4-star rating of this Christmas movie, Roger Ebert said,
"How many sports movies, or movies about underdogs competing in any way, have you seen that end in defeat? It is human nature to seek inspiration in victory, and this is a film that is affirming and inspiring and re-creates the stories of a remarkable team and its coach" (3).
Paul appears to be a Spiritual Life Coach speaking to the people of the Roman community. Not only is he presenting a game plan and a strategy for victory, Paul is telling us how to cope until the day Jesus returns. Within this most foundational, doctrinal, and theological book, Paul gives us these important writings to help develop the proper coping mechanisms for spiritual victory.
Paul, the Spiritual Life Coach, is adamant in telling the debate team that Christ has accomplished what, for Paul, the Law is not able to do: Christians are no longer condemned, slaves to sin in the flesh and to die; Christians are free spiritual beings who live with the promise that nothing – none of the world’s power – can separate them from the love of God (4).
We often extract verses of scripture from this most significant book in the New Testament to support our individual interests. We find verses of power to help us cope in this life. These are not simply Paul’s rhetoric, but these critical verses in our faith tradition that point us to spiritual victory, no matter the low places we find ourselves and the world in this life. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul says to us, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth…” (1:16b) –SPIRITUAL VICTORY! (5)
We find, “Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference; for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God…” (3:22-23) - SPIRITUAL VICTORY!
We see, “…but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience experience; and experience hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. [For when we were yet without strength in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (5:3-6)] - SPIRITUAL VICTORY!
I don’t know about you, but I thank God for Jesus this morning! For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:1-2) - SPIRITUAL VICTORY!
We find, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:35-39) - SPIRITUAL VICTORY!
And I’m glad about it! Today we ought to re-examine this message and see that Paul is telling us something he experienced firsthand – we can’t make it in this world by ourselves! (Consider the song – “People make the world go round.”) You might think very highly of yourself; that you are educated beyond degrees. Your knowledge is vast and your vocabulary, extensive. You are well-connected and even your children have got it going on, but you cannot make it by yourself! Paul wouldn’t even be writing to this church in Rome if someone else hadn’t started it. We may be reading some other books that didn’t make it into the canon of scripture if someone else had not gone out to start this church. One of his co-laborers, fellow ministry makers and discipleship directors... They may have added another gospel instead of this epistle. We might have been reading from the Gospel of Thomas, instead of this letter to the Romans. But, thanks be to God we are reminded today that while we have the victory as individuals who accept Jesus Christ, the community of faith which stands together can make a greater impact on the world for the Christian faith. For it tells us we aren’t so high and mighty by ourselves.
Too many of God’s creation today are trying to do things by themselves instead of recognizing that there is strength in numbers. Somebody in the body of faith today is being reminded that God did not leave you alone to walk this road, but the family walks with you. Someone outside of the faith, this morning, needs some encouragement that you are not alone in getting yourself together or doing the work of Christ.
Some of us cannot see God moving because we have been too busy focusing on other things! Gardner Taylor said,
"A famous surgeon in another country was congratulated on his amazing skill. How did he feel about it all, he was asked? He replied, ‘I can’t forget all of the lives I lost while learning my skill.’ God’s victories come by way of our defeats. This is a hard lesson to learn and many of us, most of us, will resist it" (6).
So even when we find ourselves facing despair or we’re in distress, disappointed or disgusted, despondent or depressed, our hope is in knowing who we are and whose we are! It is Jesus Christ who gives us strength! Therefore, it’s not about our past dejections or present depression; not our unavoidable disappointments nor our present disgusts, no matter the circumstance, it cannot separate us from the love of God (7)!
(1) Taylor, E. L. (2000). The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 2: Sermons from the Middle Years, 1970-1980. Judson Press: Valley Forge.
(2) Duling, D. C. and Perrin, N. (1994). The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History, 3rd Ed. Harcourt Brace College Publishers: Fort Worth, TX.
(3) www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-great-debators-2007. Retrieved on July 27, 2017.
(4) Duling and Perrin, 246.
(5) Holy Bible: The African American Jubilee Edition, King James Version (1999). American Bible Society: New York, NY.
(7) The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Ed., 2001. Oxford University Press, Inc., New York: NY.
Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52Read MoreLess
Isaiah 55:10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
As the story is told, Jesus had attracted a large crowd at the edge of the sea. So large in fact that he climbed into a boat to gain distance and perspective from all those gathered on the shore. Matthew reports that from this vantage point Jesus told one of his most famous and beloved parables. It’s famous for good reason—it’s a wonderful story that has been allegorized to death over the centuries.
A sower scatters seed with generous, even wasteful abandon in a wide arc. Lousy soil, rocks, thorn weeds and birds all prevent most of it from taking firm root. With unusual concern for his listeners’ understanding, Jesus interprets his storytelling; the various outcomes represent the responses of different persons to hearing the words of God’s kingdom, evidently, ironically in the moment, even the words heard from his own mouth on this very day on the seashore.
This moral is completely transparent, or course. Most kids can understand it at an early age. So, I’ll start my conversation by asking a simple and obvious question: Which one of the outcomes most represents you? Taking Jesus’ words at face value, overall, are you good soil or bad? Now I suppose that might seem a bit oxymoronic to ask since all of you have managed to come out to church on a hot summer day. But knowing myself as I do, while the answer might be “well, all things being equal, I’m pretty good soil thank you,” possibly the better answer might be, “honestly, much of the time I’m quite hard and crusty, sorry to say.”
If we spoke frankly to one another we’d have to admit that what we generally like to hear is confirmation of what we already think we know or believe. Most of the time we’re not hoping for some major corrective in our thinking, in our attitudes, our prejudices, and predispositions, our understanding of our place in the world. We prefer to hear all of those things confirmed. And we’ll actively seek out those persons and places that will do that for us. Frankly, we hold a pretty high opinion of our own opinions. And our technology today allows us to associate only with those who confirm our suspicion.
One of the most documented findings in human dynamics is that the average person believes very flattering things about him or herself—beliefs that do not stand up to objective analysis. For example, numerous studies reveal that the general public thinks that they are more intelligent, more fair-minded, less prejudiced, and more skilled behind the wheel of a car than the average person.
A survey of one million high-school seniors found that 70% thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2% thought they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with others, ALL students thought they were above average, 60% thought they were in the top 10% and 25% thought they were in the top 1%. A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were better at their jobs than their colleagues (Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So, The Free Press, New York, 1991, 77.).
These statistics simply document what we instinctively believe about ourselves—we like what we think and we like ourselves for it. So, if we had taken a survey today of what sort of soil you thought you were, it would have been a good bet to predict that the results would indicate a truckload of rich and loamy earth filling these pews.
But then, any given church service seems to promote cross-purposes. We certainly want to celebrate a foundational faith we all jointly affirm. We’re sisters and brothers together, bound by a common sacred ancestry—we have a holy bond having discovered each of us is one of God’s beloved offspring. And in this we long to hear God’s reassuring voice about who we are, how worthy we are, how wonderful and loved we are, how valuable and correct our opinions.
Yet my experience has been that on the rare occasion I realize God has just spoken, I’m shaken to my core. God’s voice truly heard rearranges the foundation blocks of our lives. It brings new and important information—often disrupting information. And while this voice has loving intention, it may come as a great interruption to our normal way of understanding ourselves and the world. You mean, I’m not the brightest bulb in the room? You mean I actually should work at loving my enemy?
Then again, most of the time I don’t hear the voice of God so profoundly. Truth is, much of the time I’m as impervious to it as the hard path upon which the seed fell, easily picked off by the circling birds.
Come to think of it, there seems a lot of waste on a Sunday morning (This tack on “waste” prompted by Will Willimon). Think of the cost of running this place Sunday to Sunday. I can tell you it costs a lot. And there’s no telling who will show up especially in the summer. And then there’s such a lot of words, a lot of music, even organized silence, spent with little return in our short, expensive hour given our predispositions to hear what we want to hear. It’s like a great profligacy of seed scattered in a wide arc.
True enough, all of us have a lot on our minds, running the gamut from a recent visit with a doctor, to startling news about a loved one, tomorrow’s work agenda, the current state of the markets, preoccupation with our national politics—matters ranging from the tragic, to the worrisome, to the joyful, to the mundane.
The crowds came out to hear Jesus, but would it make any difference in the end? He said it depended upon what sort of soil his seed-words fell. Hard to tell, really. Hard to know where the good soil might be found. For any given person it might depend on the day. He knew the people who came to listen were very attached to what they thought they already knew about themselves and their world. Scatter the seed, that’s about all he could do and hope for the best. Seems like a lot of waste in that.
And by the end of his short and seemingly wasted life, what did he have to show for his efforts? Executed as a criminal at a young age. Probably could have been a decent carpenter if he put his mind to it, have had a nice spouse, a number of kids, and been a credit to his village instead of an embarrassment if he had only stayed home.
As it was he managed twelve, maybe fifteen, twenty, couple of dozen, hard-core followers after his short career scattering seeds of what he referred to as the kingdom of God.
But that seems the point, then. From the sower’s perspective, the indiscriminate sowing is what allows for the harvest. Sure on any given day most of the seed doesn’t land in promising terrain, but the little that does produces a remarkable result. And there, in this very small and transparent story, we see a snapshot of how God moves and works in the world among humans. God makes the seeming impossible, possible. God sows abundance in the midst of scarcity.
At any one time, in any one place, the words of the kingdom don’t need to land and produce 100%, or 80, 50, 20, even 5%. This is a very hopeful story, really. Hanging around the church one can sometimes get accustomed to what seems a very modest result at any given moment. Ironically, don’t we follow a man whose friends abandoned him at his moment of greatest need? Aren’t they our forebears?
Nevertheless, something of what Jesus said and lived, some fertile germ of understanding took root. Something of who Jesus was landed on patches of fertile soil because here we are gathered together, 2000 years later—even with all of our preoccupations—when we might be spending our time at the shore, in the park, or in bed with the Times on our iPad and a cup of coffee.
There’s great vulnerability to God’s way in the world. God’s words and wisdom are subject to all the adverse conditions found in hostile environments. Yet, there seems a never-ending indiscriminate sowing of God’s truth, love and hope. Sometimes it lands, takes hold and spreads deep roots because that seems to be part of the warp and woof of creation—life, and hope and love will have its day.
Such a sowing took place on the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street nine decades ago. The plant that sprung from the crusty soil between the subterranean crossing of the N and the R subways and the Metro North railroad, between the traffic-filled streets of a mid-town nexus in the largest city in the nation—right there in that hard-packed geography—that plant, though weathering long droughts, has lifted branches that have formed a sanctuary of hope.
Friends, when you go about your business beyond these walls, when on the occasion you consciously wonder why you should bother to regularly put your faith into action in the small, seemingly inconsequential moments of the day—a conversation here, a decision there, standing for integrity in the middle of a very difficult adversity or offering a cup of water to a thirsty soul you would rather ignore—remember that our God sows indiscriminately, showering fertile, rocky, and weed-infested soil alike with the blessings of the kingdom. If not for that, where would hope be found? As it is, the offspring of such a God can’t help but follow the patterns of their spiritual DNA and sow the seeds of the kingdom with a generous, even wasteful abandon.
Here is one very important setting we’re not to worry about an outcome. Just like God we’re supposed to share and live the good news of God’s astonishing grace with indiscriminate abandon as though we actually believed that this grace holds the essence of life-energy and will take root wherever it can. Why on earth would we withhold from anyone, anywhere, such an incredible gift? Generous is the name of our God. So, too, by birthright, all of God’s children carry that name as well.
Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The small upstate township where Melissa and I have a house in the woods hosts a 4th of July celebration in the old historic theatre on Main Street. The main event is the reading of the Declaration of Independence by several prominent townspeople, followed by a local brass ensemble and general good fun with lots of kids. This year I got to thinking about the famous sentence that states: "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." Do you believe you have an unalienable right to happiness? That's the question that came to mind.
Actually, Thomas Jefferson's first draft said, "We hold these truths to be sacred." Benjamin Franklin edited out the word "sacred" and wrote instead, "self-evident," because Franklin believed the reasonable, self-evident nature of these truths were the basis of our founding lest the government seem to derive its legitimacy from religion per se.
The tension implied in that small edit concerning the basis of political authority dogged the founding of our nation and remains to the present day. But whether sacred or self-evident, do you believe you have a right to happiness? I think that's the way the phrase has insinuated itself into our consciousness. Notice I dropped a few words. I said, "a right to happiness" as opposed to the original, "a right to the pursuit of happiness." Somewhat different things, really. The former suggests a universal human entitlement. The latter a universal human goal.
I think we like the shorter version best: we have the right to happiness. This has become something of a modern proverb with a seeming biblical imprimatur, not unlike the phrase, "God helps those who help themselves." When told that's not in the Bible some are inclined to respond, "Well, it ought to be!" And of course one of the reasons we gather on Sundays is to set the record straight — to listen for the truth that's larger than our version so that our version can more nearly conform to what is in fact true.
Checking historical sources for the exact wording of the Declaration, I noticed a bit of revisionist history. One resource reads, "The signers of the Declaration believed it was obvious that "all men" are created equal and have rights that cannot be taken away from them. By ‘all men,' the signers meant people of every race and both sexes."
Hmmm. Actually, you'll remember that even though the Declaration preceded the Constitution, the Constitution did not guarantee the so-called "equal," "self-evident," and "unalienable" rights for African Americans and women. That would take the Civil War, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th & 14th Amendments, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement to advance. The aftershocks of those revolutions of liberty continue to the present moment.
And the issue of "happiness," that also continues to evolve to the present moment. Whether entitlement or goal, would you say happiness is the largest outcome you desire for your life? You might respond by asking, "Well, Steve, that depends upon what we mean by ‘happiness,' doesn't it?" And we could begin to parse the word's several meanings. That would be useful, because if we think we do have a "right" to it, or at least a "right to pursue it" – a right that's immutable and inalienable – it's important to know just what sort of thing we're after.
Recall the well-beloved words in Matthew's gospel known as the Beatitudes, sometimes called "the bless-eds". In order to make them more accessible, one modern translation presents them this way: "Happy...are the spiritually poor…Happy are those who mourn…Happy are those who are humble…Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires…Happy are those who are merciful…Happy are the pure in heart…Happy are those who work for peace…Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires…" Evidently, the translators chose "happy" since we have little appreciation of being "blessed".
Yet these blessed conditions are very different from what passes for happiness today—they have nothing to do with material desires, for instance. Within popular culture, doesn't happiness equate with having stuff and things accompanying a relatively carefree life? Ever-onward upward mobility, graced with good lovin', good food, good times and good health?
The idea that life owes us a mixture of well-sated desires, that this is the true goal of life, is an idea that dies hard. Pastoral experience reveals this as one of the fundamental dilemmas for American Christians: the blending of quasi-religious, political platitudes in a cultural soup serving up a narcissistic spirituality, which leads to an expectation that God is there primarily to deliver the goods to people who are pursuing their happiness. And the word "people" here can denote a privileged group boundaried by hard borders and miserly visa quotas lest the humble, poor, and mournful unwashed compete for seemingly scarce happiness resources.
And as for that, wasn't it interesting to hear from Deuteronomy that one aspect of God's justice pertains to how well we receive the foreigner—in other words, the quality of our hospitality; our willingness to share what we have with those who don't.
A minister recounts a story about a pious woman whose prayer group prayed for a set of color-coordinated kitchen appliances for one of its members. Eventually, the appliances arrived at the member's home through the economy of an easy payment plan over an extended period of time, affirming to the group the efficacy of their deep trust in God (Joanna Adams, "Living by the Word," The Christian Century, 6/28/03, Vol. 120, No. 13, 18.).
Our pervasive assumptions about desire and happiness dog all of us in a culture of extraordinary affluence for some, but desired by all. And it dogs religion. And this dog has a voracious appetite.
Which isn't to say that good appliances are a bad thing. On the contrary, good appliances are a good thing. But along with all material conditions we strive for, they cannot substitute for the sort of happiness of which Jesus spoke, as obvious as that statement may seem. You know the drill on this. You know the anxieties, the worries, the jealousies, the envies, the back-biting, the betrayals, the crushing disappointments all in the pursuit of some very earthbound happiness.
But here's the truth: our religion is based upon a terribly unsuccessful man, at least from the world's point of view. The man emblazoned in our mosaics is there because the world thought him a traitor and a grave threat, judged him guilty and sentenced him to a state execution. We might well ask, "What does happiness have to do with it?" And given our usual puny definitions, we'd have to say, "very little."
Now I want to be reasonably successful, just like the next person; I have the opinion that success will bring me some happiness and within certain limits there's some truth in that.
But when I plumb the depths of Jesus' story, I'm more than just a little perplexed by what success might look like if I really follow his lead. Certainly, if we're coming to church to learn how to acquire our personal equivalent of color-coordinated appliances, we're missing the point.
And don't dismiss this because you have all the appliances you need. Think about every other possible thing you believe you need, must have, in order to live fully, completely, as a whole person, freely pursuing your so-called happiness. And then consider how this pursuit becomes an enormous burden given our tendency to make secondary ends our primary drivers.
A few minutes ago you heard Jesus say to his listeners, "Come to me, all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).
That first sentence about releasing our burdens is among the most treasured sayings of Jesus. Receiving those words can be like a drink of life-saving water for someone dying of thirst. I have found that so a time or two in my life.
But honestly, we tend to ignore the phrase that invites us to take on his yoke. We're not entirely certain we like the sound of that. In fact, it sounds kind of contradictory, doesn't it? Our rest will be found in taking on a yoke? Taking on a yoke sounds the opposite of freedom. But that's the paradoxical faith we profess. Laying down our burden at the feet of Jesus, taking on his light yoke, we find our true rest, even, our heart's deepest desire. I'm thinking we might usefully call this, happiness.
So here, at the end, comes as an invitation to set down the burden of your pursuit. Let it go. Take on the light yoke Jesus offers instead. Try it on. You'll find it fits your need like a glove and with it comes a freedom you never could possibly have imagined.
The story of Abraham is not an easy one to read or preach. It begins with God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham unquestioningly agrees, and he takes Isaac on this journey to sacrifice him to God. What are we to make of this? How can we reconcile God's command with the overarching biblical message of God's love? This text is so theologically challenging that some commentators suggest that we should not preach it. Others suggest that we not even read this passage in worship service. And there are a few who would go so far as to say that the scriptures are wrong--that God did not say this to Abraham. But those of us who believe the scriptures --who take them seriously--must wrestle with this account. We cannot get through anything that doesn't fit with us.
This story certainly doesn't fit with our contemporary sensibilities. It is completely out of our comfort zone. While child sacrifice may have been a common practice in the Ancient Near East, we certainly don't condone child sacrifice today. We even question why it was ever a practice. We believe in the sanctity of life, that children are our future, that young lives matter. But if we're honest with ourselves, we still sacrifice children today. Consider Alan Kurdi. He was only three years old when his body washed up on the Syrian shore after the boat full of refugees capsized. Consider Kanari Gentry-Bowers. She was twelve years old when she died from a bullet that was aimed at someone else. Consider Nylah Lewis. She was 16 months old when her father beat her nearly to death on Father's Day.
We may not go up on a mountain with a knife, but we sacrifice our children in different ways. When we refuse to enact tougher gun laws, we sacrifice our children! When we cut food stamps and school meals, we sacrifice our children. When we turn away the refugee who needs help, we sacrifice our children. When we cut programs that help parents care for their families, we sacrifice our children.
Not only do we sacrifice young children, but we also sacrifice God's children of all ages. The ill. The poor. The displaced. Except unlike Abraham, we aren't even sacrificing our children to the Most High God. Today we're sacrificing our children to the gods of money, greed, and selfishness.
Why? Do we believe there's no other way? Have we bought into the notion that in order for some people to have, others must be without? That some people must be casualties of the system for the system to work? After all, there have always been poor people. And Jesus said there would always be poor people. And earlier this year, one congressman even referenced Jesus' word as justification to cut Medicaid.
However, Jesus wasn't telling us to throw our hands up in resignation. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15, where God outlined economic practices for the community. After telling them to forgive debts every 7 years, God says, "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land."
God commands us to be generous with the poor. God does not command us to take advantage of the poor; to cut their programs to balance the budget; to force poor people to pull themselves up by non-existent bootstraps. After all, the existence of the poor is an indictment against us, because God has provided enough for everyone. We don't provide for the poor because we fear scarcity. That there won't be enough money. There won't be enough food. There there aren't enough supplies for housing. But we throw away enough food each year to feed the world and waste enough resources to care for the whole world. But we have to trust that God will provide.
That's what Abraham did in this story. He trusted that God would provide even when he didn't know how. And he exercised his faith. When God told Abraham to take Isaac to Moriah, Abraham rose the next day and started on the journey with his son and two servants. Now when I say that Abraham exercised his faith, that doesn't mean he didn't experience fear. He was still human. He feared losing his son as much as any parent fears losing a child. But he didn't let his fear stop him. This wasn't the first time that God told Abraham to do something that would be frightening. When Abram was 75, God told him to leave his home and family and go to a place that Abraham didn't yet know. Maybe now, all these years later, Abraham understood that even though he was afraid, God would take care of him. And that same God will take care of us.
Fear is natural. We all feel it sometimes. A friend of mine once said, "Leslie, you're not afraid of anything." And I replied, "I'm afraid all the time. I just do things afraid." Fear tells us that there aren't enough resources to go around. Fear tells us that we only have what our hands we can produce. Fear tells us that helping others will leave us in need. But we can't let fear stop us because the more you work through your fear, the easier it becomes to push past it.
Abraham may have been afraid. He may have questioned how the current situation would work out. But he believed God's promise of many descendants. When he and Isaac left the servants to continue forward, Abraham said that they would go worship and come back. When Isaac inquired about a lamb for the burnt offering, Abraham replied that God would provide. He didn't know what would happen, but he knew who was in control. For Abraham to say, the Lord will provide, marked a change in his faith. So many of Abraham's prior actions were rooted in his efforts to figure things himself. He pretended that his wife was his sister. He had a baby with Hagar to try to help fulfill God's promise. He sent Hagar and Ishmael away to appease his wife. But none of these situations were ideal, and Abraham's mess-ups taught him that he needed to trust God.
Like Abraham, trusting God is what we must do when we are afraid. Right now in our country, we don't know how we can ensure healthcare. We don't know how we can balance the budget. We don't know how we can maintain programs that create a safety net. We are afraid that some people's prosperity depends on the poverty of other people. But we can trust that God can and will provide. Abraham was about to follow the customs of that time and sacrifice his child to God. But just as he was about to do the expected thing, God provided a ram in the bush. And just when we are about to do the same old thing, follow the same old customs, try the same old policies, God can provide us something unexpected.
That requires our faith. The kind of faith that allows us to put one foot in front of the other even when we don't know exactly where we're going. Faith that allows us to move outside of our comfort zones. Faith that reminds us that we don't have to sacrifice our children for the greater good. And not only do we need faith, but we need to be in the right place. The Bible says that Abraham and Isaac came to the place that God showed Abraham, and there they built the altar. But Abraham was also in a spiritual place where he could hear God's voice. Even when he didn't know what God was doing, he didn't shut God out. And good thing he didn't because he later needed to hear the voice that said No! This story might have turned out very differently if Abraham had been in the wrong physical or spiritual place. Abraham could have missed the provision that God had for if he had been determined to go his own way.
Likewise, we must be in the place God has us and ready to hear God's voice. Being in place means being ready to do what God says to do. It means being willing to hear a change of plans. It means recognizing that God's plan is always the best plan.
And while we're trying to figure it out, God is already working it out. The Bible says that God's ways are higher than our ways and God's thoughts higher than our thoughts, so trust God. If there's a situation in your life that you can't figure out, trust God. If there's something with your health, trust God. If there's something in your family, trust God. If there's something with your job, trust God. If there's something in your marriage, trust God. The Bible says that God is able to do exceedingly and abundantly above all we can ask or think. Trust God. Jehovah Jireh is ready to provide.
Matthew 10:24-39Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35-10:8
Over thirty years ago now, early in my time as a minister, a new congregant told of how he had lost a son during his 4th birthday party. The boy had choked on a carrot stick stuck in his trachea that a vigorous Heimlich maneuver could not dislodge—as you can imagine, an excruciating, unbearable loss.
Statistically, couples that experience the accidental death of a small child frequently wind up in divorce. Shame and guilt are major culprits, and the subsequent need to blame the other in order to escape a sense of responsibility. And then, the simple physical presence of one’s spouse conjures a kind of living memory of the child that can sponsor an awful Groundhog Day experience of relentlessly reliving the tragedy.
In this case, the couple was still accountable for parenting a two-year-old sibling, so, lost in their grief, they turned to a therapist who tragically fell in love with my new friend’s spouse—a colossal misadventure of what’s called in psychology, countertransference, the therapist chalked up as “true love.” Divorce ensued, and her marriage to the therapist. Dad retained custody of the sibling child and after several years moved to a new town and a fresh start. It was then that he showed up at my church.
Time flowed forward for a while when I got a call from this same Dad in a hospital emergency room; his younger son had been struck by a truck while bike riding on a busy highway. Dad could hardly choke out that he was in critical condition. I told him I was on my way.
I sat with him for hours waiting some word about his son’s condition. I was a pretty capable up-and-comer minister but bereft of any useful wisdom at that moment when he quietly asked me about faith, as in, where did you get it? I mumbled some well-intentioned pious gobbledygook but mostly realized that simply being there was the best response I had. This was no time for either a deep theological conversation or pious platitudes. It was a moment for holy presence and solidarity. Words weren’t going to be especially helpful just then. I knew they would be necessary eventually.
A trauma specialist finally emerged and reported that his son would likely survive. He’d have a long recovery, and while there was no guarantee for 100% restoration, there was a good chance for that, or something close.
This was a seminal pastoral moment for me, probably because I had two small children of my own then, just in my early 30’s. I over-identified. And on the drive home I realized it was possible to distance myself from the human pain by retreating into my head to theologize about the vagaries of the human condition.
But many of you know tragedy firsthand, how disorienting it is and how easy to forget the placement of handholds and footholds for staying steady when the ground falls out from under our feet. And the frantic flailing about for perspective.
Those who think deeply about this human situation will come to realize there is finally no truly satisfying answer to the question of, why? That was Job’s dilemma—the existential question of why bad things can happen to good people.
But that really wasn’t my friend’s question. His was different. He wasn’t grappling with the why of it; he accepted that life could be difficult and at times tragic. He understood that sometimes people were at fault and sometimes not. His question was more along the lines of, given that this is the way life is, how can I endure? Sitting in that hospital waiting room I think he was wondering how he would be able go forward if his second son died. Honestly, that question crept into my mind on his behalf. How indeed...
Now in services like this we have the opportunity to sit quietly and think deeply about things like this. We enter this space with our own story to tell, our own encounter with vexing problems, our own scars as well as triumphs—it’s certainly important to celebrate our triumphs, too. But the heart of the human drama concerns the struggle of making our way through and around problems and obstacles. That’s what all of our great literature entails—the struggle for wisdom and awareness in the midst of problems and obstacles.
Our scriptures are filled with stories like these. They drive the narrative. That’s a great strength because it doesn’t mince words about our reality. The Bible deals unflinchingly with the human dilemma of being born and having to die and the physical and moral conundrums that dog us in the meantime.
So, for instance, Sarah and Abraham have wanted a son their whole lives. As this seminal story is told—the backbone of the three so-called Abrahamic faiths—Abraham heard God’s voice tell him to “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you...So Abram went...” He prospered but after many years Sarah is still childless and now evidently beyond childbearing years. This is why she laughs when she hears the words of the three strangers that she will bear a son.
Part of the wisdom here pertains to the recurrent theme that God will have the day, that abundant life is the outcome that’s woven into the creation fabric. Remember those words on our walls that I’ve referred to before: “Wait on the Lord. Be of good courage.” & “Let not your heart be troubled.” Teachings like these refer to the fundamental reality that God will not be deterred from bringing laughter out of heartache, renewal out of decay, and life out of death. his is the recurrent scriptural message that finds its culmination in resurrection.
And again, we must never forget that resurrection was born from awful tragedy, which is why it’s such a fantastic truth. At its heart the message is clear: nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from God’s great love. Nothing. This is the seminal truth of our religious tradition. Everything else is derivative.
Now in the meantime each of us must walk the path that’s set before us. A lot of our misery is of our own making, of course. But then some things seem to come straight at us from out of left field. But in either case the holy dictum stands firm and true: God intends good for us, we haven’t been forgotten, and our lives rest in God’s hands. Our job is simply to accept and revel in this truth. That’s the essence of faith.
That’s what Paul wants to affirm with his friends in Rome when he tells them that through their relationship with the Risen Christ they possess this same faith, and given that this risen Christ suffered a terrible death he was completely present to them in their own sufferings. As Paul concludes, we can actually “boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
The definition of faith here is nearly the equivalent of “having a relationship with.” In other words, having a relationship with the risen Christ allows us to endure suffering in such a way that leads to a hopeful future. Why is this? Because God intends good for us. We haven’t been forgotten and our lives rest in God’s hands. How is this confirmed? By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Faith then is a leap into the arms of God. It’s not entirely rational. If it were, it wouldn’t be faith. By the same token, it’s not exactly irrational either. Our very existence is evidence of something remarkable and wonderful afoot in the world. Again, as our scriptures make clear, all of creation gives evidence of God’s life-abundant nature.
This doesn’t negate the reality that life can be difficult. That truth is perfectly obvious even if we struggle to disprove it, as though it shouldn’t be difficult for me. That’s where a lot of our agony lays, in the misguided assumption that I should have special dispensation from vexing problems.
What we all have is simply life in all of its richness and complexity, beauty and agony, sorrow and joy. My friend and I wound up having a number of conversations about all of this. His faith blossomed as did his life. Eventually he fell in love again and married. The family thrived and life advanced. Before I left that congregation he wanted me to know that though it seemed a nearly impossible outcome, he had actually come to know joy and peace and hope…and he was a very grateful man.
Proverbs 8:1-4; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
In recent months I’ve taken to listening to National Public Radio when I’m driving. I had been only a sporadic listener over the years, knowing it primarily through the lens of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, but never adopting a steady diet. If I want music, classical or jazz is what I’ll generally tune in to in the car, although, I have eclectic musical interests. I’m also a fan of silence when I’m by myself. I drive a lot in silence.
I’m not sure why it took me so long, but I’ve newly discovered NPR’s really interesting programming. For instance, a recent installment of Marketwatch Weekend was devoted primarily to the financial concerns of millennials and covered a lot of territory including the current job situation for recent graduates; how to choose a career path, or not; tips for establishing credit; which credit cards are best; how to think about the difference between renting and buying; and the precarious state of education debt—how to think about that and manage it.
The program was creatively produced and even though I have several decades on millennials, I learned a few things. Wished I had access to media like that forty years ago.
When it came to an end I turned the radio off. In the ensuing silence I wondered if any millennials had been listening. Then my mind took flight on a number of topics like, how much audio/visual noise typically fills our days and how satisfying to actually hear something worthwhile.
I was aware that the reason I heard it was due to a traffic accident that kept me trapped in the car traveling at a snail’s pace, stop-and-go, for over an hour. I was traveling slow enough to see a lot of drivers staring down at their phones. One guy behind the wheel of a tow truck had the heel of both hands on the steering wheel texting with both thumbs while managing a smoldering cigarette with an overhung ash about to fall into his lap—a multi-tasking nightmare. At one point he glanced over at me, our eyes connected, he smirked and went back to his texting.
As readers of my Faith Matters blog know I’ve been brooding about our problem with keeping our attention on things that matter most given the proliferation of addictive technologies; most presently, how our neurotic attachment to electronics for every scrap of late-breaking news, tweets, posts, pics, opinions, rants, whatnot and hooha drags us down a rabbit hole of inconsequential distraction while ramping up our touchy reptilian emotions and aggressive tribalistic tendencies.
Apple, Google, Facebook, and maybe Amazon, too, have garnered a monopoly on our attention, feeding us our own entrails based on what we click.
It’s been said that we live in the age of ubiquitous information. The whole world is available to us in an instant. Have a question? Just ask Siri. I do. Out at dinner and a question comes up to which no one knows the answer, out comes the mechanical brain linked invisibly to an impossibly complicated network of information feeds that leads to a near instantaneous answer.
In this way everyone’s a genius—I think that reality hasn’t really sunk in yet, especially for the generations who haven’t grown up with this technology since birth. We don’t have to download anything into our local wet-work hard drive—otherwise known as our individual brains—‘cause we’re now just one raindrop in a ubiquitous cloud of information that’s a nanosecond away from consciousness.
As far as Google or Facebook is concerned, that’s our primary relevance—individual collection points of information bits they can add to their fantastical database, keeping us hooked up by feeding us stuff they know we like.
Don’t get me wrong: the opportunity this technology presents is fantastically awesome. It’s extremely hard to resist; in fact, as time advances its clear we’re on an absolutely fixed path into what used to be considered a science fiction future when human and machine are one—what some futurists call the great singularity—only the latest version of utopia or Shangri-La.
In these early decades, however, a devastating problem has emerged that anyone can see if they take the time to do the equivalent of turning off the radio for the sake of quiet contemplation. Awash in the tidal force of information intoxication, we’re tempted by the proposition that all information bits are equal, nothing is more inherently more important, more “true” than anything else.
This has now given rise to the ubiquity of “alternative facts,” left and right, that simply reinforce what we already think, to which all of us are susceptible, no matter our political, religious, or cultural persuasion. In this way, we actually become stupider, not smarter. Inevitably we succumb to the chaotic undertow of the information tsunami by the simple coincidence of our living in the twenty-first century.
But here’s the emergent truth: information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. Our technology is an absolutely fantastic conduit of information first, and knowledge second, but we’re discovering that it simultaneously mitigates wisdom. And here’s the thing: true wisdom is the height of human flourishing.
This is a huge problem for the church because from one vantage point we could say that the whole purpose of our spiritual enterprise is for the sake of gaining wisdom. Proverbs tells us that wisdom was the first thing God created and that wisdom informed and participated in everything that came later. Wisdom is the capacity to discern what’s true and real at heart of all things.
Elsewhere scripture teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, in other words, understanding that God is the first principle behind all things. Well, you can see what a hard sell that is in our current cultural moment. It sounds downright quaint and irrelevant what with all the tweeting and posting and instagramming. The church attempts to make use of these same tools in service of its message, but even so, over the last decade a church like this has become quite counter-cultural, and from my point of view, more necessary than ever precisely because we’re in the business of fostering human wisdom.
Information is a collection of data bits and facts that may or may not be true or accurate. Knowledge is the accumulation of facts that you have learned about or experienced. It’s being aware of something, and holding data bits. Higher knowledge is really about facts and ideas that we acquire through study, research, investigation, observation, or experience.
But wisdom is the ability to discern and judge which aspects of that knowledge are true, right, lasting, and applicable to our lives. It’s the ability to apply that knowledge to the greater scheme of life. It also drills deeper; knowing the meaning or reason; about knowing why something is, and what it means to your life; and finally, discovering what matters most of all (1).
That’s the business we’re in here at Christ Church. And that’s the business that’s under water today because we are so enamored, addicted, if you will, to the astonishing distractions of our 24/7 connection with the wondrous cloud that holds a thousand delights of gaming, and consorting with like-minded people, and music and video and pictures galore at a relentlessly breakneck pace. We seem never to turn it off. First thing in the morning, last thing at night…and every moment in between.
Take the guy driving the tow truck while texting and smoking. He can’t possibly gain wisdom from this behavior because wisdom dictates that his human flourishing begins by tossing the cig out the window and turning off the phone. Wisdom might dawn one day when he crosses the median to hit an on-coming car and now lies prone in a hospital bed…actually, we could hope it would dawn if it came to that.
But you see the point, you see how difficult it can be to muster your will to actually follow through in the meantime. I don’t mean to pick on that guy especially because I realized that but by the grace of God he was a stand-in for me in that moment.
So then this all boils down to a very simple proposition. As you know, I like to give you simple homework assignments. Today I’m suggesting that you take up a mantra prayer that you hold in your heart for the remainder of the month. Easy enough, right? It only has five words so there’s no excuse for memory’s sake.
Here it is: “Holy God, grant me wisdom.” It’s best if you pray this disconnected from technology. But you might discover that if you hold it in heart and mind you will want to disconnect—the prayer itself will lead you there.
You don’t have to stay disconnected forever, of course, as if that were really possible. That’s not my point. In fact, it seems the awesome potential of our advancing technology can only be guaranteed by our gaining true wisdom.
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53Read MoreLess
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Have you noticed how your news and messaging feeds are festooned with superlatives? Exclamation points proliferate—even in simple text messages about inconsequential matters. Meet you at 3!!!—exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point! Having chicken for dinner!!! And superlatives saturate politics and advertising of every type. Currently our language is drowning in superlatives.
Pressure to generate clicks through headline exaggeration has led to the proliferation of superlatives across the media. X is bad therefore it is labeled the worst. Y is good therefore it is branded the best. Some examples I’ve culled from internet comment pieces include: “Are millennials the worst generation ever?” “Is this the best vacuum cleaner ever?” “This is the worst government ever.”
A new movie was announced as, “Wonderful! Outstanding! Engrossing! Inspiring! Superb! Breathtaking!” Another was “The most powerful film of the year, a knockout of high drama, passionate emotion and electrifying intelligence!” And another was “Brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined, fabulously detailed.” And yet one more declared, “A miracle, huge, extraordinary!” Exclamation points everywhere.
Mimicking the standing ovations that now occur at every Broadway show without regard for the actual quality of the production, we surmise these superlatives are the essential advertising ingredient for our time. Addicted to superlatives, perhaps we hope that a film that is wild and irresistible, dazzling and wonderful just might rub off since we seem to believe life should consist of one breathtaking and utterly original experience after another.
Of course, you could easily name the politician who perfectly matches our current moment with his use of superlatives, especially in reference to himself. A perfect cultural match.
Was there ever a time that life was thought to be built on things like Patience! Forbearance! Forgiveness! Compassion!? What type of experience would help us enjoy more of our real lives? --Real, meaning actual, not an inflated artificial alternative. And if we found that experience wouldn’t that be wonderful, inspiring, outstanding and deeply satisfying?
This is one way to think about what we do here—offering a quietly subversive message about the things that actually matter for human flourishing. The agenda we assert at Christ Church floats under the cultural radar that is otherwise alit with breathtaking and utterly original experiences and personalities adorned in superlatives and exclamation points. This fascination with the new and original drives the engines of our capital markets.
It seems that our work in here—the values we affirm and advance in this remarkably vital city—compete against the “brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined and fabulously detailed” for our attention. Christian New Yorkers can seem to suffer from spiritual ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder), constant distraction from the things that matter most.
So, for instance, attending to something as homely as regular worship requires a degree of intentionality in this city that is itself rather breathtaking. I’m aware that we wouldn’t normally put those two words together: “breathtaking intentionality.” But that’s why I find the Sunday shared experience more genuinely inspiring than most other things we might name.
I suppose it’s not quite “A miracle! Huge! Extraordinary!” but it does come by way of “breathtaking intentionality” beginning with the people who committed themselves to building this unusual church on the corner of Park and 60th in the first place, and all the others who followed, maintaining the continuous community of faith with their time and treasure, right down to this hour on May 21, 2017 with all of us: breathtaking intentionality. You probably didn’t think of your presence in this sanctuary like that this morning, but there it is.
I recognize I’m preaching to the choir this morning. You likely have an instinct for what I’m talking about. After all, here you are. And I say, good for us!
This track in my thinking was triggered by the passage you heard from Acts recounting Paul’s presence in Athens, the center of classical Greek learning and culture. The story takes place at the Areopagus, which is a hill next to the Acropolis. It held a temple to Mars, the God of war, otherwise known as Mars Hill.
Paul allows how extremely religious these Greeks seem to be, given their devotion to so many gods—he finds idols everywhere, even an altar with the inscription, “to an unknown god,” which Paul takes as an opportunity for telling them about the God Paul worships. Here’s a bit of the drama leading up to this moment…
While Paul was…in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there… Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
That last phrase, “all the Athenians would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” caught my attention. Couple this fascination for anything new with the Athenian propensity to worship at many, many altars and we seem to have an ancient facsimile of post-modern urbanity. Devotion to the new and worship of many idols… Of course, our idols are not as tangible today. I’m not certain what a contemporary equivalent of the Mars Hill might be, (the bull down on Wall Street?) but from the biblical point of view, idolatry has always been humanity’s major problem, our first order sin, our deadly fundamental mistake—honoring something other than God the creator of all things with our primary allegiance.
Often claiming center stage for ourselves, trusting in our derivative powers above all others we forget that we are creatures only, not the creator. That’s why Paul tells the Athenians that their unknown god is none other than “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things… In him we live and move and have our being…”
Experience reveals that this most obvious truth is among the most difficult for us humans to hang on to. We so yearn to be brilliantly inventive, boldly imagined and fabulously detailed, not to mention a miracle, huge, and extraordinary, that we’ll step out of the lesser-seeming path blazed by a man with a cross who has a bead on the things that matter most of all. It’s so very easy to lose track of that, isn’t it? --in the land of abounding superlatives and exclamation points…
Which leads me to say that the point of this message for those of us who have managed to make our way to church in a fantastic city with an array of breathtaking distractions comes down to this: when you step back out onto the sidewalk and make your way into your otherwise mundane experience, remember, always remember who’s who and what’s what. Remember that our God is not contained in any shrine to commerce, self-fulfillment or superlative experience—even this shrine, which, as Christian shrines go, is pretty darn spectacular.
When you walk back into your personal relationships, when back at work, when looking for love, when shopping for more stuff, when thinking about how you’ll be organizing your lives, when reflecting about what all the hours of all your days are finally adding up to, hang on to your first principle: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…this one alone gives to all mortals life and breath and all good things… In him we live and move and have our being.
1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
This past week I made a pastoral visit to an old friend of mine, Thomas Lane Butts who lives in Monroeville, Alabama, which is also former hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of you may recall that during my first decade here, Tom filled in for me for about a month each summer so I could get away with my family. In those days, I was very much a “one man band” and needed pastoral relief. Tom loved New York and always relished this opportunity.
I met Tom through a mutual friend almost 40 years ago, when I was in my late twenties, and though he was more than 20 years my senior, we took an instant liking to each other and I have valued our friendship and his mentorship in a variety of ways over the decades. Recently I felt the pastoral urge to visit him since, now at the age of 87, he’s become extremely frail and homebound. We had a good visit. It was poignant, nostalgic and bittersweet.
Now Tom happened to be friends with Nelle Harper Lee—they grew up within 10 miles of each other—so he was very familiar with the cultural historical context of her famous novel, the malignant racism. And, as it happens, Nelle Harper was a friend of Christ Church, which I found out through Tom. Many of her adult years were spent here in New York where she lived a secluded life, but having been raised a Methodist, from time to time she would slip into a back pew here after the service had started and slip away before it ended. Through Tom I had opportunity to spend some time with her and she was a guest in my home on several occasions. Back in Monroeville, Tom often became her public face because she refused to be interviewed, give speeches, or otherwise consent to any exposure whatsoever. Harper was militantly reclusive.
In terms of Tom’s lifetime portfolio, this was but one small chapter. He has tracked a colorful life arc that involved many adventures—and a couple of misadventures, too—that has always been characterized by compassionate regard for absolutely everyone who crossed his path. He is highly unusual in this way, completely non-judgmental, always at the ready to intervene in crises of every sort. Do you have someone in your life that you could trust with your life no matter what? No matter the circumstance? Someone who would stand with you immediately, without hesitation regardless of what you may have done? Tom’s that person.
He grew up dirt poor—he’d say his father was dirt farmer. Of course, he’d be quick to add that as a child everyone was poor so they didn’t have perspective on their poverty. On the other hand, he also knew that there were others far worse off, the separated African Americans who were severely boundaried and set apart in that region of our nation in those days.
During my visit, Tom was in something of a reminiscent frame of mind and I had the opportunity to quiz him about some things I was curious about. For instance, his early advocacy for racial justice. He told me he doesn’t really know how he came to that. But as a child he recognized that how black folks were treated wasn’t right. It was completely obvious to him, though he was frequently told by adults that he’d understand one day. Of course, he never did come to see things the way the majority did and this got him into trouble once in a while.
For instance, after returning from graduate studies in Chicago and receiving his first appointment at a church in Mobile in his mid-twenties, he was told by the church leadership he wasn’t wanted there because he was known to have been tainted by his exposure to northern liberals. His reputation preceded him as an integrationist and likely communist.
Tom chose to go there anyway, and shortly after he arrived three laymen came to his office to tell him that on the third Sunday of September, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan would show up in worship in full regalia wearing their hoods. They would enter in procession and a collection would be taken and placed on the altar, which the church would make available to the Klan.
Tom quietly responded that he could not prevent them from coming to church since it was open to everyone, but that if they did show up and take a collection, as they marched back out Tom would throw the money out the window. They did not come that Sunday, but not so long after, Tom was awakened one night to the sight of a large cross burning on the lawn of the church. The following night another cross burned on the front lawn of his house. He had been formally marked.
Midway through his five-year tenure at that church a Klansman arrived at his home wielding a long knife to kill him. Several other Klansmen yanked him away before he could engage with Tom. Some time later this perpetrator had a life-threatening illness and Tom visited him every day in the hospital. Before Tom left that church for good that man came to apologize saying how sorry he was for threatening Tom’s life.
Now there’s a whole lot of challenging mentoring in those few sentences. I suggest you find my message today online and reread that short story and hold it up to your own life and take stock of what you see...
Unlike the vast majority of his fellow white clergymen, Tom supported the famous bus boycott in Montgomery, spent a day with Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually walked in the Selma marches. What has been so uncanny to me is how matter-of-fact Tom was and is about all of this. He simply knew the truly Christ-like perspective on these matters, despite the malignancy of majority opinion in those days. The call was for love of neighbor, period—all neighbors. All of them children of God having been created in God’s image. Everyone of equal value. For Tome that was as obvious as the sky was blue on a clear day.
We all know the church has, at best, an extremely checkered history on these matters. Likely the majority of those Klansmen were churchgoers, many of them members of Tom’s congregation, otherwise, they wouldn’t have had the tradition of showing up every year on the third Sunday of September. Sometimes Christians get the Jesus-thing really wrong, terribly wrong. And they become righteous in their wrongness.
The thing about Tom is, that he’d love you and work with you whether you were wrong or not, all the while maintaining clarity about where and how he stood with Jesus Christ. That’s a stunningly rare character in today’s culture. He’s been my teacher in these matters.
The passage Violet read earlier from John comes during the last night Jesus shared with his friends, the night of what we call the Last Supper. We rehearsed that in here on the Thursday before Easter. We pulled all the pews away and served a light supper as we remembered those final hours of Jesus’ life. And among the things we heard was how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them a new commandment that they were to love one another as he had loved them. In other words, “Disciples, good friends, follow the pattern I’ve lived and taught among you.”
Biblical scholars say what then follows in the story, some of which we heard today, is Jesus’ final discourse, his last teaching before he’s betrayed and sentenced to death. We could think of it like Final Instructions and Admonitions. And among the things he tells them is that they are about to accomplish more than even he, Jesus, has managed. Those who trust me, trust the God I adore and follow after my path, they will do “even greater works.”
That’s sort of astonishing, isn’t it? Greater works than Jesus? And we ask, well, just what sort of works are we talking about here? And the answer is found in that new commandment to love. Low and behold, sometimes people do. Sometimes they step up to the plate. Sometimes they’re stronger and bolder than they thought they could be. Sometimes they’re a lot more generous than they thought they could be, recognizing that everything they have is a gift. Sometimes they get in trouble by loving so well…
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Those who grew up in a Christian household and were steeped in its language and customs will be familiar with the imagery of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Personally I’ve never cared for this imagery. Which is not to say I don’t have a very deep resonance with the 23rd Psalm. On the contrary—that’s a central component of my piety.
My problem has been with the saccharin art. One famous depiction has a well-coiffed and quite white Jesus with a sheep around his neck; others display sheep at his feet – a sort of rugged Aryan prototype of manly compassionate regard for a subservient species. There was a period of time in certain parts of this country where one of these depictions hung prominently in the living room or hallway in many homes. It has been an immensely popular image within American Protestantism especially, showing up nearly as often in stained glass as images of Mary shows up in Catholic homes and churches.
Apart from my condescension concerning the sentimentality of the art form, I realized long ago that my main issue is that I have a problem identifying as a sheep. I think the images were meant to remind us of who’s who and what’s what; of the proper ordering of things, and then help us remember where our true help is to be found in any time of need, which is all completely useful and appropriate piety.
Still, it’s hard for me to identify with sheep. They seem so supremely stupid, clumsy and passive. My whole being rebels against this identification, even—and perhaps most especially—when I am stupid, clumsy or passive.
There’s no question that as presented in our Gospel lesson today Jesus wants his followers to know him as the Good Shepherd. As simple as that sounds, his disciples didn’t understand what he was saying to them. That’s exactly what our text said: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Now really, it’s sort of hard to grasp what was so difficult with that concept. That is until I recognize my own inner rebellion. Sheep were ubiquitous in first century Palestine. Jesus’ early followers would have been very well acquainted with their relative intelligence. I’m thinking that perhaps I share the same problem those disciples had.
The specific behavior Jesus identified was the sheep’s patterning on the voice of their shepherd. That voice they would recognize and follow. He distinguishes that voice from counterfeit voices and as such the passage teaches us something about authentic leadership—who has it and who doesn’t. And this functions on at least two levels: First, discovering Jesus as the truest leader; second, in the time this gospel was written—probably seventy to a hundred years after his life—the problem of identifying authentic leadership in the contemporaneous culture. In that, we have precisely the same agenda as those first readers—locating authentic leadership.
Now I assert every person in this room exerts leadership in the world. Of course some of you have roles that name this specifically, others of us don’t, but none of us can escape the fact that as we act in our world we impact our world, and to that extent we exert leadership. When we claim as we do in our mission statement that we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves, we could say that’s a component of our definition of leadership. That’s what a Christian leader does. Actually loving our neighbors in tangible ways impacts our world in a particular fashion and it doesn’t matter what official title accompanies our various roles out there beyond our walls. And it doesn’t matter whether we think we’re leaders in the traditional sense or not.
In this sense we might say the Christian faith is all about the training of leaders patterned on our namesake. His voice is the one we are to follow. His ways are to become our ways. So the leadership we practice here begins with submission to a certain shepherd. Submission requires a quality of humility; a willingness to compare our ways with his ways, and then choosing to bend our ways to his.
In my doctoral work I researched and wrote about leadership. When I began twelve years ago, leadership studies were riding a cresting wave of interest, including my own. It fascinated me. And while there’s been a lot of good work on the subject, I’ve become circumspect about all the leadership palaver that’s been generated on the topic. For one thing, there’s no general agreement on the definition of leadership within scholarly circles—one researcher has counted more 2500 definitions, yet as we scan the national scene across disciplines from church to business to politics do we see evidence that we’ve benefited from all this investment in leadership? It seems to me the jury is out on that.
According to Parker Palmer, “A leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.
“I think, for example, of teachers who create the conditions under which young people must spend so many hours: some shine a light that allows new growth to flourish, while others cast a shadow under which seedlings die. I think of parents who generate similar effects in the lives of their families or of clergy who do the same to entire congregations. I think of corporate CEOs whose daily decisions are driven by inner dynamics but who rarely reflect on those motives or even believe they are real.” (Let Your Life Speak)
I like this idea of casting shadow or light. That’s a concept that pertains to all of us regardless of our individual vocations. And it’s congruent with what Jesus models for us.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the life of Inez Grant who was just shy of 93 years old when she passed away—a beloved member here for many decades. Inez didn’t fit traditional definitions of leader, but at her funeral this sanctuary was filled with people because she was a light-caster of the first order. She knew her shepherd and listened to the sound of his voice. Of course, she would have told you that herself.
In a men’s connection group this past week the conversation turned to Inez, which was an interesting twist to observe. Now as it happens, these were all successful white guys; each would be thought of as a leader in their respective occupations; and I would add, a potential prototype for those shepherd images I mentioned earlier. Those that knew this 93-year-old Jamaican lady tried to explain her specialness, and how she had mentored them. At one point one of the guys asked, what was it that brought so many people to her funeral? And sort of under his breath, he said to no one in particular that he wanted to build a life that mattered like that.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but an honest answer to his question was she listened to the voice of her shepherd; that was tangibly expressed in how she ordered her life; her generosity, though she had little material means; her desire to help whenever or wherever she could. She would hug you or pray for you at the drop of a hat. Now Inez could also be difficult and stubborn as hell, but there’s no question she knew her shepherd.
For those of you that did not know Inez, you catch the sense of someone anchored in humility, yet profoundly self-assured and self-possessed of an inner confidence because her faith was so bedrock, so alive and dynamic. Her words and actions matched up and they made a positive difference. She absolutely was a first rate leader in my book. She was a leader in how to live a life that matters. And this didn’t require all the typical accouterments and folderol we associate with celebrity leaders. She was a lover. That’s how she spent out her life. And it mattered…
Acts 2:14a, 36-39; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
This past week I attended a meeting of the Board of Yale Divinity School that happened to coincide with the final week of classes. Board members had several opportunities to meet with students, especially seniors who would be receiving diplomas in a few weeks. I enjoyed these conversations.
Maybe it’s a life stage thing, but this year a lot of memories came flooding back to mind of my own transition from graduate to real life. And honestly chief among those memories was the flood of anxiety I had about what came next, about what it might mean to actually embark on a journey into ordained ministry. No question I felt called to it at the time, but I really didn’t have much of a clue as to what I was getting into. Melissa had even less of a clue, but God bless her, she was game, a more than willing companion, and off we went into uncharted waters.
Nearly forty years later, here I am. I’m finding that age brings a certain kind of wonderment. I didn’t expect this…. this sense of “how the hell did I get here,” while still feeling reasonably intact and full of gratitude. There have been a few surprises along the way, a couple of missed opportunities perhaps, some moments of deep panic and confusion, and a time or two of wondering why on earth I took the path I did, recognizing, for instance, that I could have made more money in another field of endeavor, and so forth.
While I never completely succumbed to this anxiety-ridden confusion, I did lose my inner way with it once in a while. And I suppose that in those seasons of confusion I was seeking an escape of sorts—escape from whatever it was at the time that wasn’t measuring up to my expectations. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that expectations can be the bane of a happy life. As the pithy cliché has it, “life is what happens when you’ve planned something else.” I can now say with some authority that a life well-lived has more to do with how we manage what we haven’t planned on than what we have.
We might call this the control freak syndrome. I’ve learned that New York attracts an overabundance of this personality type. Expectations run far, wide and deep here. Stands to reason there’s a lot of resulting confusion, heartache and disappointment along with spurts of success and fulfillment. It’s a bumpy ride.
Often in those difficult moments, those times of confusion and heartache we’ll attempt an escape. Famous in addiction recovery is something called the “geographical cure,” a belief that changing one’s location makes all the difference. But the astute counselor will ask, “Are you truly moving toward something positive? Do you have support at the new location? Or are you just trying to run away from reality?” Experience teaches that this same set of questions works well for anyone in any sort of internal or external crisis.
According to Luke we don’t know the inner experience of the two men traveling to Emmaus following the dramatic events of the last days of Jesus’ life. It was late Easter Sunday and Cleopas and his friend were heading out of Jerusalem confused and agitated, disciples of Jesus Luke says. But he was dead, crucified, and along with him these disciples’ hope and expectations were crucified as well.
From a famous sermon written half a century ago prolific writer, theologian, and New Yorker, Frederick Buechner, wrote that Emmaus is whatever we do or wherever we go to make ourselves forget that the world holds nothing sacred…where we spend much of our lives, you and I, the place that we go to in order to escape—a bar, a movie, wherever it is that we throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the hole damned thing go hang. It makes no difference anyway.’
“But there are some things that even in Emmaus we cannot escape. We can escape our troubles, at least for a while. We can escape the job we did not get or the friend we hurt. We can even escape for a while the awful suspicion that life makes no sense and that the religion of Jesus is just a lot of wishful thinking. But the one thing we cannot escape is life itself. (Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, Seabury Press, 1966, pp 85-86.)”
It was on the road to Emmaus that these friends encountered an anonymous stranger who joined them for a while. They were talking about all the things that had happened over the last several days. As they talked and discussed, Jesus drew near and joins them. “What are you talking about as you walk along?” he asks.
Not recognizing him they launch into a description of the events of the past weekend. They describe the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and how they hoped he would be the Messiah, the one who would set Israel free from Roman oppression. But he was wrongfully condemned to death, crucified and only three days ago placed in a tomb. Now even his body was missing. You’re the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know all this?!?
They were confused and agitated but they urged their new friend to stay and share their evening meal—in Emmaus, their place of escape. And there, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and shared it; he became visible to them in giving thanks and the breaking of bread.
Not terribly dramatic as an account of the resurrection, is it? Just a meal shared among friends, but eyes are opened and new ground is set beneath the feet of the otherwise confused and agitated in a place called Emmaus.
There are three different places in the Holy Land that claim to be the village of Emmaus. There is no record of any village called Emmaus in any other ancient source. And the only place in all of the writings in the New Testament where we hear of the village of Emmaus is in this lone story. Emmaus is nowhere. Emmaus is anywhere. Perhaps Emmaus is here. Maybe going to Emmaus is like going to church some Sunday, looking for an escape (As recounted in Pulpit Resource, vol. 27, No. 2, 1999).
A man reported to me that he had been in a confused, dark place, the most difficult place of his life to this point. Afraid and uncertain any true options lay before him, he stumbled into this church one Sunday. As he spoke I realized he hadn’t suspected the truth about most everyone else who filled the pews. Sure, they all looked pretty good on the outside, but each had their own story to tell of waffling between confusion and clarity through varying life dilemmas and personal corruptions. I was tempted to interrupt his tale to tell him he was among friends.
But I didn’t say that just then; still that’s true, isn’t it? You have first-hand experience with surprising life transitions that cause old life-forms to fall away like scarred husks, exposing the tender growth underneath, ready or not. I bet if we were to collect our stories we’d gather a pretty complete compendium of the sorts of possible bewilderments and grief that can overwhelm a person as they move through their life arc.
My new friend said he was stunned by the comfort he experienced by his lurching into spiritual territory. He came out of a confused need seeking an escape, but, frankly, not expecting anything much in turn. He didn’t realize his heart was already prepared for taking in something new, something surprising, something he couldn’t or wouldn’t have expected while on his way to Emmaus.
I didn’t say this then, but given the season of the year I could have said something like, “Well you know, that’s how it is with resurrection. It’s stunning, surprising, and bewildering, showing up right where we are, in something as mundane as sharing a meal.” Resurrection shatters our expectations into a thousand fragments and reassembles them into something we might call real life. If Jesus is raised, we have to rethink everything. Everything is in play. No current problem, obstacle, or confusion has the final word. Even death—which is the biggest problem of all lurking behind every other problem we experience—has to be rethought.
As you may be aware from this past week’s news, the beleaguered United Methodist Church has hit a wall of division within its ranks over the issue of sexual identity. Its been struggling with this matter for 4 decades that is now coming to a head. We’ve reached a decision point that will clarify within the next 2 to 3 years as the slow institutional processes grind forward. Christ Church has staked a claim on inclusion. It is not clear how this will resolve denominationally. Sadly, schism is a very real possibility.
But here’s the thing for those of us who follow the pattern Jesus modeled: no outcome is the final outcome. No present obstacle imprisons our hope. To our LGBTQ sisters and brothers I say hold fast to the resurrection that shows up in the most unlikely circumstance, say, in Emmaus, for instance—our place of escape. You are among friends here. All of us together share a common hope that the message of love Jesus commanded will have the day at last. We live that as a present reality. Today. Now. Right here. We have our very own Emmaus resurrection story at hand…
John 20: 19-31
The phrase, “A peaceful transition of power” came to the fore of our American lexicon after the results of our most recent presidential election. In a speech meant to help unify our country, then president Barack Obama lifted up the peaceful transition of power as one of the hallmarks of American democracy. Yet America is not the originator of peaceful transitions of power. In our gospel text, we witness a much earlier transition of power. Jesus had concluded his earthly ministry and was preparing to return to the Father. But before he left, he prepared the disciples to continue the work of the kingdom.
Our text begins on the evening of the resurrection. The disciples were hiding in a locked room. Jesus, the man that they had given up their lives to follow, had been crucified. What would they do without him? Would they return to their homes? Could they even return home? Was it safe for them there? Would Jesus really be raised? They were filled with questions and confusion. We often hear this story referred to as doubting Thomas, but on this first day, all of them were filled with doubt. There were rumors that Jesus was alive—Mary had seem him earlier that day. But they were still filled with doubt.
In the midst of this chaos, Jesus came and was present among them. The first thing he said was “Peace be with you.” Not why do you doubt? Why are you afraid? Why are you hiding?. They were afraid, so Jesus gave them peace. These words aren’t just a greeting. Jesus was giving a gift. He was sharing with them God’s gift of wholeness and rest. He reminded them of the gift he first offered before his death: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This was the same peace that allowed Jesus to sleep in the boat in the middle of a storm. He offered them the peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace that guards our hearts and minds.
When the disciples were in doubt; when they were confused; when they didn’t know what to believe, Jesus gave them peace. And this wasn’t the first time, but since they needed it again, he gave it again. Jesus knew that his followers would experience hatred and persecution. They’d have to withstand the chaos of the world. And just as Jesus gave peace to his earliest disciples, he also gives it to us. And we’re called share that peace with others. We share it in our words: “Peace be with you.” We also share it in our actions. Don’t underestimate the importance of peace. Because just as peace is transferable, so is chaos. There are people in this world who transfer chaos. People who like to keep mess going. People who will try to disrupt your peace because they don’t have any. But we have a peace that the world didn’t give and the world can’t take away. So don’t let anybody take your peace. You can share it, but don’t let anybody take it!
In giving the disciples peace, Jesus didn’t promise to make life easy. He didn’t change their external circumstances. The leaders who persecuted Jesus were still outside of those doors. The disciples’ lives were still in danger. We still live in a world where children are poisoned with chemical weapons; where the Mother of All Bombs is dropped in Holy Week; where the threat of nuclear war is ever present. So much of what happens in the world is out of our personal control. But we can have what Howard Thurman called “the island of peace within one’s own soul.” This island is where we can be our authentic selves in the presence of God. Where we can be rest from the stress of life. So when life is wearing you down, go to your island of peace. When you won’t do right, go to your island of peace. When your kids are crazy, go to your island of peace. When you want to curse a coworker out, go to your island of peace. Be open before God, share your struggles, and receive Christ’s peace. Then you can emerge from the locked doors, ready to face your fears in the world.
In this transition, Jesus gave the disciples peace. He also gave them his power. He breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus, who had driven out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead, was now charging his disciples to continue the work he had begun. The risen Jesus, who had all authority in heaven and earth, was now giving the disciples his power.
So what is this power that Jesus gave them? It certainly wasn’t the military power of the Roman government. It wasn’t power acquired through wealth, social status, or education. He didn’t give them power to retaliate against their persecutors; power to get reservations at the best restaurants in Jerusalem. He didn’t give them power so that they could be like Pinky and the Brain and try to take over the world. Jesus gave them a different kind of power. This power would allow the disciples to withstand persecution. This power for them to proclaim that God’s kingdom. Power to build a community where shared all their possessions. Jesus gave them power to forgive sin. Power to heal. Power to love.
Like so much of what Jesus did, the sharing of power was countercultural. In a land where power was seized by violence and force, Jesus presented a new model of gaining power. He didn’t require that they fight for it. Jesus willingly bestowed power onto the disciples. Sharing his power was not a threat to Jesus. Rather, he saw it as necessary for the advancement of his kingdom. Advancing the kingdom that where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female… [where all] are one in Christ Jesus.
This power, God’s power, is foolish by the world’s standards. The world tells us to pursue power that will advance our agendas. We want a promotion that will bring with it more power. We want more money so that we can have power. We want a car that can own the road. But if we aren’t careful, the quest for power can lead us to trouble.
A few weeks ago, I was watching the show Survivor. This show is all about gaining power in order to eliminate others and win the million-dollar prize. One contestant Jeff, could feel that he was powerless in the tribe. He suspected that he would be voted out at the next Tribal Council; so he made a final grab for power. At tribal council Jeff attempted to save himself by outing one of his tribe members who was transgender. The other tribe members were shocked at Jeff’s actions. They thought that as a gay man, he’d understand the harm of outing someone. But Jeff was desperate and willing to go after power at any cost. Soon after outing his opponent, Jeff realized the magnitude of his transgression, and he was remorseful. But it was too late. He had already hurt another player, not just on a reality show, but in this player’s real life. He had jeopardized his family, his career, and his personal safety.
Pursuit of the world’s power can make us like Jeff. We can be good hearted people. But we can become so caught up our quest for power that we lose sight of our values. We can hurt our friends, our families, our communities. Hurt ourselves. But Jesus gives us power that builds us up. Power to help. Power to serve others. Jesus is calling us to follow in his way. To peacefully share this power with others.
You see, the world entices us to rule, but God empowers us to lead.
The world entices us to take. God empowers us to give.
The world entices us to lie. God empowers us to lift up others.
The world entices us to hurt. God empowers us to heal.
God has given us the power of love.
Receive God’s power.
The power of love.
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
As the story is told we don’t know what Mary Magdalene expected when she went to the tomb that first Easter morning, or just what she was going to do there. In her grief she may have been wondering if the morning would ever come again. John tells us that Mary went to the cemetery by herself. That it was still dark might suggest she hadn’t slept well during the night, or that she was afraid of being seen.
Why does anyone visit a cemetery? As with Mary, grief brings people initially. Grief, loss, a longing to fill the empty hole that’s opened up within the heart. After the funeral no one expects to return to find the grave disturbed. Cemeteries are all about finality. Endings. Things that have been and never will be again.
Perhaps like me you’ve discovered that a cemetery can be a place of comfort and solace. I rather like them. And given my line of work I’ve walked through my share of cemeteries over the years. I’ve wandered around the markers reading names and dates and inscriptions and sat under expansive, leafy trees on pleasant days remembering people I have known who are no more, inevitably wondering about the number of years I might have and how I’ve already spent the ones I’ve lived.
Mary’s visit came too soon for solace and self-reflection. She came freighted with all of the oppressive events of Jesus’ last days haunting her mind, her heart, and her soul, her whole being. She still had the crucifixion seared into her brain—it was just some rush of hours ago. She was raw with the rapid and violent devolution of Jesus’ campaign. Is that what it was? Was he on some sort of campaign? And if so, to what end exactly? Surely not this end. Not this End, capital “E”. But he had been placed in a grave. Dead. Gone. Finished.
And when Mary discovered the tomb had been tampered with she thought that his body had been stolen. The way John writes it, Mary runs to the disciples to tell them breathlessly, “They have taken the Lord…” We aren’t told who “they” are, but we could surmise that Mary fears those who put him to death were not finished desecrating his remains, perhaps moving him to a pauper’s grave, or throwing him on the city’s garbage heap. She drew a logical conclusion based on life as she had known it.
The ruthless and the arrogant inherited the earth, after all, not the meek and the poor in spirit. The dissemblers, manipulators and takers of the world were filled, not those who hungered for righteousness. The merciful rarely received mercy and Mary never heard peacemakers called children of God, except from Jesus. But he was dead. And now his body was stolen. And she wept from grief.
Now friends, this is the lynch-pin of the Christian faith. We’re right at the heart of the mystery and the way the story is told what we have is an empty tomb, a somewhat ignorant and terrified group of would-be followers and—taking all gospel the stories together—a convoluted hodge-podge of confusing facts and story-telling. Man-o-man I often have wished we had more to go on here. The reported evidence appears so thin. But then from a higher vantage point that very thinness seems to inform the essence of faith.
Here’s how John says it goes down for Mary. After Peter and another disciple come to see the tomb for themselves Mary is once again left by herself in her grief, weeping. Still believing that someone has taken Jesus’ body she turns and sees a man she thinks is a gardener and asks him if he’s the grave-robber. Jesus looks at her and simply says her name—“Mary!” And with this she sees him for who he is, the first witness to resurrection.
When Jesus calls her name all the doors and windows of Mary’s soul are flung wide. No barrier prevents the profound and intimate connection. Jesus is fully present to her and she to him. Nothing is hidden. And in this astonished state she learns that things are not always as they appear. There are layers to reality that she had sensed but never really understood. It’s as though scales fall from her eyes and she’s able to see reality from a multi-dimensional perspective for the first time in her life.
The closest material approximation I can make to this is when someone who loves me says my name in a moment of acute awareness. Has this ever happened to you? Your best friend or spouse or partner, or family member, even a child who knows you very well, who loves you, during a moment of honest engagement says your name while looking into your face and it hits you that you are truly known to this person and they offer a love that is larger than you perceive you deserve.
Now if you’ve ever come close to sharing an experience like this you know that it changes you. The naming changes you. Your insides become larger. Things clarify. You sense this love makes you a better person somehow. Yet you would be very hard pressed to describe the facts of the experience in any meaningful way—we were out to dinner sharing a bowl of pasta; we were on our way to a meeting and the car broke down; we were walking down the sidewalk when it started to rain. The external circumstances for the most part are inconsequential to the acuteness of the experience.
This is but a shadow-box portrayal of the love released in resurrection. Resurrection is a work of love. An astonishing, awesome, heartrending, courage-enabling, hope-inducing, life-transforming love. Again, the reported details of the story have a limited range because describing the essence of something the size and scope of resurrection love is nearly impossible, our words and descriptors inevitably fail. They are not large enough and we wind up talking in metaphors and analogies and poetry or creating buildings like this filled with sparkling mosaics or writing music and wringing as much passion out of it as we can because the love is so large, so awesome, so overwhelming.
The other day I was having a conversation with someone who walked in here several years ago because of a nagging experience of God’s intimate presence in his life. He told me he had grown up in a non-religious household. But from early on he had this sense of a holy and profoundly intimate presence. As a result he started looking for ways to deepen the connection. And though he did not hear a mystical voice call out his name, everything he reports suggests that he knows he is understood, held, loved in a way that defies description. This relationship slowly impacted his life, agitating his decisions and commitments.
Honestly, as he told his story I felt I was hearing a variation of my own. I, too, knew this holy presence from as early as I can recall. Oh, I went through my agnostic stage about this, but eventually the church, the scriptures gave me a language and a pathway to understanding this experience which led me to help introduce others to the One who knows their authentic name. I know for certain, as certain as faith determines, that this One has set the ground beneath our feet, knit us together in our mother’s wombs and inflated our lungs with breath.
To add nuance to my point here, consider what we do when we mean to harm, demean or disrespect others. We abuse their names. We make new names for them. Consider how this functions with every sort of prejudice between races and classes and sexual identities and religions and enemies of every kind. Derogatory names are assigned, hateful names, names meant to put up barriers, names intended to strip dignity and humanity of those on the receiving end of our ugliness. In Auschwitz and Treblinka and other gruesome destinies names were exchanged for numbers tattooed onto the skin so as to obliterate prisoners’ humanity.
In direct rebuke of the diminishment of an individual the resurrected Jesus called out “Mary!” and she was known in her innermost being—known, claimed and loved. In the naming she realizes there is nothing that separates her from him. Nothing. No prior condition, no fault, failing or weakness. No limitation.
Just a few days ago the disciples had majored in cowardice and betrayal of their best friend. They let him die alone, bereft. Lied about their associations with him. Honestly, their transformation is a far better proof of the resurrection than the written reports of the supposed events—if physical proof is what you’re after.
I agree with William Sloane Coffin who wrote, “Not only Peter, but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before: that’s irrefutable… Convinced by his appearance that Jesus was their living Lord, the disciples really had only one category in which to articulate this conviction, and that was…resurrection. …In Paul’s writings the living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never clearly differentiated, so that when he says, ‘Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,’ he is talking about the same Holy Spirit that you and I can experience in our own lives. I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as it were, to close the show with ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ but rather to reopen the show with the hymn, ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.’ (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 28.)” An astonishing gift of love, by love, for love’s sake. Did you possibly come to receive that gift today!?
Friends, love and its derivatives are the only authentic positive change-agents there are. If someone is changing for the better, love is somehow at work. If authentic justice occurs, a broken relationship is restored, the spirit of resurrection is there; if children are held and cared for, forgiveness happens, the lost, abandoned, oppressed and abused receive the dignity of being called by their name with compassionate regard, I tell you resurrection love is afoot and Jesus lives for certain. Hallelujah!
Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Standing up to preach after rehearsing the awesome story we just heard seems more than a little anti-climactic. I feel terribly small by comparison; hardly capable of adding an additional thought that would provide the crucial clue to the overarching meaning of what we just heard.
Some years I feel differently. Some years I’m full of myself believing I have an inspired nugget of insight. That’s the curse of the self-assured preacher that can manifest in rather unpleasant condescension. And, honestly, sometimes when I step up here I really do wonder what on earth I think I’m doing. I’m well versed in the theological frameworks concerning the necessity and importance of preaching, and the power of attending to what we Protestants refer to as “the word of God.” And I generally subscribe to these frameworks—which is a good thing, I suppose, given my occupation. I’ve had a fine education and years of experience. But then, as you well know, neither of those things predict that what a preacher has to say does any earthly good.
But now those of you who know my wife, Melissa, know that I married very well lest I should find myself thinking more of my output than I ought to. I’ve shared with some of you that a couple of years into both my marriage and my ministry, Melissa provided the appropriate counterpoint to an ambitious preacher’s ego.
It went down like this: Being a rather earnest and arrogant young cleric who wanted to be known to deliver a useful word that was well-received I regularly asked Melissa for a review after the Sunday service. It might come sooner, or it might come later, but sometime before we fell asleep, if she had not already volunteered a point of view, I would say something like, “So, what did you think of the sermon?” And she would dutifully provide a generally positive, rarely critical comment in a somewhat ambivalent manner.
But after a year of this repetitive behavior that she no doubt saw trickling forward into our misty future week after week, year after year, she finally told her truth with a great big sigh after yet one more repetition of, “So whadya think about the sermon?” And she said, “You know Steve, I don’t go to church for the sermons—I go for the music.”
And honestly, that was a very clarifying moment that I’ve never forgotten. Though her response was layered with several motivations and meanings, it made me more aware of my actual place in relation to the great mystery we honor here. In other words, one of the very first things to say today is that this story teaches humility.
Some weeks, on some occasions, I feel humbler than others; some years this humility hits me more acutely as Lent moves into its climaxing week. It comes with the tension I experience between my personal spiritual engagement with the material and the necessity of my occupation to talk about it. And I am an extrovert who likes to think out loud.
But as a matter of personal experience, I am compelled into silence by this story. That’s one reason I don’t often preach on Good Friday. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll come to our service and allow yourselves the humbling gift of being brought to silence before the cross, with open hands and hearts.
One of the main reasons I fall silent before the story is that it gave birth to my faith. This story captured my mind and heart and soul. It’s the reason I wound up doing this gig. This is it, this walk Jesus took taking Jerusalem by storm one day, the climbing Calvary’s hill lugging the means of his death the next day, then hanging there utterly alone.
Each year I’ll take the time to read and consider all four gospel versions because each has unique elements. This seems to make it more human, like how four witnesses to a traffic accident tell a somewhat different story with slightly different facts based upon their location, frame of mind, and whom they’re addressing.
I call myself a Christian because this story converted me and I’m somewhat hard-pressed to tell you exactly how that happened. On that specific point, I’m at a loss for words. I’m brought to profound silence. Nothing I could report would touch the change itself. It came to me as a gift. I can tell you that no one talked me into it. I was not coerced or otherwise manipulated into believing a set of religious propositions, nor was I scared about my eternal destination.
In early years I was especially captured by Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The way the story reads the son of God experiences utter forsakenness, loss, despair, complete emptiness—a startling and intensely human experience summarized, dignified and hallowed.
And then Jesus died. After six or so hours of torture, he spent his last breath. And somehow death was hallowed as well.
As I mentioned last week, death is the Great Fear. Look behind any human ambition and you will find death as motivator. I mean, without it, would we be spurred to do anything at all? As William Sloane Coffin argued, “Consider the alternative—life without death. Life without death would be interminable... We’d take days just to get out of bed, weeks to decide ‘what’s next?’ Students would never graduate, meetings would go on for months...without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, 2004, Westminster John Knox, Louisville, p168.)
And Jesus is the one who teaches, demonstrates, reveals that death is not worthy of our fear, it does not, cannot separate us from God. “Though he die, yet shall he live,” said Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. And “Whoever believes in me shall never die.” Summarizing his own experience of Christ, Paul wrote, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Paul came to that realization because he was captured by Jesus’ story and this revealed to him that “The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she who overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience” (Ibid) When that happens we’re able to pray with quiet confidence, “Loving One, help me to live as one who is prepared to die, and when my days here are accomplished, help me die as one who goes forth to live...”
For myself, the best I can say is that the tables reversed somehow; rather than my attempting to interpret the story, I awoke one day to find that the story was interpreting me. And I was hooked, gone, or better, found—I was found, like it says in the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” I hadn’t thought myself a wretch exactly, but I knew what John Newton meant when he wrote those well-known words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
There’s a reason that hymn hangs on and on in our cultural cloud. It’s the same reason Jesus’ story has captured the hearts and minds of billions over centuries. Hearing the story for me was like hearing the sound of amazing grace. Like Melissa knew instinctively, it was indeed a kind of music that groans deeper than words.
And in a few minutes we’ll be concluding our serve by singing this simple but powerful question:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Consider that an invitation…
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Over the years of my ministry several experiences have been indelibly linked with certain scripture readings. One such experience from a number of years ago relates to this particular day, the fifth Sunday in Lent, and our stories from Ezekiel and John. I was attending a workshop in New Orleans at an organization for recently paroled prisoners transitioning back into society.
The program used some traditional methods such as re-education and mentoring, but the founder located its real power in a process of mutual self-help and spiritual encouragement he called “community building.” Sitting in a circle for a number of hours several times a week, these 50 prisoners spilled out their stories, sharing their defeats, celebrating their victories as they engaged the long hard process of rebuilding their identities and place in the world.
The stories I heard were severe: the 21-year-old sitting next to me, tried and convicted as an adult at the age of 14, released just 6 months earlier; the 45-year-old woman across the circle who became a crack addict at the age of nine; other stories recalled murdered brothers, parents dead by overdose, the devastations of crushing poverty, all manner of human calamity and depravation.
The stories leaked out as the men and women told of how their lives had been transformed by the love and care they found in this program. Their gratitude was overflowing. One man spoke simply and eloquently for the group when he said that what the program had given him—something that he had thought was gone forever—was his dignity.
I shed many tears during this shared experience. At some point I realized these tears were not about the suffering. Instead, they were a response to the palpable opportunity for resurrection these women and men were experiencing. Through their surrender to a spirit larger than their own, and their willingness to reach out to one another, this unlikely company made the plain industrial room in which we met a sacred space. From the moment I walked through the door and first experienced their respectful silence, I felt that space was far holier than many churches I had been in over the years.
At one point during their sharing, one of the participants recalled the story of the bone-rattling imagery from Ezekiel you heard a moment ago. She must have dug it out from a childhood memory of Sunday school, and honestly I swear to God I nearly heard the rattling and clattering of bones coming together. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them...and the breath came into them and they lived...” (37:8, 10)
Their lives were not easy by any reasonable measure. They spoke of many failures as well as successes. But they were filled with a vital hope—it struck me as a lot more hope than many persons who had been blessed by a far richer environment, education and material prosperity. It occurred to me at the time that this experience would have brought tears even to the eyes of cynics.
And strangely, these might be the tears of identification. I say “strangely” because most of us in this room probably wouldn’t automatically identify with these people. But when actually bearing witness to something dead being brought back to life, most of us will feel a strum on a deep inner chord. All of us, at least once in a while, sense death lurking about whether or not we ever speak of it, and long for a word of hope.
Ezekiel had gone into long exile with his people in the 6th century BCE—around 2600 years ago. Sharing their devastating experience he knows their state of mind. He has heard their complaints. The people say, our bones are dried up and our hope is lot. Their God resides elsewhere; they have been cut off at the root. The smell of death hangs in the air. And Ezekiel hears God’s voice inquire, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I’m thinking Mary and Martha may have heard a similar voice in their despair over the death of their brother Lazarus.
Now concerning the matter of death, we are completely the same regardless of background or present status. Whether you have a doctorate from Harvard or failed to get a high school diploma, whether you have a hundred million dollars or just ten, whether you are blessed with dazzling physical beauty or not, whether you command the attention of thousands or only your cat, and then only occasionally, each of us has a finite number of hours on this earth.
As the story is told, Jesus will raise Lazarus to physical life; but, really, it’s only a postponement for a more permanent change. In a few more months, or years, or even another decade or two, Lazarus’ earthly life will leave him for good. Jesus has another order or magnitude in mind when he speaks as the one who is the resurrection and the life. We know this because of what will soon befall him. Easter is just a few short weeks away. This story from John is a bit of an Easter tease here as Jesus continues his dramatic journey to Jerusalem and we continue our season of Lent.
Death has many guises, of course, From Jesus’ perspective it’s entirely possible to have physical life and still be mostly dead. Have you ever seen that? Or, perhaps, even experienced that yourself in some desperate time? I’ve spoken with many people over the years that have been in some stage of decay, despair or hopelessness. It’s not so very uncommon. I suspect a condition like this visits nearly everyone at some time or another before our final death.
Virginia Mollenkott, emeritus professor of English and theologian said that she loved to watch students come alive. “One of the courses I teach is freshman English,” she once wrote, “and that’s a place where you can empower people. They often come to you beaten down...Before I pass back their first graded paper, I give them a little speech” ‘This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in.’
“Then I ask them if they want to know what I think of them, and usually they want to. So I continue, ‘I think you’re made in the image of God and of inestimable worth. There’s no way anything I could put in my grade book could ever begin to estimate you.’
“I learned to do this after I read Flannery O’Connor’s story about the boy who went up in the attic and drew a circle with a big ‘F’ in the middle…and hanged himself over the ‘F’. He didn’t distinguish between the grade he was getting and who he was.
“For me, the meaning of life is to share with people the wonderful news that we are the daughters and sons of God.”
That’s what many of the paroled men and women in the re-entry program were discovering. In fact, though this was not a faith-based program, I was struck by how many of them made off-hand references to God in their storytelling. No hyper religious soliloquies, but respectful, hopeful references to faith, and a source of hope beyond themselves, as though this was a common language of life for them.
In addition to the Ezekiel passage I heard a reference to Lazarus as well. At one point one of the participants said to the young man next to me, “Jeff, I swear to God, you’re Lazarus come out of the grave!” I doubt the majority of those present knew the reference, but I did, and it’s the reason I remember it so well on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Desolation and hope co-mingled in that room, but there was no question that hope, the spirit of life, had the larger claim on the intentions of their hearts.
Ezekiel preached a powerful word about God’s life-giving spirit. God’s breath enters the dry bones and brings them to life. What is impossible for hopeless, lifeless humanity to imagine is, for God, a simple exhalation. Where God breathes, life springs up. This defines God’s nature.
Ezekiel’s vision of a desecrated valley fully restored is a powerful metaphor of what God accomplishes with another set of lifeless bones nailed to a wooden crossbeam in first century Palestine. And remarkably, it foreshadows what’s possible for anyone who feels, at any moment, that he or she is part of the company of the walking dead.
If that has ever defined your situation, take heart! Breathe deeply. It’s God’s pleasure to fill your lungs with his very breath. And considering the state of our troubled and fractious nation and world, let’s take heart together. Let’s claim the promise that’s found on the other side of every death-dealing circumstance, joining forces with the breath of life.