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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Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
When I begin thinking about what I might say on any given Sunday I take several things into account, like the time of year, what’s going on in the life of the church, conversation I’ve been having with colleagues, and, of course, the assigned readings for the day. I’m also alert to what’s in the news, what’s likely on people’s minds and what’s been going on in my own life that stirs my heart. It seems important that what we do in here links up with what’s going on out beyond these walls.
In this way there’s a bit of a dance in calling this space a sanctuary, that is, a place set apart for reflection and contemplation that’s markedly different from all the other spaces we occupy in the course of a week, and the reality of our day to day lives when we walk back out. We might think we’re safe here for an hour or two, but life as we know it is waiting for us out there whether it’s a splendor or a purgatory.
A critique that often has been leveled at the church concerns its relevance, as in, well, when all is said and done, does it matter? And at the most basic level I suppose it matters if somehow it does link up with the actual content of people’s lives. The fact is, we do call this a sanctuary—and we have a mighty splendid one at that—but we’ve brought the world in with us. We didn’t check the world at the door. All of the life baggage we haul around came right with us as we sat down. It’s right there in a big heap at your feet, or still on your back.
Some people come hoping for a distraction from the everyday. That’s possible. We all need a break every now and then, a chance “to lay our burdens down,” in the old way of saying it. That’s the comforting part of our business here, remembering we’re loved and held by the one who flung the stars into space and inflated our lungs with breath in the first place. That’s a relevant and important truth for all of us to hear repeatedly since we’re so prone to forget it, if we ever really believed it.
But relevance has other meanings as well, like how our practice here as followers after the way of Jesus makes a difference out there in the world. Non-church affiliated people are always at-the ready to say that Christians don’t practice what they preach, they don’t seem to reflect the life Jesus espouses. And of course, a lot of the time I’d agree with them depending upon where the critique has been aimed.
But now here’s the thing, all of that aside, as I was thinking about this Sunday I couldn’t shake the baggage of the Harvey Weinstein story. Every time I thought about today, that story that popped into mind. I couldn’t shake it. When I can’t shake a nagging thought I generally conclude there’s something there I should pay attention to. So I just let it alone and it has followed me into this space this morning, as a bit of cultural baggage I couldn’t leave with the ushers at the door.
What I don’t want to do is to hammer this man with a judgmental bludgeon—I’ll leave that for everyone else. Of course, we all know there’s a whole lot of hypocrisy in the bludgeoning, but I don’t want to address that either. (I noted last night that Weinstein has been voted out of the Academy of Motion Pictures, many of whose members hardly exemplify moral rectitude.)
Also, I am not interested in the salacious content of the accusations, although they are astonishing. Sex isn’t the story here; abuse, coercion, and sexism are. Harassment is the least of it. As if we didn’t know this already, a shocking revelation has exposed a sick, systemic structure of gross power dynamics between men and women that’s laced throughout our culture.
But now having named this, I want to focus attention on a simpler idea. Simple, but really important. Fundamental. And I think this is what my semi-conscious mind was intimating was relevant for today when I stumbled on this quote attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson: “Everyone, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
That works well in relation to our gospel lesson where Jesus tells a rather horrific story about a wedding feast when everyone gets their due. They all get a banquet of consequences from their choices and behaviors.
And in primetime 21st century Harvey Weinstein reaps a banquet of consequences. I’m thinking there are other prime targets in our political realm for whom this will prove true in the near future. But then, it likely proves true for all of us eventually and it points to the matter of fundamental allegiances, as in, who or what do we worship, really? What we worship determines the cuisine served up at our own banquet of consequences.
And the fact is, whether we want to admit this or not, all of us are complicit with the powers and principalities of our time. We can’t escape this. We’re complicit with our silence, with a lack of engagement, distracted attention, how we avert our gaze when some awful thing stares us right in the face.
I agree with David Foster Wallace who I’ve quoted on the bulletin this morning. Here’s the whole paragraph: “...here's something...that's weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship...is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
“If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
“On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness... And man! –is that ever a hard thing, evidently.
We heard an ancient archetypal example in our first reading this morning. As the story is told Moses has been communing with God on Mt Sinai receiving the stone tablets inscribed with the commandments. He’s been gone longer than anticipated, so the people begin to grumble that they need a new focus for their allegiance. Moses was returning to them with the ethics for righteous living, but in the meantime they got antsy and created a puny god of gold of their own making, a god who was in fact much smaller than themselves, not to mention very much smaller than the God of creation, the author of life. Their choice debased them. And we should read this as though they are everyman, everywoman.
Variations on this story recur over and over in the scriptures. It’s the seminal theme: “You shall have no other gods before me”—the fundamental human problem of idolatry. And the thing is, we might say we worship the God of creation and life in here whenever we show up, but out there, beyond these walls, is another matter altogether. Part of the reason we return here with some regularity is to help remind ourselves of our primary allegiance, the trick is to carry this back out with us.
You heard Paul encourage his friends in this way: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” In other words, keep your focus on goodness. Not perfection, because none of us can achieve that, but on the truth, the commendable, the excellent. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
For some reason we find this a very hard discipline. Why do we humans have such a hard time seeing what’s been there all along? Why do we put up with lesser things, bad things, even joining ourselves to them from time to time? Why do we discount, discredit and belittle the better things, nobler things that up-build human community? Why don’t we throw ourselves into these good things? Why do we choose a golden calf of our own making?
This question lays at the heart of the spiritual journey—keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness…
Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Oseola McCarty died at the handsome age of 91. She was famous for a brief moment in the late 90’s because she had given away her life savings of $150,000 to help complete strangers get a college education at the University of Southern Mississippi in her hometown of Hattiesburg. She died in the frame house where she took in laundry and ironing and made her small fortune a dollar or two at a time.
I was reminded of Oseola this week in an obituary I had stuck in a book of eulogies I keep in the library above my desk at home. This volume is among the few that I dip into every now and then. I find it a bracing experience. And often clarifying. One can read eulogies for their language and historical revelations, but I read them mostly as points of reference. In other words, I read them for the meanings they impart, the life lessons and points of view about what’s important and so on.
I’ve always had a fondness for obituaries for the same reason. Beyond the facts, beyond, “So and So died yesterday of this or that”, embedded behind and beneath the factual reporting, lie clues to what purpose the life had been lived. Not always, of course. But sometimes. Once in a great while, a person’s life seems utterly transparent in the reporting of the facts. Occasionally I’ll tear out such an obit and stick it in my book of eulogies.
In the summer of 1995, Oseola decided to give away most of her estate saying there was nothing in particular she wanted to buy. She had lived a solitary existence surrounded by rows of clothes she made pretty for people who knew her only as the washerwoman. “I’m giving it away so that the children won’t have to work so hard, like I did,” she said.
At the time her gift had quite an effect on people. For someone who had only gone out for some preaching at Friendship Baptist Church and to buy groceries, she was little prepared for the honor she received by the United Nations, for her visit with President Clinton, and for the reception of more than 300 awards, including an honorary doctorate from Harvard.
Contributions from hundreds of additional donors made her initial gift worth at least ten times more. After hearing of her generosity, Ted Turner gave away a billion dollars in her name saying, “If that little woman can give away everything she has, then I can give a billion.” People would see her in airports and flock to her. Some people just wanted to touch her, as though she was good luck.
This effect intrigues me. She did a very simple thing really. Something that, say, anyone in this room could do in their own way. “There’s a lot of talk about self-esteem these days,” she said. “It seems pretty basic to me. If you want to feel proud of yourself, you’ve got to do things you can be proud of. Feelings follow actions.” How refreshing is that?!
Pretty basic, indeed. But if it’s so basic, then why did people just want to touch her as if by touching her they might have something good come their way? Like a magic talisman. Feelings follow actions, she said. You want to feel really good about yourself, about your life, then you have to do things that matter.
Not big things necessarily. Not things that are beyond the range of your life like discovering a cure for cancer or giving a billion dollars (although, if you can, go for it), but simple, important things, nevertheless. Things that are well within your reach, like acts of courage in the face of injustice, or compassionate volunteerism, putting your time and skillsets in service to others, and, yes, financial generosity of a kind you had not considered before but are entirely capable of accomplishing, opportunities that come as regularly as rain.
Want to feel proud of yourself? Then do things you can be proud of, says our teacher, Oseola McCarty. Note how her simple generous act tripped a contagion of generous acts and was multiplied more than a thousandfold. There is no telling how many lives she inspired, even now some years after her death, given that her gift was meant to benefit others in perpetuity. Do you imagine that your potential range of action is at least as large as that of a washerwoman from Hattiesburg?
Do you see why I collect such stories and stick them in my book? Bracing, isn’t it—enough to make you catch your breath. Hold it up to your own life and, well, makes you think, doesn’t it? I know that a lot of the time we don’t want to think so hard. Still, since you’ve come today and I’ve got you listening, it does make you think, right?
When just starting out in this business as a director of a large youth fellowship in a prosperous suburb, I learned that an effective method of focusing the attention of my teens was to have them write their own obituaries. Maybe somewhere along the way you’ve had occasion to attempt this, but probably not recently. It’s safe enough with teenagers because they still feel impervious to the onslaught of age. They can project out to a safe distance. It feels a bit more dangerous for most of us. I can tell you that not a one of them ever said anything about life as a washerwoman.
But if the chemistry in our follow-up conversation was just right, they couldn’t help themselves speak quietly, thoughtfully and truthfully about matters of ultimate concern. All it took was for someone to say something honest about God. And that couldn’t come from me. It had to come from one of them.
That’s similar to our relationship here, today. We have a kind of contractual arrangement. I’ll speak of ultimate things, and you’ll keep them at a safe distance. Once God actually slips into your own consciousness and conversation, all bets are off. That’s when someone like Oseola, for instance, just might actually live what she learned at Friendship Baptist Church.
Oseola McCarty was a churchwoman as well as a washerwoman. She had been nurtured on the words and music of faith. She had been steeped in the church’s traditions. She would have known about Paul, how he had been thrown in prison for his work of spreading a universal message of redemptive love. She would have known of his letter to the Philippians, how it had been written from a prison cell, and how full of joy it was even so.
She would have known that Paul’s strength came from a relationship to something larger than himself, larger than his own ego, larger than his own appetites. Oseola McCarty would have heard how Paul proclaimed: “This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Oseola would have heard the words of the prophets, like Isaiah, who relentlessly reminded the Israelites that God desired justice and righteousness above all else. She would have understood that citizenship in God’s kingdom required integrity, mercy, and humility, that these were the necessary ingredients of healthy and peaceful human community.
She would have known how Jesus said the focal point of life could be summarized by this commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. She understood that if her actions were consistent with that she would feel very, very good about her life. She recognized that love was an action verb, tangible actions were the mark of true faith, not words alone in creeds and confessions. She knew well that love is as love does.
I’m as confounded by someone like Oseola as you are. I mean, after all, I am the professional religionist, but Oseola is still my teacher, even all these years after she’s gone. And because her obit fell onto my desk. Call it coincidence, call it nothing at all – a minor filing accident – just put it back and forget about it. Well, I did put it back, but I can’t forget about it. Her story has stirred me up again.
Now friends, as I mentioned last week you are likely as bewildered as I am at this historical moment. The devastating hurricanes and earthquake, as well as human fashioned debacles like Charlottesville, dysfunctional government, nuclear confrontation, and a highly polarized political and cultural environment—topped off by the shocking Las Vegas massacre. But as I said at the end of last Sunday’s service, we are not powerless.
We pray, of course. We lift victims and those who love them into God’s tender embrace. But that’s just the beginning because faithful followers after the way of Jesus, those who seek to love the way he did, know that there is work to be done. They know God’s justice and righteousness isn’t an impotent esoteric ideal, but a call to arms for up-building the common good. This takes many forms, large and small, and everyone has a role to play.
Take current conditions as a call to action. Don’t be stymied in looping cycles of tribal aggrievement on social media. Do something. Give yourself away for the sake of someone else. Volunteer. Make a difference somewhere. Engage, donate, work.
Christ Church has fashioned this fall as a Season for Action. We’re encouraging everyone to pick several specific opportunities for service to get our spiritual life focused where it should be—on others. Join your hearts as an act of good faith in solidarity with those who seek to love God above all else and their neighbors as themselves.
As Oseola understood, love is as love does. That’s it.
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
If ever a bible story lent itself to moralizing, the passage we just heard from Matthew would be right up at the top of the list. This episode comes as Jesus’ life and ministry are nearing their climax. Just before this, he had rousted out all the moneychangers from the temple in Jerusalem saying they had turned the holy place into a den of thieves. His rhetoric is heating up and his actions are more confrontational. That’s why the passage begins with the self-righteous leaders asking him by what authority he says the things he does.
Jesus winds up confronting them with a radical lesson about how the tax collectors and prostitutes are the more likely citizens of God’s realm than those who say the right sets of pious words but fail to follow their meaning. And like I said, it’s great for moralizing.
This taps into one of our favorite themes at Christ Church and a couple of our core values: we live and practice dynamic hospitality; we welcome and celebrate diversity. As a congregation, we’ve agreed that we’ll try very hard to remove any impediments hindering people in their Godward journey. We’ll receive all sincere seekers as best we can. We think Jesus means it when he says things like tax collectors and prostitutes can find their way into God’s realm ahead of some who would otherwise consider themselves first in line.
We believe that following these words with actions will mean a wide assortment of people could find their way here with whom we’ll partner. Yes, we’re on Park Avenue a block from Bloomingdales, but our pretensions are less about our address and more about how we can share the mind of Christ, as Paul admonished his friends.
It’s hard. We slip. We can be lazy. On the other hand, we claim to mean what we say. That’s where the little parable comes in to twist its moralistic dagger. Are we more like the one who says he’ll go to the vineyard but doesn’t, or the one who says he won’t go but in the end finds his way there and does the job?
Of course, there’s another option here that Jesus doesn’t mention, say a third brother who says he will go to work and promptly does. Jesus didn’t offer that alternative because of whom he was speaking with. The leaders that were challenging his authority understood their actual situation exactly backwards, and Jesus told them so in no uncertain terms. To say they didn’t like his interpretation would be an understatement as the rest of the story makes clear.
Now the potential for moralizing doesn’t stop there. Many sermons have been preached about child-rearing and character-building based on this parable’s theme of saying one thing and doing another. From that angle, the logic is completely transparent—it doesn’t really require interpretation. That’s why Jesus’ questioners know the right answer immediately: Which of the two sons did the will of his father? That they did have the right answer set them up for the punch line about tax collectors and prostitutes.
Whether or not parents effectively model responsible character traits, they will—to a person—insist their children do what they say. A kid who piously, even charmingly, says she’ll do her chores or homework and doesn’t do them will find herself in a worse light than the one who first said no and stomped out of the room but later thought better and accomplished the assigned tasks. I’ve certainly had that parental experience. I’ve experienced it as both an employee and as a boss. And I recognize both sides of that dynamic in my own psyche. I’m guessing that’s true for as well.
Of course, when moralizing it’s always more pleasant to have the focus on someone else. In this way, we rather like the dynamic of Jesus cleverly sticking it to his enemies. And it should not be lost to us that the author of this gospel, a man named Matthew, is himself a tax collector and one of the twelve disciples. Much earlier in Jesus’ public ministry, the text says: As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’" (Matthew 9:9ff)
I’m thinking the author Matthew, former tax collector, felt a sweet pleasure as he repeated this story underlining how tax collectors and prostitutes get into the kingdom ahead of Jesus’ self-righteous enemies. And Matthew wrote at a time when the gospel message was spreading like wildfire within Gentile communities, too, those who didn’t belong at all.
The larger point we’ve already named: no one is excluded from God’s kingdom of grace and some who think they have a leg up in the matter may actually find they’re a step behind if not completely on the wrong path. The fact is we’re meant to be agents of God’s hospitality pure and simple. As followers of Jesus if we don’t do that we’ve missed the point.
But there’s something else that occurs to me here. For one thing, there’s the matter of my identification as a so-called religious leader today, and for another thing, the members of this church, and their identification with the so-called religious establishment. From one vantage point, a proper reading puts us in the hot seat. We are the ones Jesus now confronts. And just who do I think I am in lifting up all these moralisms anyway?
I have always felt that my most competent sermons should include me as a listener. That is, if I have the right perspective, I’ll occupy this pulpit with as much humility as I can muster knowing that it’s a dangerous business to be judging between the sheep and the goats out there when on any given Sunday there could be a goat standing up here.
But this begs another question. Is it possible that Jesus was preaching to himself as well? I know that we suffer from a two-dimensional view of him. We think of him as a great teacher abounding in wisdom, which seems clear, of course. But we should remember that he was a man of flesh and blood making his way in life like the rest of us, working out his own unique version of the inward spiritual journey. The gospels are filled with instances of his going off to pray for extended periods. What else is he doing with all this praying and whatnot if not examining the furniture in the living room of his own psyche?
I wonder if there isn’t an interior resonance to the question he asks the religious authorities: Which of the two sons accomplishes the will of the father? Jesus spoke of God as his father all of the time. In this sense, don’t you imagine that throughout his career he was doing his internal homework about what that meant?
Those who have hung around church over the years, or know some of the dramatic moments towards the end of his life will remember his famous prayer in the garden of Gethsemane just before his betrayal. The gospel reports he threw himself to the ground and said, “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from my lips.” Don’t send me out into the vineyard today. I don’t want to go. I’m not sure I will go if you ask…
Will Jesus do the will of his Father? Will his life up to this point flash out as an empty piety? Or will he actually embody what he had been teaching? Will he go the distance? As if to underscore his existential dilemma another gospel writer reports that, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” (Luke 22:44)
The great wonder is that Jesus does decide to go the distance—all the way to the cross and beyond. His decision to go to work in the vineyard is our model and our hope. Again, you heard Paul summarize this beautifully when he wrote, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name… (Phil. 2:1ff)
Friends, if we share this same mind that was in Christ Jesus we’re bound to go the distance as well. We don’t go alone. For one thing we have the Spirit within us. For another we have each other. Imagine if all of us together patterned our lives on this truth. That’s our call.
Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Prepared with the inspiration of Robert Farrar Capon
I tuned into a morning news magazine just as a ten-year old boy was being interviewed. Turned out he was entering the freshman class at Harvard. He was quite impressive. His use of language and presentation of ideas was everything you might imagine for a miniature Einstein. He had a small body but a ferocious intelligence. He said he had decided to work for three PhD’s including disciplines in both the sciences and humanities. When asked how his classmates had received him the young genius said that he had been well treated.
But that got me thinking. I wondered how his classmates really felt, what they said behind his back. After all, most of his peers would be around eighteen years old. Through no fault of his own, this young man has a brain function that out-performs all others. That probably means he got the best grades with the least amount of effort. No doubt a high percentage of his eighteen-year-old classmates each thought of themselves as the smartest person they knew, and a big chunk of those worked like dogs to get into Harvard.
Maybe it’s all good will, all for one and one for all in his class, but knowing human nature, knowing teenagers, well for that matter, knowing fifty and sixty-year-olds, I doubt it. He’ll be given some latitude because of his age and naiveté, but human taste for competition being what it is, I’m sure more than one freshman wonders why this kid got the biggest brain and the fastest track.
Some of you remember the kid who didn’t do a lick of work and aced the final while you slogged through all the bogus busywork and got a B-. Didn’t seem fair then, and come to think of it, still doesn’t seem fair today. But even the smartest among us discover somewhere along the way that fairness isn’t part of the grand unifying theory of reality.
Still, we all devise our systems of relative fairness to which everyone and everything ought to conform. And when things don’t conform to these variously derived rules, we get all bent out of shape.
That was Jonah’s problem in a nutshell. He didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he worried that God wasn’t going to play by Jonah’s standard of justice. Jonah wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not redeem them. To hell with giving them an opportunity to repent... off with their heads! Those are the rules of fairness Jonah believed in. The Ninevites had brutalized the Israelites. They deserved to die. Period. Saving them was grossly unfair.
Now the Book of Jonah was part of the scriptures Jesus and the rest of the Jews read and studied. It concerned a surprising lesson that in God’s economy God can do whatever God wants, including saving those we don’t deem worthy of it. God doesn’t play by the tit for tat logic of Jonah’s conception. This book taught a radical wisdom at the time.
And then, hundreds of years later, Jesus told his own story about God’s radical grace. It went down like this: You and John are hired to work in a vineyard for eight hours. The employer says, “The normal rate is $200 for the day, is that all right with you? "Yes,” you both reply. “That’s fair.”
At noon, Bill is hired. “How much is he paying you?” you ask him.
“I don’t know,” Bill says. “I need the work and I know he’ll be fair about it.”
At 3 o’clock Ed is hired, and the same conversation takes place. Then later, at the end of the day, in the pay line, Bill, the one hired at noon, is first. He gets $200. Ed’s next, he gets $200. Wow! You and John grin at each other. “Think how much we’ll get!” “What?! Only $200?” “Well, that’s what you agreed on, and you said it was fair. What’s the complaint?”
The complaint, of course, wasn’t that you were cheated per se; you did get what you had agreed to. The problem was how Bill and Ed were dealt with so generously. And that stung. The sting had everything to do with comparison, with your relative status in relation to the others in the same system. It was a question of fairness. Bill and Ed didn’t deserve what they got, same as you.
Now this parable isn’t about labor/management relations. But clothing his point in the garb of money, which he often did because it lies so close to our hearts, Jesus grabs our attention to teach something about grace. And what he says without much sweetener is that God’s dispensing of grace is completely unfair by the standards of our neediness—a reprise of Jonah’s problem.
A good chunk of our neediness is the result of our belief that there is only a limited amount of good stuff in the world; reach down and back far enough into our psyches and it’s really about our perception that there’s a very limited amount of love in the world. We unconsciously assume that love is a very scarce resource. Most of our fairness issues derive from this arid place. So we devise elaborate rules whereby we can each compete for the limited resource and if we play by the rules, regularly checking and comparing our bottom lines, we can end up doing better than some others. We’re constantly sorting people into the worthy and the not-so-worthy.
The problem for you and John is that everyone was treated the same while you had put in a lot more sweat. And that doesn’t square with the rulebook. Now, because of this aspect of human nature, if the owner of the vineyard were to look for laborers the next day, all of those in the know would wait until 3 to sign up.
But as I said, this isn’t a story about how to run a business. It’s a story about spiritual values. It tells us something about God – who God is and how God functions. At the very heart of all things, the rules warp; things are not as they appear. Sort of like how Einstein’s formulas warp Newton’s equations by mixing time and gravity into an illogical, unexpected relationship. Actually, at the very heart of all things, God has thrown out our intricately fashioned rulebooks. There is no more tit for tat. At the heart of all things, God has done away with keeping score. When Jesus got nailed to the cross, the rulebook got nailed right along with him.
Spiritually speaking, when Jesus died, the rulebook died. It ended. It was finished. As far as God was concerned that was it. Everyone had access to the same love. Everyone could live into his or her life unencumbered by bean counting. Everyone was free of it. All they had to do was act like it.
This lesson lays at the heart of the gospel.
Unfortunately for many this deep truth is a bitter pill to swallow, a la Jonah. That’s so for a lot of Christians who like to keep score. Some find it very hard to believe that the world isn’t from start to finish a tit for tat sort of place. Many would feel completely bereft without their imprisoning rulebook. It seems to provide some measure of control over their perception of scarcity. If they work hard enough, if they master the rules they can wind up with more than others and thereby matter, yet secretly never stop believing the opposite. Like the prisoner whose door has been flung wide but for fear of the astonishing brightness outside fails to leave, they prefer to stay behind bars of their own making. They might rather live isolated and alone behind bars than throw in their lot with those they feel are really undeserving of parole.
We really are meant to live in freedom. The freedom to love.
It’s a peculiar thing. God sends out the call: all the prison doors are open! Step out into freedom! Leave your cells behind! It’s a marvel of the human condition that so many choose to stay right where they are.
In a moment we’ll recite the famous prayer that Jesus taught. It will go by quickly, but I hope you will note that after a few phrases we will say, “Give us today our daily bread,” not, “Give me today, my daily bread.” There’s no question that in God’s economy all are meant to be included. Even the repentant Ninevites. This is a radical departure from our natural inclinations. It doesn’t predict an explicit systemic outcome, but it does suggest a reordering of the world’s priorities to include everyone, even those who have arrived late to the party, improperly dressed. Everyone here has been covered.
Note that we did not check your timecards when you walked through the doors. In here we stand equally naked before God. That sensibility permeates our life and our work. That’s the sensibility we’re meant to learn in here and take back out into the world. It’s brimming with grace and generosity and drives us to live lives committed to growing ever closer to God’s design specifications. I tell you, this makes for a life that’s really worth living and predicts a world in transformation.
Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
A twelve-year-old boy named John was playing with the nine-year-old girl who lived next door. Her name was Marie.
Unfortunately, they found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer and before long their make-believe game turned into a tragic nightmare and little Marie was dead. Everyone in town attended the funeral of the little girl – everyone except John, who could not face anyone and refused to talk to anyone.
The morning after the funeral, Marie’s older brother went next door to talk to John. ‘John, come with me,’ he said. ‘I want to take you to school.’ John refused, saying, ‘I never want to see anyone again. I wish it was me who was dead.’ The brother insisted and finally persuaded John to go with him. The brother talked with the school principal and asked him to call a special assembly.
Five hundred and eight students filed into the gymnasium. Marie’s brother stood before them and said, ‘A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your classmates. This is one of those tragedies that mar life. Now I want you all to know that my family and John’s family have been to church together this morning and we shared in Holy Communion.’ Then he called John next to him, put his arm around his shoulders and continued. ‘This boy’s future depends much on us. My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I ask you to love and forgive him, too.’ Then he hugged John and they wept together.
With my first reading of this story as reported by a friend of mine, Greg Jones, formerly the Dean of Duke Divinity School, I found myself a bit confused emotionally. I felt a peculiar sentimental twinge at the end, but to the extent that the story reflected factual events, the content was far from sentimental. Greg says this this is a true story. I guess my problem lay with the compression of the story into just a few short paragraphs. So I read it again.
This time I found I had questions, like, well, who left the loaded gun in the house? Whose house were they in? Marie’s? John’s? Another neighbor’s? Had the families reconciled with whoever owned the weapon? I read it again.
This time I focused solely on John and let the peripheral questions evaporate. I tried to put myself in John’s shoes, made all the more difficult because he was only twelve. Still, it didn’t take great effort to feel a chilling horror as a perpetrator in such a terrible accident—to hold the truth that I was the one that pulled the trigger. This would cause me to want to disappear, to dissolve into the floor, simply never to been seen or heard from again.
And it is also clear how the offer of forgiveness and restoration by Marie’s brother could give back to John his very life. Reaching beyond his grief, risking himself in this way, Marie’s brother offered John a way out of his dark pit. And further, he invited the larger community to witness this restoration. This was a gift of grace to the neighborhood.
Understood from this vantage point this story lies far from the sentimental end of the spectrum, closer to its opposite. It lies closer to the place of making and unmaking, the place of birth and death and resurrection, the place that lies nearest to the heart of God.
Peter asks Jesus if he should be willing to forgive someone seven times. On the one hand, I suppose that sounds like quite a lot. But having a tinge of the modern cynic in me, I’m wondering if Peter isn’t really asking for a limit. As if he were saying, “O.K., I know forgiveness is a part of your program, Jesus, but there really is a limit, right? When is enough, enough in the forgiveness department?
Jesus utters his famous response: not seven times, but seventy times, or as some believe the Greek reads, seventy times seven times. In other words, forgiveness unlimited!
Over the years I have found that while communicating the power of this message of forgiveness is simple, it’s extremely difficult to absorb. As a concept, infinity is simple but not easy to assimilate. Forgiveness and mercy are conceptually simple, but not easy in practice.
Our psyche recoils at the outlandish nature of Jesus’ stipulation. Easy to see how forgiveness can be relegated to the discarded pile of pious sentiments left for a few religious types to pick over and practice, while in the meantime the realists will get down to business on resentment and revenge, you know, living in the world we actually know.
In one of his Letters to Malcolm the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote that one day “last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.”
That’s a long time, 30 years, to attempt something like forgiveness. Although what I suspect is that in his mind Lewis had already forgiven the person, or at least wanted to want to forgive. But there can be a long distance between the head and the heart, between what we say and what we do, what we intend and what we actually execute.
I know from personal experience there are levels of sincerity to peal away on something like this. I say to myself I sorta want to forgive someone, or maybe I should try, but the fact is I have very strong attachments to my resentments. My resentments define me in part. If I didn’t have them, who would I be? To a very great degree I am my resentment. And if I let it go how does that make perpetrators accountable? Does it adequately address the severity of the hurt or harm?
To forgive someone does not require warm feelings towards that person, of course, nor does it mean you will continue to put yourself in harms way of a dangerous person. To forgive does not mean we should not protect ourselves, nor does it mean we should not seek justice. These are common misunderstandings and often used as excuses for retaining our resentment. Forgiveness is an orientation toward life based upon God’s orientation toward us.
The point of the little story Jesus tells concerning the unforgiving slave comes when the king says to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?”
Forgiveness involves a way of seeing the world and understanding our place within it. It involves the awakening consciousness of our own fallibility, of our own standing before God and our sisters and brothers. Forgiveness requires a posture of humility. To either give or receive forgiveness requires a leveling of sorts. You see this in the story of John and Marie. With older brother’s offer of reconciliation, the emotional/spiritual gulf between him and John is compressed. John is lifted out of the pit, and the brother’s humility makes him available for authentic reconciliation, which in turn allows the wider community to join them.
In the classic motion picture of the life of Gandhi, there is a scene in which a Hindu father whose child has been killed by a Muslim comes to Gandhi in great grief and remorse. Out of a sense of retribution he has killed a Muslim child. He now kneels before Gandhi asking how he can get over his guilt and regret. Gandhi, who is gravely ill, tells the man that he must go and adopt a boy and raise him as his very own son. That request seems reasonable but then comes a requirement: in order to find inner peace, the Hindu man must raise the boy to be Muslim. Overwhelmed, the man leaves Gandhi’s room in total disarray. Later, however, he returns and again kneels beside Gandhi’s bed. He now understands. Hostility must be replaced by the practice of humble love.
We could say that in order for such an event to take place within the heart of a man requires a miracle. In part, it is the miracle of sight, of seeing what has always been there, yet never comprehended. If peace were ever to slowly break out in a place that knew only implacable hatred it would be due to a series of mini-miracles just like that. As though learning to see became a contagion.
If reconciliation were to occur between you and, well, fill in the blank…who do you need to be reconciled with? If it were to occur, it might feel to you like a miracle. I think we are much too shy about praying for such a thing. I think we should pray like mad that such miracles would rain down on us.
Forgiveness becomes possible when our vision improves, when we see ourselves for who we truly are and when we see others more clearly for who they are, as though from God’s perspective. Participating in acts of forgiveness and reconciliation is very nearly the same thing as participating in acts of creation. I think that’s one of the principle reasons we’ve been put on earth, to participate with God in acts of creation. Doing that maxes out our greatest potential. Indeed, it is one of the greatest glories of being human.
Friends, in a few minutes we will pray, “Our Father in heaven…Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Maybe, hopefully, miraculously, we will actually mean it.
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Like many of you, I’ve got Hurricane Irma on my mind this morning. More specifically I have my 95-year-old-father on my mind who remains in his home in Ft Myers where Irma could make make landfall any minute now.
It turns out his assisted living building was hardened for hurricanes and became the evacuation site for the residents of two other assisted living units and a nursing home in his multi-tiered complex. They’ve all been crammed into the hallways and dining rooms, along with the families of workers, so quite a few children have found refuge there as well. He says it’s quite a scene. My brother and sister-in-law fled the area yesterday when they learned their home was in flood zone A.
We were still trying to absorb the destruction of Hurricane Harvey – but that’s fallen out of the headlines as the natural disasters pile on. Mexico had a twin punch of both a hurricane and a record-breaking earthquake. All this natural disaster layered on top of a nuclear standoff with North Korea and a vexing, dysfunctional political environment fueling a noxious tribalism. I suppose we could be forgiven if thoughts of the last days floated into consciousness.
Preoccupied with all these matters, I was reminded of an email exchange I had in early 2005 with a young congregant. She was reeling from the devastating tsunami that had swept away a quarter of a million people in Indonesia in the blink of an eye on the day after Christmas. She was asking the ancient question of why bad things happen… It seems timely and relevant to share a portion of our exchange with you this morning.
She began: Stephen, Happy 2005! I hope you had a terrific Christmas and New Year’s celebration! Last week I was asked by a co-worker why God would allow a natural disaster, such as the tsunami, to kill a multitude of innocent people. A few thoughts sputtered through my mind including natural population cleansing, a wake-up call, etc., but I was unable to provide a solid answer. My generation has experienced a couple of wake-up calls in the past few years, but unlike 9-11, which I summed up as the evil of humanity, I cannot find a valid explanation for this disaster. How do I explain God's will in this tragedy to a borderline atheist? I look forward to seeing you on Sunday and thank you for your time! Fondly, Hayley.
Hi Hayley… You ask a tough question, among the toughest unanswerable questions for any person of faith, although there are a few things to say around the edges. First, it’s very important to say what a disaster like the tsunami is not: It is not God's special punishment visited upon a whole class of persons -- that's always been an easy out for fundamentalists of every stripe. You might remember that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that about 9/11 and I’ve heard imams in the news saying it about the tsunami. Job addressed this question about undeserved suffering millennia ago.
That's really what we're asking here: why is there suffering in the world? Jesus made clear that suffering is part of the fabric of existence and at one point referenced a certain physical disaster--the collapsing of the tower of Siloam--and asked, were the victims of this collapse greater sinners than others? He flatly answered in the negative.
Of course, that does not answer why persons must suffer in the main. But we can make some other general comments. For instance, we can say that all of us are going to die. What we seem to so resent is a premature end, although, who's to say just what period of time is too short, or perhaps, in some cases, too long? I’m mindful that when we pray for someone to be healed, and they are healed, what we've really done is postpone the inevitable. That doesn't make the healing any less desirable, but it does place the healing in an appropriate context.
This area of focus in theology is called theodicy--one of the oldest concerns of theological inquiry (as I mentioned, the Book of Job is a very early and profound example). For Christian theologians, the question they ask is how does suffering square with a loving God? We never can finally answer it. We poke at it, we posit tentative explanations, but at best, our answers are always partial. But that doesn't mean God is not loving. Although we see now that any sentimental definition of love won’t do.
God stands above, behind, beneath all things. When disaster strikes we are thrust into our most dependent position, a position we do not like because it pushes us to the outermost limits of our knowledge and understanding. Faith calls us to trust even still. In fact, faith is defined by the limits of our knowledge. Faith reaches beyond those limits.
Faith also calls us to be realists, to acknowledge that a disaster has not created a new set of conundrums, but reiterates the basic situation of our being born and having to die. It shakes the sentimental and comfortably secure Christian into facing the truth about the real stakes. It jolts awake our understanding of the sacred and holy nature of life and of time. C.S. Lewis thought that in some circumstances pain served as God’s megaphone. I have personal understanding of what he means. Sometimes I’ve seen persons come to faith in the midst of suffering, it actually becomes an awakening agent. Of course, for others, it pushes them away since they seem to know that had they been in charge they would have built the thing differently.
Remember that Christianity is founded on the life and times of a man who died by crucifixion for the sake of love. When we're at our best we do not flinch from the reality of suffering, and though we may not fully understand it, we believe that God can redeem it. That’s the meaning found in resurrection faith. I believe God does not will bad things to happen to people, even though the created order clearly allows for it. I can’t prove that, of course. It’s through faith in the God of resurrection that I sense this truth.
When speaking with someone about these matters, it’s important to remember that saying less is probably "more." I will often say to someone when they ask a really tough question, you know, I really don't know the answer, but this is what I do know.... and then go from there.
For instance, I know a personal God who is as near as my next breath and yet, also has flung the stars into distant space. I know a profound trust in this same God. I know of an abiding presence to me and to those that I love so that I am able to pray (as we do in our funeral liturgy), "Help us to live as those who are prepared to die, and when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying our life may be in you and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Hayley, faith does not predict having an easy way. Never has. Any minister you’ve ever heard who has implied this has misled you and diminished Christianity’s content. Easy is not a compatible modifier for faith. But importantly, very importantly, profound faith does predict having a certain confidence about life, a certain courage in the face of death and suffering, and a certain willingness to respond to life in generous love. Profound faith gifts us with hope so that each day can be received joyfully, with gratitude, awe, and wonder. That’s why even in the midst of tragedy we still feel groans of thanksgiving buried deep within. This is the engine of an indefatigable human spirit that lives each day expectantly, passionately, loving God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself.
Hayley may the new year bring you one or two astonishing blessings. Stephen
Stephen, Thank you so much! This is a tough issue for me and one that I will face for the rest of my life. Many of us children of baby boomers have grown up sheltered and expect that everyone, including ourselves, should automatically live to an old age and die a peaceful death. Although events like these are devastating and saddening, I do feel like God has just tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me to appreciate each day and to live as if it were my last.
I forwarded your response to several friends and family members. See you Sunday! Hayley
…And so, here we are – an array of different persons, personalities, life-experiences collected on a Sunday morning as another natural disaster makes its way up the Florida peninsula. By all accounts, it’s a massive event that will disrupt the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people.
As you know from experience, talking about a disaster “way over there” is one thing. But a disaster that involves your home, livelihood and the people you love is a different matter. A dispassionate theological conversation doesn’t exactly meet the need.
What does begin to meet the need are acts of sacrificial love. And tellingly, that’s exactly what the witness of our scripture reveals, even as we heard it read today. Paul was the most explicit when he wrote that the whole law is summed up in loving our neighbor as ourselves. But the other passages we heard also point to the essential obligation we have for each other.
As I told Hayley, the heart of Christian faith is found in a supreme example of sacrificial love. That’s our model, and our hope. This sort of love is redemptive and catalyzes the energy in resurrection. They are inseparably linked.
And so we learn the real meaning of our faith is found in how we treat one another, how well we extend ourselves, share our resources and pursue the upbuilding of the common good. Helping rebuild one neighbor’s home is an important, tangible expression—and this good work then expands into shared community concerns and public policy that advances the general welfare of people from every walk of life.
This point of view challenges our tribalistic tendencies as we internalize the truth that we are all sisters and brothers responsible for one another. We are not simply islands of self-concern, to hell with everyone else. God calls us to buck this radical individualist, nativist tendency. As David Brooks recently wrote post Harvey, “You might be Black Lives Matter and he may be Make America Great Again, but you’re both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets.”
Surprisingly, our common suffering reveals the sacred truth.
Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-12; Matthew 16:21-28Read MoreLess
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20Read MoreLess
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