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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Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Of the four gospels in the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) only two of them have vignettes concerning his birth (Matthew and Luke) but all four of them tell about John the Baptist. Scholars believe the birth narratives started circulating once the Jesus community was around for a couple of decades. But evidently, John was there from the beginning and considered a very significant part of Jesus’ story — more so than telling about his birth and early years.
So much so, that Mark, the earliest of the gospels, announces that “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” starts with the messenger in the wilderness. And John is introduced as someone the ancient prophet Isaiah referenced 500 years earlier — which we also heard today — an especially beautiful text, isn’t it?
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term… A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…
If you’re fans of Handel’s Messiah you know this text. It anticipates Israel’s restoration following a harrowing captivity among the Babylonians. The Jews had been captured and carted away to a foreign nation. Isaiah speaks a powerful word of hopeful renewal.
Another prophet in the 20th century made good use of the same text. Recall how Martin Luther King Jr. worked it into the climax of his famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when he quoted Isaiah saying, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low, the rough places made straight…
Then he added: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope... we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” In the manner of Isaiah, King’s words were a stirring and indelible testament to how the future makes demands of the present.
When you consider the sweep of time from Isaiah’s day 2500 years ago to our present moment, the fact that these words still powerfully resonate speaks to the eternal purposes we address in this space. We know well “that all people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever…”
This eternal condition, the scope of God’s range compared to our few years offers hope for us. We’re held in a grand sweep of time that has forward momentum, anticipating God’s fulfillment calling for a new way of living that more nearly resembles what God has intended all along. That’s the implication.
This is why John’s good news message begins with repentance. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, I suppose, that the good news begins with repentance, because repentance sounds like bad news. But the real reason to repent pertains to situating ourselves for the new thing God intends. Real repentance is aspirational. Letting go of a lesser, corrupt thing to take on the very much better thing.
The good news of Jesus Christ has everything to do with what God intends for the world. And a proper way to think about that is to consider how our lives would need to change in order to exist in such a place as that. That’s what Dr. King was suggesting as something to aspire towards, a community where everyone was judged by the content of their character and not some external difference.
What changes would we need to make in our individual lives in a world where peace and justice and love and hope prevail? What changes would Stephen Bauman need to adopt in order to live in such a place? It gets that personal and that granular.
Think of it like this: suppose you strongly desire to live in a household where everyone is valued and appreciated, where apology and forgiveness were part of the routine arrangements, where mercy and peace prevailed, where no one took advantage of another, where no one tried to take more than they needed from the hands of another. Where you got all the love you ever desired. What sort of person would you need to become to live in such a household as that? What would you need to let go of, and what new thing to aspire to?
Something has been nagging at me for a while: Where has the aspiration for growing in character run off to today? Why is there no public conversation about virtue or qualities of spiritual maturity like honor, integrity, fidelity, truth, compassionate regard, courage, wisdom and humility? Why do these things sound so uncool and déclassé out there? Am I alone in feeling our culture has been stripped of this dialogue, this concern for developing ever-greater human decency and civility?
For a dozen years, I broadcasted radio spots on behalf of Christ Church that reached more than a million people at a time on the subject of values, civility and the common good; this seemed an important and relevant intervention for the church to advance. Now this project appears really prescient in anticipating our current cultural decrepitude. We were ahead of our time I suppose, or maybe, a bit too late. It was but a lone voice in the wilderness, after all.
As you heard today, the phrase “lone voice in the wilderness,” is inspired by Isaiah and John the Baptist. That’s how John was presented in his epic historical moment—a time defined by corrupt political and religious cultures, fractious, violent and indifferent to the welfare of those deemed outside the bounds of one’s tribe. Sound familiar?
Along with John’s searing critique, his lone voice anticipated the arrival of another voice that would outstrip his own. And so Jesus came on the scene. But as you well know, the change Jesus wrought didn’t happen overnight. The darkness had long been advancing, and it would take many years — decades, centuries —for the pinprick of light to grow into a radiant brilliance.
The maddening thing is that we’ve known this bright light for two millennia now and still we strain to the breaking point to hang on the wisdom it reveals. It’s a great mystery as to why this is, but it seems that every generation must contend with its version of an enveloping darkness.
It appears the stakes for wisdom and decency have been doubled, maybe tripled, this year in our season of Advent. I can’t remember a December quite like it at any point in my adult life. Our worship, our scripture, our fellowship, our ministry, our prayer has never seemed more relevant, our reliance on truth and virtue more purposeful, and the Advent refrain, “come quickly Lord Jesus,” more dynamically appropriate.
Perhaps Isaiah’s eloquence touches the spiritual funny bone and stirs us awake again to the idea that just maybe something different is possible, that God will have the day after all. That’s behind all the folderol here. Behind all the music and singing and praising and praying and preaching — God will have the day after all. Every mountain and hill will be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together…
But in order to “find ourselves thrilled by this promise of the world made right, brings with it the haunting thought that we each know what lurks in our own heart—our role in corrupting this world, the litany of ways in which our own sins have contributed to the heartbreak we’re surrounded by, all those times we hardened our heart and kept right on walking, ignoring the cry of someone in need.” That’s how Rob Bell phrases it (Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person. HarperCollins, 2011, p39).
God’s realm is wonderful, fantastic, nearly unbelievable and as Isaiah said, also comforting, for God does indeed bring the peace that passes all understanding. But this peace confronts all that does not conform to its requirements. It will confront all that does not encourage justice. So it stands to reason that things will need to change, things to which all of us are very attached: prejudices and biases and lack of compassion and desire for revenge and greed and narcissism. We’ll have to give up our strong inclinations for creating tribes of us and them, insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, those that have and those that don’t.
That’s the nature of the repentance John has in mind. A simple, clear admission that we are who we are, and the recognition that who we are today stands somewhat against the requirements for citizenship in God’s realm.
Writing about his change of mind concerning sexual orientation and gender identity, ex-evangelical theologian David Gushee writes that “Every so often an issue comes along that requires a choice be made: for or against slavery, for or against women’s ordination, for or against racial integration, for or against rescuing Jews during the Holocaust, for or against using government power to force better working conditions, for or against mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and so on.” Things for which there really is no middle ground when all is said and done.
“At the moment in which the moral pivot points occur, strong arguments can be made on both sides, and strong passions always arise. ...For Christians, these arguments and passions are always buttressed with Bible quotations. Only later does... history declare who had it right and who did not. Meanwhile, in that instant, morally responsible people have to make their leap and trust God with both the consequences and divine judgment (David Gushee, Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism. Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).”
John was announcing a pivot point as Isaiah did before him and as Jesus continues to announce today. This very day, as a matter of fact.
Repentance is good news because in God’s realm every last one of us is loved beyond our wildest imaginings. In God’s household, there is more than enough love and goodwill to go around. Our corruptions ultimately are not held against us. They’re tossed out the window and everyone gets a fresh start. Everyone. Everyone. The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God announces that no one is excluded from God’s loving intention.
What we’re supposed to do is act like that was indeed the law of the land.
Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Alice said she had come to talk with me about her father. Or rather, her relationship with her father. Well, that, and her faith or lack thereof. Or maybe she had come to complain about God. Or not so much to complain as to confess her confusion. She was certain about her confusion. She knew she didn’t understand why things worked out the way they did.
Alice outlined her story this way: Her father had been physically and emotionally abusive during much of her childhood. Her mother had been either oblivious, in denial, or in secret collusion. Alice’s older sister, Bernice, had cut off all relationship with her parents as soon as she turned eighteen. Over the last forty years she and Alice had maintained an uneasy, distant connection.
Alice had always felt torn about Bernice’s abandonment. Some days she thought she should have let go of her parents as well, as Bernice had strongly insisted. But when Mom died, her father was in poor health and Alice felt… well, she wasn’t exactly sure what she felt… was it duty? Pity? Or some sort of primal, familial connection?
Whatever the motivation, over the past several decades she had stayed in touch with this emotionally remote man, occasionally taking care of his affairs when health issues required, and for the last year had overseen his care as Alzheimer’s slowly stripped him of his memory and personality. In all of her fifty-something years Alice said she could honestly say she never had liked the man and sometimes, especially early on, had quite hated him. Never felt any guilt over it either.
She had always seen her options as two: washing her hands, like Bernice had done; or, hanging in with him, which she only now was coming to believe might have something to do with working out a few things for herself… important things, spiritual things.
Alice wasn’t sure why she had not been more emotionally damaged than she was. Not that she didn’t have her scars. For instance, in her twenties and thirties she couldn’t work for any man and jobs changed frequently. But over time her anger and bitterness slowly evaporated. Bernice had never let go of her anger even though she thought she had let go of her parents. Bernice had been incensed when Alice took their father into her home in these last days.
Anyway, Alice was now thinking about her father’s death, now a patient of hospice. She wanted to talk about it, reflect on their history together, maybe gain perspective on why she had done what she had done.
All things considered, she was surprised to find herself feeling she had had a pretty good life. Somehow she had managed to marry a loving man. They had lost one son in childbirth, but adopted another. It was no picnic raising him, but eventually he had managed to get his life in order and they now had a decent, loving relationship.
As for God and faith? Well, that was the reason she had come—to talk about God. Early in her life there had been many days she had prayed to God to take her out of her house, to save her from her family, especially her father. Those days evolved into years of believing there was no God listening. But over time that gave way to something deeper, some deeper knowing that God had been with her all along. She couldn’t make sense of the suffering, but somehow she had accepted that God’s grace was the source of her strength to move out of her past. And lately she was aware of a profound hopefulness for what lay ahead.
Alice said she was actually glad she was able to care for her father. She wasn’t sure why. It really didn’t make sense. Still, she believed that some kind of reconciliation had occurred with him and she could pray that God would find him acceptable if imperfect. She did this even though she had never found him acceptable herself. She told God that God could take it from here.
She marveled at how far she had come. Now she had this hopefulness, this sense of heightened expectation for what lay ahead in her life. She was just really hopeful and she knew this was a spiritual gift.
Today we lit our first candle on our wreath of anticipation—the candle of hope. Advent is the season of hope. Although it seems God has been absent from the human scene, we have not been abandoned, only left on our own the way a householder might leave the care of his property to his servants. He will soon return. In the meantime, the servants have work to do as stewards of all that has been placed into their care. As you heard from Mark’s account, that’s the way Jesus described the human situation.
Actually, I’m thinking you might be feeling that our situation seems quite precarious today. The news this week was rife with topics that could show up in a sermon. In addition to the deluge of fallen media and political titans due to sexual harassment and abuse we learned, on Tuesday North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile that could hit Washington, D.C.; then Wednesday we were treated by a Presidential re-tweet of a British far-right extremist; followed by news of Rex Tillerson’s slow-motion political execution; followed by the plea deal worked out with former national security advisor Michael Flynn—not to mention the machinations around a once-in-a-generation tax bill that will impact all of us and our children for years to come.
How rattled we all are, confused, concerned, worried about the state of things. Fractured into political warring camps, now stunned and amazed at the breakneck pace of change otherwise, it can seem there’s little solid ground under our feet. “The sky is falling!” Chicken Little was heard to exclaim...
For the First Sunday of Advent at this uncertain moment, it might seem counter-intuitive I thought of Alice. But here’s the thing: Despite whatever else might be happening in the world, we carry on with our own lives. The larger issues require our thoughtful engagement, and we will make time for that, for certain, but in the meantime we’re working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, as Paul instructed his friends.
And Alice came to mind because by the end of her story of fear and trembling she had come to tell me that she was filled with hope for what lay ahead. And she realized this hope came to her as a gift; despite hardship, there was a direction and purpose to her journey. All she had to do was receive it with open hands and heart.
So on this First Sunday in Advent I want to make the simple point that in the days ahead we’ll keep our focus on the deeper things, the things that matter, and the inexplicable hope that bubbles up with the force of a geyser breaking through the hard shell of a crusty life. All of us want and need such hope. That’s the sort of energy that filled Isaiah when he exclaimed to God, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence...”
We need the reminder that God is still God. Note the book on the lap of the exalted Christ up there is open to a page that says, “I am the light of the world.” When lost, it’s helpful to check a compass to reorient and re-establish a correct bearing for the journey ahead. Advent is like that compass.
Many of you know the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. It begins this way: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That’s the part that’s most well known. But it continues like this: “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is…not as I would have it. Trusting that [God] will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.”
Recently reminded of this wisdom, I thought it sounded like an Advent prayer. Alice found herself living this prayer. It’s a prayer about truth and hope that could become our own if we are willing to open our minds and hearts to the promises we proclaim in here in the coming weeks. As the holiday folderol ramps up, don’t be anesthetized by the food and the booze and the travel. And don’t fall into a spiral of despair over current conditions.
Instead, pay attention; stay alert; keep your heart and your hands open with expectation that God will have the day at last. In the meantime, there’s work to do; there’s some loving, some giving, and some courageous labor for the sake of our common good that’s been assigned to you. The very best antidote to despair that I know of involves doing someone good and useful.
Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
I’m thinking that Christ the King Sunday sounds really anachronistic today—outdated language announcing a dead concept. Monarchies have been out of favor for a long time having succumbed to the advance of democracy, so kingship seems really dated.
Actually, this day that ends the church year (remember, next week is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the church year) wasn’t introduced into the liturgical calendar until 1925 – when Europe was in massive disarray following World War I and colonialism was at its worst.
Less than 15 years later the world was engulfed in World War II. After that finally ended, no one was clamoring for a return to monarchy, despite the sweet antics of British royalty.
But our scriptures are filled to the brim with talk about kings and queens and kingdoms. And as if to underscore the point, take a look up there in our apse mosaic. That’s King Jesus sitting on a throne. Who does that speak to today? It works within the artistic and architectural program of this space, but we wouldn’t dream up the image of a king today to express our spiritual moment.
Still, the image haunts our tradition. Our Christmas stories will tell us Jesus was born of the house and lineage of David, the righteous king of Israel. And as the gospels report, that’s the question the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, asked Jesus when he stood trial for sedition: “Are you king of the Jews?”
Ultimately, democracies answered the question of political authority by stipulating the people should hold it, and they would choose their leaders who would exercise power on their behalf for a limited time. That way political authority could be temporized.
In order for that to work, the people had to have confidence that the system was reasonably trustworthy to produce competent outcomes, evidently an experiment still in the making. They entrusted authority to a democratic process instead of a genetic lineage of monarchs that produced wildly divergent results.
In the worst-case scenario, a bad president would last only a few years, whereas a lousy monarch could last a generation or more dribbling forward through incompetent offspring. Throw in religious devotion for the divine right of kings, and the stage is set for a particularly noxious outcome.
Democracies have attempted to pull apart the tangle of religion and politics. Our nation is a prime example. We see some really egregious expressions of that struggle today, like the evangelical support for senate candidate, Roy Moore. But we can’t escape the problem by saying our faith has nothing to do with politics, not when we have that picture of a king up in our mosaics.
As our friend Christopher Morse has pointed out, “Jesus is Lord” was the first creed of the early Christians. It sounds like a great affirmation, which it is. But proclaimed in first century Jerusalem, it also rang with the great denial, “Caesar is not Lord!” In other words, to say, Jesus is Lord was as act of sedition; it was siding with him and all that he stood for over the other temporal rulers of the day.
Of course, with the resurrection, the idea of Jesus as Lord ascended into the stratosphere, elevating him into Lordship over all creation, all things. That accounts for our stylized picture way up there. But we might say, so what? What does that even mean to sharp 21st century cynics?
Jesus gives a clue in our gospel lesson. His words are declamatory, but have the ring of a parable: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To the ones on his right hand, the sheep, the King will say, “Come you who are blessed of my Father, for I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you gave me clothing. Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me.”
Then to those on his left, the goats, he will send away saying, “You gave me no food or drink nor did you welcome or visit me, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do to me.”
Notice that Jesus does not privilege political tribes here. Nor does he privilege one family, one nation, one race, one gender over another. Notice too, that there is nothing here about creeds and doctrines. And I should emphasize that this is the only description of the so-called Last Judgment in the New Testament.
The key ingredient to the Lord’s judgment boils down to something rather simple really. He privileges the least among us: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the imprisoned.
But there’s more...he not only privileges the least, but he says that to look them in the face is to see Jesus himself. It’s an intensely personal revelation. Personal and relational, which really makes quite a lot of sense given his earlier command that above all else we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
As you’ve heard as a recurring theme here at Christ Church, love is as love does. Love is principally an action, not a feeling. Feelings may accompany an action, but love is as love does. This remains a very difficult lesson for us. And when earlier we heard him say that we were to love not only our families and friends but our enemies as well, we feel an inward rebellion.
Jesus’ Lordship is unlike anything the world has yet experienced. Even Christians have had a hard time accepting the ramifications over the years, given our propensity to privilege our biases and prejudices.
We privilege our own theological point of view, of course, whatever it might be. Historically we’ve separated peoples into those who have right theologies, right religious allegiances, not to mention right political party affiliations. Our news is saturated with stories about all the ways we slice and dice up the human community. Generally the last thing on our minds is wondering how can we love better. That’s why this passage from Matthew is so striking, and why the church has tended to ignore its ramifications.
You can sense that if we were to follow the pattern Jesus sets forth here all humans would share the same relative standing, that our collective life would be structured around the God-given dignity and value of every human being.
Up there on the throne Jesus seems distant and remote. Sometimes that distance can seem oddly comforting, in the “I’ve got the whole world in my hands” sort of way...at least I have found it so from time to time.
But if we really want an intimate encounter with him then we bring our eyes of faith to looking at the sick, hungry, homeless, oppressed and imprisoned, in person. Look into the face of one of the least—the vulnerable, the weak, the children, and see the face of God.
Friends this instruction is shaping the ministry of Christ Church. This is why we’ve established another ministry in Washington Heights; why we’ve chosen to work with largely immigrant mothers with children 0-3 years of age under the banner of breaking the back of poverty in a zip code.
This is why we built a church and community center in a desperately poor area in Cartagena, Colombia, that feeds more than 100 children every day, and why we created a micro financing program.
This is why we serve the homeless a hot meal here Sunday nights, and why we partner with the Methodist Home for Nursing and Rehabilitation.
In these and many other ways we want to see the face of our king and sovereign lord. "For our part," said Mother Teresa, "what we desire is not a class struggle but a class encounter in which the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich." In this sense, rich and poor are relative terms, inviting intimate human community.
Of course, we can do that for each other right here as well. That’s our call. That’s the point.
As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, many of us are turning our attention to the theme of gratitude. Some of you have seen or participated in the “21 Days of Gratitude challenge.” Some of us have listed reasons or committed to be more grateful in the new year.
Several days ago, I found myself reflecting on gratitude while I waited at my children’s piano lesson. At the start of each kid’s lesson, the piano teacher complimented them on how well they had played at their group class. Both children, without missing a beat, paused, looked up, and said absolutely nothing. Somewhat embarrassed, I was tempted to whisper-shout across the room: Say, thank you. And for the next hour, I was caught in the throes of a semi-parenting crisis, questioning the skills and attitude I was cultivating in my young children. Am I failing with something this important? Have I given them too much? Are my kids ungrateful?
There’s no doubt in my mind that if the teacher had said something my kids didn’t like they would have been equipped with all of manner of stank face, body language, and some cross words. (I said cross words, not curse words).
I am still working on my kids, but in today’s gospel, we’re reminded of the orientation we ALL need to be people of gratitude.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem near the border of Samaria and Galilee. As he approached a village, ten men with leprosy began calling out to him. Jesus. Master. Have mercy on us! And the Bible says that Jesus. Saw. Them. He saw the men covered in scaly sores. He saw their blistered feet, their torn clothes, and their matted hair. He saw the men who had been isolated from their families, rejected by their friends, and scorned by the community. Jesus saw them standing on the sidelines of society, desperate for someone to take pity on them.
Jesus saw them, even when others made them invisible. And Jesus sees us. When we feel invisible, he sees us. In a city of 8 million people, he sees us. He sees the pills and the pain, the drinks and the depression, the tears, and the torment. Jesus sees YOU!
When others look away, Jesus sees you. When you’re wondering how you’re going to get through the holidays that make you hurt, Jesus sees you. When friends don’t answer the phone, respond to your texts, or like your Facebook posts, Jesus sees you. And not only does he see us, but Jesus calls us to see each other. To discern the pain others feel. To notice our neighbors relegated to the sidelines. God wants us to see that brother who is sleeping on the sidewalk in a self-made tent. See that girl who’s been sexually abused and never believed. See the teenager who was shot during a routine traffic stop. See people.
You likely saw headlines this week that GQ named Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year. And there were commentators and journalists complaining about this. They just “couldn’t see” why GQ would choose him. There were other athletes doing good work in the world, they said. But the unfortunate reality is that many of the same people who fail to see why he would be Citizen of the Year, also fail to see the money he gives to help young people. They fail to see to see the racism that plagues our country. They fail to see the impact of our Criminal Injustice system on black and brown communities.
People are crying out, people are asking for help, people are demanding justice, and it’s time to open our eyes and discern their plight. See the people God sees. See the causes God sees. See the injustice God sees.
Jesus saw them. But not only did Jesus see them, but Jesus spoke to them. Then, Jesus said to the lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priest.” But that’s all he said. No more instructions. Just go show yourselves to the priest. Unlike Naaman in the Old Testament, Jesus didn’t instruct them to bathe in the Jordan. He didn’t tell them to tell others the story. He didn’t even ask them for an offering. He just said Go show yourself to the priest.
Under Levitical Law, only a priest could allow them back into the community. The priests would have to examine the lepers and make sure that they were completely healed from the disease. The priest would have to make sure that the leper didn’t bring the disease back to the community and infect others. The priest could say yes, you’re in or no, you’re out.
And so before any healing was evident, Jesus sent them to be approved. And I just want to pause here and say sometimes God will send you to do something that you don’t understand. Why is God telling you to leave the big job and go teach? Why is God calling you to start a nonprofit? Why is God telling you to move your family to another city? Sometimes, when God tells us to do something, the reason is not initially clear. Other people might even think the calling is crazy. But don’t worry about what other people think. When God says go, you go! It will make sense in due time.
So, the lepers are on their way to meet the priest. And as they’re walking they notice that something is different. Their bodies are starting to change. They looked at their hands, and their hands looked new. They looked at their feet, and they did too. And at least one recognized that this transformation. The lepers’ healing was perhaps unexpected. Maybe undeserved. Certainly unearned. It was by God’s grace that these men were healed.
And there may be someone in here who senses that something different is happening in you. Your faith has changed. Your attitude has improved. Your patience has grown. But before you go thinking that it’s because of your hard work, may I remind you that you are who you are and where you are only because of God’s grace.
Is there anybody in here who can admit that your dashing good looks didn’t get you where you are? Your winning smile didn’t do it. Not even your high IQ score. You’re here today only because of God’s grace and God’s mercy. When your spouse left you, GRACE kept you. When your friends forgot about you, GRACE kept you. When your bank account was empty, GRACE kept you. When you lost that big job, GRACE kept you. When drugs should have taken your mind, GRACE kept you! I’m standing here today, only because grace and mercy have followed me all the days of my life.
Jesus saw the men. He told them to go; and Luke records that “As they went, they were made clean.” All ten of them. But then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back. Ten were healed. One turned back. Now all of my life, I have heard preachers give the other nine men a hard time, and I’ve done it too. But, they were doing what Jesus told them to do. Jesus said go to the priests, so they went toward the priests. And who knows how long they’d been away from the community. Was it six months, a year, five years? Perhaps, they had been away from loved ones so long, they wanted to hurry so they could be restored to the community. And perhaps, they wanted to give thanks in the temple, which was the traditional place of worship.
The nine continued toward the priest, but one turned back. And when he returned, we learn that he is a Samaritan. When they were all lepers--when they were all outcasts— they had one identity and one voice. The distinction between Jews and Samaritan didn’t matter. But now that they’re healed, we learn that one was part of a group even more marginalized that the Palestinian Jews. Now that they’re healed, they are no longer one group or one voice. Now that they’re healed, the Jews have gone one way, and the Samaritan went another.
We will often stick together when we’re down and out; but once we make it, we distance ourselves from those who were on the bottom with us. When the Pilgrims came to this land, and when Italian, Irish, and Eastern Europeans came in the 18-and 1900s, nobody was crying out “Build a wall!” But when our Hispanic and Latino sisters and brothers come, when Middle Eastern and North African folks come, now we want a border around our nation. How quickly we forget that at some point, we wanted to be embraced, because we were the outsider.
It took the Samaritan to recognize who Jesus was, to realize that God was with them not just in the temple, but on the outskirts of the city too. The Samaritan, the one who wasn’t even a second-class citizen like the Jews, but a show-nuff outsider. A Samaritan leper in a Jewish leper colony—he came back to say thank you.
There’s something to be learned from outsiders; people locked out of spheres of influences, preyed on as public piñatas, and demonized because of their difference. But many outsiders possess a hermeneutic of hope that transcends the halls of power and the reach of the oppressor.
As a Black woman in America, I am part of a community of outsiders. The testimony of my ancestors, from Chattel Slavery to Reaganomics, demonstrated how outsiders see Jesus as a Transcendent Liberator. We see Calvary as a place higher than the auction block, higher than Capitol Hill, and higher than the White House.
And if you are an outsider know this: God is on the side of the outsider. Frederick Douglass and Harriett Tubman were outsiders that moved Lincoln. Cesar Chavez was an outsider who moved the labor movement. Edith Windsor was an outsider who moved the Supreme Court. Jesus was an outsider who moved the world. I am glad to be a member of a community of outsiders, a people with an alternative vision for the world.
Further, lest we get caught up looking down on the ones who did not turn back to say thank you, the question we all need to ask is, how often have we turned back? How often have we helped someone to show God that we are grateful? It’s good if we praise God for what God has done for us. But it’s Christ-like if we turn around and go back and help somebody else. When was the last time that we helped those who get treated like modern-day lepers: an addict who can’t seem to break the habit? A high-school drop out that everyone has counted out? A teenager with a baby and no family support, an ex-con who can’t catch a break because of a record? Undocumented parents trying to make their way in a new country? When was the last time, we went back to help someone else?
The story is told of a woman who came to church sang and praised and said, “Lord I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, down the block, got on the bus and went home.
The next Sunday she came back, she said, “Lord, I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, down the block, got on the bus and went home.
The third Sunday she came back. She said, “Lord I thank you for my new car.” When the service was over, she walked out the door, and down the steps, but she had missed the bus. When the pastor came out, she said, "Sister Smith, I’ve noticed that you’ve been thanking God for your new car. Why don’t you drive the car to church?"
"Is it that we don’t have enough parking?" She said, "No pastor; that’s not it." The pastor said, "Is it because you don’t want any of us to see how well you’re doing?" She said, "No pastor, that’s not it." The pastor said, "Is it because it’s being customized?" She said, "No pastor, that’s not it." The pastor said, "Well what is it then?" She said, "I haven’t driven the car to church because I don’t have it yet."
And the pastor said, "Well why are you thanking God for something you don’t even have?" And Sister Smith said, "Because I already know that God is going to provide what I need. You see, when my husband was sick, God made a way. When my child was in trouble, God made a way. When my job was eliminated, God made a way. And now, God has given me a heart to reach out to young women in prison, and the prison is two hours each way. So, I’m thanking God now because God knows what I need."
Brothers and Sisters, I’m just here to tell you, that even if you don’t have what you need, thank God, anyway. If you’re trying to help somebody, thank God anyway. If your problems seem insurmountable, thank God anyway!
You may not know what all God did for me. And I may not know the details of what God did for you. But I’m looking around this sanctuary, and I can tell you’ve been blessed. And I believe that there are some grateful people all over this building. I dare you to open your mouth, join your voice with mine, and take this moment to tell God, "THANK YOU!"
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13
I want to lift one idea from the parable of the so-called wise and foolish virgins you heard a moment ago and let it settle in to the backdrop of my comments today. I want to focus on the fact that the story concludes with a shut door, and the five who had run off to get more oil were left out in the cold. The thing I’d like you to consider is the common fantasy that we have all the time in the world to tend to something that matters. Experience often teaches otherwise.
We could imagine the five young women shut out from the wedding feast commiserating with one another that they hadn’t been better prepared. My life is littered with lots of that small-scale stuff due to either procrastination or distraction or a lively combination of the two—call it: procrastraction.
We make plans with varying degrees of sincerity and plod along with a lazy conviction that life will work out somehow in the long run. Along the way we discover the future isn’t nearly as predictable as we imagine or desire, and we learn that our decisions and behaviors in the present actually mattered more than we knew.
Jesus concludes his parable by saying, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” He may have been referring to history’s consummation or his eventual return, but regardless the principle stands as a bit of universal wisdom. Keep awake... Or I might say it in the imperative: wake up! See what’s actually in front of you. Be alert, self-aware, prepared.
When Amos thunders that God hates the worship of the Israelites he means to wake them up to something that’s been right in front of them, namely, that above all else God wants the people to reflect God’s love for justice and righteousness. That’s the heart of the matter.
It’s not worship per se that offends him, but worship that exists in a hermetically sealed bubble with little relationship to what actually matters most of all. If the people worship God, they should care about what God cares about. Excellent worship should always lead us out into the world as God’s emissaries of love and justice. That’s the point of it—to become spiritually formed in the likeness of Christ.
We’re meant to encounter God in such a manner that over time, week by week, our gratitude and praise as the gathered community makes us more and more alert to what matters most. In here we’ve encapsulated that into love of God and neighbor, understanding that we can’t love God without loving our neighbor. And likewise, loving our neighbor invites us into God’s heart.
Any time we gather as God’s people and wind up excluding or diminishing others we’re doing something other than worshiping God; likely we’re worshiping some reflection of ourselves and our tribe. That was Amos’ accusation against the Israelites. And he wanted them to wake up. But as Jesus’ parable points out, sometimes it’s only the door slammed in our face that grabs our attention. Only then, when it’s way late do we say something like, “Oh, now I get it.”
We’re having a moment like that across our nation just now. As I pointed out in my Faith Matters column this week, it seems the dam has burst in the realm of sexual harassment/abuse. The jig is up. There will be no going back to former days and ways. For one thing, women have been mobilized. For another, technology has made disclosure inevitable; things formerly hidden come to light—instantly, for better and worse—for thousands, millions at a time, under the ironic medical moniker, “going viral”.
I’m imagining many closet harassers are quaking. Others will be as the dawn of understanding breaks out. So be it. As though anticipating our Facebook/Twitter world, Jesus once said to his disciples, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not become known.”
The entertainment industry has been ground zero in this eruption. It’s the most flamboyantly egregious harassing environment, but certainly not the only one. Currently politics comes in at a close second. But each of us knows someone or something related to this topic, which in itself is an astonishing confession at how universally complicit we have been.
Lately I have been considering the cultural realm of men and manliness, how certain roles and behaviors are so deeply embedded they don’t rise to consciousness. I’ve known many unconscious men over the years.
Of course, to some degree, all of us are unconscious. That’s an aspect of our human predicament. I certainly include myself in this. One of the life assignments I chose in my early twenties involved a commitment to becoming increasingly conscious and self-aware. This included a willingness to face my own darkness and weakness. As the years advanced I’ve experienced this as a matter of some spiritual importance and urgency.
Rabbi Eliezer taught his disciples, "Repent one day before your death." One of them then asked, "How will we know when that day is?" To which he replied, "All the more reason to repent today, lest you die tomorrow."
Some days have been easier than others. Some days I don’t want to know what I don’t know. Once in a while what I don’t know breaks down the front door demanding an audience. Sometimes that comes in the form of another person; say, one’s spouse, or child, or co-worker. It took a while, but eventually I came to understand those moments as great gifts. And of course, once you know a thing, you can’t un-know it.
So we’re getting clearer and clearer about gender dynamics in our culture; about destructive systems of behavior that co-mingle power and lust; and roles and patterns of engagement at work, in media, and in families—oh, my! In families!—that debase and demean those whose power is less than, who can be exploited and manipulated and shut out of opportunity and self-actualizing pathways.
It would seem Christians should have a bead on this given our love ethic and knowing our God’s delight in justice and righteousness. But Christians are people too. We can be as dim-witted—unconscious—as the next guy.
Thankfully, though, we can choose to wake up as Jesus admonished those who followed along his path. That’s a great and high calling—simply to wake up, to see what is and then bravely chart a course based on a clearer understanding of our actual situation. I believe waking up lies at the heart of the spiritual journey.
I’ve had many conversations over these last months in which people express great perplexity at our current cultural moment. They’re agitated and confused, they say, bewildered by outrageous destructive weather; a cascade of record-breaking mass shootings; a broken political culture sinking into a bog of decaying values and character; nuclear saber-rattling; in addition to the daily revelations concerning harassment and abuse.
But I’ve been thinking there’s a creative, generative way to approach this. We’re in the midst of a breakout moment of historic proportion. There’s enormous opportunity for waking up today, for seeing what is and aligning our values and actions accordingly. Disciples of Jesus should be leading the way with the content of our commitments. Why? Because our love of God draws us into the world for the sake of love and justice. Friends, this is very clear, very compelling.
Given the state of things, can you think of a more important agenda than this? That’s what our new members have signed on for, what we’ve all agreed has the highest claim on our life. This is what we want to model for our children. This shapes the character of our love seeping into every corner of our lives. This defines the pledge we make on Commitment Sunday. Stands to reason the more woke we are, the more generous we’ll be. Too much is at stake. So much opportunity ahead.
I’m so very thankful to be a part of this community of faith. As we say in the larger Bauman family, “gratitude abounds, thanks be to God!”
All Saints Sunday
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Among the less important, but interesting news bits in the last month concerned the death of Playboy founder, Hugh Hefner, at 90-years-of age. This coincided with the Harvey Weinstein revelations and catalyzed some soul-searching analysis among boomers, sociologists, and pundits about things like gender roles, the commodification of sex, Weinstein’s defensive comment how he had been formed in the riotous 70’s and so forth. But Hefner’s obituary brought to mind another death closer to the Bauman’s on this day we remember saints of the church. You’ll understand why in a couple of minutes.
A number of years ago Melissa and I along with our son and daughter flew to Los Angeles to inter the ashes of Melissa’s aunt. She had been under Melissa’s care for some time, eventually moving to New York and the Methodist Church Home in Riverdale for her final year. Some years prior Mary Anna had made arrangements with Pierce Brothers Mortuary and Memorial Park in LA to receive her ashes in a small rose garden where her sister’s—Melissa’s mother’s—had been interred several years earlier.
This turned out to be quite a nice trip, something like rehearsing a script for “This Is Your Life Melissa” as we tracked over several days the important locations of her childhood, meeting childhood friends, culminating with a visit to Occidental College where I first met and kissed her hand at the age of nineteen in what she calls one of my only spontaneous romantic gestures.
Mary’s ashes were poured out into the loam of the rose garden, which in the warm California sun was in full bloom. By most standards we would say she had lived a very small, constrained life, but nevertheless had some true friends and a not-large but loving family from the opposite side of the country that had come to honor her.
A couple of years earlier she had asked me to baptize her. I think she wanted to have faith more than she had faith, if you know what I mean. But in that, I suspect she was little different from most of the rest of us. And as for that it was good to be able to make our Christian assertions together at her memorial, a little band of family and friends, confidently claiming that life and death cohered in God’s loving embrace. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Long live Mary. Thanks be to God.
Pierce Brothers Mortuary and Memorial Park turned out to be more interesting than it first appeared. If Los Angeles has a main thoroughfare slicing from the beach into downtown, it would surely be Wilshire Blvd. Pierce Brothers is located in the trendy Westwood section of LA, three minutes from Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive where the Boulevard sprouts gleaming high-rise condominiums and hotels.
The cemetery is situated on a small plot of land that can’t be much more than an acre immediately behind a block of this development. It’s an unexpected place in an unusual location. And walking around the small acre of green I learned that Mary Anna had chosen an unusual company in which to be permanently received. Glancing at grave markers I noticed names like Jack Lemon, Walter Matthau, George C. Scott, Dean Martin. On the small square of lawn I stepped over brass plaques with names like Donna Reed, Roy Orbison and Natalie Wood. Here was Peggy Lee, Burt Lancaster, and Truman Capote.
And as a kind of coup de grace, on a row of marble crypts at eye level I read the name, Marilyn Monroe. I noticed that the facing of her crypt was much darker than the rest; inquiring about this I learned that it needed routine cleaning given how often it was kissed by persons wearing red lipstick. And indeed, on this day a bright red imprint decorated her vault.
I thought it was curious that the crypt next to hers was vacant—a mortician informed me that Hugh Hefner had reserved it—that’s why this memory came to mind. Hefner’s obituary mentioned this crypt. And BTW, he described his family as "Midwestern Methodist." His mother had wanted him to become a missionary. Coincidentally the building where I live happens to have been the home of Marilyn Monroe and playwright, Arthur Miller. You can still find this on tourist maps.
By comparison to all of this hot fame inspired by Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Mary Anna lived in one room above a garage for most of her adult life not far from this garden. As the community mutated into its culturally iconic status, she stayed put in a very small space that remained unchanged for decades.
It was an odd juxtaposition for Mary and us, yet we were there for her and for ourselves because of the sacred mystery we all shared regardless of anyone’s relative station in life. Everyone’s dust and ash looks the same in the end. Commingled in the earth, there’s no telling whose feeds the bright color of the flowers.
I remembered Mary’s quiet, almost whimpering tears when I baptized her. It was in some ways an awkward moment—finding a bowl in her cluttered room, filling it with water, then dripping baptism on her head, claiming her as God’s own beloved child at the age of 84. Her needs and neediness had always loomed large for those who cared for her. The day of her baptism was no different.
But honestly that memory of authentic, fragile humility won the day for me at Pierce Brothers Mortuary, an acre of permanent respite for the stars. I don’t know if it’s truer to say that Mary Anna is now with them, or that all of them are now resting with her. But the latter seems to have the harder pull on my heart.
One day when Jesus saw the crowds following him, he went up a mountain and after he sat down he began to speak and taught them saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.(1)”
In retrospect these would have been the right words to recite on Mary’s day. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and she was meek in many of the ways we think of it, and in material fact did inherit the earth and all that it held, including those spectacular roses.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful…the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers…those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…(2)”
Of course, Jesus had more in mind than simply espousing a philosophy of life, something more than a way to find comfort in the here and now. He was saying something quite radical about how the world was actually tilted, how it was poised toward a future fashioned by God. That was the meaning embedded within his sense of the kingdom of heaven—God’s home in our yet-to-be-disclosed future.
Our faith has a kind of directionality. It has forward movement. Today is pregnant with tomorrow. Today’s blessing anticipates tomorrow’s consummation. These famous beatitudes of Jesus have a future tense. Those who mourn are blessed today for they will be comforted. The meek are blessed today, for they will inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst are blessed today, for they will be filled. The pure in heart are blessed today, because they will see God, and so too, the peacemakers are blessed because they will be called children of God.
Eugene Boring points out that, “Christianity is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance in one’s career, or preserve one from illness. Christian faith, instead, is a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness, righteousness, and peace will finally prevail, that God’s future will be a time of mercy and not cruelty,(3)” and our call is to align ourselves with God’s intentions. Blessed are we who attempt to live this life now, even when such a life seems foolish or dangerous or we’re boxed in by conditions beyond our control, by our own frail limitations, even our faults and failures, for our future lies in God’s loving consummation.
The old African-American spirituals, many of the old slave songs, ring with this future tense. If you think about this, it makes great sense and speaks to the very heart of what authentic faith is all about. There’s great power in the hope this draws forward for people that otherwise had such limited options in their present moment. This sort of hope is what fueled Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
And for those of us sitting in this room listening to these words, when we’re at our best, this faith in God and Jesus—however small or struggling it might be—draws us into a future where poverty and hunger and oppressions of every sort have finally been vanquished. And where even small, constrained lives find their fulfillment.
Friends, to claim and then attempt to live God’s future redounds in our present as a blessing of hope and peace and mercy and love and joy, and miraculously brings that day ever closer when we shall at last be blessed beyond our wildest imaginings.
(1) Matthew 5:1-5.
(2) Matthew 5: 6-10.
(3) M. Eugene Boring, “Matthew,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, V. VIII, Nashville, Abingdon, 1995.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-40
I’ve just returned from a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine with 20 or so folks attached to this congregation. We had a terrific experience. And by the way, we’re tentatively scheduling our next one eighteen months from now in May of 2019. If you’ve been around Christ Church for any period of time you know that I strongly encourage people to make this trek as an important component of their spiritual formation.
As I mentioned in a recent Faith Matters column, we fashion these journeys as spiritual adventures as opposed to religious tourism. We still visit important sites that inform our faith tradition, and these can be deeply stirring (and challenging), but we embed this experience within current cultural arrangements. Otherwise, our faith can seem a disembodied thing, separate from actual lived experience, a kind of fantasy kingdom, as though fashioned by Disney imagineers who have conjured a time long, long ago in a land, far, far, away.
We need the regular reminder that Jesus walked a true human life within a specific cultural moment. The politics of his time were complicated, fractious and divisive—just like today. Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan nexus incubating powerful religious crosscurrents—just like today. He advanced a simple, but searing message of redemptive love for all, challenging the powers and principalities to a greater righteousness while eschewing political authority for himself.
He was a highly original, disruptive figure, calling people to follow humbly in his footsteps as he walked through the land. And ultimately he was crucified through a political process as an enemy of the state.
If we fail to make these connections, we’ll fail to understand our place in our own specific cultural context right here. After all, we live in a highly complicated political/religious culture that’s extremely fractious and divisive. The tradition Jesus taught will not allow us an escape route from current conditions. Instead, we’re flung headfirst into engagement with the powers and principalities in our own time and place, learning how to love our neighbors as ourselves as we deepen our partnership with God.
That’s how Jesus explained the human project after all, as you heard in the gospel lesson. When a lawyer tried to entrap him with the question pertaining to the greatest law, Jesus famously replied, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind.” And, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When all was said and done that was the point of it all: love. Love God, love your neighbors…all of them. Which was reminiscent of what he had declared in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember how he said, “to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… Give to everyone who asks… Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that… But love your enemies, do good to them… Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
That’s pretty radical stuff. But its important we recognize he said that in real time to real people in real difficult circumstance. And the passage we read today occurred on Monday of the last week of his life, shortly before he was condemned to death as an enemy of the state.
Christians tend to hear his words as though spoken in a hermetically sealed spiritual bubble; beautiful in their way, and refreshingly idealistic, but not applicable in the real world. After all, how on earth is that supposed to be applied in our individual environments at work, at home, on the street, and so forth.
On the one hand, we have an instinctual sense that love is the heart of the matter, but then, on the other, to actually apply it in real time seems so very difficult, and actually threatening.
When I did my doctoral research on forgiveness, which involved interviewing high profile leaders, every one of them said that while forgiveness was essential to living well, even in the workplace, it was not possible to say that in their organizations because it would be perceived as weakness.
Forgiveness is a facet of love. To love seems to put one at a political disadvantage in a culture that generally rewards cutthroat, ruthless behaviors. Consider Jesus’ fate. As a result, Christians tend to compartmentalize the concept, as in, “well, I’ll try to love my spouse and kids, but that’s pretty much the beginning and end of it.” And routinely fail to understand how love is related to justice, human dignity and equality. In this way, for several centuries the church could tolerate slavery, for instance. All it took was a massive compartmentalization.
But my point today isn’t to carp about the church’s failings in its call to love, but to simply reaffirm that call lies at the heart of what it means to be human in the highest and best sense. As you read on your bulletin cover this morning, Richard Rohr explains that, “The people who know God well…those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a tyrannical mother, but always a lover who is more than we dared hope for.”
When Jesus claims that love of God is our first order of business and love of neighbor our second, he’s stating the most elemental aspect of our existence. Everything else stands on that.
Given our current political environment it’s worth noting that Abraham Lincoln held to a similar viewpoint. He famously avoided joining any church in his day because he had difficulty giving his assent to complicated statements of doctrine, which seemed what church membership entailed—competing claims about correct doctrine.
However, Lincoln was quoted as saying on more than one occasion something like this: “When any church will inscribe over its altar as its sole qualification for membership the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both the law and the Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself—that church will I join with all my heart and soul.’”
And as you’ve heard me say ad nauseam, that’s the quote we have embedded in our mosaics above our altar and serves as the mission statement of Christ Church. Its not complicated. But it’s not easy either. Again, consider Jesus.
And this mission isn’t owned by any particular denomination, or religion for that matter. As it is, Jesus quoted Hebrew scripture when he pronounced his answer to the scheming lawyer. Peal away the doctrinal layers of all the world’s great religions and you will find a variation of this love at their core. Why? Because it reflects creation energy, the realization that everything that is has come to us as gift; that God is a lover, and we’re meant to be lovers as well.
Some years ago I watched an interview with Richard Dawkins on British television. Dawkins is the famous atheist biologist who has written several aggressive anti-religious diatribes. The interviewer was clearly of like mind and his questions were served as lightly tossed softballs that Dawkins could smash out of the religious ballpark.
But at the end, the interviewer sucked in a deep breath and said something like this: “Well then Dr. Dawkins, here at the end, when all is said and done then, what really matters about life? What’s it all about anyway?” Without skipping a beat Dawkins gave a most remarkable, nearly unbelievable answer, at least in terms of his own logic system. He said something like, “Oh, well, you know that’s actually quite easy. Very easy. Love. That’s the heart of the matter. It all boils down to love.”
I nearly fell out of my chair because everything that preceded this last comment could hardly logically lead to this conclusion. In other words, why should love be privileged above every other evolutionary system? Why not hate, or dominance, or something else reflective of survival of the fittest?
But if love is Dawkin’s answer, we have something to talk about that points to the fundamental religious principle that Jesus enunciated. Evidently Dawkins cannot escape the elemental instinct about what matters most. And here’s the irony: 1 John 4:8 says explicitly, “God is love.”
And that’s about as good a place to end as I can fashion…
Exodus 33:12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22Read MoreLess
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.