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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Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
Good friends, again, I extend a warm welcome to you. It is so good to be together in this exceptional space on this special day. What a gift we have here at Christ Church, bequeathed to us by prior generations—a sparkling geode encrusted with 14,000 square feet of Venetian mosaics, 34 varieties of marble, and 17th century icons all collected and assembled in the name of the criminal carpenter of Nazareth. That’s what Jesus was, after all. The last week of his life made that clear, what we now call Holy Week. A lot of bad stuff went down in those last days winding up in crucifixion.
A lot of effort went into building this place. It cost a lot and it took 30 years to finish. At the time the money could have been spent on other things, of course. Good things, useful things, things related to our mission here to love God above all else and our neighbors as ourselves.
But then, this has been a useful and beautiful place of spiritual refuge for decades. I can’t recount how many times people have either told me in person, or written, or messaged their gratitude for this place in the heart of the city in the heart of the world. It’s hard to put a price tag on that over decades, and hopefully centuries, of its continuing presence on this corner. You’re here because it's here. And we can imagine another assembly 100, 200 years from now.
I got to thinking about this place in a fresh way as seven days ago I watched a much older, grander and storied cathedral consumed in an awesome and terrible conflagration. All media saturated our senses with images of iconic Notre Dame in the heart of Paris transformed into a glowing inferno. Rosy flames leapt higher and higher eventually consuming the roof and spire that finally collapsed into a smoldering heap below.
Over 850 years old, the cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, the site of many historic moments, and featured prominently in art and literature. For nearly a millennia it has survived revolutions in France as well as bombings in both the First and Second World War. It sits in the middle of the city, on an island in the Seine River; the most visited monument in Paris.
The destruction reverberated around the world. Honestly, I was initially surprised by the international outburst of anguish. And how moving to hear the stricken throngs in the street joining their voices in a hymn, of all things, that clearly lingered in the collective psyche of an otherwise majorly secular culture.
I agree with the sentiment of Rich Lowry who wrote that the cathedral “stands for so many qualities that we now lack—patience and staying power, the cultivation of beauty, a deep religious faith, a cultural confidence and ambition that could create a timeless monument of our civilization” (https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/04/notre-dame-cathedral-fire-distressing-message/). I think that accounts for the anguish.
That this devastation took place during Holy Week ignites the spiritual imagination. A metaphor for catastrophic loss of every kind in these days—the crucifixion of beauty, as it were, of life-enhancing institutions, of human dignity and honesty, of the noblest aspirations of collective human community. All these seem under attack in our dyspeptic age. The fire felt resonant with the energy of Good Friday.
Reflecting on the stabilizing grandeur of the cathedral Victor Hugo, author of the famous, Hunchback of Notre Dame said “these greatest productions of architecture are not so much the work of individuals as of a community; are rather the offspring of a nation’s labour than the out-come of individual genius; the deposit of a whole people; the heaped-up treasure of centuries…” (As quoted in ibid.) It took over 300 years to build. An incalculable treasure of the best of what we humans are capable. I think the fire tweaked a massive unconscious recognition that this treasure is under attack.
But then all this renewed my appreciation for what we have here at Christ Church in the meantime, for the foresight and generosity of our forebears, and the recognition of the importance of sacred place. One doesn’t have to worship God in a jewel box like this, of course. Most won’t. Any place will do. On the other hand, a place like this does serve an important purpose with its solidity and beauty, an emblem of the historic dimension of our standing on the shoulders of others and an implicit sense of responsibility to pay it forward. You can feel that, can’t you?
Despite the very strong headwinds facing the church today, even the United Methodist Church facing its own Good Friday moment, here we all are having gathered from, well—I can tell you for certain when considering everyone who has attended here—from around the world, representing all of the continents, save Antarctica, and many, many nations and ethnicities. Think of the extraordinary diversity of background, perspective and life experience gathered here. You’ve brought all of that in here with you—all of your hopes and dreams, all of your doubts and fears, all of your tears and anguish.
We’ve come because despite present conditions we hope there’s something at the heart of human existence that has fashioned us in love for the sake of love—in other words, for a life that actually means something. Still, the energy of Good Friday might seem to have the day. Moments come to all of us over the course of our years, in our physical, emotional and spiritual health, in our marriages, with our children, our career, our politics, our justice, the state of our world, or just plain recognition of our eventual death, and the thought occurs, “The whole damn thing’s burning down! Oh my God!”
But the story didn’t end on Friday. Did you see that astonishing photo from Notre Dame of the glimmering golden cross shimmering through the smoke and rubble, a harbinger of hope in the midst of destruction? That cross was an emblem of a man’s execution. An enemy of the state they said. By the time they cut him down from the wooden cross beams his body was too broke to mend. That fact alone accounts for the bewilderment and confusion of those early resurrection witnesses we read about.
How could they comprehend resurrection when the world they knew seemed defined by days like Good Friday? Indeed, didn’t they live in a Good Friday sort of world? Wasn’t that the truest thing to be accepted? Didn’t Good Friday win the day? And didn’t that suggest that killing your threat was the way to go forward? Isn’t that what defined the future—just more of the same old, same old, BS?
Saint Paul finally put words to the astonishing turn of events when he wrote some years later—after he had fallen in love with the God of love—the God of Jesus is “the one who can make the things that are, out of the things that are not, and the One who can make dead things come to life again” (Romans 4:17). I can’t help thinking he knew something of this firsthand. It was personal. Very personal. He was dead, and came back to life. I think that’s what happened to him and what his words meant.
But this speaks of a universe we hardly dare believe exists. It speaks of the power of the One who made the universe in the first place, brought life to this planet, and inflated our lungs with breath. Consider the miracle of your existence, that you think and feel and have awareness, and that you can know and experience love. Your very existence gives tangible evidence of the One who can make the things that are out of the things that are not. There was a time when each of us “was not.”
I vividly remember my wife’s agony in childbirth with my son and daughter. But after the agony a beautiful little boy was born, and then a girl. They’re now in their mid-thirties. And what an incredible journey it’s been to share. And I think: God makes the things that are out of the things that are not. God brings life out of the place that can feel like death. Reality sinks in and I tremble. The mystery is awesome.
Frederick Buechner put it this way: “Resurrection means the worst thing is never the last thing.”
I don’t know how one comes to say such things except through the eyes, ears and heart of faith. You can’t force anyone to say such a thing. It can only be invited. Like, please come to dinner and share our hospitality. Which, by the way, is exactly what we’ll be doing in just a few moments. We’re going to invite you to Easter Sunday dinner, right in here. We’re going to say that everyone is welcome. Everyone. No one excluded from the invitation. It’s a dinner that participates in resurrection. And as we say, we are what we eat.
Here’s the thing: Easter creeps up on us in the darkness, in the confusion, in the despair, in the sense of failure and profound loss, in the smoke and aftermath of devastation. Easter comes for those who, like Mary, find themselves crying their eyes out some days, maybe many days, and then astonished by a hope that seems the very creative power of love itself.
Good friends, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Luke 19:28-40; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
“Jesus is the problem,” Bill confessed. He thought it might seem strange to me that he found attending a place named “Christ Church” so profoundly moving with the prayer, music and talk focused on the life and times of the building’s namesake, and simultaneously be so discombobulated by the theological jargon and whatnot ascribed to this same man.
Bill said he was really confused. On the one hand he was deeply touched, deeply stirred, moved to explore a large interior chasm he hadn’t visited before stepping into this space; he allowed the experience to wash through him, finding prayer spontaneously spilling out of him. All this was very new and powerful. On the other hand, he was put off by the idea of “God-in-the-flesh.” It ran counter to common sense, he said. “I just have trouble swallowing the claims of the church. Still, I can’t deny that something has grabbed hold of me and won’t let me go. Just the other day I was startled to find myself thinking of Jesus standing with me—in the subway of all places! When I caught myself thinking this, I was embarrassed, because, of course, I know better than that. I know better than to fall for some religious hokum.”
Bill is a smart, successful professional and he was not in control of this new development. After a minute or so, I told him that I thought Jesus was a problem, too. A big problem. In fact, Jesus was probably the biggest problem the church had. Maybe Bill might think that sounded strange coming from a minister. Fact was, I said, if Jesus wasn’t a problem for people, even so-called Christian people, they hadn’t really heard the complete message. Jesus was a problem and he still is a problem.
That he was a problem can hardly be denied. Even an atheist would agree to that. We just heard one of the four versions of the last days of his life. He certainly stirred up a lot of confusion. One day he’s hailed as a great man, the next he’s denounced as a pariah, worse, a treasonous criminal, so dangerous he must be put to death.
His crime? Well, it’s sort of hard to pin down exactly. Was it simply a case of mistaken identity, a grand misunderstanding? He was hardly the leader of an insurrection of which he was accused. He wasn’t easily categorized. The Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate saw this. Yet Pilate was a pragmatist when it came to keeping the so-called peace. The best the Jewish King Herod could muster was a bit of abusive ridicule. And the religious leaders of the day, did they truly see a dangerous threat to their power? It’s hard to fathom just how the carpenter from Nazareth prompted this dramatic response, notwithstanding our theories about his agitating politics. Or was it purely on theological grounds they wanted Jesus destroyed? Whichever way we turn here one thing is very certain: Jesus was a big problem.
And the irony, or better said perhaps, the simple tragedy, was that his friends found him to be a problem as well. A big disappointment and a big problem. They all must have wondered why they had been so snookered by his charisma after allowing himself to be captured without at least an honorable fight, then meekly walk into his fate like a lamb led to the slaughter. Had they followed him so it could all come to that ignominious end? Yes, maybe it was his friends who had the biggest problem of all with Jesus.
Back in my conversation with Bill, he said that if he could just separate the life lessons, the deep spiritual insights from the disorienting claims made by and about Jesus, he’d be a lot more comfortable. Jesus would be far less of a problem then. And I said that if it were possible to permanently pull the teachings away from the actual man there wouldn’t be a church. For that matter, there’s a good chance there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. The tangible reality of Jesus’ humanity was a problem, inseparably linked as it was with his disturbing spiritual brilliance. Without the complete Jesus Bill would not have been so spiritually stirred walking into this space, he wouldn’t have been awakened, he wouldn’t have been captured by this problem.
Jesus was a problem then, and he remains a problem today. He’s a problem for both atheists and believers. Both have expectations, pre-conceived biases concerning his identity and how we should now think about him. But whether one is initially attracted or repelled by him, he simply refuses to be tamed, caged, or even stay dead for that matter. Many try to squeeze him into puny human constructs of one sort or another, but he doesn’t fit. All the costumes we make for him are too small.
And so, as it happened 2000 years ago, his enemies had him killed while his closest friends abandoned him.
Today, that same business continues. Friend and foe alike try to dictate the terms of their relationship with this man who will not stay boxed. We regularly attempt to define, delimit who he is until it dawns on us that we have it exactly backwards: the real task is to allow him to define us. But coming to that realization requires our own death of sorts. It requires us to follow the model of his self-emptying. And that disturbs us. It’s a problem. It’s a very big problem.
Best-selling author Kathleen Norris, stumbled back into church after a twenty year hiatus. In her book, Amazing Grace, she reflected on the nature of her principal obstacle:
“When I first began to attend church services as an adult, I found it ironic that it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out.
“I often felt a void at the heart of things. My Christianity seemed to be missing its center. When I confessed this to a monk once, he reassured me by saying, ‘Oh, most of us feel that way at one time or another. Jesus is the hardest part of the religion to grasp, to keep alive.’ I told him that I probably feel Jesus’ hand in things most during worship…Just a look around at the motley crew assembled in his name, myself among them, lets me know how unlikely it all is. The whole lot of us, warts and all, just seems so improbable, so absurd, I figure that ONLY Christ would be so foolish, or so powerful as to have brought us together” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, 161-2).
So, Jesus is a problem even for those who are attracted to him. Strangely, I think that’s as it must be. Given the story we tell these next seven days, Holy Week should be a problem for Christians. Tracking the ignorance and cowardice of his friends, the fickle character of the crowds and the antics of the powerful is hard work if taken to heart. Because if we listen closely, we’ll hear a story about ourselves.
It’s easy enough to avoid, of course. The majority will. Even the majority of Christians so-called. It’s perfectly human to avoid problems. In fact, that’s one of our better skills, isn’t it? Avoidance. Who could argue with that? But what millions have found over the centuries is that by not avoiding the story, by addressing the problem of Jesus, they become captured by a truth larger than they’ve known.
To humbly walk the path Jesus walked, to accompany him on the last leg of his journey, requires a certain sort of courage, I think. Bill struck me as a man of some personal courage. He was willing to entertain the idea that he could be wrong about some very big matters. I sensed in him a willingness to do the harder thing, to follow a path towards truth regardless of where it might take him. I told him that there was every reason to believe he was closer to the heart of the matter, to the “problem of Jesus,” than many folks around our nation who sat comfortably in their pews, confident of God’s favor, confident they had God well boxed, confident, really, that their Easter would require no crucifixion, no death, most especially their own, thank you very much!
As I’ve said, Jesus’ enemies weren’t the only ones who discovered he was a problem. When push came to shove, his friends decided to skip the really hard part, too.
G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.” That captures Jesus’ last days. Paul tells us Jesus should be our model. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though in the form of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…and being found in human form he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…” I think having this same mind is a very big problem for us.
Now we do have an advantage today over the original disciples. We know how the story turns out. Desmond Tutu, in the days of struggle and despair over apartheid in South Africa, was fond of saying, “Hold on to your hope! I’ve read to the end of the book. We win!” That is, the powers of darkness will not finally prevail! God will have the day! Love is stronger than death!
I’m not certain why we find it so hard to make the leap all the way into a hope that’s stronger than death, why we find that such a problem. Why would we rather hang onto our old stultifying scripts when the proclamation is heard that God has written a brand new one. All we need do is leap into it with faith, making it our own as best we can and leaving the rest to God. That’s what Jesus did. We just heard about that. And oh my, what a shocking surprise came as a result. It leaves us speechless….
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8Read MoreLess
Psalm 51:1-2, 6, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We just heard Violet read one of the most famous of all Biblical stories; the tale of the so-called “prodigal” son. Prodigal, meaning wastefully, recklessly or rashly extravagant. That historic title for the story zeroes in on what Jesus refers to as the “dissolute living” of the younger son. Dissolute, meaning depraved, debauched, immoral, decadent… take your pick of the synonyms, all of them make for a real fantasy heyday.
As a result, the prodigal son has found its way into countless books and dramas. From high art to low, the shenanigans of the prodigal have kept the story front and center for centuries, because all of us are susceptible to fantasizing. And each of us has our own idiosyncratic version of what living in the prodigal’s “far country” might entail.
But the story is about many more things than the dissolute living of the younger son. Some say it ought to be called the story of “The Loving Father”, because the action is really driven by what the father does. He willingly obliged his younger son’s request for an early inheritance. He joyfully greets the young man upon his return. And he even goes out to be with the resentful, self-righteous older son.
Some say that the best title would be the first line of the parable: “There was a man who had two sons,” and leave it at that, which has the merit of not over-focusing on a particular aspect of the tale allowing nuanced content to unfold organically.
But here’s another idea I rather like: why not call it “The Great Party Parable”? Personally, I think this comes closest to the actual heart of the matter, because the party is both the culmination of the youngest son’s trajectory and the instigating problem for the elder son. I think the party comes closest to the underlying theme—God’s amazing grace. The father pleads with his older son, “We had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life….” We had to party! What else could we do? Your brother was dead and came back to life!
“The Great Party Parable” gets to the heart of the matter.
So the stakes exposed in this story are life and death because the father says so. And that’s consistent with what I’ve heard over the years from untold numbers of persons about their own life stories, how at a crucial moment in time the stakes had been very starkly drawn for them. Some of you have told me your own stories about this.
This parable has found such resonance for two millennia because it reflects the true human situation, our human situation. If I asked for a show of hands of the people in this space who could identify with some variation of the prodigal’s plight at some stage in their lives, a fair amount of hands would go up, if you were brave enough to say so.
But then, if I also asked for a show of hands of those who more readily identified with the resentments of the older son, I’m guessing an equally large number of hands would go up. Some might raise a hand for both questions, I suppose. But the thing is, Jesus reveals something fundamentally important here. Important about the human situation.
(By the way, if you ever have wondered why the Bible has been the world’s biggest best-seller since the invention of the printing press, here’s the reason—it captures the truth about the human situation. All of our questions and urges and ethics and relationships, our sins and triumphs and fears and hopes. That’s why we spend so much time reading and wrestling with it.)
So our story begins with the tale of an indulgent father and a young man who spends out his life in a wasted extravagance. Awakening among the pigs he realizes he’s as good as dead and he concocts a humiliating plan to at least return to the ranks of his father’s hired hands.
He makes the right call in returning home. He wakes up and recognizes he’s as good as dead. That’s the meaning inherent in living among the pigs, animals considered the most unclean by the strictures of Jewish law. He could be no further from his true life and still draw breath. We recognize the instinct, though—the instinct to return to the safest harbor we know when we’re about to slip under the water. I’m as good as dead; I’ll go home.
But before the younger can make his pathetic little speech, his father sees him from afar and runs out to greet him and restore him and throw the party to end all parties because the father also knows his son is dead and is now ready to live. And the father can grant him restore him to life.
Now on the other side of the party we’re introduced to the older son. The guy who’s hung back and taken on the responsibility of the household. In common psychological parlance, he’s the so-called responsible child. He’s the one who makes it all work.
With melodramatic flair Robert Farrar Capon captures the response of the older son:
“He makes a stagy [scene]: nostrils flare, eyes closed, back of the right hand placed against his forehead. He gasps: ‘Music! Dancing! Levity! Expense! And on a working day, yet! And he called one of the servants and asked him what these things meant. He is not happy: Why this frivolity? What about the shipments that our customers wanted yesterday? Who’s minding the store? And the servant said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back, safe and sound.’
“Elder brother rants: The fatted calf! Doesn’t the old fool know I’ve been saving that for next week’s sales promotion when we show our new line of turnips? How am I supposed to run a business when he blows the entertainment budget on that loser of a son? ‘He became angry and refused to go in.’ Finally, therefore, he makes a proclamation: I will not dignify this waste with my presence! Someone has to exercise a little responsibility around here!
“And Jesus, willing to oblige him with an important audience for all this grousing, sends him one: ‘His father came out and began to plead with him.’”
This parable is about death and life. That’s the arena in which grace operates. The essential situation it addresses is the acknowledgment that without a dynamic and vital relationship with our graceful God, we are dead. The two sons are two sides of the same coin of the human situation. The prodigal is attached to his self-indulgent worthlessness and the elder is attached to his self-righteous resentment. Both are “dead” and in their deadness cannot revel in the party, unless or until they respond to their father’s entreaties, until they let go into the arms of grace. They cannot experience joy born from their acceptance of who they really are and whose they are, and where their life will actually be found. As the story is told, the younger son discovers his deadness; the elder, by the end, has not yet discovered his.
In this way the great party becomes the litmus test of whether we are dead or alive. The father’s joy tells the tale. Do we wish to share in the father’s joy or not? And you see the irony for the elder son given that, as the father says, “Son, you are always with me and everything that is mine is yours.” Still, for that, the elder’s resentment means more to him than his father’s joy. To hell with the party! I’ll stick with the business of running the farm.
Amazing grace works its magic in the land of the dead. So, the elder son is as ripe a candidate as the younger. The story ends without answering whether or not he will finally accept the truth of the matter and share in the joy.
And of course, that’s just where the story began. Remember how Luke reported, “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to [Jesus]” and all the self-righteous, resentful types were grumbling and grousing and saying, “[Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them The Great Party Parable.
Now friends, it’s important to recognize that this story is not intended as family therapy, but as spiritual therapy. This spiritual therapy strips us down to the essential dynamics of our existence. To the elemental matters of death and life. It takes us into the inner recesses of our most basic identity and to our fundamental attachments, which, more often than not, keep us from joining God’s party.
Discovering how we exist among the dead is one of the greatest blessings that can be given to us. It’s a difficult-seeming paradox, I know. But with that discovery, amazing grace then does its miraculous work and we find we are home at last joyfully feasting and celebrating as though there were no tomorrow…
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9
In my Faith Matters blog on Friday, I referenced a recent survey of the American religious topography. As reported in The Christian Post, according to the General Social Survey, persons of “no religion” (otherwise known as the “nones”) now exceeds the number of those who identify as evangelical.
One analyst observes, “The ‘nones’ are not slowing down. Their share of the population is continuing to climb ~1 percent every two years and has done so for the past 15 years or so. If current trends keep up then they will be by far the largest religious demographic in the United States in the next five years.”
A few teaser facts: in the 1970’s the largest U.S. group was Mainline Protestant, as it had been for many decades, with Methodists leading the pack. Evangelicals peaked as the largest demographic in the early ‘90s. Shortly thereafter the nones began to creep up now surpassing all other categories.
The reasons for this sweeping change are overly determined. We’ve talked about this from time to time in here, and it’s a topic that will continue to resonate given the trend lines. But I want to observe that all aspects of American institutional life are currently under siege. We all feel this. There is a vast social upheaval underway rocking all established forms of social organization—religious, political, educational, & community-based. The United Methodist Church’s impending fracture is but one lone example of the tectonic shifts.
Now I believe that eventually there will be a reclamation of the necessity of healthy institutions since they’re an inevitable outcome of our desire to accomplish good ends over long stretches of time. For instance: We can’t cure cancer with a go-fund-me campaign. This requires enormous effort, commitment and resources over time. Think of it!—hospitals, universities, doctors, researchers, funders, politicians, coders, etc. in a collaborative dance over decades and decades, a veritable institutional cornucopia. Without those various structures engaged and evolving over long time periods no progress would be possible.
And actually, the same is true for a life that’s well situated in healthy community for 80 or 90 years. Though we don’t often think of it, all of us are very dependent upon both formal and informal institutional structures for our thriving. The opioid epidemic is but one indicator of the breakdown of healthy community structures.
A thoughtful commentator on these matters, David Brooks wrote a recent column
“Jared Muehlenkamp runs a print and design store. He went to three meetings after work the day before I met him,” Brooks reports, “including of the City Council, on which he serves. Mark Graff, who runs a local bank, says he spends 50 percent of his time on civic volunteering.
“His sister-in law, Ronda Graff, is raising seven children. She also writes for the newspaper, coaches swimming, is a substitute teacher and bus driver, competes in ironman triathlons, works at the Y, helps run a concert series, helped organize the building of the dog park, helps out with the high school discipline program and seems to sit on every spontaneous civic organization that pops up.”
These formal and informal associations are a function of people showing up in a committed way over long periods of time in support of the common good. And Brooks points out that this isn’t dependent upon a prosperous economy—for instance, at most McCook schools 50% of the students receive free or reduced-cost lunch. Human thriving is less dependent upon wealth than it is upon humane and healthy institutional structures.
And like I said, we’re living in a moment where these structures are under great stress. Hard to tell if a place like McCook, Nebraska will survive the current trends or ultimately succumb. But we do well to pay attention to what’s going on, and what our own behavior patterns reveal right here in our hometown. That’s a good question for Lent.
As for the current state of the church, I’ve always been aware that the organized forms of religion were not faith itself, but a means for holding, pointing to, encouraging, even occasionally embodying, the things that matter most of all. Things like the Christ Church mission to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, for instance.
One day I believe there will be a resurgence of effective religious re-organizing. This will occur as a natural human response to the great mystery of our being born and having to die, and the re-discovery of the actual content of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, something portions of the church today have unfortunately and inexplicably lost track of as its principal focus.
Let’s be reminded that Jesus lived in extremely disruptive times. Let’s remember as we accompany him on the final leg of his journey to Jerusalem that the religious and political and social structures of his day were in great distress. It was in that chaotic environment he did his thing.
Today’s reading from Luke begins with Jesus hanging out with his hometown folks in Galilea, his people, when several report how some of his fellow Galileans had been killed by Pilate’s men, mingling their blood with their sacrifices. This is the same Roman Governor that will sentence Jesus to death a short time ahead as he tried to manage the complicated religious/political landscape.
So, this was like receiving a news report about deadly political terrorism. Did you know?! Pilate sent his men into the temple and cut some of our brothers down “like lambs to the slaughter…not simply like lambs to the slaughter, but alongside sacrificial slaughtered lambs!” (Rodney Clapp, Feasting on the Word) Such was the state of things in Jesus’ day. No doubt these reporters sought Jesus’ support for active rebellion, or assumed that was the outcome he favored, as he made his way to Jerusalem.
But he doesn’t follow their lead. Instead, he turns the question back onto them. Rather than wallowing in the terror of the Romans, they should take stock of the content of their own lives, since peril stalks everyone regardless of who they are, and each is responsible for a useful, fruitful outcome. Pay attention! he seems to say. Work the soil in the roots of your own lives.
That’s also a valuable lesson for Lent, but let’s stay with the chaotic social/political context for just a little longer. I want us to remember that Jesus lived a real life in real times fraught with severe and violent contextualizing problems. In this way he was exactly as we are. We’re also living real lives in real times fraught with severe and violent contextualizing problems.
And like the Galileans, we’re prone to point fingers everywhere for the cause of our discontent except at ourselves. And given that, his admonition to dig around in the soil of our own lives takes on greater meaning—waking up to what is, what matters most, how we’ve focused our priorities, what we actually do with our time and energy and resources. What are we doing? Who are we becoming?
Friends in days ahead as the cultural tremors wax and wane, I encourage you to think of Christ Church as an outpost of safety, inclusion, and community that remains steadfastly committed to walking the path Jesus blazed as best we can. As I mentioned on the Sunday after the recent disastrous General Conference of the United Methodist Church, denominations come and go but the gospel will stand for ever.
Forever is a long time. In the meantime, we have choices to make, and work to do, communities to build and sustain, love and justice to promote and embody as modeled by Jesus Christ. The church that understand this as its essential commitment, is the church that has the best chance of standing on the other side of the earthquake as a beacon of hope. I invite you to help make it so. We are a resurrection people, after all.
Genesis 15:1-6; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 12:31-35
Here’s an obvious thing to say: The world is rife with anti-immigrant energy. Case in point, the main suspect in the New Zealand terrorist attack had posted a lengthy manifesto laced with anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and white supremacist tropes, including some from the United States. And then an anti-immigration senator tweeted that the victims brought the terror on themselves by immigrating to New Zealand in the first place. Last year he publicly advocated a whites-only immigration policy.
As this sort of nationalist fear-mongering sweeps around the world, including here in the wall-obsessed United States, we would do well to reconsider our history, especially here in New York where our harbor is graced by Lady Liberty. You remember the poem you learned in grade school that graces her pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Man! Does that ever sound out of step with current conditions…and more relevant for recovery than ever.
One of the things I’ve really cherished about Christ Church over my decades here has been the remarkable ethnic and national diversity we assembled. At one point some years ago an informal sweep through our membership roles revealed more than 50 different national and ethnic identities. A really rich human tapestry.
Many members and friends of Christ Church have had to affirm this statement: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”
This is part of the N-400 Application for Naturalization, Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Rather bracing language, isn’t it? Bracing and severe. A statement renouncing all claims to a prior citizenship.
Several generations ago my forebears, mostly from Germany, made their own version of this renunciation. In their case, they truly left the old behind; no attempt at hanging on to relatives or other associations from the old country were made so far as I know. No one in my family ever spoke of it. They came in the latter half of the 19th century. Built a life in their new country. Created families and initiated a new history and a new citizenship.
Of course, most everyone comes from genetic lines that have come from elsewhere. Apart from Native Americans who were violently suppressed and sequestered into their euphemistically named “reservations”, this nation was built from the sweat of African slaves and nomads—all from somewhere else.
Over several complicated and bloody centuries all these have been amalgamated into citizens of a republic to which we learned as children to pledge our allegiance: now the most powerful nation—the colossus that bestrides the world—a magnet for untold millions who would come and stay if they can affirm the N-400 application and renounce other citizenships in other lands.
Citizenship is a potent identity marker. To be an American carries with it a certain freight. Those of you who travel internationally know this well. People in other lands have very specific ideas about what it means to be an American. At a recent dinner I sat next to a French national, a university professor of anthropology. She tried very hard not to go to a critical place in assessing the American situation, but she couldn’t help herself. She had to press my understanding of what was going on here. Later, when she learned I was a minister, I became a fascinating specimen for study.
The social setting wasn’t conducive to her questions about the role of religion in American politics, but being a religious skeptic herself and theologically unsophisticated despite her evident intelligence, she had almost no understanding of our religious scene. And she had absolutely no category in which to place me. I was struck by how easily even smart people can create false constructs about others.
But I recalled our conversation this week as I read through the lessons and landed on this phrase from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) And I was reminded that there is a brand of Christianity in this nation that confuses this heavenly citizenship with the earthly. Which isn’t to say there is no relationship between the two, but at the end of the day one of these really does trump the other; sometimes, though, this trumping gets confused, to the point that for some it would seem they are near equivalents.
In Paul’s day, the Roman Emperor was the focus of religious devotion. There was a time that Paul claimed his Roman citizenship when he had been arrested for sedition. He did this because his citizenship conferred a set of privileges before the law. When he wrote his letter to the Philippians, however, he was sitting in a Roman prison, since that same law cut both ways. And what he wrote about had nothing to do with his Roman passport and everything to do with his citizenship in heaven.
That citizenship had its own equivalent of the N-400 application. It was called baptism. The baptismal questions required a combination of renunciations and affirmations. Here’s how we frame it today: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, and reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
The earliest Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” was a subversive act, since only Caesar could be Lord. The pledge of allegiance in Paul’s day was “Kyrios Kaisar” (Caesar is Lord.) Baptism in such a context was a radically political act, clearly delineating one’s primary citizenship (Christopher Morse, Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Belief , Trinity Press International, 1994).
Paul was telling his friends in Philippi that they constituted an outpost of resident aliens in the midst of the Roman Empire. That’s one way to understand the role of the church—citizen outposts of the kingdom of God. Thought of like this, the Lord’s Prayer takes on added significance when we pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven,” and then ending with the reiterative, “for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever.”
We could call this one of the church’s constituting documents that is regularly repeated so as not to confuse one citizenship with another. Some of the greatest human tragedies have occurred because the church was all too willing to serve the purposes of the lesser allegiance.
Will Willimon reminds us that Nazi Germany was a devastating test for the church. Its capitulation before Nazism, and its theological incapacity to see things clearly and to call them by their proper names, sends a chill down the spine of today’s church (Will Willimon, “Citizens of Heaven”, in Pulpit Resource, V29, N1, 2001, p. 41.). After Hitler's seizure of power, Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and many Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible (http://www.ucc.org/faith/barmen.htm).
Some did resist, like the great theologian, Karl Barth, and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, who, like Paul, also wound up in prison—a concentration camp, to be exact—where he too wrote letters to his friends and family concerning the responsibilities of one’s citizenship in heaven. Also like Paul, he died for his loyalty to this primary allegiance.
One wonders how the 20th century would have evolved had the majority of German Christians not confused their citizenship in heaven with their citizenship on earth, actually inverting their priority, creating a ghastly perversion. But such were the stakes at the time. We see that clearly from the distance of seventy years and the bloodiest century in human history. Why does it take the distance of so much time to see such a thing? That’s a good question for Lent.
Here’s another one: What are the ramifications of living the royal law as citizens of heaven today? Do you remember the royal law in the kingdom of God? We have it up there in our mosaics: “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind; love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’m feeling deeply that these days require a brand new appreciation of what it means to follow after the way Jesus blazed.
Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13
The season of Lent began last Wednesday. Since Christ Church comprises a diverse group of people from a great variety of backgrounds there’s a good chance that many don’t have much knowledge about or experience with the traditions of Lent beyond a sort of vague idea that it’s a time when one is supposed to give something up. (I hope you read the brief introduction to this season on the back of your bulletin today to either refresh your memory or learn a new thing. It will help you make good use of what goes on here.)
Because it lasts for forty days leading up to Easter, not counting Sundays, Lent always starts on a Wednesday, what we call Ash Wednesday, since on that day we have services that include the imposition of ashes. This last Wednesday was just such an occasion.
If you’ve never attended an Ash Wednesday service at Christ Church, you won’t know participants are asked to write down on a slip of paper those things that block them from living into loving relationships with God and neighbor. They might think of this block as sin, but they could also think of it as any impediment that prevents them from moving into the place of forgiveness, love, integrity and justice— keeping them separated from God and from the people who populate their lives, even the ones they say they love.
We do this odd activity because it makes explicit our intention to help one another do some serious soul searching about our lives. We could think of Lent as one long, extended opportunity for thorough self-reflection.
So on Ash Wednesday, everyone is invited to jot down the things that block them from living full and holy lives on a slip of paper they’re given when they arrive. These slips are collected and burned in a basin by the communion rail. We have a mini bonfire of the vanities right here. The ashes from these various offerings are then mingled with the ashes that are imposed on the foreheads of those who come forward.
Participants routinely report that this service is one of the most significant markers in the year for them. First-timers have shared how surprisingly real the experience is, how intimate and challenging, how the ashes mark them in an important way that defies words; that they do this in the company of others; that together in a spirit of humility everyone present collectively takes stock of their fragile humanity as the minister traces the cross on their foreheads and says, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
It’s one of my most tender pastoral moments tracing that cross, gazing into the eyes of each person as I remind them of their mortality. It’s humbling and stirring for me personally. There’s a kind of nakedness to this transaction.
Checking through an occasional journal I keep I was reminded of one year that was especially poignant for me. The day before Ash Wednesday a very close friend of mine told me he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He quietly asked me to be present to him in his final months. He hoped I could accompany him. I said yes, of course. The next day during the service I wrote on my slip of paper the word “fear;” too many sorts of fears to list, so I let the solitary word suffice.
Journaling about that moment I wrote a short series of prayers: “Lord, help me to be present to my friend, fully conscious of my own mortality; to be available, loving and alert. Let this alertness spill into the rest of my life, my daily encounters, and what I care about in the larger world. Help me to remember that each us are companions for our homeward journey regardless of how many days we have yet to live. Make me more conscious. Help me to face any fear of death and offer it up. Help me to honor the life remaining by listening and responding to my better angels.”
Those were the sorts of prayers rattling around in my brain when the ashen cross was traced on my forehead. I wrote a few other words on my slip of paper that year: courage, responsibility, forgiveness, family. These markers captured a number of intentions, some of which had to do with my relationship with Christ Church folks—like all of you— with myself and with the wider world.
Most of the people who show up for the service participate in this peculiar ritual, writing sentences, names or specific actions. When collecting the papers I can tell I lot of spiritual energy has been flowing. The fire that then consumes all this energy is never large, but in my imagination it burns white hot—hot like a refiners fire separating the dross from molten metal.
A good gift was given to me eventually that year. I was present when my friend died. And as these things go, he died very, very well. I would tell you it even had beauty. It came as a kind of culmination to my Ash Wednesday prayer. I was humbled and grateful and changed for the better.
We participate in these sorts of odd activities to offer ourselves an opportunity to honestly take our lives and the lives of others completely seriously. We make the effort to set aside our cynicism, awkwardness, laziness, distractedness, or some other foolishness, to actually think, pray and meditate deeply on the condition of our lives, our place in the world, and our fundamental identity as citizens of the kingdom of God, people who intend to follow along the path Jesus blazed.
As Luke reminds us this morning, immediately following his baptism Jesus walked out into the desert where he did his own spiritual homework. He confronted his own demons of power and who knows what else. He offered it all up. This story tells us that like the rest of humanity, Jesus had to make sense of his fundamental identity. In this he is just like us. He had to situate himself. He had choices to make.
Who am I really? is the agitating question. What matters to me anyway? How will I employ the various powers that have been embedded within me, now and going forward? How shall I use or abuse my mind, my body, my spirit? To what end shall I focus my energy? And so on.
Invariably these questions get answered by each of us, one way or another, whether or not we do this consciously. And they never go away. I’ve discovered over the decades that the questions morph and shape shift as you age, but they’re always present, always relevant, and that will be true until we draw our final breath.
Underlying many factors that we might label psychological, or sociological, or environmental, or developmental is the more fundamental realm of the spiritual. Get the spiritual aligned with reality and we have a much better chance with the rest of it.
There’s good reason why the early steps in Alcoholics Anonymous include these: "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity" & "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God." Working those two concepts would make for a really fine Lenten discipline.
So Jesus marched out into the desert. The scripture says the Spirit led him out there, which would seem to indicate this was a necessary bit of work Jesus had to accomplish. And let's be clear that it was a kind of work.
Post-modern seekers often fall into the trap of thinking this spiritual thing should be rather easy and pleasant, that we can drop in on it every now and then, leading to all sorts of nice outcomes like happiness, financial gain and whatnot. And while I certainly believe there is astonishing glory to witness and experience—absolutely astonishing—this does not come without a price. It’s the price of our personal work.
We ignore this at our peril—our own peril of course, but also the peril of those with whom we share our lives. The closer they are, the greater the peril they’re in from our own frailty and our unwillingness to do the work that has been assigned to us.
As Jesus marched into the desert we march around the church, which I admit, is a poor substitute, but the best option at the present moment. And as we march, we take stock of our lives and our situation in the world. It seems a bit foolish, or at least odd, like having an ashen cross traced on our foreheads. But if done with sincerity we may hear the spirit calling us into the desert, ultimately leading into resurrected life. Friends I invite you to observe a holy Lent.
Micah 6:6-8; Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 9:28-36
Given the events of this past week within the United Methodist Church there’s far too much to say this morning in the few minutes I have. I’ll provide a simple overview of what went down in St Louis, but then I’ll bring it home to Christ Church and even this particular service. After all, we gather on Sundays to worship and to recall whom we are as a people of God, such as we are, in all our frailty and vulnerability. And like many of you I’m feeling vulnerable, angry and embarrassed.
As I wrote in my letter to the friends and members of Christ Church this week I experienced the formal rejection of the full humanity of LGBTQ persons like a punch to the gut. I am deeply grieved by this development and so profoundly sorry for the harm this inflicts on our LGBTQ members and friends at Christ Church, and around the Methodist connection the world over.
The very first thing I want to say is that I, we, love you, honor you and are so supremely grateful for your presence, passion and powerful witness to the wideness of God’s grace. The Apostle Paul wrote, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That’s the rock I stand upon with you, hand in hand, heart to heart.
For those of you who are just catching up to the news, this past week delegates of the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to discern a way forward for our denomination given the festering wound concerning the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in our denomination. You may be aware that the United Methodists are the last so-called mainline denomination to confront this conflict. It did not go well.
The course of the debate only served to underscore the exclusionary status the slight majority assigned to LGBTQ persons, ultimately passing the so-called “Traditional Plan” that upholds prohibitions against homosexual persons while stiffening accountability measures for all of us. In other words, a great leap backwards spiritually, culturally, emotionally, prophetically.
There are a few conference details you should know: 1) The so-called “Traditional Plan” that was passed by a slim majority had already been deemed largely unconstitutional by the church’s Judicial Council and has been remanded back to them for further analysis. This process will take several months to play out. 2) A couple of petitions pertaining to dissolution were also sent to the Judicial Council to determine their constitutionality. This means no exit strategy for clergy, churches and/or conferences yet exists for those who may seek to restructure denominational commitments. 3) As a result, there is no effective outcome to which we must formally respond at this time and most matters likely will not be resolved until the next General Conference in May 2020.
So to recap, a very bad and very flawed plan was passed that may be deemed unconstitutional and therefore null and void. That won’t undo the damage done and would keep the current church discipline in place. We won’t know about this development until the end of April or May. But in the meantime, at Christ Church we’ll simply continue on as we have been, living into the full gospel of grace with our arms spread as wide as possible.
Over recent years we have gladly promoted talented gay candidates from the congregation who are in various stages of ordination and we have hosted and I have officiated at same-sex weddings. Several of these have been among the most moving nuptials I’ve witnessed. Honestly in two of them the partners were among the most fully prepared people for marriage I have ever known. Part of their relational maturity was forged on the anvil of exclusion.
Around the world there are about 12 million United Methodists, 7 million of which live in the U.S., the remainder scattered around the globe with the largest and fastest growing contingent in Africa. As it turns out, more than 2/3rds of the American delegates voted for a plan that would have formally allowed recognition of openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, while over 85% of the international delegates found common cause with the minority Americans to amass a slight majority in the final tally.
So there are complicated nuances to this vote. For instance, a large majority of African nations outlaw homosexuality outright, in some cases, actually punishable by death or life imprisonment. One nation has even enacted legislation that makes it illegal for heterosexual family members, allies and friends of LGBTQ people to be supportive, leading to as much as ten years in prison. That’s the cultural container for the fast-growing Christian population on the continent. As you likely know other nations around the globe are also culturally phobic on matters of sexual identity.
So the so-called Methodist traditionalists in the United States found common cause with the majority of international delegates to push through a more restrictive theological perspective this past week even though the majority in this nation voted for tolerant inclusion. Like I said, a complicated denominational scenario.
But now, let’s bring it back here to Christ Church, in New York City, where we live and move and have our being. This is where we’re working out our faith in fear and trembling, not in a dis-embodied, winner-take-all political conference. Honestly, that’s no way to run a church. It’s broken. So be it.
Here’s the thing: While I am profoundly disappointed in what transpired over these last days, I remain quite hopeful about the future. Christ Church has a very clear self-identity, a compelling mission, a focused vision for the next years ahead, an excellent leader corps, a wide embrace of the diverse people of the city, and a warm and heartfelt, biblically-informed faith open to the new thing God has in store. I’m feeling this whole mess clarifies and strengthens our essential commitments.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but personally, after Tuesday I’ve never felt clearer about the nature of our work, what it means to love, how Micah’s admonition to seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God connects with mundane life, and the life of faith. Confronted by this clarifying moment my faith feels re-vivified. We are not done with our project to love big. We’re just beginning! We’re not succumbing to a pinched, backwards looking use of scripture to exclude a specific class of people. As I read scripture that runs exactly opposite to what Jesus taught and lived.
Remember that over decades and centuries the bible has been used abusively to justify slavery, and segregation and miscegenation laws, in addition to keeping women in their proper place and not in the pulpit, or church leadership, or even with the right to vote for God’s sake! We humans are prone to reading our own prejudices into sacred scripture with deadly effect.
On Transfiguration Sunday we read that wild story that takes place on the mountain bedazzling several followers of Jesus who heard the voice of God say, “Listen to him!” Do you know what Jesus had to say about LGBTQ matters? Nothing. Zippo. Nada. What he did say was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” When asked to define whom a neighbor was he told the story of the despised Good Samaritan, otherwise identified as the good neighbor. Check it out when you go home. You’ll find it in Luke 10…
And later, a few days before his crucifixion Jesus tells his disciples, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another… No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others.” This is the warp and woof of Jesus’ modeling. This is what sent him to the cross because the world could not tolerate his breech of tribal boundaries, of just who was acceptable in God’s sight and who wasn’t.
Friends I’m standing with him. I’m listening to him. I’m going the distance with him. And thank God I get to do this with you. That’s at the heart of the call on this day—to stand hand in hand, heart to heart knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing.
Denominations will rise and fall but the gospel will stand forever. No one can take a vote to determine our essential worth, our place in the world. That’s a deadly human folly. The only vote that matters is the one that was cast on a lonely cross. We’ve already been deemed worthy to be called children of God, heirs of creation, bound together by a sacred genetics. Every last one of us, child of God!
Our essential work has always been this: to live into our actual identity. And to see this truth in each other. That’s why I’m in this line of work, to help spread the word, to help uncover the truth, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Genesis 45:3-11, 15; 1st Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50; Luke 6:27-38
From the beginning of my time here at Christ Church we established the discipline of building our worship life around the traditional church year patterned on the life and times of Jesus. The assigned Sunday readings follow a 3-year cycle which means that, with some exceptions, I don’t generally choose the scriptures that are read. For the most part we take it as it comes as we plan worship.
This means that over 3 years the congregation is exposed to quite a lot of the bible as opposed to a collection of my favorite passages. And honestly, that’s a principle reason we do it—to make our worship less about the leaders and more about the astonishingly rich and wise Christian tradition.
So, for instance, you won’t find what we read from Luke today being read from the pulpit of televised megachurches more invested in topics like, “3 steps to greater happiness,” or, “God’s five-point plan for your financial prosperity,” or other motivational messages appealing to consumerist sensibilities. Not that there’s anything wrong with greater happiness or financial prosperity. It’s just that you won’t find those topics on Jesus’ preaching roster. There’s a vast difference between what we want and what we need. And addressing this reality is a tricky business in a market driven religious economy. Consumers go where they can get what they want.
For instance, I bet “love your enemies” ranks right up there as one of your least favorite teachings and most ignored. Who in their right mind thinks that’s a true goal, or even desirable, let alone at all possible? Wouldn’t you rather hate the bastards and seek revenge?
Few people go to church on a Sunday hoping their behavior patterns and beliefs are challenged. They’d much rather have their point of view affirmed and celebrated, even revved into an inspiring tribal excitement the way sports fans root for the winning team. We come to hear what we hope to hear. That’s right, isn’t it?
Funny thing though… our readings today happen to serendipitously coincide with the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church meeting in St. Louis to determine the future of our denomination. It’s all about sex and sexuality. Who’s legit and who isn’t; who’s part of the team and who isn’t. And I can tell you feelings are running hot.
One leading pastor characterized our moment this way: “We’re in a cage match. The loser can’t get up off the mat. The winner is beaten up, bloody, battered." Such is the state of affairs among the Methodist Christians, supposed disciples of Christ who said things like, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you… Forgive and you will be forgiven… Be merciful just as your Father is merciful…” From where I stand, I tell you this is a hard word to hear today. Hard because I’d rather not hear it and quite frankly, I want to ignore it.
Now given other things Jesus lived and taught I know he doesn’t mean for us to passively give up our commitment to justice and righteousness. I know this because of how his own life tracked, how he confronted, sometimes angrily, and always relentlessly, the injustices and prejudices of his day. All of which led him to the cross, when he was heard to say paradoxically, mysteriously, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Willing to die for the sake of love, even his enemies were meant to be included.
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” What do you think: is that a child’s rhyme or a way of life? As for me, it lies behind and beneath all that Jesus lived and taught and sets a high bar for the kind of hospitality we should offer as a people of God. Who should be excluded? Who should not be treated as I would like to be treated? Day in and day out it’s a hard standard, though, isn’t it? Consider your own enemy list. In a few minutes you’re going to be asked to pray for them.
Earlier we heard how Joseph forgave his brothers who years prior had sold him into slavery because they hated his arrogance and his place as his father’s favorite. That’s the back story. Now years later, in a time of famine, they’ve come to Egypt as refugees. Joseph has become Pharaoh’s second-in-command with great power to exact revenge.
And who could blame him? Why not do to his brothers as they had done to him? That’s what they feared when they learned the identity of this overlord. But Joseph did the unexpected thing, the larger thing, the forgiveness thing. And God’s purposes were advanced.
Several years ago, I interviewed a number of people for my dissertation on the intersections between forgiveness and leadership, among them Ann Curry, who was then co-anchor of the NBC Today Show. We had a rich, wide-ranging on-the-record conversation on the meanings of forgiveness and how it played out in her life and work. At the end, as a kind of culminating exclamation point, she told the story of a young African woman she encountered while on a journalism assignment.
“Sarah was seventeen when she was kidnapped by the men who had just killed her parents. They took her and they chained her to a tree, and they kept her there. Then she became their sex slave, and finally, when they had no more use for her because her legs wouldn’t work anymore, they left her for dead because she was not worth anything.
“Eventually she was discovered chained to the tree; some men came from the village and they rescued her and carried her to a hospital. When I met her, she was about to undergo surgery because she had been so broken she could no longer go to the bathroom normally. She was now 18, beautiful, shivering under a blanket, when she saw me, invited me to see her, and mute, both of us—I saw her shivering and I grabbed her hand. It was all I could do because it was time for the surgery to begin.
“When I came back the next day, she told me what had happened to her and I said, ‘Do you want revenge against those men who did this to you?’ And she said, ‘No, all I want is to rise from this bed, thank the people who rescued me, perhaps feel a mother’s love again, and work for God…’
Ms. Curry paused a long moment before continuing in a quiet, thoughtful voice, as though thinking out loud, figuring out the inner equation: “Forgiveness does not mean that you easily come to forgiving everything that happens to you or to others. It’s a path. In Sarah’s case, it was unforgiveable...until she forgave. It was absolutely unforgiveable what happened to her, and yet she forgave. That’s the lesson I think…that is the beauty and the glory of what’s possible in our kind.”
This forgiveness does not, should not, preclude justice, that is, bringing perpetrators of terrible atrocities to trial and judgment for crimes. Forgiveness has a different focus, it’s an agenda concerning the future.
Forgiveness is a profoundly personal activity, touching the deepest aspects of human experience and our relatedness to others. It has an honored place in defining what it means to be human. I know from many, many conversations that most people have a lot of difficulty becoming deeply reflective about what forgiveness is and how it is situated in their lived experience. To look at it full-on is to look into a mirror of one’s soul or essential nature.
In this sense, it can be an act of bravery. It is initially an act of laying-down-one’s-arms, of disarmament; but not passively, not by relinquishing a fierce commitment to justice and love. Forgiveness is a choice about one’s relationship to the future, and who one wishes to become. This is not done in resignation or out of weakness, but instead as an explicit attempt at creating something different than what has been.
We see that in the story of Joseph. And we see it in the life and death of Jesus. This call to love and to forgive, to do to others as we would like to have done to us, is all about the future. It’s future oriented. It’s not about healing the past. That cannot be accomplished and remains a common misunderstanding about the focus of forgiveness. The past is done. Over. Forgiveness is all about what’s possible ahead. Creating something new, something restored and reconciled. Something better. Shortly we’ll pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
We’re invited to be God’s partners bringing forth this in-breaking kingdom. That’s the invitation Jesus extends to his followers as he admonishes them to expand the range of their love. That’s why I’m so committed to renewing our church to include all persons equally.
The Spirit will inevitably disrupt the status quo because it’s constantly bringing forth the new thing, the different thing, the love and forgiveness thing, that opens the door into the future…
Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26Read MoreLess
Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
According to the Pew Forum, 49% of the U.S. public claims to have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This statistic surprised me even though in the quiet of my office I often hear about such things. Still, half of those polled said they had experienced a sudden religious insight or awakening which struck me as a lot of spiritual activity out and about in our land.
I’m tempted to test this out. In fact, let me test it out this morning. Take a moment to gather your wits and your courage. In a minute I’m going to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever had a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening. I’m thinking this may take a bit of courage for some of you. After all, one of the advantages of a private poll is its privacy; for some reason many are embarrassed to reveal anything about their spiritual life. But I won’t be asking about the details of your experience— whether it came in the form of a dream or a vision or a startling intuition or a profound and transforming sense of awe and wonder, perhaps a life-changing encounter through music or art, or anything else—just whether or not you’ve ever had one of this dramatic experiences by your own definition.
To prime the pump, I’ll tell you now that I’ll be raising my hand. You might think that doesn’t count. But if the poll holds true and you reveal the truth about your experience, we could expect at least half the congregation will lift a hand. And further speculating here, since we’re gathered within in a church glistening with sparkling mosaics, we might predict that more than 50% of hands would go up, unless the embarrassment factor kicks in.
So, are you ready? Worked up your courage? If you’ve ever had a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening will you please raise your hand… If it helps, don’t look around the room to see who’s checking you out… Well, there you have it. Yes, indeed, the Spirit of God has been loosed upon the world!
I’m certain that if we unpacked everyone’s experience, we’d have a very large and interesting array of stories. I know that’s the case given the sampling I’ve heard in my office and over lunch. Spiritual experience has made quite a comeback from out of the wreckage of modernism and militant secularism. Contrary to the patterns of the last half of the 20th century, we now seem to be moving into a time of much greater acceptance of matters of transcendent, spiritual concern, even if there’s less certainty around traditional religious forms and hierarchies. Poll after poll are accumulating the evidence for this.
Potentially this situates a place like Christ Church quite strategically in our cultural moment, in such a fantastic, multicultural, world-class city like New York. And I think we have an opportunity to recover the dynamism of our ancient scriptures that had suffered some calcification through a deadly combination of two-dimensional churchy, sentimentalized and manipulative patterns of interpretation.
For instance, in today’s readings we have three references to profound, life-changing spiritual events in the lives of three different people spanning 7 or 8 hundred years. Isaiah is thunderstruck by glory while worshipping in the temple. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” he hears; “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Paul references how he encountered the living God, even he, the least of the apostles, even unfit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church, but his holy encounter turned him inside out. And Peter, the professional fisherman who, in today’s story had fruitlessly put out hard effort for many hours—as he said, “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”—Peter wound up falling to his knees in stupefaction after his meeting Jesus on the shore who had told him to cast his nets into the deep water.
Each of these short vignettes tell of life-changing spiritual encounter. Though the language and cultural contexts span nearly a millennium, they each speak to authentic human experience of the mystery that lies beyond our material senses. As those of you who raised your hands earlier know, these experiences are hard to capture in words. They touch the most important matters, like how we ought to organize and understand our lives.
For instance, it’s in a place like this where we learn that no material accomplishment is a guarantee of a fulfilled life; but also, and importantly, that no material failure can prevent a fulfilled life. The spiritual giants have always taught that the emptiness we sense at our core can only be filled by launching out into the deep, letting down our nets, casting our fate into the depths of God.
This leap into faith is our deepest, most natural and passionate response to our being born and having to die. This is the primary religious movement and lies at the heart of all authentic worship. Really, this is our most fundamental task—launching out into the deep, taking the plunge, as it were, with God.
Everyday language falters here. That’s why we engage in ritual activity, why we use art and beauty to help make the translations between the heart, the mind and the soul, why our forebears invested so much in this space and why we value excellent, inspiring music, why we teach this language to our children. We need multiple languages to speak to this deep human need. Even if you didn’t raise your hand earlier, I bet you’ve sensed the yawning maw of the Great Mystery. Maybe you didn’t know quite what to call it, but here you are addressing yourselves to God. And I wonder if we actually expect holy encounter.
This being Black History Month, I was reminded of a story Martin Luther King, Jr. told about his own leap into the deep. You’ll recall he was thrust into civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks had made her decision not to move to the back of the bus. The community formed a new organization to lead a bus boycott and chose as a compromise candidate the new minister in town, King, who was then just 26 years old. All you millennials take note—not to mention all you Xers and Boomers….
As soon as King’s leadership was announced the threat from the Ku Klux Klan and the harassment of the police began. He was arrested for going 30 MPH in a 25 MPH zone and thrown in jail. Afterwards, late at night he wondered if he should resign. The phone rang, employing the notorious “N” word the voice said, “We’re tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in 3 days we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.”
King tells of sitting staring at an untouched cup of coffee trying to think of a way out. In the next room lay his sleeping wife along with their newborn daughter. Here’s how he remembers it: “And I sat at the table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute. And I started thinking about the dedicated devoted wife, who was over there asleep…And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak…
“And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing courage.
“’And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. Never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.’”
Religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself… That was the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. launched out into the deep. Perhaps in a manner like Peter at the lakeshore, he had toiled all day and had caught nothing. He heard God’s voice say, “Try it again, only this time, go way out to the deep water. Let down your net there.”
To know God for oneself is to launch out into the deep. We’re all invited there and there’s no special time to receive the invitation. Peter and his friends heard this while engaged in their mundane work. Martin King’s story is dramatic in its context, but the fundamental issue is the same. Millennia before, Isaiah heard God’s voice causing him to proclaim, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” God cleansed and held him still and sent him out as a powerful witness for righteousness and truth.
Religion had to become real to me…I had to know God for myself. I have toiled the whole night and taken nothing. And Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water, let down your nets there. And the seraphs called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory….”
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
It wasn’t very clear in our Gospel reading today, but Jesus is back in his hometown of Nazareth, starting out his mission and he’s been invited to speak at the local synagogue. He starts out very well according to Luke; he lived up to their hometown expectations; he won the favor of the gathered. Way to go, Jesus, you’ve got them eating out of the palm of your hand. The ratings and collection will be way up today.
But then something goes terribly wrong. Jesus takes their good will and turns it against them and at the end of his message as you heard, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him of the cliff.” He must have said something that really ticked them off—with his hometown crowd no less.
Last week we considered this same story and I mentioned that I have a hard time imagining that scenario today on the corner of Park and 60th . From time to time I have upset some folks by things I’ve said over the last 32 years. Although never has everyone gotten up en masse and stormed out.
By and large I’m wanting to help build up a loving community a la Paul’s magnificent hymn read for us earlier—that famous poem to love—the more excellent way. Love is patient and kind; never arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. We sentimentalize and romanticize these words to a fare-thee-well, but their beauty and power are never diminished by time or place. For most thoughtful people, love does indeed seem to be the heart of the matter.
But, one would think that if love were the heart of the matter, and if one were to preach about that with some regularity, the crowds would be pleased; like the initial response Jesus received, all would speak well of the preacher and appreciate the gracious words that came from his mouth.
And the interesting thing is, of course, that Jesus spent a lot of his time expounding about love—God’s love for us, our love for God, loving one another and so on. He put some teeth into when he said that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others, and then went off to Golgotha to do just that.
But then, at his first hometown preaching gig, what went wrong? Why did everyone get so exercised over this man whose message about love would lead him into a gruesome state execution? What was it exactly?
And here the story does get interesting, because although the details are a bit sketchy, what we do have of what he says next suggests that the crowd got angry precisely because of how Jesus understood the limitless bounds of love.
Now remember, the Jews of his day were living under Roman oppression. They longed for the restitution of their nation, throwing off the yoke of the oppressors. We could imagine that in living under such conditions they’re tribal identity was extremely important. In the pressure-cooker of 1st century Palestine the “us vs. them” mentality was brewed piping hot. Though the details differ, we see a similar sort of brew in the same land today, 2000 years later.
Jesus strolls into the Nazareth synagogue, a local boy made good, even a potential leader, and the crowds are impressed by his eloquent exposition of the Jewish scriptures. But then, he does something they can’t stomach. By citing at least two examples he explains that God’s loving care is not limited by Jewish blood—it extends even to their potential enemies—to gentiles and potentates, people they might have despised. Later we’ll learn from his example that prostitutes and Samaritans and centurions and every sort of person is meant to be accorded the dignity that love prescribes. Everyone.
In effect, he told them God’s revolution was not a national call to arms, but a spiritual call to love. He referenced how in more ancient days, God came to the rescue of non-Jews even in the face of great Jewish affliction. And then the crowd moved against him.
So here’s the irony—the crowd couldn’t stomach the size of God’s love as Jesus expressed it. Surely God was theirs alone, prescribed by their boundaries. They knew who belonged to them and who didn’t. Jesus challenged this thinking by using examples from their own sacred writings. And this enraged them, because they already knew what the sacred writings meant.
We don’t have to look very far to feel resonance with these sorts of themes of who belongs and who doesn’t. As I alerted readers of my Faith Matters blog this week, the bishops of the United Methodist Church have called for a special meeting of the General Conference on February 23rd, which is our top policy-making body. This meeting will address the single purpose of evaluating the way forward for our denomination given the UMC’s current restrictive policies around human sexuality. There’s frank talk about schism and the national media will be all over it. It’s important you are informed; over the months ahead we will likely have decisions to make as a congregation.
Over the last months, we’ve held several conversations concerning this development, which has arisen due to a sharp division across the denomination. Many clergy and congregations (including me and Christ Church collectively) are on record as opposing the existing language in our Discipline proscribing same-sex marriage and the ordination of so-called, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Unfortunately these issues are often discussed and debated in a disembodied manner, depersonalized, often excluding from conversation the very persons being discussed. It’s natural to exclude the dreaded other, the ones under consideration. Just ask democrats about Trump lovers, or Trump lovers about Hillary, and you catch a sense of the tribalism involved here.
Turns out that Christ Church members have a tragic relationship with the matters under consideration. The vestry on the second floor at Christ Church is reached by walking through a dark mosaic-embossed passageway overlooking the splendid Byzantine/Romanesque chapel and sanctuary beyond. It’s quite dramatic. The room is comfortably furnished as a meeting space and also holds clerical vestments, so it has been my launching pad every Sunday for the past 32 years.
Above the fireplace mantel, a fancy plaque reports the room was appointed and dedicated in memory of the son of founding pastor, Ralph Sockman, who died at the age of 21 in 1940. Sockman was a famous and highly respected elder of our church in his day, having served as NBC Radio’s featured preacher for more than 30 years. He was the charismatic personality responsible for assembling the people and resources to build Methodism’s cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City.
I didn’t give much thought to the dedication until about 10 years ago when an old friend asked me if I knew the story of William Sockman’s death. She was the aged matriarch of a family that had owned and operated an upstate resort for multiple generations. For more than thirty years my family spent the month of August there since I was “minister-in-residence” (like a chaplain)—it’s been a wonderful respite for us.
Now by coincidence Sockman’s family also spent the month of August at the same resort 80 years ago. Like us, he needed a summer escape from the city for his son and daughter.
My friend told of a terrible tragedy, something unexpected and startling. It seems young Sockman fell in love with one of the men of the matriarch’s extended family. Given religious and cultural conditions of the time—and young William being the son of one of the most famous preachers in the nation—they saw no discernable path forward for their love, and so they created a suicide pact. William leapt to his death from the 9th floor of the Sockman Park Avenue apartment. His paramour ended his life by inhaling the gas from his kitchen oven.
It was hard to hear and absorb this story as she told it. Frankly, it’s still hard. And I’m left with the knowledge that the tragedy is baked in to the actual church building here. Each Sunday I now notice the dedication above the mantel in the vestry as a perpetual memorial to our human failure to love as expansively, as courageously, as Jesus did. In this way it helps me stay focused on what matters most and recommitted to the Christ Church mission to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.
And there’s one more coincidence here: my son, Luke, is gay, too. He’s a beautiful expression of God’s grace and possesses great spiritual depth. It wasn’t long after I learned about the tragedy that he quietly told me how difficult it was to know that the denomination he had grown up in did not really want him. At the time he was second year in seminary, discerning his future.
Unlike how a former generation performed, Luke has been surrounded by love and acceptance by his family and this local church community. But some years have passed and he’s now on the vestry of a church of another denomination that understands the gifts he holds for them, currently discerning his future.
What a terrible waste the church creates in its self-righteous obstinacy!
Christ Church has long been a reconciling congregation. We started that process years before I learned about the Sockman tragedy, but that now serves as a prod to get on with the program for restoring redemptive and compassionate regard for all those the wider church and culture have historically excluded, creating the conditions for despair and hopelessness among those deemed irredeemably different.
So, after the manner of Jesus, I try to preach the gospel of love. I try to make that my message, as best as I can understand it, preached and embodied by Christ, our namesake here. We’re Christ Church, after all. And I am aware that the size of this love can terrify and enrage; that God’s love can be destabilizing of current conditions and beliefs.
It’s bigger than we are. Thank God. If it were not bigger than we are, we’d really be in trouble. This astonishing love is what inspired Paul to write his beautiful hymn. He sent it out to a Corinthian church deeply mired in conflict. He called it, “the more excellent way”. And so it is. But it’s costly, demanding, and the only thing truly worth a life’s desire.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Public worship in New York City can be a rather frothy experience. I mean, true to our ideals, everyone is welcome to come, which means that people come as they are, regardless of any material condition or mental state. And as you know, the city is a wondrous cauldron of every material condition and mental state.
Some years ago now I had a focused, first-hand experience of this reality during a service not unlike this one. At one point I had stepped down for a baptism and after it was over, and I was returning to my place, a young man who was sitting several rows back from the pulpit got out of his seat and followed me up here. Looking into his face I could tell this was likely going to be a challenging encounter—he had a determined and somewhat crazed look in his eyes as he leaned into me and said directly, “May I address the congregation…I have a word from the Lord.”
So, this was a kind of dramatic moment. I didn’t really have time to think, although I’ve known from experience that if a person is not bent on violence, a firm direct response was best. So without thinking really I leaned in to him and said quite forcefully. “No! There will be no word from the Lord! Please take your seat.”
This confused and flustered him, but with the directness of my response he turned around, went back to his seat and sat down.
Now truth be told, I lied of course. Because in just a few minutes forward we heard scripture read and we recited the versicle we say at every service, “The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” It goes by quickly. Those who’ve been around for a while say it by rote and, I suspect, without too much thought. But as for that, it nevertheless places a sort of exclamation point on the value of the words we use and hear in worship.
I wonder, though, if most pew sitters really expect the Lord to actually speak on any given Sunday, let alone Monday through Saturday. Now, we have a sophisticated understanding about this. There’s a long protestant tradition that what I’m doing up here is one variation on sharing the word. The minister is supposed to have done his or her homework well enough, prayed long enough, and practiced hard enough, so that some glimmer of insight, some leakage of the Spirit, might spark a holy inspiration. I know those of you who have been around church for some years have had experience with preaching that was dry as dust—as I have.
But, you know, the interesting thing about this is that sometimes, not always mind you, but sometimes, even during a pitiful sermon, something might be heard or experienced that prompts a glimmering insight, something unexpected, something that except for God’s graceful speaking despite faulty human vessels, nothing would have been seen, heard or received. That’s both a humbling and hopeful truth for all who would preach.
That doesn’t let any of us off the hook for doing our own homework, saying our own prayers and practicing a disciple’s life. We all know those disciplines are useful in most life arenas. But you also know that were you to hear the “word of the Lord” on a day like today, that would be of a different order of magnitude altogether than the word from, say, Steve. Of course, the word could surprise in the voice of an anonymous person overheard from the pew behind you, too. Or perhaps mediated through music, or by startling silence, or by a visual clue, say in the mosaics as your mind wandered off in a boring moment.
When you come on a Sunday morning, do you want to hear God’s voice? Are you after that do you think? My guess is that the honest answer would be an equivocal, “well, maybe yes, maybe no.” Yes, if it conforms to the limits of our expectation—if we hear what we want to hear. But no, if it announces a truth that’s significantly larger or tougher than we want to hear, or bear. Especially if its contrary to our current opinion.
As Jesus began his ministry, he stepped into the pulpit of his hometown synagogue and read the word of the Lord. In this case, it was a word from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Then he gave the shortest sermon on record. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now that would have been an in-your-face sort of word. He had their attention. And you’ll note that this wasn’t some esoteric sort of word, some abstraction. When God speaks, it has a way of being more real, more immediate than anything else we’re currently experiencing. Jesus’ word was electrifying. We didn’t finish the story today, but rather quickly the crowd became so agitated by what he said they wanted to throw him off a cliff. That’s in verse 29. Evidently, they didn’t like that particular word from the Lord.
So, by comparison, you might imagine my saying something so disruptive that y’all would rise up and throw me out into busy Park Avenue. Hard to picture that I guess. More likely someone would give my bishop a call and ask for a change.
Will Willimon tells this story: In the Nazi-attempted decimation of World War II, when they took over Prague, they rounded up the Jews. In one of the synagogues, before they torched it, they found an old rabbi sitting in his study, working on his sermon for the next Sabbath. To utterly humiliate the old man, they forced him to strip naked. They had him stand up in his pulpit naked, clad only in his rabbi’s hat.
“Say something in Hebrew for us,” they taunted. “Yes, preach to us, preach what you were going to say next service. Preach.”
The old rabbi stood there. Then he began to speak in a Hebrew none of the Nazi tormentors could understand. He spoke the words that had time and again constituted Israel.
“In the beginning God created the world. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And it was good.’”
Willimon says that power shifted from the cruel men to the old rabbi in that moment. In speaking the word, the rabbi was assaulting, dismantling all that the Nazis believed and he was reclaiming the future for God.
I agree with him. I think the word was spoken to that odd congregation. The rabbi’s homework, prayer and practice hit pay dirt that day. I’m guessing he was also thrown off the cliff.
God’s word is always larger than our word. How could it be otherwise? As a result, we’re caught in this paradox of human limitation straining for the voice that is larger than we often can bear. And yet, we recognize that but for this voice that brought forth all of creation we would not live and move and have our being. When the time was right God whispered our names and we came into being. Is it any wonder that we would have a predilection to spend the rest of our lives straining to hear that same voice?
Here’s what I think: Our worship, and the importance of our worship, is all about our listening for the word of God. We say it’s about other things, of course. Good things. Useful and hopeful things, things like values and community and so on. And so it is.
But the truly radical dimension of what we do, the audacious and to some people outside these walls, the absurd thing we do, is listen for the Word, capital “W”. Without that, we might just as well be any other sort of community organization. We have the audacity to say that God speaks and that we ought to be listening.
And we’re honest enough to say that this speaking is both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because we recognize in that voice the timbre of life and love that wraps us in hope and peace. Terrible because it calls us to shed everything that constricts God’s intention which is often so very, very difficult for us, so committed we have become to habits and patterns of thought that are no longer useful or helpful, if they ever were. Jesus hints at this by saying he came for the poor, the blind, the captives and the oppressed. Do we identify with this cause in our world?
We know that the Romans attempted to silence this word 2000 years ago. They tried to kill it, throwing it over the cliff as it were, which paradoxically had the effect of amplification so that this word is now heard the world over.
In countless communities today, in hundreds of languages, scripture is read; millions of persons recount the wonderment of a God of life who is never defeated by death, who spoke and their lungs inflated with breath, who even now continues to speak that they might have life and have it abundantly and share in the unfolding miracle of God’s glorious project.
Luke 6:27-38Read MoreLess
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I’ve been leading an Old Testament survey course on Thursday nights and this past week our reading included portions of the old Mosaic law, starting with the Ten Commandments, but then also many of the other laws pertaining to social organization, food, sex and so forth. It had been a while since I had read through these chapters, but I was once again struck in particular about the number of provisions pertaining to slave ownership.
Most Christians are unfamiliar with these so-called laws because we’ve left slavery behind in history’s dustbin, or so we think. But actually, the Bible is at best somewhat ambivalent on the matter of slavery, and indeed, the tradition tells us that Moses stipulated a number of laws for ordered slaveholding.
Thousands of years later, slave-holding Christians relied upon these sorts of texts as proof that slavery was not antithetical to Christianity, along with its incipient racism. Fortunately, biblical themes pertaining to Jesus’ remarkable inclusion of every outcast and outsider within God’s kingdom of grace ultimately triumphed, as did his summary of the law which serves as our mission statement here at Christ Church: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus explains, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The legacy of the aberrant theology stills lingers in our culture in the form of racist systemic structures and attitudes, and in phrases like “white nationalism.” Remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the Ku Klux Klan rampaged through our land with their burning crosses, counting millions of members. Most would have been members of local Christian congregations.
I share this as simple reminder that religious traditions of every stripe have their haunting skeletons. Our tradition no less so. And by the way, this also includes non-theistic movements relying on rationalistic formulations a la Nazism and Stalinism to name just a few famous ones. Human contradictions exist wherever humans happen to live and have their being, regardless of their official religion.
Now you’ve heard me say more than once that I believe everyone has a religion, that is, everyone has a first principle, or god, defining how the world and cosmos are organized, and the meaning of human experience. Everyone operates from a “point of view” about their existence whether or not they do this consciously, and this point of view predicts their patterns of behavior.
Atheists identify as non-religious, but some speak with as much arrogant “truth-telling” as any bible-thumping fundamentalist, advancing their own brand of ultimate truth. I don’t believe humans have any chance of escaping this predisposition for what I’m referring to as “religious” belief—it seems a genetically embedded aspect of our nature. We’re hard-wired for it. This belief might be theistic, or anti-theistic, or something in-between, but the competition for our transcendent allegiance is fierce out beyond these walls.
The 250 Americans who went abroad to join the ranks of ISIS made a conscious choice about which sort of god, which organizing principle, they would follow. For most of them their allegiance was drawn out of the internet. But we should be clear that all the rest of us make choices about whom we will follow as well, whether we’re conscious of this or not.
In this moment there’s no question that traditional religions are facing a very strong headwind in American culture. What could be less hip than identifying as Methodist in 2019 New York City? This may be less apparent today in, say, Savannah, Georgia, but the spigot is locked on open for the draining of traditional religious identity from American culture.
Still, this does not mean the American population’s predisposition for belief disappears; instead, it goes incognito. Everyone still awakens each morning subscribed to a set of organizing criteria that patterns their ethics, relationships, and values. Everyone has this predisposition for belief of some sort or another.
This is important to keep in mind as those of us who consciously and deliberately follow after the way of Jesus face those strongly opposing headwinds in our culture. Those strong headwinds prevent you from speaking of your Christian identity very much, if ever, on the job, at the bar or social scene, or among your larger group of friends.
Still, no one can escape the matter of choosing which gods they will follow. Pressure builds to choose the popular, trending point of view. Truth claims fiercely compete for our allegiance. And as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, there is both very good and very bad religion, and many gradations in between. Indeed, how we define “the good” is dependent upon our transcending Point of View. Jesus has been my mentor in this. My point of view. I think of him as mentor with a capital “M”. As scripture puts it, “the way, the truth and the life.”
Which brings me to this particular day in this sanctuary. We read about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan which became a marker for those who found his teaching especially resonant with their own best instincts. Baptism became a way to formally and personally identify with him and his program, and a way to join with others who also found astonishing, life-changing hope in the God Jesus revealed.
Over time, once Christianity became the official religion of the western world, baptism became more of a cultural marker than a spiritual one, blending with other cultural markers and functioning like a tribal tattoo. Over many decades and centuries debilitating accretions obscured Jesus’ way in the world. For instance, it doesn’t take a learned scholar to tell us he would never have owned a slave. He modeled a way for us to understand God’s liberating movement.
The debilitating accretions are like barnacles that attach to the hull of a ship if it stops moving forward, rotting away in the water. The church has been like this from time to time. Periodically some prophets rediscover the authentic core of our tradition, the thread connecting with Jesus, shake off the rotting accretions and once again set off in a life-transforming direction.
We read about that thread in our scriptures. In a sense, that’s what the scriptures are for, to keep us as close as possible to the struggle for understanding the essence of what it means to be human in the best sense of the word, especially as this revolves around the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Millions and millions and millions of people have found the deepest spiritual connection with his witness and the God he experienced and shared.
That’s true for me. Granted, I grew up in a Christian household and was baptized as an infant. I don’t remember that, of course. But my life could have turned out quite differently even so, like it has for so many other people who had the tribal watermark and have now drifted away. I don’t understand this really, but at a rather early age, I was very keenly aware of a sacred presence in my life. Not a person exactly, but a pervading loving presence of which I felt a part, something or someone that had only my best interests at heart.
By the time I drifted off to college I announced I was an agnostic, since that seemed the smart and hip posture to adopt, but the truth is I couldn’t shake this pervading presence. Eventually I realized this presence was among my most important certainties. I couldn’t have been talked into denying it; that would have been akin to my saying my name wasn’t Stephen Bauman.
I discovered that some of the religious language I had learned growing up provided a means to greater understanding. I was attracted to Jesus the man, that is, his humanity, which seemed so clear in the gospel stories. I recognized early on that the essence of his message—loving God above everything else and loving my neighbor as myself—was devilishly difficult and easily ignored in favor of self-serving, narcissistic ends.
The love Jesus lived and taught is the most compelling and simultaneously most demanding discipline there is for those who want to grow into the heights of their humanity. And again, seeking to grow into those heights is a choice.
Coming ‘round every year at this time in our worship cycle we remember this choice in the mark of our baptism. That’s what we’re doing today. I suppose that to the uninitiated this might seem like so much mumbo jumbo. But for those with a heart for loving God and neighbor this is nothing less than a reaffirmation of the things that matter most of all, binding us together in a common cause facing very strong headwinds.
Whether you have been baptized or not, when in a short while you feel a drop of water consider that in that moment a voice is heard: “You are my Son, my Daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Let that settle in on your consciousness. And consider the choices that realization sets before you…
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Josh told me he grew up in a nominally Christian household. Though his father was a non-practicing Jew his mother identified herself as Presbyterian and attended the nearby church once in a while where she had Josh baptized as an infant. He went with her sometimes and attended the youth group when they took work-trips to Appalachia in the summertime. Now in his late-twenties and working the Wall Street beat, Josh described himself as increasingly “spiritual”, but he wasn’t sure what that had to do with religion per se.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the undeniable tug he felt when he had stepped into church here one Sunday sort of by accident—he had been walking by as folks were gathering. Uncertain of what to make of this inner awakening, one day between trades he decided on the spur of the moment to shoot me an email asking for an appointment. When we met, among the things he wanted to talk about was “this whole Jesus thing.” “Jesus seemed to have it going on,” he said. But he just couldn’t put it all together. Eventually he joined up until he transferred out of the city.
Meredith is a 60-something professional woman. Married once and divorced, no children. Reasonably successful, affable, and thoughtfully alert. She told me she had grown up a “rock-ribbed Baptist”—that’s the way she put it. Religion was big in her family’s household…as was racism and sexism and a whole amalgam of stuff that had been smashed up together. Much of what her father practiced was given the patina of scriptural righteousness, so his semi-abusive treatment of her mother was peppered with quotes from the Bible about how the man was head of the household and stuff like that.
On the one hand, she had always felt God-connected when she had been in worship. On the other hand, when she went to college, she couldn’t wait to throw off the claustrophobic trappings of her family’s neurotic religion. She still prayed. She wondered if I would be surprised to learn that she had studied Tai Chi for a decade or so and had immersed herself in several spiritual traditions over the years, one or two she felt sure I would not approve of. Still, to some extent, these had sort of scratched that religious itch that had never left her alone.
But the day she came to church at the suggestion of a friend, she had been unprepared for the tears that welled up starting with the first hymn. They just started to flow and they didn’t stop until after lunch. There was sadness in them she realized, but also gladness and hope and maybe most of all, relief. She didn’t quite get that, but thought it had something to do with finding home. That night she said she went to her apartment and before she fell asleep spontaneously went to her knees and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. She had never done that before, she said. It had never occurred to her before. But it seemed the right thing at the time. Now, she wanted to make some sense of all this.
I’m guessing you’d agree with me that we live in a time of great spiritual agitation; our culture is rife with spiritual seekers of every sort who attempt to make their way to the most fulfilling destination they can, as they respond to a deep interior longing. Notwithstanding all the current political chatter about the contours of evangelical America, many dabble in myriad spiritual approaches, including ancient esoteric traditions like astrology and psychic phenomenon, as well as amalgams of eastern practices and western science. Every variety of religious expression is as available today as a click of a mouse or meeting one’s next-door neighbor. I suppose this is especially true within the astonishing diversity of New York City.
Over the years, the church has often condemned these alternative spiritual means and their practitioners, yet it occurred to me as I re-read the famous story of the wise men’s trek to Bethlehem that Matthew takes a different measure of the integrity of their purpose. From Matthew’s point of view the three magi were authentic spiritual seekers. Even though their methodology was star-gazing, they discovered a remarkable truth that transcended their immediate context and led them into alien territory. In a surprising location far from home they found what they had been searching for in the birth of a child to a young peasant woman in a foreign land.
Even Jewish scholars were summoned to confirm the potential in the magi’s quest. From Matthew’s perspective, these foreign exotics have better instincts about the nature of this child than most inhabitants of Jerusalem. At the end of their journey, of course, these so-called wise men from the east discover a truth that transcends all reasonable expectation—their seeking is honored and rewarded.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reports a mature Jesus saying this: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). Jesus was addressing a crowded hillside of people, no doubt representing every sort of background. He had no litmus test for their seeking and, after all, Jesus himself was eventually excluded from the accredited list of rabbis and teachers of his day, ultimately led to the cross as a condemned outsider. Those who followed him broke with established religious norms. The seeking that he advocated was a radical departure from status quo thinking.
This suggests an important corollary for today: any seeker, either by chance or authentic pursuit, can lurch into the stable holding the Christ child. I’m thinking that includes any number of persons present today. Certainly, the church would not exist but for the simple faith and subsequent determination of seekers who stumbled into the hay surrounding Jesus’ birthing trough. On any given Sunday the congregation likely includes a number of persons who could be classified as seekers rather than, say, the fully committed, or the truly knowledgeable.
And yet, the truth is, that among the various amateur spiritualists who attend may be some who are better able to kneel at the manger than those who have gawked there for a lifetime. Not every committed Christian-in-name has a taste for actually kneeling in the dust and muck of a barn in a backwater town in astonished recognition that this is where God prefers to make an entrance, rather than more acceptable and presentable venues for the high and the mighty, or those esteemed as especially righteous.
The musty sentimentality with which this story has been swathed for cradle Christians obscures the radical implications in God’s condescension to humanity. Everyone has been invited to God’s natal party, even those who have been traveling radically different paths on their search for their true home. And those who have visited the manger many times as a matter of rote habit can sometimes miss the promise held in honest seeking; surely even the most well-schooled Christian needs regular reminding that no one is above another, that no one has a corner on the complete truth and that even the baptized travel a path with many distractions, some leading to disastrous ends with pious-sounding names.
Given the ingrained repetition of this story for many church-goers, it’s worth remembering that this child-savior will grow into a man who will say things like, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” (Matt. 20:16) and, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (20:26-27)
God’s compelling hospitality constantly regenerates the family of faith. The insight that prompted St. Augustine’s famous claim that, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee…O Lord,” exudes a passionate spiritual modesty that reflects the universal human quest for reunion with our creator, the author of our lives and the lover of our souls. In this, I think, we are all alike.
This is the longing I sense in the famous story of the magi. This authentic search for truth and reunion with God challenges the assumptions of the first and satisfies the thirst of the last. Churches that characterize such hospitality reflect the radiance of the Christ child and serve as a beacon for all who are restless for their true home. In this way the star of Bethlehem is replicated a thousand-fold over those churches, or shall we say, mangers, scattered here and there in cities and towns near and far away.
Everyone who happens to be worshipping today has their own idiosyncratic story to tell concerning their pathway to the manger. Some may have no idea who lies there. Others, perhaps, have mistaken ideas about the swaddled child. Nevertheless, all are present due to the prompting of God who welcomes our asking, our seeking and especially, our finding. The magi’s journey to Bethlehem exposes God’s intention to welcome everyone home. Even you and me.
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12Read MoreLess
Like many Christian households at this time of year, decorating the Christmas tree was an important time for the Baumans over the decades. It’s a rather odd activity, really. Here in the middle of the most densely populated urban environment in the United States, thousands of truckloads of cut evergreens are hauled into the city, cramming narrow sidewalks, before cramping limited apartment space and upon which all manner of peculiar things are hung.
We’ve mostly lost track of why this is done or what religious meanings can be attached to this annual routine. If I were to ask you why you decorate a tree at this time of year, what sort of answer would you come up with? And would there be any mention of spiritual associations?
The roots of the practice are anchored in pagan sources, eventually adopted by German Christians as emblematic of the promise of life in the midst of winter— the evergreen theme. Jesus, the eternal Life, capital “L,” became the Christian idea overlaid on the pagan rituals. It was Queen Victoria who first brought a tree into the royal palace for her children, festooning it with presents hanging from the limbs. That was the historic marker when ancient rituals concerning gifts, trees and Christmas smashed together forever capturing the economic engine of western capitalism.
None of this was on anyone’s mind when the tree in Rockefeller Center lit up. We’re all aware of how the decorated tree has culturally retreated back to its pagan origins as a holiday tree, marking the winter solstice and the ending of the year. But regardless, it’s now an ingrained habit everywhere.
I know from several rabbi friends that something called the Hanukkah Bush has invaded the households of many Jews who have no special devotion to the baby Jesus. My wife, Melissa, says the tradition in her non-religious childhood family involved decorating an artificial lemon tree—a trippy Southern California variation.
Still, most of us Christians have deep attachments to this practice. I made record of one particular Christmas more than twenty years ago now. My then fourteen-year-old daughter told me that when she arose in the morning and came home in the afternoon, she couldn’t wait to see the tree. The tree made her feel good, she said. I realized that it had come to symbolize an aspect of deep human need… something about place, belonging, connectedness, identity and so on.
The ritual of decorating the tree during those years made me aware of this. Typically I unpacked the motley assortment of ornaments and laid them all out on the dining room table. Many were gifts we had received over the years; others, the kids had made at various stages along the way. Some had dates and names. Most of the favorites were battered and unpretentious. But each had a history and a story to tell. As we hung them, we retold the stories to one another, sometimes quarreling over whom had the honor that year to place any given treasured object.
After hanging many and talking and laughing about our history, during a momentary silent pause, my son quietly asked, “Dad, where I am going to get ornaments?” I could tell from the expression on his face and the tone of his voice that he was asking something a lot more profound than how to start a collection. He was asking about how a life was built.
I explained that we had collected our ornaments one at a time over a lot of years. And I realized that, more than just a sentimental cultural diversion, the tree had become a visible expression of our life together. It had become a ritual of “the story of us”. In the telling and re-telling of all the collected memories, we were describing who we were, what we were about, how one thing led to another, how it all fit together. We were giving names and dates to things that normally defied tangibility—things like love, meaning, relationship, and even, God. Because, expanding our awareness even just a little bit, we remember that the story of us has its origins in God, the first and the last, the alpha and omega. The one who gave us life and breath in the first place.
Being creatures of flesh and blood, we need tangible expressions for the meanings of things and our spiritual hungers. I suspect that’s why you came to church tonight. Maybe you thought it was your spouse or mother or lover. But let me give you a different take: you came to give tangible expression to your heart’s deepest yearnings pertaining to love, meaning, relationship and God. Likely you didn’t consciously think of it like that. But maybe you will as you leave. I hope so. I really hope so.
God knows well our limitations, our need for making sense of our being born and having to die—the glories as well as the failures of the time in-between. That’s why God took on frail flesh to walk among us. That’s why the wonderful stories about Jesus’ birth were collected, why his words were remembered and the details of his exploits, teachings and death recounted. That’s where our fixation on hope and love and joy and peace comes from at this time of year.
Friends, here’s what I think: We’ve gathered tonight to remember who we are. We’ve gathered to tell the story of ourselves. So we’ve dressed up the house, opened our boxes of ornaments and re-told the old stories; sung our old songs, and gathered up the extended family to share a meal. At the end we’ll light candles of remembrance, hope, and love, to mark the night as a special occasion. To say in so many words, “this is who we are.” This is the story of us. This is how we’ve come to be. This is what we value and honor with the content of our lives. These are our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. And ah, yes, Bethlehem’s child is the source of it all.
Isn’t it good to be home again in this space? And I say that to everyone whether it’s your first visit or your hundredth. Knowing who we are and whose we are, gives us the hope and strength we’ll want in the year ahead—a year fraught with disruptive uncertainty. You feel that, don’t you?
This is why God came to dwell among us: That through the scrim of so many counterfeit distractions, we might see the real abundant life for which we were created in the first place. Oh my, there are so many competing visions of what a life is for! But here, tonight, around a humble manger we boldly and gladly find our place—our home—among those who “long for justice, seek true spiritual depth, hunger for authentic and loving relationships, and delight in beauty” (N.T. Wright).
So in joyful abandon, we’ll join our voices with the angelic host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven. And on earth peace, goodwill to all people.” Alleluia!
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
I happened to catch an NPR program this week concerning growing national interest in No-Gift Christmas. Several journalists and many listeners chimed in on the advantages, as well as the complications, of developing non-consumerist traditions at this time of year. Some pointed out benefits to the environment, others spoke of establishing familial habits and relationships that weren’t dependent upon heightened expectations around getting more and more stuff.
All of us moan about the seasonal advertising that now begins before Thanksgiving. We’re awash with messaging 24/7 about how we’re supposed to find happiness in getting or giving lots of things, and what a necessary component this is for our national economic vitality. It’s become a seeming citizenship responsibility for us to spend into debt to keep the markets humming. That’s Christmas in America.
At one point in the radio program a call-in mother reported becoming consumed with providing for her children “a perfect Christmas.” By that she meant the whole megillah—gifts, decorations, parties, whatnot and hoo-ha. She was captured by an addictive desire to create an ideal outcome for her kids and extended family. A very tall order. Also impossible. And, honestly, from the point of view from the manger, completely missing the point—cultural and personal expectations swamping consciousness.
Here’s a little historical factoid you may not know; Christmas has not always been so in the United States. Back in the middle of the 17th Century, about the time the Wesley brothers were founding their Methodist movement in the states, the established Puritans of New England actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas.
According to one chronicler, they had come to believe that “the feast of Christmas involved a great deal of intemperate behavior. During the long winter nights, people feasted in excess, got drunk, engaged in wanton sex, rioted in the streets, and barged into the homes of the well-to-do and demanded that they be given the best of the pantry. Christmas back then looked more like a frat party gone horribly wrong... It was far from sweet and mild.
“One public notice warned its citizens: ‘The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.’
“Because of the Puritan influence…the United States Congress regularly met on Christmas Day until 1855. [Actually, given current conditions, I could support that this year.] Public schools met on Christmas Day in Boston until 1870. That would surely have put a damper on our custom for two weeks of vacation and lots of travel right about now.
We’re a long, long way from those days. Much of what we now take for granted as part of our holiday traditions came about during the Victorian era—when the Christmas we now think of nostalgically became emblematic of warm family times that everyone aspired too.
I’m guessing that mother who called in about wanting to create the perfect Christmas for her children had that nostalgia in mind… the idea of the perfect family, the perfect outcomes, the perfect gifts and so forth… you know what I’m talking about here from all those Holiday cards with the picture perfect kids and moms and dads and the Christmas letters recounting all the wonderful exploits of the past year.
It’s a variation of the Facebook and Instagram fictions people post, packaging their public personas in masquerade, hiding the more complicated aspects of their real lives. We all do this to some degree. We all seek to present well, especially at this time of year when happiness seems what everyone’s after every which way.
Now I’m no Scrooge—I like some of the nostalgic trappings of the season, and I am somewhat invested in creating festive hospitality in our home, especially for my own now-grown children and our circle of friends and our grandkids. And I want the church well-appointed with lots of candles. But I let go of perfection a long time ago…not only for my sake, but for everyone else’s sake as well.
No one would have thought a manger in a barn was the perfect setting for giving birth. The more we make it pretty and drowned in impossible expectations, the further we move from the opportunity the occasion presents. Jesus comes speedily to us in our need and emptiness rather than our fullness. The more we engorge on attempting to fulfill impossible expectations the further we move from the manger with its meagre provisions.
Our gospel lesson this morning tells a joyful but humble story about two pregnant women who delight in their condition. Young Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth celebrate the gift of life. But let’s be clear that these are women of meagre means. They have each other, which is not nothing, but they have no place or power. As far as the world is concerned, they’re nobodies from nowhere.
And as we’ve pieced their stories together, we learn that Mary and Joseph have a complicated relationship precisely because of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph turns out to be a stand-up guy and will remain her betrothed, but given their poverty they must endure the kinds of humiliations that all poor people must endure, like giving birth in a cattle shed, eventually becoming refugees as they will flee to Egypt to save their lives and the life of their son.
We know all about refugees today, don’t we? —about parents fleeing desperate circumstance for the sake of their children. We could spend some useful time considering our immigration and border issues through the lens of these Christmas stories, and learn a thing or two about holy hospitality, but for now I want to stay with Mary.
Did you catch the topsy-turvy content of her famous song? In Latin it’s called The Magnificat and has been the source for thousands of musical settings. We’ve made it beautiful over the years, but its content is revolutionary, and it comes from the mouth of a pregnant teenager who has a clear and radical understanding of her actual circumstance and the world’s power arrangements.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings… “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”
The perfect Christmas Mary dreams up is very different from the one rampant in our culture today. Notice that God comes to Mary in her poverty, not her wealth; in her emptiness, not her fullness; in her need, not her perfection. Unfortunately, our tendency is to get this exactly backwards.
Humble is the true byword for Christmas. Humble, empty, open-hearted and open-handed. Those are the qualities, the gifts, we might bring to the manger this year. That’s my suggestion to you.
I hope to see you manger-side tomorrow night. But if you’re unable to be with us and will visit another stable somewhere else or will skip the stable altogether in favor of another sort of holiday festivity, don’t do this with over-the-top expectations. Someone is bound to let you down, not measure up or otherwise thwart your best-laid plans. When that happens, and it will because that is the fickle nature of our expectations, be very, very glad for the opportunity to remember how it went down for Mary and Joseph. The awesome gift was given to them in their humility and poverty. And so it has always been for those who would seek and find God.
Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Here we are in the middle of our holiday season of over-indulgence and once more John the Baptist bursts on the scene to wreck the party atmosphere. Regular church-goers know that he re-appears every year about now to bring his grim tidings of no joy as precursor to the glad tidings of great joy on Christmas Eve. For those of you who are new to the Advent tradition, it’s a bit like taking our bitter medicine today in order to feel really good in about a week.
John’s style has been so parodied over the years that twenty-first century cynics find it hard to take him seriously. His language is arch: “You brood of vipers!” Today nothing like that would ever be advanced in any school of communications as a method of gaining someone’s attention.
The interesting thing to note, however, is that the people of his day went out into the desert to listen to him. And then he verbally beat them up. Still, more came. And the people listened hard. They had to scrabble out beyond the towns’ borders and make their way into the wilderness where John held forth. And he attracted followers. They brought friends. And everybody listened.
We have a problem with listening hard today. It’s a cultural phenomenon. We’ve talked about this quite a lot. We’re so overloaded with information and media and materialism and whatnot and hooha that we barely hear our spouses or children or friends or lovers when they’re three feet away speaking directly to us. That’s an aspect of our cultural life that I have to consider as a preacher: people’s desire and ability to listen to anything being said. Of course, you’re thinking I ought to say something useful I suppose. Fair enough.
For our purposes today let’s assume that the first century Jews expected something from John after traipsing out into no-man’s-land. And they got an earful. He told them a thing or two about their priorities. He said they were turned backwards. And because they were turned backwards they were in for some very tough times. They were headed in the wrong direction – they were headed over a cliff, as a matter of fact. He told them they should wake up and turn around. Repent. That’s what the word from Greek actually means: turn around; take a new direction, and this time, get it right.
Now most of us most of the time wouldn’t put up with such talk. That is, unless we went to church during Advent and gave half a listen to John. But it’s hard to take him seriously. And then, his words don’t have the same ring and cadence said from a marble pulpit amidst glittering mosaics on the corner of Park and 60th, New York City. Sort of incongruous. We lit a pink candle signifying joy; we have sharp musicians and a fancy building. We made our way into the opposite of the wilderness, right?
And in coming did you expect me to tell you it was time to get it right!!—that we’re headed over a cliff and it might be a good thing to reconsider our direction, our priorities, our ethics and values, our commitments? And that this is a matter of some urgency because God is about to make an appearance?
Whatever else we might think about him, John is an agent of change. He thinks change ought to be made and that change can be made. And the change he believes in sets the stage for what God intends for the world.
Change agent is a very popular concept in business and among entrepreneurs. It’s become an iconic component of leadership studies. Organizations of every kind, both for profit and not-for-profit, seek change agent leaders in fast evolving environments like we’re experiencing.
Today the kind of change the so-called agent generally advances concerns organizational efficiencies and bottom-line profits. In this way, in our day, change agents will be judged largely in terms of economic results. Better organization equals better bottom line. If it doesn’t, a different change agent is brought in.
Clearly that’s not the sort of change John was about. His focus was of a different order of magnitude altogether. John was interested in changing the human heart, and then expanding outward into communal systems of justice and righteousness.
That’s where I wound up this week—thinking about change. How does it happen really? How is it that we can change our direction for the better? I’m wondering if the people who went out to hear John had a predilection for change, say, more so than we do. I’m thinking we’re more likely to have a predilection for keeping things pretty much as they are, unless we’ve already stepped over the edge of the cliff and find ourselves in freefall.
Sometimes religion is used to protect ourselves from the kind of radical change John addresses, the change of the human heart that allows us to expand our circle of care. Consider the church’s role in slavery and then segregation, women’s suffrage and today, matters of sexual identity and orientation.
It should not be lost to us that someone like Martin Luther King Jr. arose from out of the prophetic wing of the church a la John the Baptist to confront the majority church with its inverted gospel perversion concerning the dignity of all people. King spoke the language of John.
And John spoke the same prophetic language in which he had been steeped, that called for justice, for all persons to be treated fairly, equitably and for those who had much, to share with those who had little; we should have rigorous integrity, care about the other, live sacrificially on behalf of the whole; in short, we should live righteous, loving lives and a righteous society should be organized accordingly. That’s the bottom line for John. And man, does that ever sound radical in today’s culture.
Sounds good and right to me. But then, what does that look like in any given life? Say, your life, or mine. What are the stakes for us? Often I hear people say, “Well, its all well and good that I should be for a just society, but what am I supposed to do? Me, one lone person…”
That’s what I was thinking about this week when I recalled a poignant memoir that Calvin Trillin wrote about his wife, Alice. It’s an especially loving portrait of a deeply humane and loving woman that is full of rich insight in how a life is structured around the things that matter most. His observations are human scale, not monumental, and therefore readily accessible.
At one point he says, “When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child—a subject of some considerable discussion among some parents we knew—we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either at the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.
Later he relates that, “Alice always said that parents had a huge influence on children when it came to what she called ‘the big things.’ Essentially, she meant values. In a letter to [our] girls she once included among the messages we’d been trying to send them ‘to worry about being kind and generous to other people, to be honest with yourself and with others, to find meaning in the work you do, not to over-value financial success.’” That’s homely and poignant wisdom.
No “brood of viper” talk for her children, but when I read those words I heard a translation of John’s harangue in language meant to change the world. Because true to form when confronted with the imperative to live righteous lives, the crowds asked John what they should do and he said, Well, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation…be satisfied with your wages.”
Pretty homely wisdom, right? Sounds like Alice, doesn’t it? Be kind and generous to other people, be honest with yourself and with others, don’t over-value financial success…
How does that take hold in a life? How does someone change, evolve into a more righteous version of him or herself? How do we help one another listen to that message?
Trillin continues: “Although we never discussed it in these terms, I think [Alice] believed in the transformative power of pure, undiluted love.” Alice volunteered at a camp for children with genetic disorders. One summer she was especially drawn “to Lauren, a magical child who was severely disabled.” …Alice reported that Lauren “had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food. She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart…One day when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind Lauren and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle…I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom…I did something truly awful…I decided to read the note. I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered….my eyes fell on this sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, Lauren, we would only have chosen you.’” Trillin was sitting next to Alice at the time. Before Lauren got back to her place in the circle Alice showed him the note and said, ‘Quick. Read this. It’s the secret of life.’”
I think Alice had it exactly right, and that by any other name she had described the case for Christmas. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” Out of love, for love, so that we might love, Christ came. And his cousin, John, was all about preparing for his arrival. Get ready, he said. Wake up to the facts of your lives. Take stock. Turn around. Time to get it right. Time to get it right. Time to get it right.
How do we change? One decision, one action at a time. One little move in a different direction, one intentional act of kindness that leads to another, and then another, and so on. One choice today and another tomorrow. One very generous act of giving some of what we have away. And before you know it, a community of care develops that honors the dignity of all persons.
Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Some years ago, quite unexpectedly, someone thanked me for something I didn’t know I had done. He showed up at my office one morning looking vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t even close to placing how I might have known him. He said, “You probably don’t remember me. My name is David.” He told me we had met on a city bus 18 months earlier at a time when he had been in a particularly tough personal place facing an excruciating decision. He recounted how embarrassed he had been at the time when tears welled up in his eyes as he tried to verbalize his situation.
A foggy memory began to clear. Taking a long ride home from uptown on the M15, he had dropped something near my feet, as I recalled, which led us into conversation. He was highly agitated, and I remembered that I said very little as he spilled out his story. I simply listened, murmuring a comment or question once in a while. We spoke for no more than 30 minutes or so.
Now in my office eighteen months later, he reported that moment had been a critical turning point for him. By the time he stepped from the bus to the curb, he had arrived at a decision. He was clear. And free.
And now David returned to thank me. Evidently, I had given him a business card in case he had wanted any follow-up conversation. I didn’t remember doing that. Usually I’m out of cards, forgetting to re-load my wallet. I never seem to have one when needed. He said he stuck the card in a jacket pocket and lost track of it, until recently, when wearing that same jacket, the card appeared as he pulled out a glove.
I was rather taken aback by his effort to track me down. I thought my small part in his tale was truly minimal compared to the size of his gratitude, or so it seemed to me. But in his effort to find me I learned something I haven’t forgotten over the years. It has to do with a thankful heart. That’s what David had—a thankful heart. He was a thankful man. Full of gratitude. He made a generous contribution to the church. But more than that, I could tell that to a large degree this spirit of generous gratitude defined his orientation towards life.
Now I suppose one lesson drawn from this little episode might relate to how every moment is pregnant with potential. Every single one. You just never know. Even a ride home on the bus. But, while that’s a pithy bit of practical wisdom, that isn’t my focus today. Instead, I want to stick with this matter of thankfulness. I think it deserves serious attention.
After David said his piece and went on his way, I was left with some questions: What’s the status of my heart’s gratitude quotient? How good am I at saying thanks to the people who populate my life and work? How gratitude-oriented am I in relation to God and to the mission I’ve claimed, namely, to love very well, God and neighbor. How sacrificially generous am I? How mindful of so many who have so little mired in many privations? And I recognized this was a matter of some spiritual importance.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is my favorite biblical epistle. That’s due largely to the obvious gratitude that permeates every paragraph. Paul clearly loves these friends and he can’t help letting his gratitude for them spill over. You heard him begin like this: “I thank my God every time I remember you….” And, from there his sentiments explode with joy, goodwill, and love.
And this is all the more remarkable given that Paul wrote this letter from prison. Whenever it shows up in our lectionary, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the gratitude that pours out of this man even though he is locked behind bars. Thankfulness, joy, goodwill and love ooze from its few pages and the man writes from a first century Roman prison.
Now part of the reason we read this during Advent is Paul’s confident expectation of his vindication at the coming of Christ. As well as the vindication of the Philippians. But this is wrapped in a spirit of thanksgiving for the community they share together, how they have mutually supported one another; how they have attempted to advance the cause of Christ by loving God above all things and their neighbors as themselves.
Though his life is one of great hardship Paul is full of thanksgiving, love, goodwill and joy. Next week we’ll read another passage written from prison in which he instructs the Philippians to rejoice always. Always. I suppose that’s hyperbole, I mean, how could anyone rejoice always? Still, it points to deep spiritual wisdom about our essential relationship towards life. Call it our fundamental point of view. Gratitude.
That’s what occurred to me when David walked through my door those years ago. You know how this is, you can think a thing is true until you smack up against it for real in your own experience.
Which reminds me of a story I heard about a pastor who was talking to one of his rural parishioners about the need to raise money for the church building fund. Trying to work into the subject subtly, he asked the farmer, “Now Bill suppose you had 100 horses, would you give me 50?
The farmer said, “Certainly.”
The pastor asked, “And if you had 100 cows, would you give me 50 of those?”
The farmer said, “Well, of course.”
Then the pastor asked, “Well now, if you had two pigs, would you give me one?”
The farmer said, “Now cut that out, pastor; you know I have two pigs!”
As you well know, there’s nothing like factual experience to clarify what’s really at stake with those things we say actually count.
It was a small thing for sure, this encounter with David in my office, but a window opened on the matter of the thankful heart. I hadn’t been expecting it, but there it was.
All of us have met persons with this fundamental disposition towards life. That is, persons with what I’m calling a thankful heart. I bet if I asked, most everyone here could think of such a person they’ve known. Inevitably we enjoy their company. They are life-enhancers, aren’t they? They’re givers, not takers.
And it isn’t dependent upon one’s material position. All of us know that stuff and things do not make a thankful heart. The consumerist mindset of more and more often leads to its opposite. A thankful heart is instead an inner disposition, or orientation, towards life no matter what we have or where we are, even imprisoned behind bars of some sort or another.
Here’s the other thing to note from Paul’s letter to his friends: their evident care for one another and Paul’s expression of thanksgiving are evidence of God’s presence with and among them. In other words, their thankful community is already a harbinger of Christ’s coming. As they await their vindication, they are already living in a manner that’s consistent with the qualities of his kingdom. Thankfulness and gratitude characterize the household of God. That’s why Paul can tell them to rejoice in all things.
Well if this is true, then you can see pretty clearly one way of responding to John’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” at this time of year. We can prepare by considering this matter of thanksgiving—reflecting on the matter of “our thankful hearts”, such as they are, or aren’t.
Here’s the good news no matter your particular situation at the moment: thankfulness is especially susceptible to the practice of the folk wisdom to “fake it till you make it.” If you sincerely desire to develop the heart muscle of gratitude, then simply start practicing it. There is no better season, no better time to re-establish your basic orientation towards life. The desire for a thankful heart is a very noble desire. One of the noblest.
Part of this spiritual practice includes developing a prayer of thanksgiving. Make it an Advent mantra. Keep it to a sentence. Something like, “Loving God, thank you for this day,” or maybe, “Generous God, give me a thankful heart today.” That sounds too simple, perhaps. But I guarantee that if you surround that short prayer with silent intention you will discover transformative power. It will change you. It’s not every proposition that can guarantee such an outcome.
And then, every day purposefully thank someone for something. Every day. Be intentional. It would be fine to make a list if that’s your style. In fact, when you go home today I encourage you to jot down three names of people you should thank. The simple act of writing
Here’s something I don’t have to fake at all: my great gratitude for really wonderful colleagues here. I have great colleagues—professional and volunteer alike. I have really good work among an increasingly thankful community. I have a loving, supportive and challenging family. I have good friends. I’m deeply thankful that all of us have each other.
And I’m increasingly aware that embedded within these good things resides the spirit of Christ. And I sense that the more I exercise my thankfulness, the closer Christ draws near. There’s mystery in this. But then, mystery is part of the wonder of this season.
You want to experience the true spirit of Christmas? A thankful heart is the one essential ingredient. If you have that, Christ will come for certain.
1st Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
She was 39-years-old. That was one of the first things the woman said to me as she reported feeling spiritually flat and anxious. As we continued our conversation, I learned that she had tracked pretty well career-wise. She hadn’t set the world on fire, but she had achieved a position that matched her goals. She had a sense of accomplishment about that. Originally from the Midwest she was attracted to the “bright lights, big city” adventure of New York, and for the most part, things had gone pretty well.
But a couple of months ago she realized she had lost the taste in her mouth. Everything had a cast of grey, like a brooding winter sky, as she described the feeling. She was unnerved, uncertain what to make of it. Was this depression? And if it was, where did it come from? She had never felt this way before. She had experienced plenty of bad stuff in her life and gotten through that. This was different. This seemed bigger, as though some larger thing was going on.
On any given Sunday, today for instance, the people sitting in the pews, like all of you, have brought with them wide-ranging sets of personal circumstances. We share certain larger cultural experiences, like our current political mishigosh, but individually we’re all over the map with what’s going on in our lives. Some would have good things to report about their lives—job promotion, news of a pregnancy, great year-end bonus, and so on. Others would report life was pretty much status quo, nothing much new going on, same old, same old; and still others would report a health crisis, unhappiness with work, or marriage, or parenting, or romance, or maybe some personal failure.
Yet, no matter the particular details of our life circumstance this morning, all of us could identify certain times in our lives that were more difficult, times we were lost in confusion and not understanding why, waking up one day and discovering we had been wandering in the wilderness.
This can take many forms, but everyone has experienced times of anxiety, depression, or as my new acquaintance said, a prolonged season with a brooding, wintry sky. Sometimes as we live into this season, and though occasioned by a vexing issue or two, we sense it has less to do with any particularly disturbing event from past or present than a realization that the current “me” is slipping away, and the new “me” has yet to fully emerge. We feel raw, exposed and vulnerable.
At that point we can choose to move into it and through it, or attempt to turn our back, cover our eyes and flail around for a while in a state of bewilderment—maybe even for quite a long while, decades even. (Do you know anything about that flailing around?)
That’s what I wound up talking about with my new acquaintance. Over time she came to the realization that while certain issues may have prompted her dis-ease, at root her wintry season was a life-stage transition, another opportunity for growing up. I shared that I had experienced a couple of times like that in my life and I imagined that one or two remained.
I also allowed how there was a really potent spiritual component to this that had to do with hope. We usually don’t think about this, but hope is what allows us to let go of the old in order to embrace the new, I said. We tend to experience this implicitly rather than explicitly, but hope is our most powerful engine for change, and hope is a deeply spiritual value. Hope is the harbinger of the new day even as dark clouds hang low.
That made sense to her. She said she would pray for hope. I said that was a very good prayer, a very important prayer. I returned to it all of the time myself.
Hope is an essential component of human existence. Not much would be accomplished without it. Little suffering could be endured, little striving over impossible-seeming obstacles. That’s true, isn’t it? Think about the details of your own struggles. Wouldn’t it be true to say that in order to make it through some dark episode in your life, hope is what allowed you to muddle forward? It may not have seemed like much at the time, but now, looking back, you can see that without just a sliver of hope, the new day would have been impossible.
When something doesn’t work out and we try, try again, all that trying has an intimate relationship with hope. In the process, we’ll likely learn a thing or two, but hope makes the learning possible.
Not many marriages would endure without hope. In a hopeless world, no one would have a child I imagine—except by accident. Why buy stocks and bonds, or own a mortgage? Though we rarely think of it, hope animates all of our life-affirming decisions, small and large alike.
Still, for all of this hope induced behavior, sometimes we enter the season of low-hanging dark and ominous clouds, and we wonder and question. After all, we’re only frail flesh with a certain number of years to our span of life. And so, we stumble in our confidence.
To complicate the picture a bit, instead of sitting within the beauty and comfort here on Park Avenue, New York City, imagine we were in a caravan of refugees fleeing intolerable conditions in our homeland with our families at risk; or in an upstate federal prison cell; or suffering with famine in Yemen. We see clearly that without hope those circumstances, and our politics as well, for that matter, are dead, stillborn. Hope seems reckless, even arrogant considering the scale of the problems in our world. Still hope lives. How does hope live? Why does hope live?
In here we have a rather odd answer, and yet it’s an answer that has completely captured the world’s attention. It’s called Christmas. This seems perplexing in the extreme, especially given how we abuse it by our excesses. Still, that’s the answer we proclaim here. We say that at the core of all things our God intends to bring redemption out of destruction. If not today, then tomorrow for certain. We say the child of Bethlehem is our hope and reveals the hope that continues into our misty future.
We invite people to share the faith which is grounded in hope—the hope that God will have the day. We know from Jesus’ own life that hope is rooted in the exigencies of human experience. Meaning, hope isn’t an owner’s guarantee that life will always be easy. Rather, that life is held securely in God’s hands. That’s what hope proclaims, no matter what, God will have the day.
Jesus spoke of the future in a variety of ways. Today we heard how he examined the dark and ominous sky and experienced the future with a sense of foreboding. As Luke tells the story, this morning’s gospel comes just a few verses before Jesus’ arrest. Still, for all of the roaring of the sea, distress among the nations and shaking of the heavens, he says to “stand and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” …Which sounds like a proclamation of hope in the midst of current distress.
No question the Jews of 1st century Palestine lived in dangerous times. Just a few decades away their city was sacked and their temple torn down. Those ruins can be seen to this day.
How can one be hopeful when the sky itself seems to be falling? Because God looms far larger than the sky with all of its stars and planets. And God intends for life to prevail. Even my life and your life. We go so far as to say that we shall prevail even after our very last breath has been spent. That’s the promise imbedded within Advent. Easter is imbedded within Advent. This transcendent hope is woven into every single strand of creation fabric. We couldn’t escape it even if we wanted to. God will have the day. Period.
That’s our theology: life triumphing. Get on board! Get with the program! Even in the midst of crisis and catastrophe. Hope knows this deep truth. Robust hope is not undone by suffering or grief. In part, suffering and grief form the anvil upon which authentic hope is forged. Hope has no truck with Pollyanna philosophies. It’s no sentimental Christmas card. It is at least equal to the worst that life can dish out, more than equal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about hope today. We’d be peddling despair.
Hope lies close to the heart of life. They go together. Hope and life; life and hope. Their dance animates our worship, inspires our musicians, fuels our passions, and prompts our desire to grow into the better version of ourselves that we suspect was intended in the first place. Hope is the mother of second and third and fourth chances.
God will have the day!
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
A young couple sat at my elbow having dinner in a mid-town restaurant. Their communication was intense. Sarah was upset, emotional. David was awkward, embarrassed. He was trying to change the nature of their relationship. Sarah wasn’t buying it. David said he still loved her, still cared about her, he was just allergic to commitment; it made him feel claustrophobic. Sarah shot back that he was making her out to be a smothering shrew, well, actually, she used other words. Didn’t he think they had good times and spoke the same language.
David paused a long while before he summoned up a line I’ve heard more than once over the years. I could tell David was reaching somewhere for just the right thing to say. Finally, with great animation in his face and body he said, “Sarah, I’m not backing out of the friendship, I’m backing out of the relationship.”
David was running scared.
“People Who Run Sacred” is a club for everyone at least some of the time. And, relationships are like that sometimes... threatening, challenging, even occasionally terrifying, especially for twenty-somethings un-used to making deep commitments.
Not just speaking of romantic relationships here. All kinds. Every kind. All human interactions are fraught with complexities. The snapshot of Sarah and David lingers in my memory as a certain kind of prototype. Two individuals trying to move into their futures, uncertain of commitment and afraid to uncover whatever deep truth lurks beneath the surface. They struggle to name their truth
Maybe I’ve overanalyzed their circumstance. It’s just that I know my own experience and I’ve heard the experiences of many, many others over the years. Beyond acts of nature or your genetics, aren’t most of your problems, issues, or concerns relational in nature? Don’t most of your vexing concerns involve others, directly or indirectly? This is what keeps pastors and counselors and psychologists and life coaches busy. We need help to see others clearly. Don’t we tend to put people in boxes that help us organize our thinking and our feelings? We view others through personalized and highly efficient filters so that we wind up seeing what we want to see.
You’ve heard me say that this often accounts for romantic love. Romantic love at least partially consists of a projection of ourselves onto another. We think we see the other, but eventually come to discover that someone else, someone more complex, someone often less likeable frankly, has possession of the person we thought we knew. I tell couples that’s when real love might actually take over, for that’s when each has the opportunity to see the truth of the other and of themselves. And robust love is all about truth. Authentic love and truth go hand in hand.
But as you know, romance isn’t the only relational quagmire. Whenever we engage others, we package them for our own purposes. We name, label, categorize them to satisfy our needs, missing the larger truth of the other. What is racism but a form of packaging? What or whom do we see when someone is identified as a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, and so on... any label lends itself to abuse, to seeing someone other than who is actually there. We all know this since we all do this.
And it’s equally true in speaking of our God relationship. If ever there was a place we should seek to set aside our preconceptions, it’s there. But all of us come to God with biases based upon who we need or want or expect to see. Who is it that you think we’re addressing in here, anyway? Who is this God we speak of here?
All we have to do is cast a glance around the nation at all the people who call themselves Christian to realize that there’s an astonishing range of variations on a theme. Honestly, some who bear the name Christian seem to worship an entirely different God than I do. We use a lot of the same language but arrive at very different, in some cases, even diametrically opposed viewpoints on just who God is. I suppose it’s inevitable that we all have a tendency to create a god in our own image.
Anne Lamott has it right, I think, when she says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Now pity the position of poor Pontius Pilate. If ever a man had need of categorizing another person, of putting him in a box, of seeing someone he might recognize from out of his own experience, it was this Roman Governor. Who do you imagine he saw when looking at the bedraggled Jew who had been brought before him? Surely Pontius Pilate had his opinions about Jews. Was Pilate able to look through the filters of his biases to see the actual man standing there?
But then, it wasn’t just a Jew, he was told, but a man who also purported to be a king. A king! Well, that would have tripped his trigger. After all, Pilate was an important and imperious government official, a Governor, assigned at the pleasure of the Roman emperor. Pilate knew all about kings and kingdoms. He knew real power when he saw it. Didn’t he have some himself, if only over backwater Palestine? Still, he was in charge. The people brought this Jesus to him. Not that he liked getting involved in all their petty squabbles. Tricky business: manipulating the pieces on his game board, keeping the crowds reasonably content while still exerting enough power to show who was boss. Tricky relationships to manage.
Pilate knew this Jesus was no king. Didn’t look like one, didn’t act like one, didn’t sound like one. Still, this was perplexing because the local leaders brought him as one who was said to have royal ambition. So, Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
As the story is told Jesus gives a mystical answer, something about a kingdom from another world. Not the answer of any king Pilate knew. It was the answer of a dreamer. Kings were practical. They saw what was needed to be done and they did it. They knew the relative value of human life; one here or there didn’t matter much. What mattered was the amassing and manipulation of power. And Pilate had power over this silly Jew.
And so, in the end, he would turn over this man to be put to death in the usual manner of the day as an enemy of the state. And he would have words inscribed in three different languages at the top of his cross which said, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Was this done in sarcasm, irony, confession? All we know is that today we remember Pilate solely because he put this particular man to death.
Lo and behold, two thousand years later this same supposed enemy of the state sits emblazoned on a throne in our mosaics and lends our church his name. At the very least we could say Pilate missed something really crucial in his relationship with Jesus. He didn’t see a larger truth. Pilate saw what he wanted, or better, needed to see to shore up his worldview, which is no different than what any of us do most of the time. The truth is, it’s quite remarkable that we allow ourselves to take in any new information given the fragile nature of our egos which we’re constantly shoring up.
According to the church’s calendar, today is the last Sunday of our year – next Sunday begins another year on the First Sunday of Advent. But today, the last Sunday is designated, Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, named for the man pictured up there sitting on a throne. Who do you see when you look up there? Squint your eyes in just the right light and you’ll notice the book on his lap is opened to a page that reads: “I am the light of the world.”
When Pilate looked at Jesus he intended his question as hip, first century, philosophical sarcasm when he asked, “What is truth?” Yet that is the relevant question. It’s always the relevant question. Always, everywhere in all of our relationships. What is truth? —At home, on the job, at play, at dinner with someone we say we care about, and in the quiet of our own contemplation. Keeping an eye on the truth is an excruciating discipline. Jesus said, “People who know the truth listen to me.”
I disagree with those who say there is no truth, not really, that all truth is relative. To say there is no truth is itself a truth claim and all truth claims compete for our allegiance. Jesus Christ is up there in our mosaics because many, many people over many hundreds of years have listened to him. They don’t do this especially well, because, as I’ve said, we all suffer from the same human propensity to see what we want or need to see, like Pilate. That’s the engine of our corruption.
Still, if we actually give ourselves permission to listen and to follow along – if we actually would like to see and to hear the truth, we can’t avoid contending with this man. And at the end of it we won’t be the same because truth will always and finally have its way. Always. Thank God…
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8Read MoreLess
Deuteronomy 8:1-18; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Matthew 5:13-16, 6:19-21
As I mentioned in my Faith Matters blog on Friday, you might be interested to know that both Stacey Abrams, first African American woman candidate for Governor of Georgia, as well as Jeff Sessions, recently fired Attorney General, identify as United Methodists—as do both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.
Our denomination hoists a big tent. Your favorite search engine will reveal that the Methodist movement has been home to an astonishingly broad range of diverse Americans. Sometimes the tent ripped under the strain, as happened over the issue of slavery when a church of the north and a church of the south sundered the unity while holding opposing points of view on the matter. There really was no way around that at the time given there wasn’t a true middle ground on the matter of slavery—one either is or is not a slave; there is no in-between state.
In his Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln famously observed that, “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
I mention this as a reminder that our national tribalistic moment has had a number of antecedents, some worse than others, but all leading to an eventual reunion of sorts—not perfectly, of course, but generally sufficient to secure for another generation a commitment to the common good of all. From break-up to reunion took the Methodists about a hundred years.
Today we’re caught in a time of fierce polarization both inside and outside the church. I am working hard to listen to God’s voice in the midst of the din. I am anchoring myself to the path Jesus blazed fashioned from love of God and neighbor. This leads me to a set of conclusions about a few things and some questions about others. I seek to stay committed to the path regardless of the cost. I also recognize that, as in the words of Paul, I only see in a mirror dimly. Here’s the thing though: no one today (except Kanye, maybe) supports slavery as a social construct. One side had it right in theory if not always in execution, and the other had it appallingly wrong.
I’m wanting to pay attention to this fact, knowing full well that I’m capable of getting something appalling wrong as well. That doesn’t prevent me from advancing my understanding of the truth, but it helps me hold it with open hands and heart in the spirit of Lincoln’s conclusion: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
He didn’t say this, but implicit within Lincoln’s reasoning is the idea that everyone is a child of God—Yankees and Confederates, people north and south, east and west and everyone else, including the enslaved Africans. For how could a child of God be treated less than any other child of God? Clearly all persons were bound together by common sacred genetics.
That remains the most basic affirmation we make in here, that we are all beloved children of God of equal worth. There’s nothing we’ve ever done to deserve that status, it’s just a given. Scripture affirms this, as does our intuition. Jesus taught this, lived this. Each one of us, child of God. We frequently speak of this here.
This affirmation lies behind the meaning of our mission to love God and neighbor and our core value of dynamic hospitality. All are welcome here because each one has been pre-certified as a member of the same family, emerging from the same spiritual DNA, all of us, children of God. Everyone who walks through these doors and throws their lot in with us—child of God. Even the late-comers. Everywhere you look a child of God! And the only work we have to accomplish in relation to this truth lies in accepting it.
Now learning that one is a child of God—really taking that on and letting it sink in—has a rather powerful impact, especially for those among us who have wondered deep down if they have ever really belonged anywhere. This wondering is part of the universal human experience. You likely wondered about this at some point in your lives. You might recognize it as that lonely anxiety that awakened you in the middle of the night during a fevered dream. Or the existential dread generated by the knowledge that one day you will die, which in turn prompts the question, Well, what’s it all about anyway?
Many spend much of their energy running from questions like these, smothering them in any number of ways, and you know all the ways there are to anesthetize yourselves from these questions. Work is a good way that many can identify with in New York. Work, booze, drugs, sex, money and so forth, all the standard stuff. And then we should make note of the individualized ways we’ve all dreamt up over the years, all of our personalized coping mechanisms.
And then, we’re very good at finding alternative means for propping ourselves up by putting others down—THE classic methodology for feeling better about our relative position in the world. Again, since it’s on my mind, think slavery for instance, an extreme version of radical exclusion, implicitly asserting that everyone does not share the same sacred DNA. I’m in, you’re out.
Human history is littered with these radical eruptions which are, at heart, a pathetic attempt to assert one’s essential humanity as inherently superior to another’s for a trumped-up and largely whack-a-do reason. Pathetic, but deadly nevertheless, and deadly serious.
So, children of God. And now add to that, salt and light. By virtue of our sacred genetics we are salt and light as well. Salt and light are so basic and essential to human life that Jesus felt no need to spell out what this meant. Although, as he says, salt can lose its integrity, its identifying quality as salt. This does not occur suddenly, but so gradually that those to whom it happens do not perceive themselves as changing and cannot identify later a single time or place when the rejection of their birthright occurred. The loss was not intentional; it was more a matter of drifting away.
Putting a lamp under a bushel certainly reduces the chance of having it blown out, but the price for such protection is darkness. In other words, God’s way in the world as exemplified by Christ, is mission: we’re meant to spread the word and make a difference. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world, let the light shine in the hopeful trust that word of each person’s essential and sacred identity can be spread across the land. Love and justice are the bywords of this movement.
That’s what accepting our birthright entails. Allowing our essence as salt and light to advance the message to others that they, too, are part of God’s beloved community. And this isn’t coercive or manipulative. It’s declarative. Here’s the good news! Believe it and live it!
Accepting this good news sets up an “if…, then” logic equation: If child of God, then salt and light. Since we’re all children of God it follows that we’re also salt and light. Our work and worship here allow this truth to seep way down into our deepest recesses. If child of God, stands to reason this truth will show up in our lives, what we do, in our life commitments, how we live, who we throw in with, how generous our love.
With this in mind then, Commitment Sunday isn’t about coercing our attitudes or squeezing our bank accounts against our will. It’s not about what we ought to be or try to be. Instead it’s a moment to acknowledge, to declare, who we are, to boldly assert our identity, our birthright and our work. To affirm the astonishing diversity of our family, naming and embracing our actual sisters and brothers to whom we are bound by virtue of sharing the same spiritual DNA.
…To align our priorities with the priorities of the enormous trust we’ve inherited. To remember, as Moses admonished the wandering Israelites entering their promised land, that God is the source of every good thing, including their various powers at manipulating the physical world into wealth and prosperity.
The scripture thunders: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God 17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” We are derivative creatures of God’s astonishing love who has been very pleased to shower us with every good thing.
So, here’s where we join together in common cause writing this sermon as sisters and brothers enjoying the same inheritance. It’s a small gesture, I know, but when we stand together during the final hymn and choose to join the parade down the center aisle, we’re making a statement about our essential commitments, bound in common purpose as agents of salt and light in a world that so clearly and so desperately needs this intrusion of grace. Bracing, inspiring, affirming – feel that deeply as you take the short walk to the altar…
Then the sermon opens exponentially as we leave this space and walk out onto the street as salt and light for the transforming of our world…