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.
Please share them with others, and if you’d like to participate in an ongoing discussion about the content of the weekly sermon, do so on our Facebook page, which you can access by clicking here.
You can subscribe to our sermon podcast in iTunes here.
You can subscribe to our sermon podcast in Stitcher here.
This page has the last five months of sermons at Christ Church. You can access prior sermons on Soundcloud here.
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56Read MoreLess
Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
It's been quite a news cycle, hasn't it? Maybe like me you're feeling especially agitated, disorientated today. We were already stumbling around in a season of dis-ease, right!? I became aware of my own disorientation when the news of Jeffrey Epstein's suicide scrolled into view on my computer screen yesterday morning, a stunning development in an already overwrought story of power, privilege, great wealth, and child abuse dusted with political glitter. We surely haven't heard the end of this sordid mess that describes another dollop of deadly decadent decay in American culture.
Questions gurgle up from the pit of our stomachs like these: How does something this dark and sinister fester as long as it has? Who are these supposedly elite people, really? Where's the moral compass among Epstein's friends, acquaintances, business partners, lawyers and everyone else who joined the party? What a rotten, stinking mess all around.
But then nothing overshadows the carnage in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas and Gilroy, California...not to mention Chicago and over 250 other towns and cities that have experienced mass shootings this year--that's more than one a day. The fact that the Dayton shooter accomplished his murderous rampage in just 30 seconds boggles the mind and stuns our conscience over the national lust for military weapons.
And the emergence of the El Paso gunman's manifesto shatters any lingering naivete anyone might have concerning the unambiguous white tribalist anxiety in our culture. Sure, he's an extremist. But he's part of a cultural continuum of white supremacist demagoguery that stretches back at least 4 centuries when the first slaves arrived on our shores. It so happens that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of that inglorious, contemptible event. Some have mistakenly believed our racist past had largely dissipated. Surprise! Or, we might say, Wake up!
Many of you received a Pastoral Message from me this week in response to these mass shootings. If you'll indulge me, I feel the need to "read it into the record," as it were. Here's what I said:
"Among recurring lessons accompanying the horrific news of mass shootings is this: the common bonds of our national identity are fracturing. We are losing the sense of common cause that binds us together, 'one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' Perpetrators may be described as agitated loners, but they are also harbinger of a larger malaise in our land. The increasing frequency of these acts of terror coupled with white supremacist ideology and massive capacity weaponry sounds the alarm that each of us has a role to play in how our common life shall proceed.
"Up and down the ladders of privilege and power it matters how we speak of one another; if our words and actions reveal a commitment to either building or sundering community. This is as true in each of our houses as it is in the White House. All of us share responsibility for the health and vigor of our national character in providing a safe and wholesome environment for every person and family in our land. The emanations from the El Paso manifesto should send a chill down our spines, insisting violence is the solution to solving white tribalist anxieties.
"Our nation's original sin of racism remains the go-to weapon-of-choice for those bent on fear-mongering. And fear remains our great enemy; it lies behind every sort of tribalist anxiety. Our scriptures lay down the gauntlet on this by proclaiming, 'Perfect love casts out all fear!' (1 John 4:18) Ah yes, love of God above all things, and love of neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:27) remains our core value at Christ Church--the perfect-seeming antidote to the tenor of our moment, a resilient bulwark in the face of many adversities, and a call for us to grow into the people God intended in the first place.
"Out of loving concern for those who have died and those who grieve we offer humble, earnest prayers of support. We yearn for their eventual healing. 'Holy God, bless these innocent victims.'
"But let's be very clear that prayer is just a beginning. Prayer also serves as a call to rejoin the ranks of those who are seeking to build wholesome community for all of God's offspring, while standing against tribalist racism of every sort, every sort of fear-mongering of the dreaded 'other.' In this I hope we stand hand in hand, our work of love to the benefit of the common good.
"As always, I persist in gratitude for the community of Christ Church. I find strength in our common bond to love well while standing against the forces that seek to divide and demean and deny human dignity. Joining our hands, hearts and voices amplifies our individual intentions. May God bless us in this continuing endeavor."
This morning it seems to me we have 2 principle tasks in front of us. The first one is to be very clear-eyed about the truth of our situation; to make an unsentimental assessment of our national malaise, to forthrightly identify the rise of white supremacist demagoguery, how tribalist ideas tempt our own allegiances; and to confess our own complicity in separating people into categories of better and worse based on entirely ridiculous criteria, always discovering our own superiority. Holy God, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
But secondly, and importantly, let's be very clear that followers after the way Jesus blazed are bound together in hope. We're anchored in resurrection. We believe we are loved by God beyond our wildest imaginings, and that nothing in life or in death can separate us from God's great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. We align our values with his. We strive to love in the manner that he loved. Listening to God's voice we step out in faith, as we heard Abraham did in our readings this morning, not knowing exactly where he was going, but confident in God's abiding presence and leadership.
And friends, this faith isn't simply an internal self-help program. Sure, there are tangible personal benefits that accrue to those who welcome Christ into their lives, but the most important benefits aren't based in success as described by motivational and prosperity preachers. That's largely a distraction from the real spiritual program. The most important benefits relate to learning how to love well--God, ourselves, and others--and then growing into the people God intended in the first place. From that vantage point, faithful Christianity resembles a character formation project.
We're all works in progress. We're all amalgams of good intentions and bad, but throwing our lot in with Jesus, we're staking a claim on listening to the better angels of our nature, joining hearts and hands with others who struggle to do the same. We listen hard to the wisdom of scripture and the Spirit that whispers in our inner being.
Among the inescapable conclusions we draw is that God is God of all things, all people, everywhere. Everyone shares the same sacred DNA. How could it be otherwise? We are all creatures of the same earth and universe, all dependent upon the same air and water and food. This truth provides the context for understanding God's justice; how justice is an aspect of God's love. When we strive for justice, we're also striving to love well.
And as I've underscored lately, this means that justice should inspire our politics. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was an ardent abolitionist, which in his day, was a minority opinion. Being an abolitionist meant he relentlessly advocated for political outcomes for the sake of the enslaved. Why? Because of his faith in the God of love. Like Abraham, he died before he would see the complete vindication of his conviction.
We now take this position for granted, but look at the residual mess that remains...the white supremacist mindset does not die easily. That's now our work, our responsibility for the sake of love and justice. From where I stand it's impossible to draw any other conclusion as I try to follow the pattern Jesus set before us.
There's an obvious connection to why the 20th century's Civil Rights movement drew its inspiration and strength from within the African American Church. The movement was driven by spiritual energy that led quite naturally to dynamic political engagement.
Wesley famous said, "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can." In other words, there's no compartmentalizing here. We're either all in on this matter of following Jesus, or we're not. We can't sequester the law to love into one precious aspect of life and leave it at that. All in. All the time. Everywhere.
As we baptized little Alyana earlier, did you not sense the faith and love that was present? We were privileged to share with her parents their joy and their hope for their life together. They are like Abraham holding God's promise for their future in their hands and hearts. They have no way of knowing what lies ahead for each of them, but they anchor themselves in love for the sake of love with a confident expectation of God's providential care. That’s what we Christians do. That's where we draw our strength. And that's what we take out into the world...
Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19; Luke 11:1-13Read MoreLess
Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:15-28; Luke 10:38-42Read MoreLess
Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37
I doubt there’s anyone present who hasn’t heard of the Good Samaritan. It’s right up there with the story of the Prodigal Son in terms of notoriety within our culture. Typing "Good Samaritan" into my search engine brought 25 million hits. Among other references, it serves as the name of many medical institutions and a wide variety of Christian organizations devoted to helping others. It’s an important parable, one that every would-be follower of Jesus should know, especially as it follows up the great law to love.
And by way of understanding the parable’s challenging meaning, I think every American Christian should also know the story of the French village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It shines a bright light on how we're to understand Jesus’ radical call to love.
Primarily a town of French protestants, the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon became a haven for Jews fleeing from the Nazis during World War II. Early on in Hitler’s advance on Europe, France became a vassal state of Germany and a sympathetic government was installed. Over the course of the war it’s estimated that French collaborators delivered around 83,000 Jews to the Nazis, including 10,000 children. Even now, from this distance of seven decades, it’s hard to make sense of the numbers and even harder to make sense of the vast number of ordinary persons who collaborated in such a mass transfer of fellow humans.
But Le Chambon-sur-Lignon defied the Nazi regime and French government and over the course of the occupation took in 5,000 Jews, as many as the entire village population. Most homes and farms held strangers—not just for days, but for years. So deep was the villagers’ humanity that it is believed that no resident ever turned away, denounced or betrayed a single refugee. They helped provide forged identity documents and ration cards; and helped the Jews over the border to safety in Switzerland.
Such large-scale resistance was known to the Nazis, but whenever patrols came to the village word spread and villagers hustled the Jews into nearby woods. One of the Chambonais later recalled: “As soon as the soldiers left, we would go into the forest and sing a song. When they heard the song the Jews knew it was safe to come home.”
This subterfuge was led by the village pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, Magda; under their leadership villagers acted on their conviction that it was their duty to help their “neighbors” in need. They didn’t attempt to convert them, they simply saved them. Eventually some of the residents were arrested by the Gestapo, including Pastor Trocmé’s cousin, Daniel, who subsequently was killed in a concentration camp. Loving in this radical manner was a dangerous proposition.
After the round-up and deportation of Jews in Paris in 1942, Pastor Trocmé delivered a sermon to his parishioners and said, “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its present incapacity and cowardice.”
Once the war came to an end and the villager’s activities became known, the Chambonais rejected any labeling of their behavior as heroic. They said: “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.”
“Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world….” There are other sorts of stories we could share with one another, stories on a smaller scale, perhaps, that would also model how Jesus’ teaching can become embedded within the hearts and minds of his followers. But, for me, the story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon stands out within modern Christian history. It bears repeating and internalizing and teaching to our children and to ourselves.
Because the parable of The Good Samaritan has a tendency to become so sentimentalized as to lose the true scope of the love Jesus lived and taught. Love can be reduced to a schmaltzy lesson about treating people we know decently, which isn’t bad, of course. Or it can be used as a prod to get parishioners to sign up for an occasional romp in doing a bit of good.
But the real stakes in the story are made clearer when quoting the Chambonais, “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these people.” Considering the duplicity and complicity of much of the Christian world, not to mention government and the incredible risk involved, this simple response seems to defy reason. Because, after all, even in our doing good we want to be reasonable about it, don’t we?
Consider the lawyer’s intention in quizzing Jesus. The real set-up of the parable comes when Luke says that the lawyer wanted to justify himself with his question, “Who is my neighbor?” In other words, he wanted to know the exact limits of the meaning of the word, neighbor. Clearly, he thinks there are limits, thus his need to justify his position on the matter. And we could surmise that what he’s after is a debate about the finer points of the law, a debate that leaves him well satisfied that he’s got it right. If you happen to be a lawyer or have ever worked with one, you know how this might go.
Frederick Buechner reasoned that the lawyer in our story was looking for a legal outcome that sounded something like this: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as a person of Jewish descent whose residence is within a radius of three statute miles of one’s own residence (hereinafter referred to as the party of the second part) unless another person of Jewish descent lives between the party of the first part and the party of the second part, in which case, the intervening person shall be considered the neighbor to the party of the first part, hence relieving the party of the second part of any responsibility whatsoever.”
Instead of debating, Jesus told a story that had nothing to do with law, and everything to do with grace. Or we could put it this way: there was only one two-part law that transcended all others—love God with your whole being; and love your neighbor as yourself. But this law was not subject to legal analysis, only the response that love dictated. And if this love was embraced and internalized it would wind up expressed in words like those of the villagers in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. “Things had to be done, and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world…” We could hear the Samaritan in our story saying something just like that had a reporter shown up at the inn to ask him about his motives in coming to the aid of the stranger on the side of the road.
The lawyer in our story would not have understood this sort of behavior. Indeed, Jesus himself was ultimately not understood, or, maybe, understood only too well, to be embraced. For his sort of love would upend the prescribed order of things, considering all the ways he expounded on the theme, “the first shall be last and the last first.” In first century Palestine, the lawyer was among the first and the Samaritan among the last.
The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. That this outsider is the one extending the aid is a radical aspect of the story with both the privileged priest and the Levite passing on the other side of the road. Note Jesus does not say why they passed by. Surely, they had a good, solid reason. Like fear for their lives, for instance. Suppose it was a trap? Or, suppose it was someone other than a Jew? Someone outside their tribe? Some dreaded other?
Of course, by the time of the Second World War, it’s the Jews who are largely beyond the range of neighborliness in western civilization. There’s much to be said about the American silence pertaining to the Holocaust as it evolved in Europe, rooted in an endemic bias within Christian culture. But then, this wasn’t the first time so-called Christian culture failed to learn Jesus’ radical lessons.
About twenty years ago I had a startling awakening about our collective tendency to miss the obvious turning my faith inside out. A large team from Christ Church had traveled to Ghana, West Africa to build homes with new partner neighbors. At one point in our travels we visited the slave castles on the so-called Gold Coast of Africa. These were the points of embarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade where millions were bound and held prisoner crammed into dank cells. I have a searingly vivid memory of standing in the chapel of one of the castles when a cold chill swept through me as I realized the floor of the chapel doubled as the ceiling for the men’s dungeon. It occurred to me in a flash that the story of the Good Samaritan was read in that place.
Inscribed on the chapel wall was a verse of Psalm 132: “For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation.” If you look that up, you'll find that passage continues with these words: “This is my resting place forever. I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread.” This experience remains one of the most powerful and disturbing metaphors of my ministry.
Had I thought of it at the time I might have remembered to share the story there of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Pastor Trocmé’s words: “The Christian Church should drop to its knees and beg pardon of God for its…incapacity and cowardice.”
We begin to see the enormity of the stakes in our beloved parable this morning. It strikes at the heart of our essential commitments as persons who claim to be followers of the way Jesus walked. It prompts us to consider the sort of community we wish to become.
Here’s what I hope: I hope and pray that increasingly we become the sort of family that does the work of love Jesus inspires. Remember, after the lawyer gave the correct answer about loving God and neighbor, Jesus said, “Do this and you will live.” I yearn for all of us to have this inscribed within our hearts so that like the Chambonais our response to having provided courageous and generous loving care anywhere to anyone would be like theirs: “Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them. It was the most natural thing in the world to help these others.”
2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
When I think back to my seminary days, they’re mostly a blur. I learned the basics, but a lot of details have escaped long-term retention. My decision to attend divinity school at the not-quite-ripe age of 21 and my general state of confusion at the time about my life’s direction has a lot to do with my foggy memory. Still, there are a few moments that have stuck with me.
Dean Harry Adams, a professor of homiletics, was a warm, thoughtful man who was something of a mentor. He had a home-spun manner that belied a quiet wisdom.
One day in the midst of a lecture on sermon preparation Dean Adams suddenly stopped short and became quite still for a long minute. Then he said, “I want to interrupt this lecture with a word about interruptions. They will inevitably happen to you. A day will soon come when you believe you are preparing your most erudite and important message upon which hangs the very souls of your congregation or at least your future ministry among them, when a difficult individual barges into your office or a crisis finds you at home and you will need to drop what you’re doing and attend to the interruption. Let me tell you now that your ministry is all about interruptions.
He continued, "Odd to say in here, I suppose, but your ultimate effectiveness will have little to do with what you happen to say on any given Sunday. And it will have everything to do with interruptions.” After another long pause holding us in his gaze—as if to punctuate and underline what he just said—he picked up his lecture right where he had left it. I don't know why, really, but I distinctly remember that gaze.
This bit of wisdom lodged in my mind that day and over the years it has focused my thinking in ways I couldn’t have initially understood. While in the midst of advancing some aspect of my own agenda, I've discovered that if I'm attentive, interruptions have a way of focusing priorities that my own frail powers can’t get quite right.
What’s the worn cliché? Life is what happens when you’ve planned something else. Such bits of wisdom reach the status of cliché precisely because they’re true. Tracking the course of our lives, many of us could say but for the interruptions to our plans, we would not be the persons we’ve become.
There is deep theological truth here. As I’ve heard a lot of persons tell their tale, most spiritual awakenings come as interruptions, as surprises. That’s why they’re awakenings. After the fact we might see them woven into the fabric of our lives, but at the time these spiritual interruptions occur, they couldn’t have been predicted. In fact, it seems that the most spiritually mature persons are those who are in a constant state of expectation for the surprising new thing God intends regardless of circumstance.
From one vantage point we could say that Jesus was a great interruption to life in ancient Palestine. He remains so today. The only difference now is the range of his impact. He interrupted people’s lives then, he does so today. He stirred up political controversy then, he does so today. He challenged the standard social mores of his day, he does so today. I’m thinking we wouldn’t remember him at all if he hadn’t interrupted the status quo.
As his story is told, Jesus interrupted established norms upending social conventions to create a new sort of community. Everywhere he went announcing the arrival of God's Kingdom, he shattered social expectation and cracked the barriers of inclusion and exclusion, of unclean and clean, of who had access to God’s love and who was considered a part of God’s own family, of who belonged to whom.
He interrupted established religious hierarchies and theologies. Some of you will recall that during his last week alive he interrupted the activities at the temple in Jerusalem by overturning the money-changers tables--a religious, social and political scandal.
Remember how he summarized the law--love God above all else and love your neighbors as yourselves. For the sake of love, he broke religious statutes. He taught that everything was interpreted through that supreme law of love. We might say that Jesus went around interrupting religious and cultural mores with love. That was the engine of his intervention.
Of course, he and his closest followers learned that interrupting the established flow of social and religious conventions – even for the most compassionate ends – could be a dangerous proposition. At the time the power brokers thought they could put an end to this interruption. You know how that went down... arrest, crucifixion and all. But here we all sit, nevertheless. So, you can see how the content of much of our theology is found in the wake of a massive spiritual interruption that continues to ripple around the world.
In our gospel lesson we heard how Jesus gathered up 70 followers and sent them out as his advance-men. And what's interesting is that he warns them that the message they will bear, a message of peace expressly, won't necessarily be well received. "I'm sending you out like lambs in the midst of wolves."
In effect, these disciples will physically embody the great law of love which means they will not follow the common rules of the day of slicing up the population into those who belong to God and those who don't; those who should receive God's grace and those who shouldn't; those who deserve compassionate care and those who don't.
A new day is dawning, a new kind of community is being born where no one will fall outside the bounds of God's grace. Jesus sends them out with that message interrupting the status quo. And this message has personal, cultural, religious and political consequences. Such is the transcendent effect of divine love.
And this transcendent ethic catapulted Christianity from obscurity, ultimately sweeping the Roman Empire. Justin Martyr, the first great Christian apologist in the first century, a Roman who was introduced to the Christian path at the age of 30 about a hundred years after Jesus' crucifixion, sketched out Christian love this way: We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.
A generation later, another Christian apologist named Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, "See how the Christians love one another!" This was a radical interruption to Roman social order.
It’s in this tradition that Christ Church has established as one of its four core values, the value of dynamic hospitality, which we mean as an extension of this same barrier-breaking compassion Jesus exhibits. If one loves the way Jesus did, one can’t help stepping out of bounds every now and then, stepping on some toes every now and then, interrupting the status quo.
For instance, we couldn’t help but have a contrarian point of view about what’s going on at our borders among desperate immigrant families whose children have been taken away. We might have disagreements about specific policy tactics, but followers after the way of Jesus would begin by acknowledging our common humanity, our common desire for security, safety and dignity for our children. Starting there leads to a different set of outcomes than what has evolved and we should be engaged.
But now I want to interrupt this sermon with the following announcement. No matter who you are, where you’ve been or what you’ve done, no matter your current condition, you are God’s own child, daughter or son. Reaching out with whatever sort of puny faith you might have, there is no prior condition that is a permanent barrier to your inclusion within God’s family. Nothing separates you from God’s astounding heart of love as revealed in Jesus Christ. Absolutely nothing.
This was a radical, demanding message then, and it remains so now. This truth is fuel for the engine that drives this church. This truth interrupts all other seeming important matters. This truth shatters expectations about how we think about ourselves and how we think about the other persons sitting in our pew and those who will interrupt our walk home or in countless other moments as this week unfolds.
Friends, hear Jesus say to you, “Go in peace. Be healed of your dis-ease, whatever form that takes. Come, see your true family. Find your true home. Love well.”
2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:(1-6) 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
All of our difficult political and societal problems involve our struggle with the meaning and limits of freedom. Consider: abortion; affirmative action; taxation; gun control; deregulation; environmental concerns; the rights of LGBTQ persons – in all these public issues we grapple with the bounds of freedom within our democracy.
In western culture the Judeo-Christian traditions have greatly informed the philosophical underpinnings of political freedom. Our religious heritage affirms the innate dignity of every individual. As you hear repeatedly within these walls, each person is a child of the Creator, graced with uniqueness worthy of encouragement, even worthy of love. In their innate givenness, no one is less worthy than another. We can pretend or behave otherwise, but send your saliva to be examined for the source of your spiritual DNA, and you’ll learn you are related to the people sitting around you today.
We hear an echo of this sensibility in the words Thomas Jefferson penned in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course, we know that in Jefferson’s day, “all men” pertained only to white male property owners, which was a distinct minority population-- Jefferson, himself, a slaveowner. Still, the political intent was planted there nevertheless, spilling forward in a cascade of awakening insight about the breath-taking scope of such an audacious claim.
Our Constitution and resulting body of law were meant to mediate the conflicts that arise as citizens attempt to exercise their prerogatives of freedom. The evolving understanding of "all men are created equal...endowed by their creator with unalienable...rights," eventually led to the abolition of slavery; Women's suffrage and the right to vote, holding equal standing in the eyes of government and employers; and today, the rights and inherent dignity of LGBTQ persons. Later today Christ Church participates in the Pride parade as a testament to our belief that differences of gender or sexual identity do not mitigate our fundamental identity as children of God... worthy of full political standing.
But political freedom is only one of many sorts of freedoms we value. For instance, as popular culture has it, freedom can also be described as the ability to act without restraint. In this sense, we are free from things and exist within a world without many rules in which we are accountable to no one but ourselves.
As many reflective commentators point out, this sounds a lot like the period of time we call adolescence.1 Adolescence is a borderland time between carefree childhood and responsible adulthood; often an experimental time, a breakout time, a time for doing what we please, when we please. A time for challenging rules and proscriptions.
“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” is the popular cliché. The idea is, you are free to do pretty much whatever you want there. Of course, the truth is, you are free to do pretty much whatever you want to do here, or nearly anywhere in this land.
But as you well know from experience, once it sinks in that we really are free from most every restraint, we have the problem of choosing what we will do, and every time we exercise a choice, for the time being, we eliminate all other possibilities. So the question really becomes less about what we are free from and more about what we are free for.
Consider the talented young person choosing a life path who, regardless of initial circumstance, has arrived at a point where life appears to be a smorgasbord of options. Lawyer, singer, doctor, banker, actor, teacher—and then a choice is made. In choosing to become a teacher, say, is she suddenly less free?
If she’s alert, she will discover that freedom has led her to a place of choice. Without the choosing, freedom would have little meaning. And if she’s psychologically robust she’ll know that no choice is ever the last. In fact, if she remains a teacher and wishes to achieve a level of excellence at her craft, she will need to re-choose teaching continually—the choosing is never finished.
Or consider committed relationship. When we reach the so-called age of consent, we are free from officially sanctioned restraints concerning when, where and with whom we’ll have sex. If we choose a permanent partner then, do we become less free? Popular culture suggests that is most definitely the case (part of the backdrop to the Vegas slogan). And there is a sense in which that’s true.
But the fully alert adult understands that only by freely choosing the path of commitment and fidelity in all manner of relationships (marriage, parenting, citizenship, employee, employer, neighbor, etc.) can mature human capacities evolve and blossom; much the way a tree can only grow by putting down roots.
This means the tree is going to be in this place and not that place, and to that extent no longer “free”. Were the tree to wander forever looking for some mystically perfect location, or revel in never landing anywhere, it would never grow into its true nature. And the deeper it sinks an anchoring root system, the stronger, more vital tree it becomes.
The only way to become good at anything is to choose something which releases, we could say “frees up” our innate potential, and every single day provides a refreshed opportunity to choose well...
Paul wrote to his friends in Galatia, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The context for this proclamation concerned the blending of Gentiles and Jews together into a single family and deciding which rules and laws would guide their lives together. But this led Paul to point to the over-arching principle guiding the church community, and state the ultimate point of human freedom, namely, to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what he wrote. "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’”.
That’s what the Christian church, at its best, claims as the true focus of a faithful life. We are made free in Christ to love. That’s Christian ethical teaching stripped down to the nubs. That’s the point of freedom. We are made free to love. If, in our freedom, we choose to love, we will grow into what God intended in the first place, much like that healthy tree with its roots planted deeply in rich soil.
Friends, from one vantage point, this Christian thing is remarkably simple. We make it really complicated, and I don’t deny that there are a whole lot of confusing matters that we have to contend with, matters of grave consequence, but if we wanted a short, easy to remember, summary of an organizing principle for the living of our days, for focusing our lives, for directing our energies, for employing our human freedom, Paul states it clearly right here: Christ sets us free that we might love our neighbors as ourselves.
If someone were to ask you why you were a Christian, or what was the point of all that religious mumbo-jumbo, or why you wasted a great Sunday morning going to church, here’s part of the answer: Christ sets me free to love; that’s what I celebrate; that’s what I’m learning and practicing; in my freedom, that’s what I’ve chosen as my principle focus; every thing else in some way or another serves that end.
Now I’ll grant you that not every Christian or Christian church embodies this. Some churches would even seem to turn freedom’s gift into its opposite, yet one more way of condemning our neighbor, excluding our neighbor, or as Paul said it, biting, devouring and consuming our neighbor.
But then, if we’re confident in our freedom, we’re free to admit that the church, though the bearer of this remarkable message, is nevertheless a fragile, human thing, just like you and me, that exhibits much of the weaknesses that are otherwise everywhere within our culture. In fact, in confessing this to one another, we help one another sink our roots ever deeper into freedom’s soil.
1 Kings 19:1-15a; Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39Read MoreLess
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-5; John 16:12-15
Several weeks ago, I attended a meeting in Kansas City along with 600 other United Methodist leaders to address the schismatic situation in our denomination caused by the adoption of the so-called Traditional Plan at General Conference in February. You may recall this plan doubles down on our Church Discipline's proscriptions concerning homosexuality (and by implication, the entire LGBTQ community) creating an untenable outcome for very many United Methodist congregations in the US, and certainly for Christ Church.
As you might imagine, a meeting with 600 participants is an unwieldy body to make decisions, and indeed, no specific plans were adopted. We did, however, agree to 4 principles as we returned to our local geographies to organize specific strategies for likely group disaffiliations from the new denominational norms.
1. We long to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity, anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, experience and reason as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
2. We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
3. We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
4. We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
Along with Christ Church member Karen Prudente, I'm now participating in conversations in the New York region to create opportunities for structural outcomes that provide unfettered welcome, acceptance and empowerment of all persons, period. There's nothing concrete to report on that front yet, but all roads will eventually lead to the next General Conference in May of next year.
But here's the small personal matter I want to report today. Ever since that February meeting that led to such a disastrous outcome orchestrated by a minority of the US delegation in concert with a majority of the international delegation, I have surprised myself with renewed, focused and positive energy.
I'm coming in to the last segment of my professional life as I turn 67 in August. 72 is mandatory retirement; a majority of clergy leave before that point. Over the last year or two I've been chewing on how these latter years should flow with Melissa retiring officially at the end of next school year.
But here's the thing: since February I've never been clearer about my faith and work. I've never been clearer about the mission of the church; about the radical implications of loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves; about my particular gifts and skillsets at this particular moment; and about faith's redemptive power. I'm feeling relevant and keyed in to what matters most in a very fresh way. And honestly, this has come as a bit of a surprise. It falls into the category of "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
I don't want to overstate this, but it seems the disastrous turn of events has renewed my call. Now I can't say for certain what this means, but on the short run it seems to mean that I want to see this thing through, to help steer the church to the other shore over the perilous rapids below.
Now Christ Church is stable and well-positioned as a local congregation. But in the meantime, the Christian church in its many forms in the United States is facing a cultural tsunami. You've heard and read the statistics of decline of interest in organized religion. Battles for denominational identity like we're experiencing in the United Methodist Church exacerbate the problem. Still, I've never felt clearer about the essential necessity of following after the way Jesus blazed, the gospel of grace, truth and love. It seems the message we bear matches the need of our current moment exactly.
Life is funny in this regard, isn't it? Often, when we hit a roadblock or obstacle or stumble into a difficult set of circumstances, we have to make a path without clear sight and in the making we're reshaped by the hardship and emerge renewed, empowered, more competent and capable. As the old cliché has it, no pain, no gain--the engine of resilience.
In here we affirm what we heard Paul write to his friends in Rome. "...since we are justified by faith...we...boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." I believe that. Paul has this right.
As many of you have discovered firsthand, this has personal meaning in the cancer ward or police station; in the aftermath of an employment fiasco or divorce or death or financial setback. And it has great meaning for those suffering injustice and deprivations of every sort. Faith in our God of grace--who knew suffering himself firsthand--is also faith in the God of resurrection hope and that hope reveals that nothing in life or in death can separate us from God's great love for us. Nothing. We are God's. Always have been. Always will be. And this truth dignifies our lives no matter our age or condition.
When describing her faith, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, said, "I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous."
She ingested the truth the Apostle Paul wrote about. That sort of faith seeps way down into our cellular membranes where a kind of awesome alchemy occurs, transforming frail flesh with resilient courage no matter what comes at us. That's why Paul says we can actually boast in our sufferings. Now in Maya Angelou's case, much of what she expressed was nurtured in the struggle for America's soul as a result of its original sin--racist slavery. A struggle we have not yet finished with.
One of her highly prized poems, “I Still Rise,” was read at Nelson Mandela's inauguration as President of South Africa. You will remember he was elected after serving 26 years in prison during apartheid. Somehow during those years his suffering produced endurance, and endurance produced character, and character produced hope that in turn produced an astonishing capacity for forgiveness, reconciliation and a gracious magnanimity.
In Proverbs Wisdom is presented with a feminine voice, another image of God. Here’s another woman’s voice of wisdom:
I Still Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Now in the main this was not a message expressly about America's original sin, although, that's a topic that necessarily recurs for American Christians. Instead, it’s a message about resilience, about the life energy that's available to us in the midst of many difficulties. And it’s about faith, resurrection faith that calls us into a future imbued with hope. I am very hopeful! Go figure…
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27
Janice told her story this way: A number of years earlier she had fallen into a defeating depression. No amount of work or therapy relieved the bleakness of her days. Slipping into a spiraling pit and feeling she was pulling her family into it after her, she thought suicide would be her escape. Failing in the first attempt she tried again, only to be saved once more.
She was hospitalized. A once competent woman; a teacher and mother; unable, or unwilling, or…she wasn’t quite sure the reason, except she was utterly powerless over the enveloping gloom. Until the visitation, that is. As she described it, a vision of a celestial being. An angel, she thought. And she was healed. From the moment of the vision the crushing hopelessness lifted and it had not returned now many years later.
She had no personal or cultural context for understanding what had happened to her. But it did awaken her faith in God. It changed her life. I was a minister. She hoped I would receive her story at face value; she hoped there would be understanding and acceptance.
She was a credible, thoughtful sixty-year-old when she spoke to me some years ago now, sharing a very important part of her life’s story—actually, I suppose it was the most important—a transforming moment that brought life from incipient death. She said she didn’t tell most people about it for fear of ridicule or rejection. Honestly, I felt privileged to receive it.
A healing angel? Or, perhaps a symbolic vision of a psychological breakthrough? Or both? Who knows? I’m guessing I hear more edgy stories like this than most people. Often there’s little evidence to suggest anything but indigestion caused a restless night…or maybe too much alcohol. But I had enough experience to respect Janice’s understanding of these events. The outcome was clear. She was gifted with hope and faith. She was a woman who was stalked by death and then, surprised by joy. How do we explain something like that? How do we make sense of spiritual events that defy rational description? – that don’t conform to standard forms?
As it’s reported in Acts, on the Day of Pentecost, God’s spirit filled the early disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem. And 21st century people are hard pressed to make logical sense of what happened that day. It’s a wild story. Peter quoted the prophet Joel: “God says, I will pour out my spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below…”
As the story is told, the disciples were, in fact, accused of having drunk too much wine. But something much more interesting than a morning hangover described their condition; something brought life where there had been death. You remember the plot line: the betrayals, the humiliation, the fear and cowardice, leading to crucifixion. Out of this death state with just a handful of fisher folk, a brand new thing was launched in the world.
The proof of it resides in the outcome of more than two billion people who now claim some relation to these first recipients of God’s holy fire. People like Janice and many of us gathered here. This can seem a very tenuous thread, I suppose. On the other hand, here we are, no denying that, despite our doubts and reservations. Here sits this glorious geode of a sanctuary dedicated to telling the story of astonishing grace, on what realtors proclaim is one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world. I mean, what’s up with that?
Remember in the story how the spirit-wind caused people from all over the known world to hear and receive the good news of God’s gracious hospitality. If you pay attention to who shows up here over several months you’ll see persons from all over the world. There’s a very good chance you might meet someone with roots in Benin, Ghana, Romania, Korea, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Germany, England, Liberia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Philippines, Panama, Jamaica—too many countries to name, not to mention every corner of our nation.
It’s awesome, really. Communion stewards at the 11 o’clock service frequently comment on how powerful it is to serve such an incredible array of people; and to think we’re all connected somehow, all fed by the same spiritual food. It flies in the face of what is otherwise experienced beyond these walls. When you stop to think about it, there really is no accounting for it other than an in-breaking spirit that blows open locked minds and ignites frozen hearts.
We are not terribly large in numbers, but we are a true Pentecost family, reflective of the international unity gifted on that day 2000 years ago. The only difference between them and us is that we’ve tamed the spirit a bit. When was the last time you were accused of being drunk because you were full to overflowing with the spirit of life? I’m thinking we could benefit from such an accusation every now a then.
It’s no small miracle that in this place wildly diverse people gather together to give thanks and praise to their God who is far larger than any tribal loyalty—a God who will not be constrained by our attempts at taming, caging and chaining him.
Thankfully, the spirit of life breaks in over and over again. That’s what Janice discovered… I’ve discovered it, too, in my own way. That’s why I’m here in this odd get-up. I can’t tell you how many others have told me their own idiosyncratic versions of the same story. No two persons ever have the same spirit-tale to tell. God seems to speak in every language there is. I’m thinking there are as many spirit languages as there are people in the world. The trick is in the hearing. Then, if we hear, when we hear, when we really hear, we become part of the message. We become bearers of the same spirit of life.
Friend of Christ Church, Becca Stevens, the founder and executive director of Magdalene, a two-year residential program for women with a criminal history of prostitution and drug abuse located in Nashville, Tennessee, published a collection of meditations entitled, Sanctuary. This one speaks of how broadly and powerfully the spirit wind blows.
She writes, “I was standing in a small office with Clemmie after her son’s funeral. The office was lit by a fluorescent bulb that made the place look sallow and closed-in. There were two chairs and a laminated desk that was peeling. The walls were a dingy off-white. The room reflected the mood of the day: sad and broken.
“I had known Clemmie for almost four years. She was a loving and compassionate mother. Her son, Rodriguez, was the victim of a senseless homicide in the middle of the night by someone he didn’t even know.
“Rodriguez had been born when Clemmie was only thirteen years old. Both of them had been in and out of the prison system. Mother and son had spoken at Magdalene’s fund-raiser the previous year to talk about finding strength together in their journey toward wholeness. Now, nine months later, Clemmie and I were standing in a borrowed office after burying her only child.
“We exchanged thoughts and feelings about the day. Clemmie said, ‘I wish I could talk to the boy who shot my son. I want to hug him for a long time and tell him I forgive him. I know that he will probably spend the rest of his life in prison, but I want him to know that God has not abandoned him.’
“When you tell people that you would never kill somebody, they often ask, ‘What if someone killed your child?’ Clemmie answered the question as beautifully as I have ever heard. She had suffered more for her faith than even a martyr; she had suffered the death of her son and survived to love the enemy.
I asked her if she would offer a prayer, and we knelt together in front of the desk in the sacred space that love had created.”
I don’t know of a way to adequately account for such a story other than Pentecost. On the one hand, there is deep sadness here, and yet, on the other hand, you also hear the story of Pentecost, don’t you? A story about how far and wide the spirit-wind blows, crossing boundaries we normally don’t cross, touching lives we don’t normally touch. And it’s a story about life in a place scarred by death. That’s the story of the Gospel. It’s a story about grace and love where by all rights there shouldn’t be any. How and when did Clemmie ever hear God’s voice? How did it give birth to such a forgiving heart?
It’s a mystery. Or maybe a miracle. I don’t know. But I imagine when Becca and Clemmie knelt in front of that desk, those with the eyes to see would very likely have witnessed tongues of fire dancing on their heads.
And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, if we tuned our eyesight just right, we might be able to see the same thing glancing around this room. If you do see it, chances are better than even, that a flame is dancing on your head as well.
Acts 16:16-34; Revelation 22:12-14,16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26Read MoreLess
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29
Among the underlying assumptions I hold about the context of my work is this: I believe that everyone seated here has a deep craving for intimacy, love, belonging and community. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor. All of us share a deep longing for intimacy, love, belonging and community. It seems this longing is part of the defining characteristic of what it means to be human and explains why we’ve been drawn together here.
Within common parlance we often assign the category of “home” to the places and people with whom we experience these good things. And while a sense of “home” can be experienced in a variety of contexts we normally think of it as that nexus of geography and family that nurtured us into life and set us on our way. Of course, for some, that place doesn’t now exist in real time, if it ever really did.
Over my formative years I never had a geographical place I would call home. There’s no Bauman homestead. There’s no one house in which I grew up, no one set of people who predominated beyond my immediate family. I didn’t have close contact with extended family. Our mobility prevented the establishing of on-going neighborhood associations. In that sense, my parents and brothers were my only home, my only “location.”
So, I'm the product of few tangible, material associations that conjure nostalgic notions of home. But, like all of you, I still crave intimacy, love, belonging and community. I’ve learned these longings don’t disappear with age—in fact, they deepen and gain nuance and poignancy.
No doubt there are some here this morning who have conflicted feelings about their homes of origin. The very word “home” might awaken painful memories of loss or dysfunction.
Still, others have had the good fortune to have experienced a nurturing place and people that were vital and healthy. For these fortunate ones, home means something warmly physical. It’s a place to which they like to return, and if not possible in literal fact, then at least in their hearts and minds. And gratitude is the essential word of grace to offer.
But regardless of our backgrounds here we are in New York City, of all places. Very few of us in this sanctuary today grew up here. Some have stayed for decades, others have only just arrived. For the Baumans it became the place my children came to know as home. And over the course of my life I’ve now been here 8 times as many years as anywhere else.
As culture has evolved for post-moderns, the idea of home has become somewhat ambiguous, I know. But the deep cravings continue. Our cultural context changes and evolves, but the deepest, innate needs remain.
Some years ago, while in conversation with a member who had conflicted feelings about her home of origin, she related an unusual dream in which she experienced a vision of the risen Christ. It seemed rather bizarre she would have this dream. But awakening she recalled that it came from an 18th century mural painted in an old church from her hometown in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. She described the painting as a particular favorite of hers growing up; it depicted the resurrection with Jesus suspended above the ground, arms outstretched with little but a loincloth covering him. Inscribed on the painting was a phrase in German: “Friede sei mit euch,” (freeda zi mit oich) “Peace be with you.”
She explained that “euch” was a plural form of the pronoun “you” but in the familiar case. This was important she said because especially at the time the painting was commissioned, this pronoun would have been reserved only for the most intimate of family members. The point being that Jesus was intimate family for all who gazed upon this resurrection. And this specific realization seemed the important focus of the dream cementing her profound, personal and intimate spiritual associations. As I’ve observed her evolving over the years this interpretation has seemed true and real, manifest in her life.
Her experience is consistent with my belief that our cravings for intimacy, love, peace, belonging and community are at root spiritual yearnings. They transcend time and place. Yes, these are important aspects of our emotional, psychological selves, but the things we often refer to as constitutive components of home, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, are manifestly longings of our spirit and no matter the status of our hometown experience we have an instinct, something we might call a homing beacon, for what will bring us our truest fulfillment. You may not have thought of it like this, but I suspect that for most of us that homing beacon led us here this morning. I mean, why else, really, are you here?
In our gospel lesson we heard a beautiful sequence spoken by Jesus to his disciples as they gathered in the upper room for their final meal together. They don’t quite know it’s his last farewell at this point, but as John tells the story, Jesus knows his time is very limited. In a spirit of compassion he yearns for them to know that though he will no longer be with them physically, they will not be left bereft. In fact, his intimate presence will be more available than they now can comprehend. He says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” And then adds, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” I don't give as the world gives...
“We will come to them and make our home with them.” It’s a striking statement and tremendously powerful when we allow it to sink way down into our depths. If we do allow that to happen, this home Jesus and his Father makes will settle into our foundational experience of life, securing our undergirding superstructure, providing the surest sense of our place in the grand scheme of things.
When Paul sat in a Roman prison, he wrote an astonishingly hope-filled letter to his friends in Philippi. Towards the end of it he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This peace is of the same character as the peace Jesus spoke about. Clearly, God has made a home with Paul as he sits in prison awaiting his trial—of all places! Even there, home can be found. And that promised peace that comes by way of God making home with him is a gift that Paul wishes to share with his friends. When you have something this precious, this valuable, the only thing you can do is to share it.
We might ask, well how is it that someone can make a home with us? And the answer is supremely obvious: someone makes a home with us if we let them enter; if we open the door and extend a welcome. I’ve been asked many times in many different ways over the years how a robust relationship with God can happen. And the answer is really rather simple. It’s done by opening the door to the one who is already there knocking.
I make no apology here for perhaps sounding a bit simple-minded, overly basic, or piously naïve. I know this message doesn’t sound especially hip or snazzy/snappy this morning. But then, the things that really matter, the things that transcend time and place, the things that define our humanity at its best are more homespun.
Do you remember several weeks ago when we read the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing on the seashore with his friends sharing breakfast over a campfire? That also came from John’s gospel; it’s an image of Jesus and his Father having come to make a home with them. It’s a small-scale scene that held within it the power of life abundant. Intimacy, love, peace, belonging and community fulfilled right there on the seashore as they shared a bit of bread and fish. That picture of breakfast is like a seed full of potency sprung from God having made a home on earth in the lives of those who would receive God.
So, here’s a simple little prayer mantra for you to jot down, stick to your computer screen and generally keep in mind throughout this week. “Lord, come and make your home with me.”
Acts 11:1-8; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35Read MoreLess
Acts 9: 36-43; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
This week my son, Luke, put me on to a recent Atlantic Magazine article by technology writer, Franklin Foer, reflecting on our virulent problem with mental, emotional, and spiritual distraction. In particular he was reminded of poet, Mary Oliver’s relentless focus on “paying attention.” Luke remembered that she is a favorite poet of mine. Sadly, she died in January of lymphoma.
As Foer explains, “In the age of surveillance capitalism [BTW, are you aware that all the sidewalk WIFI towers have cameras in them? Do you know who holds the data these cameras collect? Google], the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.
“While society has grown a little wiser to how the technologies can be exploited by foreign governments..., the costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated. It was not Mary Oliver’s intent to critique this new world—and it’s hard to imagine she even owned a flip phone—but her poetry captures its spiritual costs.”
Reading this hit me hard. Yes! I said aloud. The spiritual costs! This is what I wrote back to Luke: “I have very vivid memories of being alone in the woods as a boy completely captured in wonder and the emergence of a self-aware spirituality, or as in this article, attention, to the sacred mystery, to God. Oliver had a bead on that like no one else. And what a critique of the catastrophe of current tech conditioning!
“I’ve been thinking about this more and more of late, finding time in the woods a real respite and antidote to current conditions. I like to sit on that porch outside the kitchen silently observing and listening, or walking nearby trails. Just this week I was thinking about all of this while sitting in the gazebo at the lily pond on the trail we’ve walked so often when the tree bark in front of me began undulating. Looking more closely I realized it was several moths that were utterly matched in color to the mottled bark, clearly genetically “selected” for this matching — I mean, when they stopped moving, they utterly disappeared—and it hit me like a thunderbolt of wonder...like that small boy sixty years ago…
“The thought occurred that most people miss this sort of thing—and I would too had I been checking texts and Facebook and whatnot (my phone was in my pocket after all, I'm rarely without it) .... oh my, what catastrophe of time and attention and the loss of wonder and joy and grace...” That's what I wrote to Luke.
So, consider this Mary Oliver poem entitled, The Summer Day:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
"I do know how to pay attention," she writes. This matter of paying attention lies at the heart of the spiritual quest. And at the moment we are culturally bound up in chronic distraction with technologies designed to keep our attention focused where their owners direct. For the time being we're mostly willing dupes in this subterfuge; we haven't yet understood the full ramifications of the problem. But I feel it gnawing away at our ability to embrace the things that matter most of all.
In the church's calendar the fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Shepherd's Sunday because the gospel text references Jesus addressing us as his sheep and we'll read or sing the 23rd psalm, which we did in the hymn we just sang. Calling this Shepherd's Sunday is poetic metaphor, as is referencing Jesus as The Good Shepherd. Honestly, this sounds so remarkably misaligned with current cultural trends and norms, so oddly old-fashioned, or not-of-the-moment. To "get it" requires some spiritual imagination--and spiritual imagination is fashioned by paying attention, real attention to what's right in front of us at any given moment. Paying attention is most often accompanied by periods of silence, not speaking, not texting or whatever. That’s the price of admission to paying attention.
One form of paying spiritual attention involves showing up to what matters most, building habits and disciplines that foster our ability to pay attention. Things like regular attendance at worship, building bonds of human connection, that is, in-the-flesh connection and not just in the cloud as a disembodied projection of what you want people to know or think about you. Re-discovering that a poem, like the 23rd Psalm holds more spiritual muscle than any Twitter thread, Facebook post, YouTube flash, Candy Crush contest or other tech distraction.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
That we can access this on a device anywhere in the world at any time of the day is a marvel. But will we actually pay attention if we do? That requires turning off the device while we consider what it is that we've read, fully alert with open mind and heart. Best if we've cast it to memory so we can avoid the tempter's snare.
These are really tough disciplines today. When I was a boy out in the woods alone, the opportunity for discovery and wonder was unencumbered. Today, I have to work at the opportunity, that is, make a conscious choice, an intentional decision that I will be alert to the present moment because otherwise I have an umbilical connection to an electronic thing in my pocket that wants to own my attention.
You had to do a variation of that to make it here today. You chose a counter-cultural activity. If you scan your phone during the service, you likely believe you're successfully multi-tasking. But the science is clear on this fact. That's why it's illegal to text and drive. Alert parents discover the seduction of multi-tasking parenting. It's a diminished state. And it teaches diminished potential for building robust loving bonds.
The 23rd Psalm concerns our fundamental identity. In a sense, it’s a naming poem—in the ancient imagery, a naming of shepherd and sheep, although the word “sheep” is never used. More deeply it’s a poem about rock bottom reality and concerns our essential security in a wondrous but dangerous world where life is tenuous and fragile. It locates our true home.
And oddly, here is where post-modern people find great difficulty—finally identifying who they really are, determining what truly has ultimate importance, where life derives its elemental energy and then coming to understand the relative value of stuff and things in our overwhelmingly materialist culture now fashioned by addictive distraction.
We spend a lot of energy on secondary matters, leaving the fundamental question unasked: Given I had nothing to do with my being born and having to die, can I be secure that my days on earth mean something?
Makes good sense why we encounter this psalm at funerals. Death has a way of awakening us, sometimes in a startling manner, to the shallowness of our thinking and choosing. As Mary Oliver asked, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?" The Lord is my shepherd addresses this directly and those who have been paying attention, allowing these words to seep into their hearts and souls, fortifying their foundation into a diamond hardness, this psalm will feel like their quiet breathing as they fall off to sleep on a still, and peaceful night, knowing that come what may they are held in the arms of God with whom they dwell secure their whole life long.
The thing is, this deep and beautiful wisdom comes only with a steady discipline of paying attention.
Acts 9:1-20; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21: 1-19
Thelma Harrison died at the age of 96. When she was 73, the great-great-
grandmother founded the “Mama I Want to Read” preschool initiative in one of
Norfolk, Virginia’s poorest neighborhoods. This free program prepped children for
kindergarten, a precursor to what we now know as universal pre-K. “I saw the
need for this,” Thelma said. And she acted.
Thelma’s greatest love in life was helping others to help themselves
ultimately drawing local and national recognition including an honorary doctorate
from Old Dominion University and a Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Service to
Humanity. Hearing that makes you think a bit differently about the whole idea of
retirement, right? For that matter, Thelma’s commitments make you think about
what really matters today.
Consider the story of Chad Pregracke who by the age of 23 had become
disgusted by the trash and debris accumulating in his beloved Mississippi River
along which shores he had grown up. One day he said to himself, “I’m going to
do something about this whole deal.”
Snubbed by the state of Illinois, Chad started up the Mississippi River
Beautification and Restoration Project. That first summer he single-handedly
picked up forty-five thousand pounds of trash in a hundred mile stretch. His
success led to the founding of Living Lands and Waters, a 501c3 that has now
worked on 24 rivers in 21 states with the help of more than 100,000 volunteers to
remove more than 10 million pounds of debris. Along the way he began the 1
million tree project to help further the mission to preserve and restore our nation’s
major rivers and watersheds.
I’m reminded of Margaret Mead’s famous bit of wisdom: “Never doubt that
a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s
the only thing that ever has.”
I don’t know anything about Chad’s spiritual perspective. But his embodied
commitments place him firmly on the side of all that promotes life, dignity and
freedom. You hear his story and you wind up just feeling better, more hopeful.
And that it really does matter what one person decides.
I can tell you a bit more about the details of Thelma’s life. Though born in
Norfolk, she moved to New York City when she was a child, ultimately becoming
active in the civil rights movement as a congregant in Harlem’s Abyssinian
Church, Violet’s old stomping ground. She worked in nursing for thirty-five years
at Lenox Hill Hospital, just up Park Avenue, before returning to Norfolk. It took 8
years of retirement before she launched, “Mama, I Want to Read.” The God of
resurrection hope had formed her life.
And hope is what inspires in each of these stories. Both unassuming, and
in some ways surprising, persons to wake up one day and decide to make a
difference. And initially, not a huge difference—in the sense of the size and
scope of their early efforts: one man hauling garbage out of a river; one old lady
helping some neighborhood kids. Small gestures leading to very significant
How does that happen? Why are some people life givers and others life
takers with so many more of us situated somewhere in-between? And is it
possible to change from taker to giver?
And there you have the essence of one of the tenets of healthy
Christianity sprung from resurrection faith, which reveals that no dead-seeming
thing is the last word on life. I’m supposing that’s what draws the crowds out on
Easter Sunday—that particular message—and it’s a humdinger of a message.
That’s the message that whacked the death-breathing persecutor Saul
from his horse on his way to Damascus you heard JP read about earlier. It’s a
famous story: the persecutor Saul becomes the great apostle of resurrection
Towards the end of his ordeal, having been temporarily struck blind, the
storyteller says that something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and his sight was
restored. Meaning, he saw the truth. He finally got it—a dramatic example of a
life-taker transformed into life-giver, someone in the thrall of death given over to
the vitality of life. It’s a resurrection story. That’s why we read it in the season of
It’s a fair bet there are a few present this morning who might say they
know something about this sort of transformation; maybe not as dramatic in the
details, but nevertheless, have shared something of the experience of thralldom
to lesser, dead things when a new sight was gained on the more excellent things
and a new way was opened to them; as the beloved hymn puts it, they might
sing, “I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
A number of others of us have said to ourselves, “I wish I could have such
a moment of clarity. I wish I could know for certain about these things.” Here’s
what I think though: everyone has access to breakthrough moments. As Christian
Wiman says “It may be falling in love, or having a child. It may be the death of
someone you love, or a thwarted ambition. It may be just some tiny crack in
consciousness that deepens so slowly over the years that, by the time you notice
it, it only takes a spilled drink or missed flight to tear it—and you—wide open.”
And something like scales fall from our eyes.
The hope that resurrection releases is a very powerful attractor, even for
Still, the razzle-dazzle, tympani thundering, trumpet proclaiming
celebration on Easter Sunday inevitably gives way to the Monday following and
then Tuesday, Wednesday and every other day of the week after, collecting into
months of ordinary daily life. We return to old patterns and habits. Same jobs,
same friends, same family and so on.
Which, as we heard in our gospel this morning, is the way it was for the
disciples as well. As John told the story, all the excitement of Easter had
evidently worn off. They hadn’t yet absorbed what it all might mean. Peter,
Thomas, Nathaniel and some others were at the seaside when Peter, without
anything better to do, says, “I’m going fishing.” And the others join him.
That’s what they knew, resurrection or not. And why not go fishing? But
here’s the thing—they were going back to do what they had always done, but
nothing was really the same as it was. It looked the same, felt mostly the same,
yet, they now knew something that could never be unlearned, something wild
and profound. It was as though scales had fallen from their eyes in the days just
That’s ultimately how they recognized Jesus as they did their work. There
he was on the shore, helping them fish. And they shared breakfast. Not very
dramatic, is it? Mundane, earthy, human. They did what was before them to do,
but now Jesus was among them, or should we say, risen life, manifest hope, was
there with them as they shared a bit of fish around a charcoal fire.
It was breakfast, but then again, breakfast would never be the same. It
was fishing they had been doing, but the fishing would never be the same. And in
that pregnant-with-life, exceedingly hopeful space, a three-times statement of
love reverses Peter’s three-times-betrayal in the courtyard of Jesus’ trial. It’s
quiet by the seaside; a little fishing, a little breakfast, and Peter is more alive than
he’s ever been in his life.
What strikes me about the stories of people like Thelma and Chad is that it
seems they awoke one day into the same set of circumstances in which they had
fallen asleep the night before, but with the morning light came a hopeful resolve.
It was the same river that had always been friend and neighbor; the same
children in need of a hopeful start. What was different?
From this distance it seems that hope framed out their priorities. Hope
caused them to act, right where they were…not on some road to Damascus that
was someone else’s backyard, but right in their own backyards, along the shores
of the Mississippi and in the neighborhoods of Norfolk.
This is why Christ Church invests in projects like Nido de Esperanza in
Washington Heights—which means “nest of hope.” This is a tangible expression
of resurrection hope in our own backyard; our version of practicing what we
preach. As is our Sunday sharing table, and our partnership with the Methodist
Church of Colombia…and a number of other projects we’ve spawned and
supported over the years.
When worshiping the God of life, we wind up becoming life-givers
ourselves. This very time and place is like that seashore so many hundreds of
years ago where the disciples went fishing. We got up, had a cup of coffee, or
tea, made our way to church, which from a certain vantage point turns out to be a
pregnant-with-life, hope-filled space where persons can wake up to what has
been right in front of them all along—risen life, manifest hope—restoring,
cleansing, and calling us out of everything that has the stink of death about it.
Imagine if we acted upon this truth. Just imagine. The possibilities honestly blow
Acts 5:27-32; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-8; Luke 24:1-2Read MoreLess
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