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Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
As a life-stage kind of thing, Melissa and I recently went through a complete financial analysis with a team of professionals including an accountant, a finance guy and a lawyer. Our goal was to gain a fresh and thorough understanding of how the components of our financial and retirement structures intersect as we approach the years of social security, Medicare and beyond.
We had some anxiety going into this process, and honestly, it had the feel of an astonishingly intimate striptease. The team garnered a much clearer picture of our finances than anyone has of our current President’s. We necessarily had to provide several years of tax returns along with every other shred of info that could be construed as having any relevance whatsoever for our planning.
In the main, our situation is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. Although, we did go through the exercise of establishing our spending habits. Have you ever done that? Done an exhaustive analysis of all the purposes for which your money has been deployed over the course of a year? I mean absolutely everything, including the cash you sequester as a secret stash? It was sobering as well as enlightening, not as though we didn’t have any idea, of course. But the focused exercise led to a heightened level of conscious objective clarity about our relationship with our money and stuff, and the habits that crept in over the decades that now seem set in cement.
Truth is, I’ve always had some anxiety about money. I remember reporting this during the process leading up to my ordination. There was some question I had to answer about any matter for which I had concern as I contemplated the adventure into ordained ministry. At 26-years-old I recall mentioning that this choice was going to lock me out of substantial prosperity, notwithstanding certain high-profile clergy peddling the prosperity gospel perversion. I knew I likely wasn’t going to inherit wealth and I could choose a different occupation to climb a more lucrative ladder. But that wasn’t how I was wired. And then I went and married a professional singer and my financial fate seemed sealed.
Over the years Melissa and I have confronted some financial complications, accompanied by sleepless nights over months and years, but overall things have worked out about as well as I could have imagined under the circumstance. Funny, though, how the anxiety still hangs around the edges.
I suspect that’s true for most of us, regardless of our occupations or how much we’ve accumulated. I’m pretty certain that far richer people than me have at least as much anxiety over money as I do, likely more. And here’s the thing, while not wealthy by American standards, Melissa and I are nevertheless at the summit of prosperity when considering the entire globe. If that’s the case, why any anxiety at all?
As I have mentioned before, of all the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, one-sixth of them pertain to money and its derivatives – the only subject he speaks about more is the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows well that money is the most potent symbol of our secret selves, deepest loyalties and greatest anxieties. His larger lesson reveals that money, per se, is not the problem, but our attachments to it. We are not free. We are in thralldom. And we covet the thralldom we have chosen. This thralldom breeds anxiety.
And let me add something here, lest we’re tempted to think the story we read today does not pertain to us due to the law of relative magnitude. This is the little trick we play by trying to decide just how rich, rich is, so that we might conclude we’re not the focus of conversation. The facts are these: 71% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day; nearly 2 and a half billion live on less than $2 a day. By inference, what does that make most all of us sitting here?
I do not presume to know how this works out in your individual lives. The choice placed before the rich young man is so extreme that I find myself enumerating the reasons why what Jesus proposes would be entirely out of reach in 2018. I mean, how is it that any one of us could actually sell all that we have in order to follow Jesus? What about our families? What about health insurance? What about the fact that our apartments might not sell in this market anyway? And given my profession how could I possibly serve Jesus without transportation, cellphone and laptop? It is beyond the reach of my imagination. I expect this was also true for the man in the story.
I’ve already confessed my own anxieties, but I do not know the specific word you need to hear for your particular variation on this theme. But we all heard the word Jesus gave the young man on the road to Jerusalem. We’re told what he said to the disciples afterwards.
Let’s be clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in charity in his exchange with the young man in our story. He wasn’t on a fundraising campaign trying to make people give more. (Although, if after thinking about this you do actually give more away, that’s a very good thing.) He was interested in the man. The text said he loved him. That’s telling. Jesus cared about him and loved him.
After digesting the troubling teaching about the difficulty of a camel making it through the eye of a needle, Peter blurts out like a misunderstood child: “Well, we’ve left everything behind, Jesus.” We did good.
From my reading of the Gospel, I have the impression the disciples did not embrace poverty as a virtue. They fully expected their day would come when they would be rewarded in very tangible ways after Jesus finally came into his full power. We might say they thought of themselves like entrepreneurs biding their time and managing their investments. I could see that this saying of Jesus might have brought them nearly to the brink of despair.
“You mean we’re not on this journey for tangible material reward? That isn’t a sweet result of our blood and sweat, Jesus?”
In the paradox of the Gospel, one can only win by surrender and only gain by forfeiting everything. What does that mean for you?
I do know that someone has to manage the money of the world. I am not necessarily more sanguine about the morality of bankers and money managers than individual investors. I am not persuaded that government necessarily has greater virtue in its decisions than a given person. I certainly do not think prosperity is a bad thing. I’m all for prosperity. Poor people yearn for prosperity.
But as prophet Amos makes clear, often the rich make their wealth on the backs of the poor. Do we need a crystal clear example? Consider slavery in America: wealth literally drawn from the sweat and blood of the enslaved. That’s the most egregious form of economic and social abuse, but the pattern of those who have taking from those who don’t continues to the present day.
If I had a choice in the matter, I would prefer the world’s money and the power that money bestows, in the hands of surrendered persons, persons who know from whence their life came in the first place, and whither it will be going at the last. Persons who locate their identity somewhere other than in their material means. Humble persons who have a robust spiritual, confessional life, who understand their value is not found fundamentally in what they do or do not have. Persons who have a heart for God’s justice.
Still we must not over-simplify the teaching. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “The poor cannot buy [the kingdom] with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift…”
Yet there is a deep challenge in Jesus’ confrontation – the message here is to get real.
Whatever one’s riches – however they are defined – in our world it’s hard to have an identity other than a self-made identity. Your worth, your righteousness, your wealth, power, children, job, fame, whatever – there is no freedom of real living until you hand it all over, as Jesus would have it. It is the heart of generosity that he wants to teach. This heart is what he wants to give the young man on the road. His riches stand in the way not because they are evil, but because they prevent him from identification with both the cause and the gift Jesus offers.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus was filled with love for the young man. Who knows how that love played out for him after he stepped away? I’d like to think that Jesus’ love followed after him and hounded him with relentless compassion.
Friends, in hearing a teaching like this, the honest thing for us is to confess our weakness and willful ignorance – “Yes, you nailed me, Jesus!” – and then to pray for wisdom and a generous heart, that is, a surrendered heart. That’s what I do. I pray for a surrendered heart.
Authentic generosity comes with an inner awareness of our dependence upon God, the source of every good thing, including our very lives. Without that inner awareness, without a surrendered heart, we’re prone to persuade ourselves and others that we have more virtue than we have, as though giving away the little bits we share can win us points in heaven.
The generous heart that recognizes the shores of eternity comes only with identification with the extravagant generosity of our God in Jesus Christ who said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s what he did. That’s our model. And we’re all counted among his friends. To be listening to this story two thousand years later is a form of his compassion and love for us, hard as it is. Why? Because it takes us to the truthful place, the heart of our anxiety, the heart of our idolatry. And paradoxically, the heart of our salvation.
Ephesians 4:17-21,25-27, 30-5:2; Mark 10:13-16
It’s been a wild and crazy week, right? It was impossible to escape the tribal hyper-ventilating emanating from Washington D.C., amplified a thousand-fold across all news and social media platforms. It’s been addictive and exhausting. '
Of course, underneath the Kavanaugh hearings life continued as usual—night followed day and we went about our business; the subway had shutdowns, the streets were clogged, the Yanks squared off with the Red Sox, and lots of other stuff happened that didn’t quite catch our attention because of the noise. We likely missed a few things that went down besides the senate vote.
For instance, you may have missed the story earlier in the week concerning how 1,600 children from across the country were transferred to a tent city in west Texas . They were loaded onto buses and moved in the middle of the night, with minimal warning, to offset the likelihood that they would try to escape.
A record 13,000 migrant children are currently detained in shelters across the United States. The numbers are increasing rapidly due to the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents at the border. The night-time move is reportedly intended to make room for additional children that are being detained, with the older ones being sent to the tent camp. But unlike in the other locations, this does not provide the children with the same care.
This camp is not licensed, nor is it monitored by state child welfare authorities. There is no access to formal schooling. And whereas in their previous shelters the children had legal representatives assigned to their individual cases, they now face limited legal services.
It occurs to me to lift up this particular news item because of that sweet passage assigned today from Mark concerning children. I say sweet because of how it’s been sentimentalized over the years, but the truth is, Jesus meant it as a serious rebuke given the status children had in first century culture.
The familiar picture of Jesus taking a child in his arms and receiving him with love portrays an attitude of care and concern for children found nowhere else in the ancient world. Children, along with women, old men, and slaves, were viewed as physically weak burdens on society who had little value to the wider life of the community. In Greece and Rome, it was an accepted practice to abandon unwanted children along the roadsides to die.
So, the passage we heard was very much in keeping with other radical things Jesus said like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s what it means to enter the kingdom of God like a child. It’s a radical posture that requires adopting a certain attitude about what matters most and then aligning the content of our commitments accordingly. So, for instance, followers after the way of Jesus would necessarily care about public policy effecting children. They would care quite a lot.
But that’s not my main point today…it’s more of an example of what it can mean to say I belong to Christ, or I am a Christian. That’s what captured the attention of the writer to Ephesians. He wrote, “My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to Christ, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus.” And, “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ we’re all connected to each other…Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children…Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love…”
That’s the way it works, I think, this Christian thing. It’s not so much about what I say I believe, although that’s not unimportant. It’s more about picking up and following along, watching what God does, and since mostly what God does is love us, we then follow that lead. Great faith is proved less by what we profess with our lips than the actual content of our lives—what we actually do.
The thirty-year-old man had come to talk with me about tensions in his life. Tensions around life decisions. He felt very conflicted about his options. On the one hand, he was very clear about the sort of material success he was after. But he was not certain about much of anything else. So, I asked him what he thought he was committed too. What path did he think he was on? Could he describe it? He warned me that he wasn’t going to fall for some sappy religious angle (evidently missing the irony that I was a minister…)
So, I told him about a plumber I knew, in his late forties, who over some years, had built into his schedule late afternoons and some weekends of tutoring at a school for difficult kids. A number of these kids he mentored into college, even guaranteeing their tuition. He had built a solid small business, but he was certainly not a member of the famous .1%.
And I also told him about a cocky financier, about the same age, who had built into his schedule several nights a week cruising bars, something he could manage wherever his work took him. Can’t tell whether he is proud or appalled at the number of hook-ups he’s had over the years—probably a little of both. Made a lot of money. He was a part of the .1%. By his own admission he had no real lasting relationships, though, and was now discovering that single malt scotch was the most likely candidate to be named as his best friend.
Both guys had established certain commitments, I explained. Each had been captured by a vision of what life was about. Each had set out on a path and managed the daily routines their path required. Each had acquired the skills, partly through trial and error, that they needed to succeed on the path they had chosen. Each had learned a thing or two. Each was on his way to somewhere.
I told my young friend that in my experience everyone has a religion, sappy or otherwise. Everyone functions from a grand operating principle whether or not they knew it or admitted it. Mostly that principle could be inferred by the wake they left as they passed through their lives. The tangible, material content of what we actually do tells the tale for all of us, notwithstanding our words. Both of these men were old enough to see what they had wrought with their lives thus far.
In here we say we’re following along the path Jesus blazed through the world. For me the great attraction is his truth-telling, his ability to cut through the world’s humbug and flimflam and his embodiment of the truth he tells, things like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Seems to me a life that is aligned with Truth like that is a life that is congruent with itself and with all of creation.
I suppose I’m rather like the disciples--not entirely certain of the deepest meanings of the words I use in here. Still, the hope is in the following. And in the following I continue to learn to expect the near impossible. And I learn more and more how to take the hands of others who, however tentatively, have also chosen to walk the path.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
I can’t remember a time when tribalist tendencies have been more pronounced. Fueled now by awesome and invasive technology, we’ve splintered into tribal collections of passionate like-mindedness, like never before. And this cuts across all cultural forms. Political parties, churches, clubs, corporations, sports teams, independent schools, fraternities and most organizations with a bumper sticker express facets of this tribalist tendency; some benign, but many others toxic.
It’s hard to step out of this toxicity. We seem hard-wired to slice and dice the world into the saved and the damned, allowing ourselves the privilege of being among the saved, of course. That’s the endgame of tribalism after all, the amassing of power and privilege for the select group.
When considering how this can work out in church, I like to tell a story from the first year of my ministry, a time that now seems quite tame by comparison to current conditions. My first pastoral appointment was to a little church located in a small Connecticut town. True to form of all that divides us, mine wasn’t the only little church in this small town. Across the street was the little Catholic church. A block or two over was little Trinity Lutheran and two doors away from them was the little Congregational church. Lastly, at the main crossroads was the independent Bible church that proudly flew a flag of fundamentalism.
All the ministers excepting the fundamentalist were quite friendly, as were the congregations, and occasionally we would band together for some community-wide event. Our most significant joint undertaking while I was there involved the resettlement of a large extended family of Cambodian refugees. Pooling the resources of our congregations, we were barely able to handle the project. Realizing we could use all the help we could muster, we decided that I should approach the pastor of the independent church to see if they would like to help.
One Saturday morning I walked over to the parsonage and knocked on his door. After a brief exchange of greetings I launched into an invitation for his church’s participation. Without so much as a nano-second of hesitation he responded that he didn’t see how that would be possible given that we didn’t agree on many points of theology. Taken aback by his quick, curt reply I asked if there was anyone he could throw in with on a joint project.
He became thoughtful for a moment and then mentioned one church about an hour and a half a way in the westerly direction and another about an hour away in the easterly direction. But then catching himself, added with a chortle, “Well, actually they probably couldn’t work together after all because the minister there believed the millennium came before the rapture and the Bible was clear -- the rapture came first.”
(For those in need of a little primer in the conflicts in fundamentalism, the rapture and millennium refer to the end times and whether or not a period of a thousand years of peace comes before or after the saved are taken from the earth…)
I was dumbstruck. Eventually I said, “You mean to tell me, that disagreement would prevent you from working together, say, to re-settle a Cambodian family?” He shook his head yes. I backed out the door mumbling some incoherent thing, stumbled down the steps, and began my life-long fascination with the human propensity to draw boundaries of exclusion.
And I suppose this simply could have confirmed my opinion of certain fundamentalists, but instead had the effect of planting a pebble in my shoe. I began wondering how I reflected similar patterns, only very pleased with myself that I wasn’t nearly as obvious in my arrogance as my ignorant brother down the street.
Because fundamentalist, or what I’ll refer to here as tribalist tendencies, actually comes in many varieties. It wears all sorts of clothes – liberal and conservative alike, republican and democrat, Christian and Muslim and Jew – persons with exclusionary opinions and practice that favor those in the “know”, those that have the special advantage, those who through some enlightened state, or birthright or heritage challenge the essential validity of others. What is white nationalism other than a tribalist outburst on hyperdrive?
Recently I had a surprisingly frank conversation with an older white woman active in her church concerning racism. After a while she finally admitted that, probably, we really should try to see everyone the same and that maybe the next generations would be able to do it. Her real point being that she had no intention of addressing her own culpability in the matter. She was quite comfortable with her prejudices, thank you, with the way she had constructed her world view, and she thought not even Jesus had the power to alter that.
In my pondering over the years, what has become quite clear is that all of us suffer from this tendency to greater or lesser degrees, this tendency to draw tribal boundaries concerning the saved and the damned; the in and the out; those that deserve our compassionate regard and those that don’t, and so forth—although, few of us sitting in this room, if asked, would consider ourselves close-minded. Still, race, ethnicity, occupation, education, gender, marital state, orientation, political ideologies, and, of course, religious orthodoxy, are not only expressions of difference among us, but deployed as powerful weapons of exclusion.
Surely this human weakness lies close to the heart of most of the world’s agony and violence.
Now I would be the first among us to claim that all so-called truths are not equal, that some things are truer than others, that some expressed truths are in fact, false, and ought to be exposed as such. I believe this strongly, even passionately. In part that’s why I’m in this line of work. I believe when at my best, I’m in an occupation that helps uncover what is profoundly true. For instance, I find the deepest of truths in the witness of Jesus, and I’m committed to understanding and proclaiming this with greater depth and maturity as the years advance.
But at the same time this requires a sort of militant humility of approach. Being on the look-out for truth means being careful to hold it lightly, hold it with a certain humility, lest one forgets that despite disagreements, all of us remain linked in ways that transcend our differences. The church has always been at its worst when it has weaponized its doctrines.
In our gospel lesson today the disciples approach Jesus with this report: “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus answered, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
You see the humanity in disciples’ response: “He was not one of us…” You see how they so quickly moved to exclude this fellow, to put him down and keep him out. Jesus thought otherwise, and in his words we catch a glimpse of what it means for us to be curative and life-giving agents in the world. We catch a glimpse of a larger truth, which involves a spirit of inclusion, of hospitality – as we say here at Christ Church, dynamic hospitality. We also realize from the same exchange that God’s purposes are always larger than our own definitions. Godly, loving compassion exists in other guises and arenas beyond our normal comfort zones.
Now the history of Christianity is littered with failure on this point. It’s important to confess this. Once it found alignment with worldly power, this wisdom of inclusion was lost from time to time amid the rubble of human self aggrandizement, often to very deadly effect. Still, the early church struggled to learn Jesus’ lesson. Paul wrote that in God’s kingdom there was no distinguishing between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; the church came to accept this as the logical outcome of Jesus’ witness. There was no prior condition that excluded one from God’s love. That said, over the centuries we found all sorts of reasons to parse the human family into hierarchies of value. It is so very hard to let that go.
The story of Esther we heard read earlier is the story of how one race of people treated another. It’s a story about deadly human arrogance, injustice and abuse of power, and about issues of inclusion and exclusion. This predates our own time by 2500 years, the majority of those subsequent years steeped in the teachings of Christ, with his followers now numbering in excess of two billion, and still the last century is remembered as the bloodiest in human history.
This is among the most difficult lessons for us.
The Christian difference with the world does not mean that we think the world is more evil than us; that those inside the church are redeemed and the world is fallen. Instead, the mature Christian believes that the world and the church are both fallen and redeemed by the cross of Christ. That’s the language we use. All are held by our Creator God. It’s just that, when at its best, the church seeks to know this and then attempts to live in light of that knowledge. The old cliché rings true: We’re all in the same boat.
If that’s true, then the difference between “them” and “us” begins to evaporate with wisdom born of humility. And it will cause us to be on the lookout for evidence of God’s activity in the world regardless of the garb it wears, the language it speaks, or the temples it inhabits. We should be more than glad to find friends and comrades in the most unlikely of places, for in such manner God’s transcending purposes are advanced.
Good morning. My name is Jason Byassee and I’m honored to preach in this beautiful church. Thank you Stephen for having me and Christ Church for listening to me. I’m told this church, this city, this country are eaten up with a certain judge’s nomination to the supreme court, and the drama over whether he will become a Justice. I don’t really know anything about that. I live in some other country, and I have an accent that shows I’m not from here, though President Trump regularly mocks my adopted country Canada and people with my native accent, southern. So tempted as I am to weigh in on President Trump, Judge-maybe-Justice Kavanaugh, and a certain Senate hearing that may or may not include the testimony that matters, you didn’t bring me here to opine about politics and I’m no expert on any of it. In the church the question is this: is there a word from the Lord. And I believe there is. It is about wisdom. Lady wisdom. Let us listen to and believe this woman.
31:10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions to her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. 31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I did my first ever funeral 20 years ago, the family chose this passage from Proverbs 31. They wanted to say they loved and honored their mother and grandmother and this passage gave them the best words to do so. I’ll never forget the woman’s name: Mary Stuart Fowlkes: may light perpetual fall on her face. The interrogative mood of the first verse is perfect: “A virtuous woman who can find?” We found one, I said, and her name is Mary Stuart Fowlkes. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. It’s enough to make you wonder—what passage do you want read at your funeral? Because that day is coming, sooner than any of us wants. What do you want the whole arc of your life to look like looking back from the end?
May all of our lives add up to the glory of this one woman’s life in scripture. Ellen Davis, my Old Testament teacher at Duke, says this woman in Proverbs 31 is praised more highly than any other human being in the entire bible other than Jesus Christ himself. Moses is wonderful, but makes mistakes and is punished. David too, and the apostles. Even Jesus’ mother Mary is gently rebuked a time or too. Not the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Nothing but praise for her.
In Orthodox Jewish households, this passage is read as part of the Shabbat blessing on Friday night. After Sabbath candles are lit, the father blesses the children with words from scripture. Then he turns to his wife, looks in her eyes over candlelight, and says these words of blessing that I just read. Every week. All their lives. Then when she dies, the family often says these same words over her at her funeral. She is clothed in these words from scripture. Words of dignity and honour and respect. I suspect we should listen to the woman, don’t you think?
Our New Testament passage also refers to wisdom, it shows Jesus has listened, but it’s a bit less dignified, a bit more like our rough and tumble political climate. It starts with John the Baptist. He’s disappointed in Jesus. He baptized Jesus, he pumped him up to his friends, and then Jesus seems more interested in having parties than in saving the world. The messiah’s job is to be a king like David and make Israel great again. But Jesus is too busy partying fat and drunk to do the job. There’s a clue in this: the church should be known by the quality of our parties. I think we’re more often thought of for being frowny-faced judges of others. But man, did Jesus ever love a party. He eats and drinks his way through the gospels. You can hardly open a page of the gospels where there is no reference to Jesus eating. John is impatient. He wants Jesus to act. And Jesus will not. We may want a God who does what we want. Protests what we protest. Gets outraged at what outrages us. But instead Jesus does what he wants, not what we want. We serve him, not the reverse. He endlessly forgives sins. Honours women. Builds a church of outcasts and losers not a country club for kings and judges. Because everyone is invited to Jesus’s parties. The only ones not there have chosen not to be there. Of course, if you invite religious people to a party they say they prefer funerals. So Jesus says this strange thing in our text. He says. . .
Luke 7:18-35 John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” . . . At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” . . . 31 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
“Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Jesus is drawing on the wisdom tradition in Israel’s scripture. He is proving wisdom true. He asks John to look around. Signs of the kingdom are blooming everywhere: the blind see, the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news. Be wise, John. Sure, there’s a party going on. It’s a party of people using eyes for the first time. Dead people staggered they’re alive again. Sick people dancing with crutches and canes. Yeah it’s a lot of noise and ruckus, but what do you expect John? This isn’t a morgue, it’s a paradise. John’s people are not convinced, and they go home grumbling. And Jesus doesn’t mind, he praises John, that’s a real man, he says. An Old Testament mensch. But the least in the kingdom is greater than he. John sums up all that has come before and been good. Jesus is the new normal. Jesus is wisdom in flesh. Wisdom has always been with us, in every religion and culture, foolishness too, but now what’s new is wisdom has a pancreas and a spleen and a Jewish mom. The very sketch by which God made the world, the blueprint the architect used, is here as a human being. Everyone should delight. So the way God intends things for all humanity is breaking out in our midst. No illness. No death. No misery. Only joy. Tell me that’s not a party. Jesus understands that John can’t see it and doesn’t blame him. Maybe even us religious types, like John the Baptist and Franklin Graham and Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford and Baptists in Vancouver and Methodists in New York and all Christians and all religious people and all irreligious people, will also rejoice with Jesus one day.
Introduction over. Time for the sermon. Just kidding. Sort of. What to say? Wisdom is a powerful woman in the bible who helps Christians imagine what the Son of God is like before his incarnation from the virgin Mary. Proverbs says God has always had his wisdom, God made the world according to wisdom, wisdom danced and delighted in creation like a little girl helping her daddy. Well, the church has imagined, that personified figure is sort of like the Son of God before Jesus’ birth. She is with God, advising God, delighting in God, while God sparks Adam to life. Wisdom is older than Adam, full of mirth, God’s right-hand woman. And Jesus himself says “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Proved right is a very important Christian word, it’s the same word translated elsewhere as . . . “justified.” Wisdom is justified by all her children. What on earth does that mean?!
There is a powerful woman at the heart of the bible, justified, proved right, by her children. And that woman is the church. The best, maybe the only argument, for why the gospel is true is a church that acts like we believe it. An ancient church teacher said “No one can have God for a father without the church for a mother.” The church births wisdom in us. That’s why we meet for worship, for bible study, for prayer groups, why we visit the elderly and have camps for kids. It’s why we founded schools and universities. We’re trying to grow in wisdom, trying to be disciples, to have our whole life, even our minds, wrapped around Jesus. “Wisdom is justified by all her children,” in other words, the quality of the church’s life shows whether the gospel is true. Let me say that again . . . There is a place for arguing about the truth of faith. We have libraries and start colleges for a reason. But the best way to show the gospel’s truth is to live it out as a community. To throw parties where people are invited and treasured who aren’t treasured or invited anywhere else. To heal and teach good news and raise the dead like Jesus. Let’s show our city by our life together that there is more to life than money. That there’s something more important than being fit and young and superficially beautiful. That the grave is conquered by Christ. We can do that, can’t we church?
But maybe our neighbours aren’t interested. They’ve heard the bible is what justifies abusing, ignoring, dishonouring women. I’m here this morning, Canadian address and southern accent and all, to tell you that’s a myth, a lie actually: The claim that the bible says women should stay at home, cook, clean, and make babies is not in the bible. Now those are all good things—every household needs food, cleanliness, and if there are no babies, soon there will be no households! But the bible does not teach that those are the only things women can do. Or that women have to do those things to be valid women. Lots of Christians and non-Christians think that’s what the bible says. They just disagree on whether the bible is right. Meanwhile where the church is growing in many places worldwide outside New York or western Canada or North Carolina it’s because of the place of honour Christianity affords for women. God is born of a woman after all. The passage from Proverbs 31 shows how and why we honour women.
The passage is about an eshet hayil in Hebrew. The translation I read calls her a “wife of noble character,” and that’s right, but hayil means more than that. The same word is used in scripture to describe military leaders, people of moral renown, governors. In social media lingo today, we’d call her a boss. If she was an athlete, we would admiringly call her a beast. Verse 15 says this of her: “She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family.” The Hebrew is meant to evoke prey hunted by animals, or booty carried off by conquering soldiers. This woman is a mother lion, a victorious general. And when 31:17 says she “She sets about her work vigorously,” the Hebrew has that she is robed in splendor. Clothed in majesty. Like God almighty. Some of the most ancient language we have for baptism in the church, is that we come up out of the water naked as newborns, and are clothed with Christ, wrapped up with the one who is wrapped up with God. That’s how the eshet hayil, the “woman of valor,” is clothed in Proverbs 31. With splendor and majesty.
We had family friends in town from North Carolina earlier in the summer, and took them to Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver. It’s how British Columbians impress guests—with tall trees and suspension bridges. There’s a boulder there our boys love to try to run up and scale. So we started to say hey look at this rock . . . and our friends’ 11-year old girl tore off before I could finish the sentence. She didn’t make it. She came back, took a breath, bared her teeth, and was off again. She hit the top and roared. Now, in a few years time, many people will evaluate her on one question alone. Her looks, very narrowly defined. The bible says no. She is a soul, stamped with the image of God. She can be powerful, and needs apologize to no one. Her looks don’t matter. Her virtue does. Listen to her.
This is something else about the eshet hayil, the virtuous woman. Her physical beauty is not remarked upon. Israel’s neighbours have poetry praising women but it’s usually for their looks. Proverbs is not interested in superficial things. Verse 31:30 says this: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Now the passage does comment on her body, it comments again and again on her hands. “She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.” Seven times it mentions her hands—she makes her own fabric, before she sows clothes for her family. And as if that weren’t enough, she dyes it all, in purple and scarlet! Royal colours. She reminds me of a woman from the frozen prairie in the 1800s where it’d be 30 degrees below zero so she’d make quilts for her family. She said “I make them warm to keep my family from freezing and I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.” She’s a businesswoman. She sells in the marketplace: “she sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” She’s active in multiple businesses, “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Ellen Davis says this is the most detailed description of an ordinary person’s work we have anywhere in the bible or in the ancient world. And the very best thing she does with her hands is this: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” In other words . . . she’s a lot like God.
Now, as I talk I can feel some of you women feeling very, very, tired, if Proverbs 31 is the model for how to be a woman. ‘So I already have to run a household, make it look effortless, and now I also have to be able to be a soldier and run multiple businesses and be cheerful too? Life is hard enough already!’ This is one of the ironies of modernity. It’s right to say women can do what men can. But often in the 20th century we just added stereotypical male roles to women’s portfolios and didn’t take anything away. Women can be soldiers and CEO’s now but they still have to look sexy. Folks used to say with great solemnity that behind every great man was a great woman. Then we made fun of that: behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Now we say, wait, she can be the man. And of course that’s true. But even the old great man had a supportive spouse keeping the house afloat. This is a ridiculous set of demands for one person. No one can do it all. No wonder you’re tired.
Here’s the thing. The gospel does not say “try harder!” The gospel says God has done everything we need. We respond with awe, delight, and love. But we don’t have to do anything. Because God has already done everything. God is mending back together every fault line we human beings have ripped open, including gender, politics, religion, and God is doing it through the church. There is not a hurt that will not be healed one day.
The church has long noticed aspects of God in this eshet hayil, this virtuous woman. And I think this is wise. No mere human being is praised this highly anywhere else in the bible, and maybe there’s a reason for that. She’s no mere human being. Wisdom in the bible is a figure of speech, a personification. Then it becomes a person. When we realize Jesus is God in our flesh, after he dies and is raised for our salvation, we see wisdom in the bible is a glimpse beforehand of God in our skin. So when we see wisdom we think Jesus, God working to save.
The church has long been spoken of as a feminine figure, a mother, the one who births us and nurses us in faith. Women have always played a disproportionate role in educating children, first their own children, then other people’s. I sometimes joke that we men kept ordination to ourselves for so long, until the 1950s in United Methodism, because otherwise women would run the whole church. They always have. Jesus speaks of himself in feminine figures at times—he longs to gather up Israel like a hen does her chicks. And the church has sometimes wondered about the Holy Spirit as the feminine face of God. She’s the shy person of the Trinity. You can’t see her, because she’s always getting out of the way—pointing to Jesus. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit don’t want attention for themselves, they want us looking at Christ, becoming like Christ, loving Christ. And that takes women and men in the body of Christ to do it.
So don’t look at this list of the virtuous woman’s characteristics and despair at falling short. Look at it and see God. God who never falls short. God who empowers us to do more than we can ask or imagine—even if we can’t imagine getting out of bed for another day. Look at her and see the church, who births us in faith and nurtures us to maturity in Christ. Look at her and see God, who protects and provides and loves. No individual alone can be the bible’s eshet hayil. All of us, church, can together be the woman God dreams about, the eshet hayil, full of valor and might and beauty. A virtuous woman who can find? We found one. We are one. And her name is the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
For about twenty years Tom Clancy created a not-insignificant cottage industry of techno spy-thrillers with more than 100 million copies of his novels currently in print. A number of these books made their way into top-grossing films with titles like, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger & the Sum of All Fears, which tracked the arrival into the Port of Baltimore—and eventual explosion—of a nuclear device designed to catastrophically destabilize the U.S./Russian détente.
His worldview was nurtured through the cold war, but his storylines kept pace with evolving conditions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he had a masterful knack for exploiting national anxieties which took on new life post 9/11.
Though he died in 2013, his crackling narratives have stayed popular as evidenced by their frequent reappearance on premium channel television and continuing robust book sales. Probably, the majority of you have seen at least one of the films which have featured several of our culture’s more popular male leads in the role of Clancy’s now iconic hero, Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and more recently, Chris Pine, have all taken a turn at playing the unassuming CIA analyst with history as a marine and a Ph.D. in economics.
Underscoring the enduring popularity of this character, Amazon Prime has just released an 8 episode update they’ve called, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, now starring John Krasinski in the title role. Krasinski caught fame in the wildly successful series, The Office.
The reviews have been interesting, covering the political gamut from left to right, and several exploring the personality traits of the protagonist. Some find Ryan self-righteous, and he is routinely touted as a boy scout, often in less-than-flattering terms. Of course, Clancy builds that critique into his narratives.
There’s a lot that could be useful as fodder for assessing many current political and current flashpoints. One reviewer in Vanity Fair said, “Jack Ryan is an astonishing case study in toxic narratives. I watched it twice, slack-jawed in amazement; I do not know if this is an endorsement or not.” Although, she was clearly engaged and energized as she rips its assumptions apart.
And I get that. But like that reviewer, I have now seen the series through and I was struck by something in particular—Jack Ryan is actually a very decent guy, a man of integrity. You could disagree with the undergirding geo-politico framework, I suppose, but he speaks the truth, holds others accountable to the truth and valiantly tries to do the right thing as he understands it. As he says more than once, he wants to make a difference from inside the belly of the beast.
On NPR, Eric Deggens said that “Jack Ryan is the perfect public servant, smart enough to solve everything from the drug war to international terrorism without compromising his ideals… At a time when so many government officials are mired with gaffes, scandals and corruption investigations, it feels good to see a government employee dedicated to making the right decisions for the right reasons…”
Honestly, I had that same response when Melissa and I binged watched the season last week. Sure, there are lots of things to analyze about the presumptions and prescriptions embedded in the plot. But I guess it’s the timing—how refreshing to actually find a character with personal integrity! How unusual.
Our news is jam-packed with corruptions of every sort. One political operative after another indicted and found guilty; pervasive disregard of truth; clerical sex abuse of children; and the mounting number of narcissists toppled by the #metoo moment.
As I mentioned last week, I don’t know that our time is more corrupt than others, but it certainly seems as though we’re inundated with a relentless cascade of public and private disclosures of personal and systemic corruptions. It’s exhausting.
So maybe we can be forgiven if we find relief in a character who tries to do right. Even saying this out loud sounds a bit jarring given current conditions. Are you like me in this? Do you feel bereft of mentors in the public realm who model a different way of organizing a set of life commitments?
Our passage from Proverbs announced: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out, at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge… I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind…”
How quaint this appeal to wisdom sounds today! I note the writer insists wisdom speaks right in the midst of the busiest intersection of the city. We could think of it like the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street, in the heart of the city in the heart of the world. Right there. As if to say, right in here, among us. Call it essential, practical wisdom. The wisdom that’s consistent with human flourishing.
And as though right on cue to current conditions our reading from James tells us that the tongue—our speech—reflects our character, the direction our lives have taken. Choose your words well, he argues. Don’t let your words lead you to evil deeds.
Speech directs action; action reflects character. Oh my. This reading is pure coincidence, or, I suppose, serendipity.
As we heard last week, James reveals the hypocrisy of “faith” that is merely professed without corresponding actions that inevitably manifest from authentic faith. He says that faith without works is dead and religion without compassion is worthless.
Now he aims a little deeper: the hypocrite who says one thing and does another is actively practicing deceit. It may be self-deception or it may be deliberate lies, but the water at the source is polluted. No matter how eloquently crafted, speech that springs from polluted water cannot be clean.
As Jeanyne Slettom summarizes, “Speech that uplifts, that encourages, that teaches wisdom, that resonates as true, is speech that springs from a pure heart. And that is what James is ultimately aiming for. His fuming against hypocrisy is a plea for its opposite: integrity.”
And so there you have the point of it today. A plea for integrity from the source of our faith.
And let’s be very clear here: integrity is not perfection. None of us is perfect. None of us knows the whole truth. Each of us, myself included, suffers personal corruptions to greater or lesser degrees. That’s why we often share in prayers of confession in our worship, to set the record straight. If we say these with sincerity we’re properly situating ourselves before God and one another, the opposite of hypocrisy.
So, integrity begins with humble confession of our limitations. But from there we seek with open hands and hearts to live lives that are consistent with our mission to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. Love of this sort requires a kind of transparency, or purity of intention. Now again, we don’t do this perfectly, but if we earnestly seek to love well, we can’t help but continue to evolve in a manner that honors God’s original design specifications.
In my Faith Matters blog this week, I quoted Susan Howatch, another author of fiction whose characters grapple with integrity. She wrote: “We die and we die and we die in this life, not only physically—within seven years every cell in our body is renewed—but emotionally and spiritually as change seizes us by the scruff of the neck and drags us forward into another life. We are not here simply to exist. We are here in order to become. It is the essence of the creative process: it is in the deepest nature of things.”
In one sense, our becoming is a process of integrity, of growing increasingly congruent with the things that matter most of all. This doesn’t happen all at once. Along the way we learn to slough off the bad stuff, the stuff that prevents us from loving well. We become more familiar with our limitations and weaknesses. We learn to honor what God honors, to seek justice and equity, to acknowledge the human dignity of all persons.
As this evolves we wind up embodying Jesus’ instruction to take up a cross, “For what will it profit…to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
He’s the voice of wisdom on the busy street corner calling people to wake up and see what’s most real, most vital, most important for human flourishing.
And it seems we hear his voice not a moment too soon…
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
Back in 2005, Senator John McCain wrote a book entitled, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember. I was reminded of this through all of the media coverage of his funeral and editorializing about his life which clearly hit a resonant chord in our cultural moment. The phrase, “character is destiny,” was coined by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and refers to the idea that all of us actually participate in choosing the future that comes to us—we’re not simply victims of fate.
In the book’s introduction McCain writes this: “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.”
And now I’m reminded of an exchange I had with a young man who was preparing for college. He asked me if I thought he was foolish for not taking advantage of an opportunity to cheat on the SAT. He said the proctor was very encouraging of the students to take more time than officially allotted to be sure they had done all they could on each of the sections. “Go ahead, help each other out,” he said.
The majority availed themselves of the proctor’s offer. However, he had stuck with the formal time restraints and was now wondering if that was foolish given the cutthroat competition of the college admissions process.
On a very basic level he was asking me whether dishonest success or integrity was more important. I was impressed he was questioning this at all given the cultural climate being so heavily weighted on the side of success-at-any-and-all-costs. Was he a fool? Well, I said in a sense he was, but it was just this sort of foolishness that helped the human race grow into its greatest glory. If only we had more fools like him.
You could try out a thought experiment: Had you been in this young man’s shoes, what would you have done and why? And then I’ll ask you to hold to the side of consciousness your perspective on the current state of our national character and that of our various leaders. There’s a whole lot we could talk about there, but for our purposes today that would take us down a rabbit hole of infinite dimensions.
Our scriptures today remind us that what we hold as our deepest values shapes the character choices we make. We just heard our ancient texts speak some very homely things like this: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor [or reputation] is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Simple. Pithy. And damning of current conditions.
Some scholars think that the book of Proverbs arose during a time of corruption and moral weakening. I suppose some of us today might feel that description characterizes our own time. Personally, I’m not certain that our time is especially corrupt. What I am certain of is that we’re subject to the same sort of corruption today as our forebears were over two thousand years ago. It’s quite compelling to consider that their hard-won wisdom is as relevant today as it was then.
Would you rather have a name associated with wealth, or one associated with great character? We want to believe these are not mutually exclusive goals, of course; but still, in a forced choice test, which comes out on top? The text functions subversively in our context, where two of the mightiest capitalist symbols came crashing down seventeen years ago in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest nation in the world. Be reminded that the anniversary of that calamity arrives on Tuesday. It was also a Tuesday in 2001. I remember it vividly.
Proverbs places the moral life squarely within the realm of choice. We have choices to make. All of the time. Every day presents us with myriad choices, many of which carry moral freight. That is, they carry some component of meaning that is larger than our individual selfish desire. What am I going to do in this situation? How shall I live? To what ends shall I direct my time and energy? What commitments and behaviors actually hallow life? Who am I in relation to everyone else? How do we belong to one another?
Since you’ve taken the time to be here this morning, you likely entertain these questions, at least from time to time. And I also know that a good chunk of the population out beyond these walls has these questions lurking around the fringe of consciousness. It must be so given our belief we were all formed by the same loving Creator whose very breath pumps our lungs. We can’t help ourselves, our moral intuition is written into our DNA.
We can’t help ourselves wondering about what a life is for, really. Well, we can put the question off, we can smother it over with every sort of preoccupation, we can stuff it, drown it, ignore it, but then something happens, say something terrible and shocking, and, at least for a moment, the clutter is ripped away, and we see our choices more starkly exposed. That happened en masse on our island seventeen years ago. People flocked to churches because they had become instantly unmoored.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of people our culture would identify as leaders. One of them, Samuel Pisar, was one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. Captured and incarcerated at the age of 12 he lost his entire family to Hitler’s horrors before escaping from Auschwitz at the age of 16. By his own recounting, in order to survive he nurtured a very clever and canny personality and his life could have turned out very differently than it did. He told me he had become a feral child.
But somehow, through the nurturing of the larger community, he managed to achieve doctorates at both Harvard and the Sorbonne, eventually writing the treatise that became the west’s blueprint for economic engagement with Russia, China and the Far East. He became a US citizen by an act of congress and was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Post 9/11, and struggling mightily with the meanings and tensions of retribution and forgiveness, he became an advocate for finding pathways into a reconciled future; he feared the world was once again veering into camps of depraved indifference for human life.
Samuel Pisar was not a perfect man, if such a thing could be conceived, but he was a man who made a series of choices over the course of his life that clearly answered the question, “What is a life for, really?” in a way that dignified the global human community. And I wonder: how did that happen? He could have chosen so very differently… I’m thinking John McCain was cut from a similar cloth… As in a much smaller way the young man who came to ask me if he was a fool because he chose integrity over a kind of dishonest success. All of them, fools for certain…
And I’m reminded of another small story told by Rabbi Shifra Penzia, about her great aunt Sussie, who rode a bus home on a snowy evening in Munich during the Nazi pogroms. Suddenly, SS storm troopers stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into the truck around the corner.
Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he asked her why.
“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid (expletive deleted),” he roared. I can’t stand being near you!”
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
“Damn her, the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again!” I’m so fed up. She always does this!”
The soldiers laughed and moved on. Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name (Homiletics, Sept.-Oct. 2000, p.17).
In that moment some larger frame of reference, some big answer to the question, “what is a life for?” grabbed hold of this man. Something other than his own immediate self-interest directed his actions. He placed himself squarely against the prevailing corruption of his own society. That’s not a small thing. Would that we could see much more of that in our own society, a squaring off from the corruption that engulfs us.
Perhaps some otherwise trite sounding yet profoundly true aphorisms expressed his thinking. For instance, something about a good name—maybe a name associated with compassion, courage, integrity—was worth more than, well, at the moment, maybe even more than life itself.
Or, maybe he had taken to heart the admonition we heard from James this morning who wrote, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matters of character receive far too little focused attention in our culture. We rarely speak of virtue, which isn’t to say there is none anywhere to be discovered. But few seem ready to hold themselves accountable to virtuous ends. Perhaps that’s due to how technology strips away our privacy. It seems everyone can know anything about any one of us. In a world that transparent, who dares set a high bar for virtue? Feet of clay abound.
No one withstands The Great Scrutiny. No one. Nevertheless, in such a culture as ours, great character comes with humble self-awareness while striving to hear and to act upon the voices of the better angels of our nature. As James wrote to his friends, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” In other words, if what you say you believe doesn’t actually show up in the content of your life…
A great church invests itself in helping to create a great people formed by the faith that calls us into our better selves. That’s a fundamental reason for our existence—helping each grow into the persons God intended from the beginning…
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23Read MoreLess
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69
A recurring theme from this pulpit for a while now concerns the incredible changes taking place within our culture impacting every arena of human experience. In particular, enormous cultural tectonic shifts are rocking all institutional structures, including every religious tradition.
Within the church world this topic overwhelms nearly everything else—how people’s behaviors are shifting in subtle but profound ways due to the technology tsunami impacting everything from how we shop, how we organize time, how we date, how we construct friendships and important relationships, how we parent, how we learn, how we teach. Most everything evolves at a rate that’s now visible in 3-year time frames, as in our saying, well, 3 years ago we did it this way, but now…
No one, no organization, remains immune from this crushing blitzkrieg because of the enormity and ubiquity of the changes that are rushing at us.
Yet for all of this change, the foundational matters pertaining to our essential humanity remain intact. Each of us still must contend with what it means to be born and having to die. Each of us still attempts to make sense of the days of our lives, addressing the questions of fundamental identity and purpose. Those questions aren’t going away any time soon. We still must choose what matters most of all to us.
And for that reason, I am basically bullish on Christianity over the longer haul. I’m less bullish in the shorter run. That is, I think the church in all of its current structures are in for a wild ride as it struggles to re-form and re-imagine itself in an unstable environment.
The profundity of Jesus’ enduring power and presence will not end if a denomination or two or three go under water. In fact, looking to his own timeframe, the very center of Jewish faith—and Jesus’ own faith—the temple of Jerusalem was overwhelmed and torn down shortly after he died, the remnants on view today 2000 years later. But his powerful legacy took root in peoples’ lives nevertheless continuing to the present moment.
Back then the question, “What does it mean to be Christian?” wasn’t freighted with the fine points of creeds and denominationalism, which isn’t to say there weren’t early disagreements among Jesus’ followers—there surely were, as we heard in our gospel lesson.
Did you catch it? Some of the disciples reported that Jesus’ teachings were difficult, and many turned back and no longer went about with him. This led Jesus to ask the remaining 12, “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
As I read that this week, it seemed oddly apropos of our cultural moment. So many distractions, so many alternatives for our time and attention. But it occurred to me that I have no real alternative answer to Jesus’ question of Peter, who said: “Lord, where else would I go?” Some may turn back and follow a seemingly easier path, but in the words of Joshua, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
I’m thinking we’re living in a time when many find Jesus’ teachings too hard, that is, too retrograde for current conditions, requiring too much commitment and effort. This doesn’t alter the fact that our choosing whom or what to follow remains an indelible necessity. None of us escapes the imperative of this choice. All of us chooses something as most important every single day.
We may not choose the Lord, but something will take God’s place. Check it out in your own life, in the lives of your friends and co-workers. Scan the media of all the personalities who‘ve captured our addicted attention. See if you can’t make out what they value most of all by the content of their character and the wake they leave traveling through the river of life.
Paul instructed the Ephesians to “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us… Be strong in the Lord… Put on the whole armor of God…whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace…”
That’s the fundamental business we’re in here. The forms and structures of our institutional life will inevitably morph into something that responds to current conditions, but the essential call on our life remains as it has for millennia. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua implores, repeating his call 3 different times.
The church’s first order of business has always involved the call to renewal of our covenantal relationship with God and the affirmation of our identity as the people of God. Unfortunately, the church has performed this role imperfectly over the centuries, sometimes succumbing to the enticements of current conditions, succumbing to the dark powers and principalities of its time. We see evidence of its corruptions today.
But other times it rises to its call, or at least some portion of the church, some remnant that stays close to God’s heart of love. In here we organize our life around our mission of seeking to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We return to this theme over and over again, because quite frankly, it’s very, very easy to forget, get distracted, captured by the dark powers of our time, to slip away because this sort of love can seem so costly. And sometimes it is.
Charles Raynal recalls how a segment of the German church rose up to confront the Third Reich (Charles Raynor, Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18 Commentary in Feasting on the Word, year B, vol. 4). Karl Barth, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest theologian, “was teaching at the University of Bonn when Adolf Hitler was named as chancellor of Germany. …He wrote to a friend that the German political situation was ‘like sitting in a car which is driven by a man who is either incompetent or drunk.’ …I felt it my duty to join in helping the church to carry on its work in the changed national situation, in other words, to maintain the biblical gospel in the face of the new regime...’”
This led Barth to join the Confessing Church movement which wrote the Barmen Declaration repudiating all the malevolent powers and authorities of the day. Earlier you heard Paul tell his friends that the struggle is not so much “against enemies of blood and flesh, but the cosmic powers of the present darkness…”
That sounds sorta woo-woo out there, but on the other hand, how do we name and contend with systems like the Third Reich that systematically slaughtered 6 million people, or how do we speak of the powers and principalities that brought forth a world-wide economy based on slavery? How do we name and contend with any power or authority that strips dignity from people?
Our choices matter. A lot. They have consequences. Choose this day whom you will serve, and let that service flow out in the content of your character and commitments.
As I said, at Christ Church we claim our most essential commitment is to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. That’s it: that’s our fundamental organizing principle. It’s so simple anyone can remember it. Simple, but not easy. That’s because love is a kind of work. It requires time, attention, thoughtfulness and effort, oftentimes, very great effort. To love well means intentionally establishing certain reinforcing habits. This is the point behind practicing spiritual disciplines.
For instance: Why attend worship regularly? Well, for one thing, it honors our very first commitment to love God above all things. Is attending a worship service the only, or even the most important way I love God? Well, maybe not. On the other hand, it seems a necessary recurrent practice that helps me keep a bead on the prize, or the point of it all. And it regularly places me in the company of a rather unlikely group of people who are also attempting to keep their eye on the prize. Honestly, it never ceases to amaze who shows up, where they’re from, what they’ve been up to and why they think they’ve come.
Here’s the question of the moment given changing patterns of behavior these days: what does it mean to show up? And I mean this question across the boards, as in, not just in terms of showing up for God in worship… But also, What does it mean to show up in marriage? In parenting? In friendship? In a life full to the brim of love and gratitude? In compassionate regard for others? In deeply caring about the common good? Each requires choosing the oftentimes more difficult, yet better way.
I’m beginning to think the ubiquitous text, “sorry dude, can’t make it today,” may be the hallmark epigram for these first decades of the 21st century. A life with that response always, always at the ready is a life that will forever skirt along the surface of what it means to be a human being fully alive. Choosing to show up may be the one essential necessity for anything that really matters to us, and the foundational requirement for imitating God’s love as demonstrated in the life of Jesus.
What does it mean to love well? First off, it means showing up.
Mark 8:27-38Read MoreLess
John 6:35, 41-51Read MoreLess
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
An article in Christianity Today magazine reports that 53% of Pentecostal Christians and 41% of evangelical Christians believe that if they give more to their church God will reward them financially. In common parlance this is known as the prosperity gospel which could be defined like this: “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”
Hundreds of churches now promote the 90-day challenge: tithe 10% of your income to the church and if you are not blessed by God in 90 days, they guarantee to return all the money you’ve donated. As one pastor put it, “God says, ‘Test me out. See if I’m God.’”
Even if they don’t see a direct link between offerings and blessings, many churchgoers say God wants them to do well. Across all categories, including mainline Protestants, sixty-nine percent agree with the statement, “God wants me to prosper financially.” Twenty percent disagree. Ten percent are not sure.
The more people go to church, the more likely they are to think God wants them to do well. Among those who attend at least once a week, 71 percent say God wants them to prosper financially. That drops to 56 percent for those who go to church once or twice a month. And churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs are more likely to believe this, with Pentecostals out ahead of everyone else.
Evidently the 90-day challenge is picking up steam. And of course, in a land saturated with lottery hype, you can see why this theology appeals to people, because it’s sort of a nicer version of the lottery. Sure, you’re putting out substantially more cash, but it’s for a good cause and the money-back guarantee sounds pretty solid. Although, pastors who’ve gone this route report that just a small percentage of folks actually ask for their money back. I imagine that once caught with the bug of potential prosperity, it’s hard to shake.
Benjamin Sparks(1) relates that back in the 19th century there was a name for persons in Asia who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met. But once their situation improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Missionaries called them “rice Christians.”
Of course, just as today’s prosperity evangelists often take advantage of their congregants accruing wealth for themselves, missionaries could also abuse the people by bribing them with material means for the express purpose of converting them. A somewhat cynical tit-for-tat kind of theology. This ploy has been long discredited now. The faithful follower of Jesus doesn’t need a payback for doing good, for loving one’s neighbor.
At our Sunday sharing table where we serve homeless and hungry folks we don’t require conversion as the natural outcome for our provision. Not to say we wouldn’t be glad to have any and all join us in our walk following after the way Jesus blazed. Y’all come...
And in Flor de Campo, our partner church outside of Cartagena, Colombia doesn’t require membership in the congregation for the daily meal served to 100 children, or for the recipients of the loans in our micro lending program. And we don’t ask them to tithe to the church so that God can prove his bona fides. God doesn’t require a down payment, as it were, to release a flood of blessings.
The Colombian Methodist Church has a laser focus on the poor in their nation. They’re clear about the mandate to love God and neighbor. They still need money, of course, the clergy work for next to nothing, but they love God and they want to live the gospel. I’ve learned from them in this. And some of you have as well. It’s hard to reconcile, to make sense of, the great material disparity.
It is true, as Mahatma Gandhi observed, that “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except as bread.”
But there are levels of revelation beyond that, beyond sating physical hunger. There’s another hunger we all humans share, something deeper, broader, higher and wider. Something that gnaws at our souls. Hard to describe, really; hard to pin down exactly, this sense of something important, transcendent that pervades our existence. It defies tangibility.
Just prior to the passage we read from John this morning, more than 5000 people had dinner on a hillside as they had gathered to hear the increasingly famous preacher, Jesus from Nazareth—a local guy who surprised everyone. He had blessed a couple of loaves and fish and low and behold all had been fed.
As the story is told, Jesus and his friends then tried to find some solitude, because the people wanted to make him king. But that wasn’t Jesus’ schtick. The text put it this way, “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain.” Then he slips away with the disciples across the sea to Capernaum.
That’s how our passage began today with the crowds trying to find him. Eventually they do find him, and they question him about his intentions. Jesus responds that the only reason they want him is because he fed their bellies, which leads him to say cryptically, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
Still not getting it, they ask him, well, what sign will you give us that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do for us? What more are you going to do for us Jesus? Will you bless us with material prosperity, for instance? Do that and we’ll believe. And they mention how Moses provided food for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Eventually this conversation leads Jesus to say that he is the bread of life—a supremely wild metaphor, really. He’s prodding them to consider their deepest hunger, namely, the longing for reunion with the One who gave them life in the first place. The food Jesus provides is already present and powerful in their midst. He is their sign.
Now we’re as fixated on the material aspect of our existence as the crowd in Jesus’ time. Throughout John’s gospel he tries to redirect their attention to the things that matter most of all, those things pertaining to the inner person, the essence of their human dignity and purpose, the location of their identity as God’s own beloved children. And God’s children need spiritual food.
This sort of food doesn’t come by way of marketing a material payoff. Faith is the actual goal here, but today we’re prone to approach the matter like consumers, because that’s how we’ve been trained and nurtured, to be consumers, and picky ones at that. I buy and accumulate, therefore I am.
I fight the same tendency. I’m a product of the same culture you are. We have an extremely difficult time seeing our situation objectively, say from a vantage point 30,000 feet in the air, looking down on the context of our time, taking stock of what preoccupies our attention, how we hand over our allegiances so easily to things that simply don’t matter much at all.
Quite apart from any political perspective, I have been fascinated with the unfolding trial of Paul Manafort, the international lobbyist and erstwhile presidential campaign manager. It seems that among other things, Mr. Manafort was a consummate consumer, and it was this very quality that led him into a rabbit hole of needing, wanting to accumulate more and more stuff, ultimately bending, if not breaking the rules of the game.
Emblematic of this hunger for material things we learned this week that he spent over $1M on clothes over the last several years—an astonishing sum. This seems such an apt metaphor for our time. I predict that this will be remembered years from now as emblem of life in the first decades of the 21st century.
But I honestly don’t want to pick on Mr. Manafort. Rather, I’d like to relearn the lesson about which hungers matter most of all. I want to be pointed back to examining my own heart and mind, my own preoccupations. I want to refocus my attention on true food that sates my deepest hunger. I want to remember that no one is excluded from the food that Jesus offers, and by way of example, I want to remember that everyone is invited to the meal we are about to share.
At Christ Church we practice an open communion table, meaning there is no precondition for receiving the true food that’s offered. We believe this reflects Jesus’ own practice. There is no ticket, no confession or proposition to agree to, no obstacle at all from receiving this good gift, save by your own choosing. Rather than talking about it, let’s just experience it.
And as you come forward today hold this famous aphorism in your heart and mind: you are what you eat…
(1) Benjamin Sparks in “Pastoral Perspective”, John 6:24-35, Feasting on the Word, Year B, v. 3, p.308, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
If you’ve been overwhelmed by national and world affairs this week, it’s possible you came to church today to get away from all the news feeds and social media. After all, this space is called a sanctuary, meaning among other things, a safe haven, a place of peace and security. I have found it so over the years for myself. I do find it a true sanctuary, a safe place.
But then, I’m also aware that the world still does follow me in here. I never have been able to completely check the world at the door like my coat at a nice restaurant. Try as I might, I find the world insists on taking my hand as I cross the threshold, almost as though, it’s also desperate for sanctuary.
Jesus and the disciples had something of that problem, according to our story from Mark. He wanted them to come away to a deserted place all by themselves, so they might rest, getting away from the trials of their days. So, they got into a boat to travel to a place that would be for them a sanctuary. But as it was, the crowds seeing where they were headed, hurried by another route and arrived ahead of them. And so, arriving at their “sanctuary” Jesus and his friends were greeted by the world. And the writer adds, hopefully, I think: “[Jesus] had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.”
Most of you know we have candles to light in this space during the week. I often light one for someone, as I did for my father this week who turns 96 today. Sometimes I’ll light a candle for one of you when I’ve become aware of some need or difficulty, some pain or conflict that has arisen in your life.
I suppose you should know that I do this. Sometimes I’ll tell you when I’ve lit a candle with your name on it. Sometimes I won’t. But the thing is, it does very much feel like I’ve brought the concern from out there into a safe place where it can be named, honored, heard and received. It’s a small thing, I suppose, but then I happen to believe that small gestures of compassionate regard provide the mortar holding the structure of healthy human community together.
On Wednesdays, a team from Christ Church offers prayers for the concerns you write on the connection cards. And people drop concerns into our prayer box in the entryway during the week. All in, there’s quite a lot of spiritual aspiration due to our physical presence here at Park and 60, made possible by the commitment of all our members and friends to provide sanctuary for the citizens of our city.
And I was thinking this week that what we offer here with our open doors, open hearts, hands and minds, seems especially timely given the state of things. Are you not overwhelmed by the chaos in our national life, and within the echo chambers of social media? Don’t you feel sort of beat up by all the raucous noise in our media? Hasn’t the political rancor and hostility ratcheted up into, I don’t know, a kind of wacky circus act, yet, having real-time consequences? Aren’t we riven into rivaling camps, divided and sequestered in every imaginable way?
This awareness was enhanced as I was thinking about the passage from Ephesians which proclaims that Christ has broken down the “wall of hostility” that separated the Gentiles from God, and Jews and Gentiles from one another “so that he might create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile everyone to God through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility...” The writer boldly proclaims, “Christ is our peace…So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” And we’re told he did this from compassion, for we were like sheep without a shepherd.
Given how worked up I am about current state of our national life, I’m not entirely sure how to hear such a radical and hopeful sounding word as this today. But I do know several things quite certainly. This place is called Christ Church. That’s a rather stylized depiction in our mosaics of our namesake, this prince of peace, as he was called. Because he is our peace it seems especially relevant to bring the world in here with us today.
Of course, among the things we’ve brought in today include our own personal walls of hostility. That’s right, isn’t it? Those came in here with us. It won’t do any good to say we don’t have any. Each one of us can name at least some of the walls that separate us from each other and by default, from a closer relationship with God. And those are only the walls about which we have conscious awareness. The Gospel proclaims that through the cross, Christ has the power to break down those walls. What do you make of that?
Quite apart from our puny powers, Christ shatters these walls of hostility. That’s why this place can be sanctuary for anyone who walks in. Christ has already done the heavy lifting, we say. All we must do is accept the obvious condition of our lives and receive the gift of his hammer blows that bring down our walls of hostility.
But it’s not just for our individual lives that Christ wields his hammer of peace. Clearly, he also has a much larger agenda. Look beyond the ragged edge of our national politics, say, at our own borders, for instance, populated with children stripped from their families. And then, out beyond where so many millions of refugee families seek some kind of hopeful future from out of the violent wreckage of their homelands. So many places around our world cordoned by walls of hostility.
Maybe you feel as I do. Maybe as a result of our dyspeptic cultural/political moment, and the world’s chaos you carry around a kind of background anxiety, agitation, anger and don’t know quite what to do with it. But it’s very, very tempting to indulge a chronic state of enemy formation, of knowing for certain who does not deserve our compassionate regard.
Jesus resisted the movement to divide the world into the good people and the bad. His ruined body lifted high, visible to aggressive foe and cowardly friend alike, gave evidence to that. The cross was God’s unilateral disarmament, God’s ultimate rebuke to every wall that divides people into enemies instead of revealing them as neighbors, even sisters and brothers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. allowed, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
Now I am not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. Sometimes I wish I could be, but living in a fallen world is a complicated matter that often requires complicated and difficult decisions, decisions we might, in some cases, even loath, but for them, see no reasonable alternative. Still, I very much bewail our weak human tendency to insist on hostility as our first, second, and third strategic, defensive or impulsive position in the world. Because here’s the elusive truth, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (MLK) I have lived long enough now to know this with absolute certainty.
These are the sorts of lessons we learn in this sanctuary sitting at this man’s feet, gathered at the base of the cross. Here we learn to love God and neighbor. Here we learn the hard lessons pertaining to human sin, and here, too, learn of the astonishing hope in the power of God’s love.
Now this is no mere naiveté or sentimentalism. Instead it’s the very energy of creation that burns away the dross in love’s refining fire. Sometimes we get singed in the heat of it. The cross is no sentimental token only to be worn as decoration. It is instead the very power of God set loose in the world.
We best be aware of just who or what we’re addressing in this sanctuary. In one sense, it is indeed the safest place in the world. But it is also a place to set the world’s agenda on its ear—actually, that’s what makes it the safest place in the world. In the Gospel of John, near the end of his time, Jesus addresses his disciples saying, “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.”
He does not give to us as the world gives…. Thank God. That’s why this place is so important.
In the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the Ephesians, we read this: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”3 Imagine for a moment, what it would take for you to be an agent for the gospel of peace. Imagine if we were a church full of persons who upon leaving the sanctuary, put on new pairs of shoes, as it were, that set us on that very course into our corners of the world. That’s part of our burden, our responsibility, our joy, as children of the God of love.
It’s a small gesture, I know. But in the spirit of all the candles that are lit in this space throughout the week, giving evidence that this is indeed a place of prayer and sanctuary, I will light this candle on our altar as a reminder for us that Christ is our peace. That he breaks down the walls of our hostility. That he comes to proclaim peace to those who are near and those who are far.
We’ll keep this lit each day for a number of weeks—at least through the remainder of the summer—as testimony to the fact that Christ is our peace. That he is the bringer of peace and that we have been admonished to become agents of peace. Perhaps it will keep a prayer alive within you for our world and for yourselves.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman was pleased to welcome Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens to Christ Church on Sunday, July 15th.
L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An ordained United Methodist minister, Roger served rural and urban congregations in North Carolina before moving to Pittsburgh. He is the author of a number of books including most recently, A New Day in the City: Urban Church Revival. He is married to Rev. Ginger Thomas, and they are the parents of Simeon, Silas, and Mary Clare.
From Ephesians 1:3-14; John 17:6-21
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
A few years into my ministry here—when I was in my late 30’s—I found myself in a very dark personal place. It was all-encompassing, and I was wracked by debilitating anxiety, a condition that periodically has occurred over the course of my life, although much less in later years. I was an emotional mess and spiritually adrift.
Stuck in this dark place, I felt at a loss to affect a positive outcome. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried, the less effective the outcome. Old motivational strategies felt hollow, even untrue. An aphorism like, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and all of its cousins, left a bitter taste on my tongue. The fact that I was a Christian minister actually exacerbated the experience, amplifying my profound frustration and helplessness. On the surface, things seemed fine, but on the inside, I was a mess.
I’m guessing there’s more than one person present who has some sense of what I’m talking about—maybe not in its detail, but in its genre. Interesting, isn’t it, how uniquely personal experiences among a variety of persons can seem to play the same melody. I suppose that’s why anything we say in a place like this, anything that attempts to speak to deep meaning and our existential predicament can be understood by others.
Back to my days of darkness. I began to have a series of dreams. It’s the only time in my life I’ve had such a series. Over the course of several days, I dreamt that I was venturing on a journey into the desert. Each night I experienced a short, startling vignette; the first began in a non-descript town, while during successive nights I began to methodically walk into an increasingly desolate expanse. Initially I had no idea why, but eventually I thought that I was going into the desert to meet Jesus. Now I had never had a dream about Jesus before, and never since.
At first, the landscape was lush and green. Gradually, as the week wore on, I entered an increasingly arid landscape leaving friends and family behind, uncertain of my direction, but clear that I had to let go of anything that encumbered my progress. I needed to push on.
Finally, one night, in a landscape like the Arizona desert with little scrub brush and cacti, I stumbled into a campfire that seemed a temporary home for a single person. I noticed the bedroll and cooking implements, a small fire under a tripod with a pot, and, in the dream, I realized these belonged to Jesus. He was physically there, I never did see him, but I received the intuition that this wasn’t my final destination in any case. I wasn’t supposed to linger here and chat. My journey was not yet ended. He wanted me to go further out into the desert.
In the final dream, I was now in what appeared to be the vast emptiness of the Saharan wasteland. Only sand dunes as far as the eye could see. I had wandered into an impossible circumstance and would not survive. In unbearable heat, I was starving and thirsting. I could not understand why I had been sent here. It felt like a death sentence. I could not save myself – there was no escape route.
Collapsing into the sand, the earth began to shake and rumble. And from out of the ground a glistening, gleaming and beautiful city erupted all around. Beneath my feet came a tower and as I stood it rose to a great height. Soon the city flowed with rivers and streams and fountains. It was a startling experience.
I jerked awake into a sitting position in bewilderment. And this phrase came to my mind, the phrase that concluded our passage from Corinthians today. The short phrase that summarized Paul’s faith: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong… My grace is sufficient for you.”
Whatever happened during that dream sequence brought me out of my dark place, and reframed my point of view. It’s hard to describe really, but it had something to do with trusting God no matter what. I know this story doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but honestly, it came to me as a great gift that I’ve never forgotten.
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong. My grace is sufficient for you.” That’s a troubling sentence for many people. It smacks of failure, incompetence. More than one person has asked, how could weakness ever be strength? The answer: It’s a spiritual paradox. In Paul’s case, he suffered from something he named “a thorn in the flesh”, something from which he had prayed to be delivered. He reports he prayed over and over again. I could imagine Paul as chronically anxiety-ridden, although, no doubt that’s a simple projection on my part.
Still, he finds he is in an untenable situation – he can’t deliver himself from the affliction, whatever it is. And the answer that came to him was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Grace speaks through his weakness which, in a paradoxical way, is proof of God’s activity, for left to his own limitations, he couldn’t accomplish what God could. My grace is sufficient for you – that was the lesson imbedded in my dream. That was nearly 30 years ago, and the insight has never left. As a matter of fact, I cherish it as one of the best gifts I have ever received.
More often than not we take a very different approach to life. Many take it on like some giant wrestling match, something to conquer by force of will and dint of hard conditioning. And there is no question that there is much for us to do with all we’ve been given. A lot is asked and expected of us. We ought to train and work hard.
Elsewhere in his letters, Paul exhorts his readers to run the race in such a way that they may win it… “I do not run aimlessly,” he writes, “nor do I box as though beating the air, but I punish my body and enslave it…” Paul is no slouch when it comes to working hard and long for goals that matter to him.
Still, at the end of the day, no matter how well trained, no matter how gifted, no matter how perfected in his skills, his best work, his noblest work, his enduring work came through the agency of his human weakness as a gift of grace that spoke out of his weakness. That exposes a spiritual truth that is among the most difficult for Christians to accept.
Indeed, much of the time, we function as though only the strong and successful are worthy of God’s attention. Even if we say otherwise, we very much secretly believe it. How else to explain all the ways we slice and dice one another into the haves and have nots, the elect and the damned, the in and the out, the blessed and the cursed, the black and the white, the gay and the straight, the rich and the poor? Unfortunately, Christians are at least as good at that slicing and dicing as anything else they profess to be and do. We might as well confess it.
But you can sense how potent an antidote to that very human failing it is to say, “when I am weak, then I am strong…God’s grace is sufficient for me,” because this locates our actual situation in the scheme of things. It’s in our weakness, our limitations, offered to God, that our true strength emerges, for it’s a strength born on the wings of grace.
Isn’t that what happens at our death? We can no more prevent our death than we can plan our birth. It comes, that’s all. Evidence of our ultimate limitation. And yet the Christian hope stipulates that this weakness offered to God is gifted back to us as life with him eternally. Do you see?
And didn’t we learn this from a great failure of a would-be spiritual giant? Didn’t Jesus live a small-scale life in a backwater country and die like a criminal? Isn’t that our model for understanding how grace intercedes in the midst of human weakness and limitation? And don’t those who gather around at the base of the cross find more in common with their brothers and sisters in their fundamental human need than in all the many ways they would rather demonstrate their superiority? At the base of the cross, we all look alike in our naked, vulnerable humanity.
This past week David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times about the new documentary on Fred Rogers, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?" And, by the way, if you need a jolt of goodness at this depressing cultural, political moment, I strongly suggest you get yourself to a theater to see this. Of his own experience viewing the movie, Brooks writes, “the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
“Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
“Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
“And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”
That discovery lies at the heart of the deepest Christian spirituality...
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
So, we made the move! We moved out of our home of nearly eight years for a Manhattan apartment. I hear some of you wondering to yourselves, “How have they survived?” It’s an excellent question, indeed. Yes, we are still swimming in boxes! It has been a decidedly eventful week, as moves can go. As you can imagine, there’s lots and lots of unpacking for the set-up of a new home. Our children have already begun to ask questions which are prefaced by, “When we move back into a house…?”
As we struggle to get our bearings and find a new sense of normal, learn a new community, the adventure has been good for the family. Yes, even when we are getting on each other’s nerves with fewer spaces to retreat and recreate, we have found pleasure in each other’s company. One of the week’s highlights has been the preparation of family meals. Anyone here today who has a memory of moving, will understand how difficult it can be to get yourself organized to cook a meal. I have convinced my children that some of life’s greatest dinners are breakfasts! That’s right, breakfast for dinner. Not only do I have fond memories from my childhood, I find it easier to whip up a pot of hot grits, fried or scrambled eggs, toast, turkey bacon or sausage, than to try to pull a well prepared and seasoned meal together. Maybe you’re not a “Girl Raised in the South” Southerner like me and grits are not your thing (pun intended). Maybe you’re partial to pancakes, old fashioned French Toast, or a waffle with special toppings. Or perhaps you like the vegetable omelet, a bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, with a glass of cranberry juice? No matter your favorite meal, the fast-food service industry has begun to capitalize on the late-night appeal of the New York Diners. Back in college, where there was a shortage of diners, we’d end up at the local Waffle House or Huddle House for a breakfast meal, anytime day or night.
While we don’t know the exact time of day the second healing takes place, we are clear that Jesus commands that the recipient of his healing touch receive food. That’s like the breakfast meal, that meal which breaks the fast; the most important meal of the day. This wasn’t merely to extend his compassion upon the little girl. Neither was it to prove to onlookers that she really had survived a near death coma and there was no longer a need to plan her funeral. It had more to do with giving her the nutrients needed to live an abundant life! We don’t know of any dietary restrictions, food allergies, or preferences. What we know is, breakfast helps to replenish your body with the fuel it needs to start the day. As nutritionists and physicians tell us, “When you wake up, the blood sugar your body needs to make your muscles and brain work their best is usually low”. It’s time for breakfast!
In the Gospel according to Mark, the power of God is made evident in the healing powers of Jesus. The gospel writer gives us a powerful sampling of Jesus prerogative to heal the haves and the have-nots. The stories of a 12-year-old girl and a woman with an issue of blood for 12 years are both very compelling. The wealthy, elite, and powerful leader is juxtaposed to the impoverished, unnamed, and vulnerable in a way that proves that God is no respector of persons. God will and can heal the fortunate and the less fortunate, the insured and the uninsured, those documented and undocumented, the named and the unnamed. In fact, as Jesus is summoned to the aid of Jairus’s daughter, he interrupts his initial plan and timetable to acknowledge the healing of the destitute woman in today’s text, calling her “daughter.” There’s enough healing to go around when Jesus is on the scene. This is the lesson learned by the synagogue ruler’s messengers and the mourners. While his messengers think it appropriate for Jairus to go on and return home to properly grieve and prepare for his daughter’s burial rites, Jesus is not directly addressed, but overhears them. They say to him, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further” (v.35c)? Jesus responds to Jairus, directly, “Do not fear, only believe” (v.36). No miracle can be performed in your life and no healing effectuated if you don’t believe. Remember, Jesus couldn’t do any work of healing power in his own town among his own people because of their unbelief.
Yes, Jairus was probably accustomed to responding to all types of concerns and requests for favors, but here, he is no different than our unnamed sister who pressed her way in for her personal healing. She knew where the source of her strength came from and new the strength of her life was in Him. Healing is always a personal experience, even when it takes place in a communal setting. Jesus dismisses all the cynics, professional mourners, and skeptics when he arrives at Jairus’s house. A public scene becomes a private healing as he initiates a prayer circle. Her parents are invited and the disciples for whom Jesus will call upon at the Transfiguration, but as for all others, your services are no longer needed. The one who is the author and the finisher of her faith, takes her by the hand and says in his native Aramaic, “Talitha, cum…or little girl, get up!” Your potential has not been realized! Your being on this earth has yet to make an impact on others! Your wealth does not dictate your power, the spirit that has been awakened in you dictates your power! So, don’t sleep too long! It’s time to be about the business of glorifying God! It’s time to serve your neighbors! It’s time to live an abundant life, according to the power that works within you! “Through food God signals not random provision or pleasure but rather a certain intended order to life” (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, Editors Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Illionois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 297.) The bible gives us some instruction about the need to eat for the role we play in the kingdom building enterprise:
1) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Mt 5:6).
2) For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things (Psalm 107:9).
3) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
4) He says to his disciples in John, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4:34, NIV).
If you’ve been skipping on breakfast, you shouldn’t. It helps to get your metabolism going, have the energy needed to focus whether at work or at school, and burn the necessary calories throughout the day. Don’t deprive yourself of breakfast. Jesus needs daughters and sons in the work of ministry, ready to do every good work for the sake of the gospel.
But I would say to you on this day; do not deprive yourself of God’s heavenly food. Food that will not only sustain your physical body, but your soul. This spiritual food, called The Lord’s Supper, which you will receive in a moment, is the “real” food which helps to give us that abundant life! Yes, it is the Lord’s Supper, but today it will serve as breakfast for dinner.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Years ago while attending a party during a fierce winter storm, an interesting conversation evolved with a woman I’ll identify as Alice. She was a smart professional—a lawyer, I think—and, as small talk among strangers at such a gathering under such conditions might evolve, we were discussing the weather under the heading, “Big Storms We Had Remembered and Endured.”
Alice reported that she had a special affinity for storms—in fact, it was during a storm that she experienced a profound spiritual awakening. She said she didn’t speak of it to very many people, because though it was dramatic in a way, she wasn’t certain that, 1) anyone would really believe her, or, 2) that she should share it at all anyway, since it was such an intensely personal event. My curiosity aroused and choosing to take her at her word, I invited her to say more.
Alice then recounted that when she was growing up on the Chesapeake Bay her family often spent time on their boat sailing up and down the east coast and sometimes venturing into the waters of the Caribbean. Both parents were competent sailors, and great respecters of their relative frailty in comparison to the elements. But on one occasion, they were caught off guard in a fierce squall. Alice was 17, she said—old enough to be a seasoned mariner and helpful to the captains, but not quite mature enough to understand her true vulnerability.
And so it happened that while trying to tie down a loosened rope, the boat rocked sharply starboard, allowing a large swell to break over the hull whisking her of the deck. She didn’t know how long she was encased in the swirling blackness—shear terror—maybe ten seconds? Then, bobbing up in another swell she was set back aboard, just a few feet from where she had been standing. No one else witnessed this. Her parents did not know that for several intense seconds they had lost their daughter to the sea. Only Alice was left in a completely astonished state.
Well into her thirties when I heard her tale, Alice said she was transformed in that moment—even reborn, she thinks, although it had taken the last twenty years to absorb the meaning of those ten seconds. And then she was sure she would never really completely absorb it, except, perhaps, at her death. Alice didn’t understand how the equation was put together, but somehow the alchemy of fear, vulnerability and rescue added up to faith. That’s why she loved storms so—they reminded her of who was who and what was what. Storms aroused the adrenalin rush of fear, but the fear brought faith. She said she knew it sounded strange, but that’s how it was for her. That’s how it was that she came to know God.
Now as another story is told, perhaps wearied from teaching, Jesus suggests to his friends they take their boats to the other side of the Lake of Galilee. During the night, a fierce storm arises. The disciples fear for their lives as the waves overwhelm the sides of the boat. They find Jesus in the stern reclining on a cushion fast asleep. Awakening him they ask, “Don’t you care that we are perishing in this storm?” The storyteller relates that after calming the storm Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”(Mark 4:35-41)
The question this story raises is among the most basic: Will we trust God? As is often the case in the scriptures, the disciples initially fail the test. Even though they’ve had the advantage of traveling around with Jesus, when up against the power of their own fear, trust is the first casualty. Fear and doubt overwhelm the disciples as the water overwhelms the boat.
And why not? Surely they had lost comrades, perhaps family members to violent water. After all, they were fishermen. Fishing was a reasonably hazardous occupation. Beyond a certain point, water was a completely unforgiving environment. Even experienced sailors knew that just one mistake could be one’s last.
Evidently, these disciples thought they had their literal life preserver in the form of Jesus sleeping in their stern. And, as the story is told, so he turned out to be, but only for the time being. After all, none of them would live forever.
In our clearer moments, we recognize that every life-saving moment is but a reprieve from the inevitable. We make uneasy peace with this by saying that if only we could live into old age with our various faculties intact, we will have lived well. In a sense, we think of it as a question of fairness, as in, it’s only fair that I live to be a healthy and hearty 90. This attitude focuses our entire medical system. I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment, but I do recognize it is driven by our concern and sometimes despair over the inevitable reality of our ultimate demise.
Experience in my work has revealed that to greater or lesser degrees, all of us run scared much of the time. As M. Scott Peck put it, “Many don’t realize how frightened they are. They’ve been running scared for so long they’ve forgotten what it’s like not to. And the macho people who proclaim that they are not sacred of anything are the most frightened of all, because they even fear their own fear. Fear is such a constant companion in the background of our being we are usually neither aware of it nor able to imagine being without it.” (M. Scott Peck, What Return Can I Make: The Dimensions of the Christian Experience.)
A woman recently reported to me that she had a condition that her doctor described as pre-cancerous. As she told me this she threw her head back and laughed, recounting how comedian, George Carlin, once remarked that we’re all pre-cancerous. And so we are. Is it impolite to say so? Perhaps, but no less true.
Life is fragile, and exhilarating. A boat on a sea is at best a precarious adventure. The sea is mighty and completely indifferent to those who float upon its surface. It would seem to defy reason that we would ever embark upon the sea with no more than the enlarged pea pod of a hull to keep us above the waves. But people have been defying reason in this manner for many thousands of years. We are out of place. We are literally, out of our element.
Do you remember what this space is called in which you’re sitting? The central space in a church sanctuary is called the nave, derived from the Latin, navis, meaning, “ship,” no doubt in part inspired by today’s story. This sanctuary, this upside down hull, this nave, is a ship with an odd collection of mates and travelers on board, each of which, to varying degrees, are acquainted with a primal fear of their predicament, whether or not they have conscious awareness of this.
In the gospel story, the disciples discover their fear is no match for the God Jesus reveals. Yes, he grants a reprieve for the time being, he intervenes in this way for now, but his motive is larger than this immediate situation. He knows what yet lies ahead for most of them. He seeks to overcome their fear forever, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of ultimate physical outcomes. He seeks to provide an eternal peace born from an internal, spiritual calming of the waters. Writing from a prison cell the Apostle Paul referred to this as the “peace from God surpassing all understanding.” Jesus not only saves their lives, he wants them liberated from fear forever.
This confidence is found elsewhere in Paul as he writes to his friends in Corinth. As you heard this morning, he endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger and, still, as though having nothing, yet possessed everything. How can this be? As he will write to other friends, “in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing is able to separate us from God’s love, not even death itself. The one essential fact of our existence is that we are God’s—that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. As the 13th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, understood, “All shall be well. All shall be well. All manner of thing, shall be well.”
How did she know this? Through a heart of faith. Where does faith like that come from? It comes as a gift from God for those who will receive it. It could be as simple as holding your hands open like this and asking simply: “Loving God, grant me a heart of faith.” Could be as simple as that. Faith drives life confidently into the future regardless of circumstance.
On the one hand this morning, we see ourselves in the disciples, scared out of our wits caught in a storm at sea. On the other, we want to identify with Paul’s joyful, if bewildering, confidence in the midst of danger and calamity…
There’s ancient symbolism in baptism, which we don’t quite capture with the little bit of water we use. If we were to practice immersion more regularly we would have a more potent reminder that in baptism we are spiritually drowned, just like Alice was, and then, re-emerging from the water, set upon the deck of the ship. That’s why this is a nave. A vessel set to sail on a sometimes perilous journey. Fear? Yes, we will have fear. But it’s no match for the divine grace that’s larger than any power we could imagine. It’s of the same power that gave us life and breath in the first place.
O God, who gave us birth… Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love...
Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2nd Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Sometimes events erupt in the middle of the week that disrupt the normal flow of business here. Generally, we have a program in mind for the week’s activities leading to Sunday worship. But sometimes, something happens that catches us up short, something that is so “up front” in people’s faces, so much in the news, or so distressing that I must address it. Fact is I’m all worked up over this.
Those of you who receive my Faith Matters blog know where I’m headed here today. I want to state very clearly that there is nothing remotely biblical or Christian about ripping children away from their mothers and fathers. As I said in my piece on Friday, I almost couldn’t write about it given my sputtering anger over our federal officials quoting scripture defending the righteousness of their obscene policy at our borders. This surely violates the gospel of redemptive love.
Remember that in early May, the US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced a “zero tolerance” policy for persons attempting to migrate to the United States resulting in de facto family separation: children are immediately removed from their parents as they are apprehended after crossing the border. And three days ago, he also announced a policy reversing protections for asylum seekers fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence. Neither threat of violence is now considered grounds for asylum.
You’ve seen the pictures, heard the stories, and likely have read about the tent city being erected for the express purpose of warehousing kids taken from their parents. Session’s use of scripture defending this policy should appall every thoughtful follower after the way Jesus blazed. And irony of ironies, this story broke just in time for Father’s Day.
Let’s be reminded of other biblical texts like this one from the prophet Isaiah who, within the Christian tradition, helps describe the titanium chord of justice linking us throughout human history to the present moment: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1-3 NIV)
And do we really need to recount the relentless messages pertaining to love of neighbor that resound on nearly every page of the gospel? Do we really need to recall that when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan? Do we need to remember that calling children to himself he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these?”
Page after page, verse after verse, story after story, our sacred texts reveal what God requires of us, namely, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
I’m going to give Attorney General Sessions the benefit of the doubt that he did not know how the passage he quoted has been used in the past. Here’s what he repeated from the 13th chapter of Romans: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
He neglected to frame the context of that passage, however. A few verses ahead Paul says this: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
That provides the powerful gospel corrective to unjust laws. But as Blasé Pascal, once wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Historically, the passage Sessions quoted out of context has been read as an unequivocal order for Christians to obey state authority, no matter what, a reading that was often used to justify Southern slavery in the United States, but also authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.
In this latter case, “Afrikaner theologians, pastors, and politicians alike in South Africa all emphasized Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 that everyone must submit to the governing authorities as the central Scripture concerning Christian relations to the state,” say scholars Joel A. Nichols and James W. McCarty. “Read through an Afrikaner lens, theologians claimed that the apartheid state was ordained by God and must be obeyed by all living in South Africa.”
And the same was true of Southern Christians defending the legitimacy of slavery, and German Christians defending the authoritarian impulse of Adolph Hitler. History books are rife with examples. They all used this verse out of context. Like most everyone else, Christians are susceptible to gross manipulation if it confirms their prejudices and suits their self-interest. Nothing like a bible verse out of context to clobber one’s enemies and defend one’s tribe.
That’s why this incident hit me in the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of me. Like I said, I’m giving the Attorney General the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know about these historic antecedents. But then again, who knows…
The problem in this case is that the biblical evidence for answering that fluffy question evangelicals like to ask, What Would Jesus Do? is glaringly obvious when considering the fate of moms and dads and kids fleeing terrifying circumstance.
Now of course, there isn’t a straight line from gospel truth to secular law, but the gospel truth does provide an overarching framework for understanding our complicated place as citizens of two kingdoms—the kingdom of humanity and the kingdom of God.
Jesus said God’s kingdom was like the smallest seed in the world, and when planted, mysteriously and miraculously grew into a very large bush or tree. He clearly taught that citizenship in God’s realm has ramifications for how we should conduct ourselves in the human realm, how we should care for one another, how we should love our neighbors as ourselves, how every act of compassionate regard for others was like planting kingdom seeds.
This doesn’t mean that nations shouldn’t have secure borders and useful laws establishing appropriate boundaries among flawed humans. After all, we have laws precisely because we are flawed and self-centered, out for our own good. Good and just laws, take the broadest view of human dignity and safety while providing the bounds and rules of the game. They create the case and advance the cause of the common good. And here we mean the common good of everyone.
Unjust laws do the opposite, stripping people of their dignity, their well-being and sense of place in the world. Unjust laws stack the deck in favor of wealth and privilege. Unjust laws ramp up tribalistic tendencies, feeding on fear, while creating scapegoats and “less-thans”—the dreaded “others”, however they might be defined.
These sorts of laws must be challenged, confronted and changed. And from the vantage point of God’s realm that’s like planting kingdom seeds that will mysteriously and miraculously grow into mighty oaks of righteousness; a righteousness defined by Jesus’ self-giving love. That kind of human is a beautiful thing to behold.
You may know that I’ve had my issues with United Methodist denominational leadership in recent years, but on this matter the church has been rock solid for decades. It behooves me to commend the church when it so clearly and definitively defends the weakest among us.
This week the United Methodist Council of Bishops asked the government to stop the terrible policies at our southern border. “Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children,” they wrote. The United Methodist Women called for the Department of Justice to “do right by the immigrant children on our borders — surely among the weakest and most vulnerable among us — and immediately end the policy of separating children from their families.”
And providing a larger frame of reference, at the most recent general conference resolutions were passed that advocated generosity and charity toward immigrants, making numerous references to scripture and noting that Christ started life as a refugee, with his family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide. It reads: “Throughout the history of the United States, the most recently arrived group of migrants has often been a target of racism, marginalization and violence. We regret any and all violence committed against migrants in the past and we resolve, as followers of Jesus, to work to eliminate racism and violence directed toward newly arriving migrants to the United States.”
That’s the appropriate conclusion that arises from the witness of our scriptures. We are meant to be working with God, sharing God’s interest in justice, human dignity and compassionate regard for all of creation. We’re meant to be planters of the seeds of the kingdom of God.
1 Samuel 8:4-20 (11:14-15); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:30-35Read MoreLess
1 Samuel 3:1-20Read MoreLess
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Some years ago we published a small pamphlet called "Spiritual Mosaics: Stories of Faith from the Christ Church Family." It was a collection of 12 short spiritual autobiographies of members of the congregation. It fell out of my bookshelf this past week, and I refreshed my memory about the lives of these twelve family members and what struck me was that every story was about change. Some spoke of larger scale change, others smaller. But each observed a process that brought them to a new place or a new understanding; some described an enlightening serendipitous moment, others wrote of a longer journey and surprising outcomes.
Lorraine summarized her coming to faith this way: “It is a story of personal growth, guided step by step by the rituals of Christ Church. [Over time] I was able to hear in harmonic [messages] just those notes that I was able to understand and temporarily leave the rest. First, I heard about me and let the God part go. Then I heard the parables and found truth in them. Then I accepted God as metaphor. Then I understood the examples of Jesus; and then, finally, I believed that I was a child of God.”
But then she added this: “There is a downside to being a member of Christ Church. We change, and change is hard. After two years, I quit my job and went back to school [finishing my PhD] to become a teacher. Many of my friends in our original connection group quit their jobs as well… we misfits and soul-searchers alike… gather strength at Christ Church… and go off to do the important work of learning about ourselves so that we can better love our neighbors as ourselves.”
The highly regarded writer of short stories, Flannery O’Connor, a woman of great faith, once reflected that “grace changes us, and change is painful.” She meant God’s grace—the Eternal Mystery, Holy Love, God’s ravishing Spirit. That theme runs through much of her writing. Of course, change can also be wonderful, even, astonishing and transforming. If that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
I don’t mean change for change’s sake, or that everything old is bad and everything new is better, or that everything that happens to us is good. But we can’t associate with God’s ravishing Spirit and not expect something to change. That’s logically obvious, right? To worship the God we see revealed through the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and expect everything to stay pretty much as it is would be foolish. To expect our lives to follow a rigid path we’ve plotted out would seem, well, at a minimum, well-defended against the Spirit having her way with us.
We could say this more directly. If we thought we were worshiping this God of transforming grace and nothing changed in our lives, we’re probably worshiping something closer in appearance to what we see in a mirror. That’s because Flannery O’Connor is correct—grace changes us. It’s mysterious in the way that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, that unless one is born from above, one cannot truly see or receive the kingdom of God. But if you do see the kingdom, stands to reason you’ll be changed. Your perspective, your point of view, your understanding of who you are and where you’re headed.
As I flipped through the small storybook I noticed a lot changed in the lives of these sisters and brothers since its original publication. Some swapped old careers for new ones. Fred and Helen moved to London where they recreated their lives entirely. Ruby had a couple of books of poetry published. Jon got married and became a father twice over and changed careers. Manuel received his PhD and became a father. Matt entered and finished seminary and still moves towards ordination. And wonderful, sassy, irreverent Janet made her final change, wrestling, struggling with God every inch of the way before God finally relented and said, “Okay, you win!” granting her reward and taking her home.
Since the publishing of that volume of "Spiritual Mosaics," most of you have wandered in and some stuck around. From my vantage point, change came quickly, and change seems an organic aspect of our natural lives. And importantly, grace changes us.
Joyce tells of her decision to reaffirm her faith during the Easter dawn service one year. She wrote, “As Easter Sunday approached I grew more and more anxious to the point where on Easter Sunday I was visibly trembling. (I know that I was trembling because during the service my son leaned over to me and asked why my hand was shaking.) It was as if I understood that something important was about to happen.”
“We came forward in the darkened chapel, surrounded by candles. We knelt. The ministers traced a cross of water on our foreheads and proclaimed us children of God. After this reaffirmation the Easter message was proclaimed, the lights came on, and the great Easter celebration began. But inside me a change occurred. I couldn’t describe it at the time. All I knew was that I felt physically different; it was a feeling that went way down deep and seemed to ground me.”
Given our track this morning we might describe what happened to Joyce this way: grace changed her. She anticipated change was on its way—that’s why her hands shook. God’s spirit was present that morning and then, as she said, “inside me a change occurred.” And this change did not occur on an especially momentous, spontaneous occasion. It happened on a highly planned-out routine ritual day in which the Spirit was evidently active. All things considered, not a big-time event on the face of it.
Which is not unlike that first Pentecost we heard about last week. In Jewish tradition the spring harvest festival of Pentecost came fifty days after Passover. As the story was told, the disciples had marched triumphantly into Jerusalem like conquering heroes, they shared a poignant last meal, followed by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Remember their cowardice and crushing sense of loss and defeat. Then the disorienting experience of resurrection. A lot had gone down in those weeks. The disciples were agitated and confused, struggling to make sense of all these events.
Many pilgrims from many nations had crammed into the city for this routine ritual festival and then grace changed things. We might say the kingdom of God was revealed. God’s Spirit ravished the disciples.
Those fifty days must have felt like a spiritual pressure cooker. I bet the disciples’ hands were trembling before it all came to pass. I bet they didn’t know what had hit them and how it would all turn out, but inside a change occurred—inside them and then inside a lot of folks who had gathered for the standard religious observance but instead got blown around by Spirit wind. They had not planned on that. But the Spirit had its way.
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. “Do not be astonished Nicodemus that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
We don’t know how Nicodemus interpreted this mystical message, but John reports that after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Evidently, some breath of spirit wind found its way inside of him. Maybe it dawned on him what being born from above meant after all. Resurrection was just around the corner in any case.
Earlier you heard Paul say this to his Roman friends, “Don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent!? There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!”
“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, ‘What’s next, Papa?’” And I’m struck that at the age of 65 that question still haunts expectantly because I’m sensing the Spirit isn’t finished with me yet and likely won’t be finished until I draw my last breath.
After telling his story of personal confusion in the face of death, Matt put it this way: “Grace intervened. At the same time Christ Church opened and lifted me to God and the Spirit…the circumstances of my life shifted dramatically…So much of what I claimed for my identity turned out to be never really mine. This was a house built on sand. [Finally] face to face with myself I began to stop hiding…there was suffering… through it all I knew I was watched over and ministered to by the Spirit… An offering of love was extended to me at Christ Church. As space was made for me…I was offered hope…”
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
I well remember when my two children were confirmed by this congregation at this altar. That was nearly 25 years ago since they’re now in their mid 30’s. I remember their questions about what it all meant. Melissa and I answered them as best we could, and then proceeded to share their adventures into adulthood, the details of which we could not have anticipated at the time of their confirmation. We had our expectations for them, of course, but we learned—sometimes the hard way—that much of the work of parenting involves learning to hold those expectations lightly. As Kahlil Gibran aptly put it in his famous poem about children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. And I mostly subscribe to it. On the other hand, it also bends towards the sentimental. As we adults well know, life isn’t always clear-cut and easy. The bow can sometimes crack when bent and the arrow does not always fly straight. There will be tears ahead as well as triumphs.
One of my enduring prayers for my kids over the years has been a prayer for protection—that God would hold them close and help them to remember that no matter what trouble found them, they would not lose heart or lose the conviction that they were loved. My thought was that if they could see that conviction at work in their parents’ lives—in Melissa and me—as best we could live it, they would be well served for whatever life dished up for them. And when, for whatever reason, we couldn’t do that very well, they would remember that God was present still—always had been, always would be. God was their fortress and their rock. I hoped that would sink into their innermost being, way down into bedrock, below their doubts and questions. From that deep place then the Spirit could groan out their prayer that was too deep for words… that’s how we heard Paul say it a few minutes ago.
There’s a reason we have confirmation on Pentecost Sunday. As our story is told, Pentecost is the day God’s spirit came upon the ragtag, dispirited and cowardly band of disciples that had abandoned their mentor and friend at his time of greatest need. Jesus had told them he would not leave them comfortless, that God would provide a counselor, a Spirit of Truth, that would mediate Jesus’ presence. I will not leave you as orphans, he said. “I will come to you.”
This coming is perhaps the greatest mystery of our spiritual life. If we interviewed all of you about this we’d have quite a wide spectrum of reports concerning if and how you experience God’s presence in your life. There are several Christian denominations that have very specific ideas about what qualifies for “authentic spiritual experience.” For me, that always had the whiff of overcontrolling something that could not, in fact, be controlled and that God was an entirely free agent on how God might manifest in someone’s life.
The problem with spiritual experience, of course, is that its self-authenticating. One just knows it. Or not. Our scriptures and tradition tell us that the evidence will be found in how people live their lives. We see this evidence, for instance, in the lives of those cowardly disciples who are transformed utterly into courageous men and women of faith on Pentecost. Because the Spirit wind blew through them that day, we are now all here in this space. Imagine that!? That’s a kind of evidence.
But then how do we connect the dots to our own lives? How does faith in this graceful God show up in the lives of ordinary people, people like us, for instance, going about our day-to-day business? What does the evidence of our lives reveal? Scott Hoezee recalls that Maya Angelou’s classic essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” (*) describes what this evidence of God’s presence might look like in someone’s life.
Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl, (confirmation age I might add…) even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and eventually left, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory, glory hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see a whole lot deeper, farther than just those girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. She knew who she was and whose she was. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her. Her life gave evidence of the inner reality.
We surmise there had been a little Pentecost on that porch when Momma had been filled with the spirit of God and her daughter, Maya, had heard of it in her own language, that is, in a language that would touch Maya’s heart and change Maya forever. In that way Momma was a true bow in the hands of God and Maya was a sure arrow that flew swift and far.
And we pray that may be so for all of us…
(*) As suggested by Scott Hoezee here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/day-of-pentecost-c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53Read MoreLess
Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
There’s no getting around the fact that certain themes are relentlessly presented here at Christ Church, certain themes that lie at the heart of what we profess. Different churches might focus on slightly different aspects of the Christian tradition, but just around the bend of nearly every theological topic we could discuss lies the great progenitor theme of love. And as Christ Church folks know, that’s front and center in our mission here: we seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.
While some Christians seem to manage it, you have to try pretty hard to not have that as your first principle, especially after hearing Jesus say on the night of his arrest that his foundational commandment is for his friends and followers to love as he loves. In our recent Sunday readings, that theme has been rung loud and clear. God is love, we heard last week. Love as I love, we hear this week.
Love gets a lot play in our culture of course. And there’s a whole lot of confusion about it. Given that the word love is one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language, it might not be a bad idea to give some attention to the status of your loving over these next few minutes.
We use the word “love” to refer to a whole host of widely disparate feelings, emotions and relationships. We say we “fall in love” when we have strong physical, sexual and/or emotional attraction for another person. But then, too, if you’re a car enthusiast you might say you love your vintage Corvette. If you have a family pet, you will likely report you love your dog or cat—she’s a full member of the family. If chocolate is a favorite, your friends will hear how you love it, gotta have it. Sexual relations are described as “making love.” We speak of brotherly and sisterly love, love between friends, love of money, love of oneself.
The Greeks had four words for love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. That we have only one word that generally covers these topics doesn’t help. Seems we could benefit from pulling these ideas apart to discern what we’re actually addressing when we use the word in here.
A whole lot gets labeled as love that has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Sometimes it’s saddled with masking abusive behavior, or self-serving, manipulative behavior. Sometimes sexual exploitation is presented as love. I know from my work that authentic love can seem complicated, confusing and very elusive for people.
Then there’s the widespread cultural assumption that love ought to be easy, simple as 1, 2, 3. Experience teaches something else, but this fantasy dies hard, and some will consistently behave as though it should be easy so that anything which borders on the difficult sends them bouncing from one person, one friendship, even one church to another, never giving themselves permission to do the work of love.
Missing the payoff of warm feelings and easy times we can believe love is in very short supply in the world, resisting to learn the truth that love exists wherever and whenever we will it to exist.
Because love is as love does. That’s the point I will make today.
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” You’ll note that he did not say love was a warm feeling, as in, “Go forth and feel warmly towards people!” The example he gave was laying down one’s life for another. Not a feeling, not even a desire, really. Instead, the will to act.
The desire to love is not the same thing as the will to love. The distinction becomes clear when we compare the sentences, “I desire to go swimming,” versus, “I will go swimming.” The second implies intention and action. So simply desiring to love, while often a precursor to the real thing, does not, cannot replace real love. This is a very common misunderstanding. (M. Scott Peck)
That’s because love is as love does. Love is active, not passive. Whenever we choose and then act for the good of another, we are involved in the work of love.
Through quiet tears, Mary told me about another failed relationship. Now in her mid-forties and nearly desperate to find the right partner, she questioned whether it would ever happen. She had always believed there was just one person who was her true soul mate. Most of her serious relationships started out well enough, but at some point each fell flat. There always came that day when she awakened to the feeling she was no longer “in love.” What was wrong with her? Mary asked.
I said I had no idea if anything was wrong. But I did know that even if she ever were to find her true soul mate, so-called, there would inevitably come the day she would roll over in bed and think to herself, “What on earth am I doing here?” Then, I added, would come her opportunity to discover what love was more nearly about, because at that moment she would have to choose to love or not.
Though we’re allergic to this truth, love really has a lot to do with choice. We would rather think of it as something that happens to us than as something that is created by us. I think this allergy helps explain why there’s so little of it in our world and how easy it is to lose.
Love is as love does. The desire to love is not the same thing as love. The test comes when examining what one actually does.
“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” There is no other statement, no other teaching in the Bible that’s any clearer than this. If you were to summarize in a single sentence the primary teaching of Jesus, this is it. And if someone then questioned what you meant by love, you could respond that it moves along a continuum that ends with this: greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.
In the ultimate sense, the very most I can do for another is to hand over my life. That’s the model Jesus presents. Now, on a daily basis we aren’t usually called upon to give up our physical lives. But if we’re intent upon really loving, then we live with the will to extend ourselves for others. The promise that comes with our faith is that the more we give ourselves in love, the more our own lives become transformed by love. And at the end, even death itself is swallowed up by love.
But be clear, this sort of love has no tangible reality unless it is acted out in the world. When Tertullian, a Christian convert who became a prominent theologian of the second century declared, “See how the Christians love one another,” he was not referring to expressions of warm desires and feelings between them—as though they frequently exchanged lovely Hallmark cards. He’s referring to how they acted—what they did—what the content of their lives revealed. They put themselves—their possessions, their commitments, their lives—on the line. They extended themselves to others. They acted in love, for love is as love does.
There is no higher calling for the living of our days. To love authentically requires one to be a risk taker. To love at all is to be vulnerable in action. One cannot love and simultaneously maintain a controlled and steely existence, or an existence in flagrant disregard for others.
The best example of the sort of love we read, sing and speak about in here comes in the life of a man who said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” who was then summarily betrayed, arrested and left for dead by the very ones to whom he had addressed himself. That’s the prescriptive example of divine love. That was God’s definition.
The miracle, the thing we celebrate in the Easter season, is that this sort of love ultimately triumphs in this world. As the First Letter of John says it: “For the love of God is this…that whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”
Love is as love does. There are so many things to be done that range from feeding a hungry person, to listening to a friend’s turmoil, asking forgiveness of a co-worker, spending time with children, giving generously, extravagantly, of material resources, learning how to build lasting, committed relationships, working for justice for all people.
To actively love is a radical, intentional way of living in the world, the most radical way there is. To actively love is a life stance, a way of orienting ourselves in the world. To love authentically stakes a claim on what matters most in this life, and it runs counter to much of what we experience day-to-day.
A daunting, inspiring challenge. Thank God we have one another. Thank God we have the rock solid, sustaining model in Jesus and his abiding presence. Thank God for love.
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
I entered Yale Divinity School when I was 22-years-old, which seems really, really young to me today. Sociologists are telling us that mature adulthood is arriving quite a bit later now, so 22 is more like the start of a protracted adolescence. And honestly, when I look back on those days I would tell you that I was sort of an emotional basket case when I made my way from the west coast to the east, not really having a clue as to how I might fashion a meaningful life; and I suffered from what has now become the neurotic benchmark of our moment—excessive anxiety. I dripped with it.
Some of that anxiety was driven by the belief that I was supposed to have my act together as I graduated from college. The implicit cultural expectation was that college prepared you for your career which would commence immediately upon graduation. Marriage would soon follow, then kids and a mortgage resulting in great satisfaction and happiness as you made your way up whichever occupational ladder you had chosen, eventually to retire when work would cease, and your well-earned playtime would begin.
That was the post-World War II script. The world had been saved from tyranny and a golden time of infinite opportunity lay ahead. The apple was ripe for the picking… at least for some of us… who were the right gender, race and class.
But then, that catalyzed some of the agitated anxiety for someone like me who was not especially well-suited to the most conventional or, shall we say, opportune occupations. My mother wanted me to become a brain surgeon. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. And when word got around that I was headed off to Divinity School that came as quite a shock to nearly everyone, including my friends, by the way.
I didn’t enter divinity school headed towards ordination. It was just that I was very intrigued with God, who had become increasingly real to me. A fluky set of circumstances is what got me to Yale, although, in retrospect I see the golden thread linking the days of my life to the present moment.
But one’s vocation is only one facet of the conundrum of living into a meaningful life. Perhaps you saw the recent film All the Money in the World which chronicles the time in 1973 when J. Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped. Getty was then the world’s richest man and the film tells a harrowing tale of a capitalist attitude run amok. Christopher Plummer was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of this awful man who nevertheless had a knack for accumulating wealth.
This knack did not serve his offspring, however. And in fact, begs the question of what else actually matters for a life well-lived. Getty was enamored of accumulating stuff and things. He said he loved his children and grandchildren, but as I will discuss next week, love is as love does.
Still, even in that thoroughly dysfunctional family, there was an implicit understanding that love was supposed to have a central role in human flourishing. Love was an aspect of their conceptual framework. Their inability to execute actual love drives of the story forward.
Of course, love is part of the conceptual framework for most everyone and lies at the heart of all the enduring religious traditions. That’s where we most regularly learn about it. So, while we’re growing up and making our way out into the world, figuring out our vocations and life patterns, we’re also figuring out how love fits in. With various degrees of intention, all of us try to work out what it is.
I can tell you that many, if not most of the problems people come to talk with me about involve an issue with love, even if that word never enters the conversation. And while I believe love is woven into every part of creation—indeed, it’s the very engine of creation—we’re nevertheless victims of defective role-modeling.
We humans have been so fashioned that it seems love must be chosen by us—it’s an option in our human freedom. God’s love for us is not optional, but for us it is an option in every moment of every day. And very often we simply don’t choose it.
Same was true for our parents to greater or lesser degrees, and their parents before them and so on drifting back into the misty past until we find ourselves in that lovely garden called Eden when Eve invites Adam to take a bite of the apple—and look what happened to the brothers Cain and Able!
That’s the story lore that our tradition teaches. It’s hung around in our collective memory as long as it has because it resonates with human experience. It reveals something authentic about us. In this way the story is archetypal: it describes a general condition. We are fickle and idolatrous, narcissistic and petty, often disregarding the voices of the better angels of our nature.
And so, love can seem terribly elusive, if simultaneously really important.
We heard the writer of First John say it explicitly: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him… since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another…”
In here we say that statement describes the heart of our faith. If we seek to learn how to love, we have only to look to God’s son, Jesus Christ, as our model. And his way of love followed this pattern: birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection. At each step along the way he chose the loving alternative, and this was both glorious and fraught with anguish.
We have an instinct about the anguish that is tied to love. You know this from experience—that if you love something, someone, you set yourself up for hurt. We see that writ large in the life and times of Jesus who loved so very well.
In this way we say that genuine love comes only through our vulnerability. If we extend ourselves to someone in love we run the risk of rejection, or misunderstanding, or the lack of what we deem “appropriate reciprocation.” We run the risk of needing to give something up that we have otherwise decided is really important to us. A word like sacrifice takes on meaning in real time.
In his discussion of love C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no safe investment [here]. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one... Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
“But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable… The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell.” (The Four Loves)
So back to my time in divinity school: after I woke up to the necessity of ordination, I took an intensive summer course in New Testament Greek. One of the exams involved translating the First Letter of John, from which we read today. At one point I recall parsing out, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…” and very tired of the project at this point, I felt like writing, yada, yada, yada. But then this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”
And for whatever reason, it felt like I was hit by a 2x4. Though I wasn’t reading for content at the time, it struck me hard: the opposite of love was not hate, but fear. Fear was the great enemy. And love the great antidote. I had never really heard that before though I had read the passage many times. And so, at the age of 22 I internalized the lesson that if I were ever going to learn how to love well, I would be contending with fear. And I have since learned well that fear lies behind so much bad behavior of every sort—the big flashy arrogant kind, and the quiet, passive, victimized kind—and every kind of bad behavior in between.
I started the practice of paying attention to my fears…to name them, bring them to consciousness…to recognize and own them. This is a difficult, sometimes excruciating, even humiliating discipline…but little by little I discovered that if I did that I was often able to move through my fear. I learned that I could love better. Not perfectly mind you, but better. And then I learned bit by bit that the more I attempted to genuinely love, the less I feared.
And I began to see how our social ills are fashioned and driven by fear: racism, sexism, and all the tribalisms that keep us on lockdown among our own kind… so much fear and resulting defensiveness, aggression and violence. It made so much sense. It opened my heart and mind to what happened to Jesus and why his triumph was so profoundly liberating.
Here was another kind of archetypal story: a man walked into his life and through his fear with the creative power of love and he triumphed over death itself. That was a story I could give my life to because it wasn’t just a story, it described reality, my reality…I felt it in every fiber of my being.
Friends, that’s the sort of love we talk about in here—the gluing agent of life itself, the core, the heart of the matter, the essence of life’s meaning and purpose, the true antidote to fear that agitates so many of our problems.
I come here because I need you to help me learn how to love. We do that for each other. At its best, this place, this congregation is a school for love. And I, for one, am very, very grateful for that…