Each week our clergy, and occasional guest preachers, attempt to faithfully proclaim God’s Word in fresh, aspirational, and practical ways. In essence, they explore what it means to live our mission: We seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. We hope that audio and text files you will find here will aid your own Christian journey.
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John 20: 19-31
The phrase, “A peaceful transition of power” came to the fore of our American lexicon after the results of our most recent presidential election. In a speech meant to help unify our country, then president Barack Obama lifted up the peaceful transition of power as one of the hallmarks of American democracy. Yet America is not the originator of peaceful transitions of power. In our gospel text, we witness a much earlier transition of power. Jesus had concluded his earthly ministry and was preparing to return to the Father. But before he left, he prepared the disciples to continue the work of the kingdom.
Our text begins on the evening of the resurrection. The disciples were hiding in a locked room. Jesus, the man that they had given up their lives to follow, had been crucified. What would they do without him? Would they return to their homes? Could they even return home? Was it safe for them there? Would Jesus really be raised? They were filled with questions and confusion. We often hear this story referred to as doubting Thomas, but on this first day, all of them were filled with doubt. There were rumors that Jesus was alive—Mary had seem him earlier that day. But they were still filled with doubt.
In the midst of this chaos, Jesus came and was present among them. The first thing he said was “Peace be with you.” Not why do you doubt? Why are you afraid? Why are you hiding?. They were afraid, so Jesus gave them peace. These words aren’t just a greeting. Jesus was giving a gift. He was sharing with them God’s gift of wholeness and rest. He reminded them of the gift he first offered before his death: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” This was the same peace that allowed Jesus to sleep in the boat in the middle of a storm. He offered them the peace that surpasses all understanding. The peace that guards our hearts and minds.
When the disciples were in doubt; when they were confused; when they didn’t know what to believe, Jesus gave them peace. And this wasn’t the first time, but since they needed it again, he gave it again. Jesus knew that his followers would experience hatred and persecution. They’d have to withstand the chaos of the world. And just as Jesus gave peace to his earliest disciples, he also gives it to us. And we’re called share that peace with others. We share it in our words: “Peace be with you.” We also share it in our actions. Don’t underestimate the importance of peace. Because just as peace is transferable, so is chaos. There are people in this world who transfer chaos. People who like to keep mess going. People who will try to disrupt your peace because they don’t have any. But we have a peace that the world didn’t give and the world can’t take away. So don’t let anybody take your peace. You can share it, but don’t let anybody take it!
In giving the disciples peace, Jesus didn’t promise to make life easy. He didn’t change their external circumstances. The leaders who persecuted Jesus were still outside of those doors. The disciples’ lives were still in danger. We still live in a world where children are poisoned with chemical weapons; where the Mother of All Bombs is dropped in Holy Week; where the threat of nuclear war is ever present. So much of what happens in the world is out of our personal control. But we can have what Howard Thurman called “the island of peace within one’s own soul.” This island is where we can be our authentic selves in the presence of God. Where we can be rest from the stress of life. So when life is wearing you down, go to your island of peace. When you won’t do right, go to your island of peace. When your kids are crazy, go to your island of peace. When you want to curse a coworker out, go to your island of peace. Be open before God, share your struggles, and receive Christ’s peace. Then you can emerge from the locked doors, ready to face your fears in the world.
In this transition, Jesus gave the disciples peace. He also gave them his power. He breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus, who had driven out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead, was now charging his disciples to continue the work he had begun. The risen Jesus, who had all authority in heaven and earth, was now giving the disciples his power.
So what is this power that Jesus gave them? It certainly wasn’t the military power of the Roman government. It wasn’t power acquired through wealth, social status, or education. He didn’t give them power to retaliate against their persecutors; power to get reservations at the best restaurants in Jerusalem. He didn’t give them power so that they could be like Pinky and the Brain and try to take over the world. Jesus gave them a different kind of power. This power would allow the disciples to withstand persecution. This power for them to proclaim that God’s kingdom. Power to build a community where shared all their possessions. Jesus gave them power to forgive sin. Power to heal. Power to love.
Like so much of what Jesus did, the sharing of power was countercultural. In a land where power was seized by violence and force, Jesus presented a new model of gaining power. He didn’t require that they fight for it. Jesus willingly bestowed power onto the disciples. Sharing his power was not a threat to Jesus. Rather, he saw it as necessary for the advancement of his kingdom. Advancing the kingdom that where “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female… [where all] are one in Christ Jesus.
This power, God’s power, is foolish by the world’s standards. The world tells us to pursue power that will advance our agendas. We want a promotion that will bring with it more power. We want more money so that we can have power. We want a car that can own the road. But if we aren’t careful, the quest for power can lead us to trouble.
A few weeks ago, I was watching the show Survivor. This show is all about gaining power in order to eliminate others and win the million-dollar prize. One contestant Jeff, could feel that he was powerless in the tribe. He suspected that he would be voted out at the next Tribal Council; so he made a final grab for power. At tribal council Jeff attempted to save himself by outing one of his tribe members who was transgender. The other tribe members were shocked at Jeff’s actions. They thought that as a gay man, he’d understand the harm of outing someone. But Jeff was desperate and willing to go after power at any cost. Soon after outing his opponent, Jeff realized the magnitude of his transgression, and he was remorseful. But it was too late. He had already hurt another player, not just on a reality show, but in this player’s real life. He had jeopardized his family, his career, and his personal safety.
Pursuit of the world’s power can make us like Jeff. We can be good hearted people. But we can become so caught up our quest for power that we lose sight of our values. We can hurt our friends, our families, our communities. Hurt ourselves. But Jesus gives us power that builds us up. Power to help. Power to serve others. Jesus is calling us to follow in his way. To peacefully share this power with others.
You see, the world entices us to rule, but God empowers us to lead.
The world entices us to take. God empowers us to give.
The world entices us to lie. God empowers us to lift up others.
The world entices us to hurt. God empowers us to heal.
God has given us the power of love.
Receive God’s power.
The power of love.
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
As the story is told we don’t know what Mary Magdalene expected when she went to the tomb that first Easter morning, or just what she was going to do there. In her grief she may have been wondering if the morning would ever come again. John tells us that Mary went to the cemetery by herself. That it was still dark might suggest she hadn’t slept well during the night, or that she was afraid of being seen.
Why does anyone visit a cemetery? As with Mary, grief brings people initially. Grief, loss, a longing to fill the empty hole that’s opened up within the heart. After the funeral no one expects to return to find the grave disturbed. Cemeteries are all about finality. Endings. Things that have been and never will be again.
Perhaps like me you’ve discovered that a cemetery can be a place of comfort and solace. I rather like them. And given my line of work I’ve walked through my share of cemeteries over the years. I’ve wandered around the markers reading names and dates and inscriptions and sat under expansive, leafy trees on pleasant days remembering people I have known who are no more, inevitably wondering about the number of years I might have and how I’ve already spent the ones I’ve lived.
Mary’s visit came too soon for solace and self-reflection. She came freighted with all of the oppressive events of Jesus’ last days haunting her mind, her heart, and her soul, her whole being. She still had the crucifixion seared into her brain—it was just some rush of hours ago. She was raw with the rapid and violent devolution of Jesus’ campaign. Is that what it was? Was he on some sort of campaign? And if so, to what end exactly? Surely not this end. Not this End, capital “E”. But he had been placed in a grave. Dead. Gone. Finished.
And when Mary discovered the tomb had been tampered with she thought that his body had been stolen. The way John writes it, Mary runs to the disciples to tell them breathlessly, “They have taken the Lord…” We aren’t told who “they” are, but we could surmise that Mary fears those who put him to death were not finished desecrating his remains, perhaps moving him to a pauper’s grave, or throwing him on the city’s garbage heap. She drew a logical conclusion based on life as she had known it.
The ruthless and the arrogant inherited the earth, after all, not the meek and the poor in spirit. The dissemblers, manipulators and takers of the world were filled, not those who hungered for righteousness. The merciful rarely received mercy and Mary never heard peacemakers called children of God, except from Jesus. But he was dead. And now his body was stolen. And she wept from grief.
Now friends, this is the lynch-pin of the Christian faith. We’re right at the heart of the mystery and the way the story is told what we have is an empty tomb, a somewhat ignorant and terrified group of would-be followers and—taking all gospel the stories together—a convoluted hodge-podge of confusing facts and story-telling. Man-o-man I often have wished we had more to go on here. The reported evidence appears so thin. But then from a higher vantage point that very thinness seems to inform the essence of faith.
Here’s how John says it goes down for Mary. After Peter and another disciple come to see the tomb for themselves Mary is once again left by herself in her grief, weeping. Still believing that someone has taken Jesus’ body she turns and sees a man she thinks is a gardener and asks him if he’s the grave-robber. Jesus looks at her and simply says her name—“Mary!” And with this she sees him for who he is, the first witness to resurrection.
When Jesus calls her name all the doors and windows of Mary’s soul are flung wide. No barrier prevents the profound and intimate connection. Jesus is fully present to her and she to him. Nothing is hidden. And in this astonished state she learns that things are not always as they appear. There are layers to reality that she had sensed but never really understood. It’s as though scales fall from her eyes and she’s able to see reality from a multi-dimensional perspective for the first time in her life.
The closest material approximation I can make to this is when someone who loves me says my name in a moment of acute awareness. Has this ever happened to you? Your best friend or spouse or partner, or family member, even a child who knows you very well, who loves you, during a moment of honest engagement says your name while looking into your face and it hits you that you are truly known to this person and they offer a love that is larger than you perceive you deserve.
Now if you’ve ever come close to sharing an experience like this you know that it changes you. The naming changes you. Your insides become larger. Things clarify. You sense this love makes you a better person somehow. Yet you would be very hard pressed to describe the facts of the experience in any meaningful way—we were out to dinner sharing a bowl of pasta; we were on our way to a meeting and the car broke down; we were walking down the sidewalk when it started to rain. The external circumstances for the most part are inconsequential to the acuteness of the experience.
This is but a shadow-box portrayal of the love released in resurrection. Resurrection is a work of love. An astonishing, awesome, heartrending, courage-enabling, hope-inducing, life-transforming love. Again, the reported details of the story have a limited range because describing the essence of something the size and scope of resurrection love is nearly impossible, our words and descriptors inevitably fail. They are not large enough and we wind up talking in metaphors and analogies and poetry or creating buildings like this filled with sparkling mosaics or writing music and wringing as much passion out of it as we can because the love is so large, so awesome, so overwhelming.
The other day I was having a conversation with someone who walked in here several years ago because of a nagging experience of God’s intimate presence in his life. He told me he had grown up in a non-religious household. But from early on he had this sense of a holy and profoundly intimate presence. As a result he started looking for ways to deepen the connection. And though he did not hear a mystical voice call out his name, everything he reports suggests that he knows he is understood, held, loved in a way that defies description. This relationship slowly impacted his life, agitating his decisions and commitments.
Honestly, as he told his story I felt I was hearing a variation of my own. I, too, knew this holy presence from as early as I can recall. Oh, I went through my agnostic stage about this, but eventually the church, the scriptures gave me a language and a pathway to understanding this experience which led me to help introduce others to the One who knows their authentic name. I know for certain, as certain as faith determines, that this One has set the ground beneath our feet, knit us together in our mother’s wombs and inflated our lungs with breath.
To add nuance to my point here, consider what we do when we mean to harm, demean or disrespect others. We abuse their names. We make new names for them. Consider how this functions with every sort of prejudice between races and classes and sexual identities and religions and enemies of every kind. Derogatory names are assigned, hateful names, names meant to put up barriers, names intended to strip dignity and humanity of those on the receiving end of our ugliness. In Auschwitz and Treblinka and other gruesome destinies names were exchanged for numbers tattooed onto the skin so as to obliterate prisoners’ humanity.
In direct rebuke of the diminishment of an individual the resurrected Jesus called out “Mary!” and she was known in her innermost being—known, claimed and loved. In the naming she realizes there is nothing that separates her from him. Nothing. No prior condition, no fault, failing or weakness. No limitation.
Just a few days ago the disciples had majored in cowardice and betrayal of their best friend. They let him die alone, bereft. Lied about their associations with him. Honestly, their transformation is a far better proof of the resurrection than the written reports of the supposed events—if physical proof is what you’re after.
I agree with William Sloane Coffin who wrote, “Not only Peter, but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before: that’s irrefutable… Convinced by his appearance that Jesus was their living Lord, the disciples really had only one category in which to articulate this conviction, and that was…resurrection. …In Paul’s writings the living Christ and the Holy Spirit are never clearly differentiated, so that when he says, ‘Not I, but Christ who dwells within me,’ he is talking about the same Holy Spirit that you and I can experience in our own lives. I myself believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as a memory, but as a presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as it were, to close the show with ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ but rather to reopen the show with the hymn, ‘Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.’ (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 28.)” An astonishing gift of love, by love, for love’s sake. Did you possibly come to receive that gift today!?
Friends, love and its derivatives are the only authentic positive change-agents there are. If someone is changing for the better, love is somehow at work. If authentic justice occurs, a broken relationship is restored, the spirit of resurrection is there; if children are held and cared for, forgiveness happens, the lost, abandoned, oppressed and abused receive the dignity of being called by their name with compassionate regard, I tell you resurrection love is afoot and Jesus lives for certain. Hallelujah!
Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14-23:56
Standing up to preach after rehearsing the awesome story we just heard seems more than a little anti-climactic. I feel terribly small by comparison; hardly capable of adding an additional thought that would provide the crucial clue to the overarching meaning of what we just heard.
Some years I feel differently. Some years I’m full of myself believing I have an inspired nugget of insight. That’s the curse of the self-assured preacher that can manifest in rather unpleasant condescension. And, honestly, sometimes when I step up here I really do wonder what on earth I think I’m doing. I’m well versed in the theological frameworks concerning the necessity and importance of preaching, and the power of attending to what we Protestants refer to as “the word of God.” And I generally subscribe to these frameworks—which is a good thing, I suppose, given my occupation. I’ve had a fine education and years of experience. But then, as you well know, neither of those things predict that what a preacher has to say does any earthly good.
But now those of you who know my wife, Melissa, know that I married very well lest I should find myself thinking more of my output than I ought to. I’ve shared with some of you that a couple of years into both my marriage and my ministry, Melissa provided the appropriate counterpoint to an ambitious preacher’s ego.
It went down like this: Being a rather earnest and arrogant young cleric who wanted to be known to deliver a useful word that was well-received I regularly asked Melissa for a review after the Sunday service. It might come sooner, or it might come later, but sometime before we fell asleep, if she had not already volunteered a point of view, I would say something like, “So, what did you think of the sermon?” And she would dutifully provide a generally positive, rarely critical comment in a somewhat ambivalent manner.
But after a year of this repetitive behavior that she no doubt saw trickling forward into our misty future week after week, year after year, she finally told her truth with a great big sigh after yet one more repetition of, “So whadya think about the sermon?” And she said, “You know Steve, I don’t go to church for the sermons—I go for the music.”
And honestly, that was a very clarifying moment that I’ve never forgotten. Though her response was layered with several motivations and meanings, it made me more aware of my actual place in relation to the great mystery we honor here. In other words, one of the very first things to say today is that this story teaches humility.
Some weeks, on some occasions, I feel humbler than others; some years this humility hits me more acutely as Lent moves into its climaxing week. It comes with the tension I experience between my personal spiritual engagement with the material and the necessity of my occupation to talk about it. And I am an extrovert who likes to think out loud.
But as a matter of personal experience, I am compelled into silence by this story. That’s one reason I don’t often preach on Good Friday. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll come to our service and allow yourselves the humbling gift of being brought to silence before the cross, with open hands and hearts.
One of the main reasons I fall silent before the story is that it gave birth to my faith. This story captured my mind and heart and soul. It’s the reason I wound up doing this gig. This is it, this walk Jesus took taking Jerusalem by storm one day, the climbing Calvary’s hill lugging the means of his death the next day, then hanging there utterly alone.
Each year I’ll take the time to read and consider all four gospel versions because each has unique elements. This seems to make it more human, like how four witnesses to a traffic accident tell a somewhat different story with slightly different facts based upon their location, frame of mind, and whom they’re addressing.
I call myself a Christian because this story converted me and I’m somewhat hard-pressed to tell you exactly how that happened. On that specific point, I’m at a loss for words. I’m brought to profound silence. Nothing I could report would touch the change itself. It came to me as a gift. I can tell you that no one talked me into it. I was not coerced or otherwise manipulated into believing a set of religious propositions, nor was I scared about my eternal destination.
In early years I was especially captured by Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The way the story reads the son of God experiences utter forsakenness, loss, despair, complete emptiness—a startling and intensely human experience summarized, dignified and hallowed.
And then Jesus died. After six or so hours of torture, he spent his last breath. And somehow death was hallowed as well.
As I mentioned last week, death is the Great Fear. Look behind any human ambition and you will find death as motivator. I mean, without it, would we be spurred to do anything at all? As William Sloane Coffin argued, “Consider the alternative—life without death. Life without death would be interminable... We’d take days just to get out of bed, weeks to decide ‘what’s next?’ Students would never graduate, meetings would go on for months...without growing old there can be no growing up; without tears, no laughter; so without death there can be no living” (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, 2004, Westminster John Knox, Louisville, p168.)
And Jesus is the one who teaches, demonstrates, reveals that death is not worthy of our fear, it does not, cannot separate us from God. “Though he die, yet shall he live,” said Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. And “Whoever believes in me shall never die.” Summarizing his own experience of Christ, Paul wrote, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Paul came to that realization because he was captured by Jesus’ story and this revealed to him that “The abyss of God’s love is deeper than the abyss of death. And she who overcomes her fear of death lives as though death were a past and not a future experience” (Ibid) When that happens we’re able to pray with quiet confidence, “Loving One, help me to live as one who is prepared to die, and when my days here are accomplished, help me die as one who goes forth to live...”
For myself, the best I can say is that the tables reversed somehow; rather than my attempting to interpret the story, I awoke one day to find that the story was interpreting me. And I was hooked, gone, or better, found—I was found, like it says in the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” I hadn’t thought myself a wretch exactly, but I knew what John Newton meant when he wrote those well-known words: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me...”
There’s a reason that hymn hangs on and on in our cultural cloud. It’s the same reason Jesus’ story has captured the hearts and minds of billions over centuries. Hearing the story for me was like hearing the sound of amazing grace. Like Melissa knew instinctively, it was indeed a kind of music that groans deeper than words.
And in a few minutes we’ll be concluding our serve by singing this simple but powerful question:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Consider that an invitation…
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Over the years of my ministry several experiences have been indelibly linked with certain scripture readings. One such experience from a number of years ago relates to this particular day, the fifth Sunday in Lent, and our stories from Ezekiel and John. I was attending a workshop in New Orleans at an organization for recently paroled prisoners transitioning back into society.
The program used some traditional methods such as re-education and mentoring, but the founder located its real power in a process of mutual self-help and spiritual encouragement he called “community building.” Sitting in a circle for a number of hours several times a week, these 50 prisoners spilled out their stories, sharing their defeats, celebrating their victories as they engaged the long hard process of rebuilding their identities and place in the world.
The stories I heard were severe: the 21-year-old sitting next to me, tried and convicted as an adult at the age of 14, released just 6 months earlier; the 45-year-old woman across the circle who became a crack addict at the age of nine; other stories recalled murdered brothers, parents dead by overdose, the devastations of crushing poverty, all manner of human calamity and depravation.
The stories leaked out as the men and women told of how their lives had been transformed by the love and care they found in this program. Their gratitude was overflowing. One man spoke simply and eloquently for the group when he said that what the program had given him—something that he had thought was gone forever—was his dignity.
I shed many tears during this shared experience. At some point I realized these tears were not about the suffering. Instead, they were a response to the palpable opportunity for resurrection these women and men were experiencing. Through their surrender to a spirit larger than their own, and their willingness to reach out to one another, this unlikely company made the plain industrial room in which we met a sacred space. From the moment I walked through the door and first experienced their respectful silence, I felt that space was far holier than many churches I had been in over the years.
At one point during their sharing, one of the participants recalled the story of the bone-rattling imagery from Ezekiel you heard a moment ago. She must have dug it out from a childhood memory of Sunday school, and honestly I swear to God I nearly heard the rattling and clattering of bones coming together. “I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them...and the breath came into them and they lived...” (37:8, 10)
Their lives were not easy by any reasonable measure. They spoke of many failures as well as successes. But they were filled with a vital hope—it struck me as a lot more hope than many persons who had been blessed by a far richer environment, education and material prosperity. It occurred to me at the time that this experience would have brought tears even to the eyes of cynics.
And strangely, these might be the tears of identification. I say “strangely” because most of us in this room probably wouldn’t automatically identify with these people. But when actually bearing witness to something dead being brought back to life, most of us will feel a strum on a deep inner chord. All of us, at least once in a while, sense death lurking about whether or not we ever speak of it, and long for a word of hope.
Ezekiel had gone into long exile with his people in the 6th century BCE—around 2600 years ago. Sharing their devastating experience he knows their state of mind. He has heard their complaints. The people say, our bones are dried up and our hope is lot. Their God resides elsewhere; they have been cut off at the root. The smell of death hangs in the air. And Ezekiel hears God’s voice inquire, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I’m thinking Mary and Martha may have heard a similar voice in their despair over the death of their brother Lazarus.
Now concerning the matter of death, we are completely the same regardless of background or present status. Whether you have a doctorate from Harvard or failed to get a high school diploma, whether you have a hundred million dollars or just ten, whether you are blessed with dazzling physical beauty or not, whether you command the attention of thousands or only your cat, and then only occasionally, each of us has a finite number of hours on this earth.
As the story is told, Jesus will raise Lazarus to physical life; but, really, it’s only a postponement for a more permanent change. In a few more months, or years, or even another decade or two, Lazarus’ earthly life will leave him for good. Jesus has another order or magnitude in mind when he speaks as the one who is the resurrection and the life. We know this because of what will soon befall him. Easter is just a few short weeks away. This story from John is a bit of an Easter tease here as Jesus continues his dramatic journey to Jerusalem and we continue our season of Lent.
Death has many guises, of course, From Jesus’ perspective it’s entirely possible to have physical life and still be mostly dead. Have you ever seen that? Or, perhaps, even experienced that yourself in some desperate time? I’ve spoken with many people over the years that have been in some stage of decay, despair or hopelessness. It’s not so very uncommon. I suspect a condition like this visits nearly everyone at some time or another before our final death.
Virginia Mollenkott, emeritus professor of English and theologian said that she loved to watch students come alive. “One of the courses I teach is freshman English,” she once wrote, “and that’s a place where you can empower people. They often come to you beaten down...Before I pass back their first graded paper, I give them a little speech” ‘This grade is not for you. This grade is for a piece of work you turned in.’
“Then I ask them if they want to know what I think of them, and usually they want to. So I continue, ‘I think you’re made in the image of God and of inestimable worth. There’s no way anything I could put in my grade book could ever begin to estimate you.’
“I learned to do this after I read Flannery O’Connor’s story about the boy who went up in the attic and drew a circle with a big ‘F’ in the middle…and hanged himself over the ‘F’. He didn’t distinguish between the grade he was getting and who he was.
“For me, the meaning of life is to share with people the wonderful news that we are the daughters and sons of God.”
That’s what many of the paroled men and women in the re-entry program were discovering. In fact, though this was not a faith-based program, I was struck by how many of them made off-hand references to God in their storytelling. No hyper religious soliloquies, but respectful, hopeful references to faith, and a source of hope beyond themselves, as though this was a common language of life for them.
In addition to the Ezekiel passage I heard a reference to Lazarus as well. At one point one of the participants said to the young man next to me, “Jeff, I swear to God, you’re Lazarus come out of the grave!” I doubt the majority of those present knew the reference, but I did, and it’s the reason I remember it so well on the fifth Sunday of Lent. Desolation and hope co-mingled in that room, but there was no question that hope, the spirit of life, had the larger claim on the intentions of their hearts.
Ezekiel preached a powerful word about God’s life-giving spirit. God’s breath enters the dry bones and brings them to life. What is impossible for hopeless, lifeless humanity to imagine is, for God, a simple exhalation. Where God breathes, life springs up. This defines God’s nature.
Ezekiel’s vision of a desecrated valley fully restored is a powerful metaphor of what God accomplishes with another set of lifeless bones nailed to a wooden crossbeam in first century Palestine. And remarkably, it foreshadows what’s possible for anyone who feels, at any moment, that he or she is part of the company of the walking dead.
If that has ever defined your situation, take heart! Breathe deeply. It’s God’s pleasure to fill your lungs with his very breath. And considering the state of our troubled and fractious nation and world, let’s take heart together. Let’s claim the promise that’s found on the other side of every death-dealing circumstance, joining forces with the breath of life.
Psalm 23Read MoreLess
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
When I first arrived at Christ Church this sanctuary was locked up except for 3 hours on Sunday mornings. The congregation was near internal collapse and some of the remnant leaders had seemingly taken an unspoken oath to protect this space as though that was their primary Christian obligation. Of course, if it weren’t for their stubborn perseverance, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.
After a number of years of accumulating new members and friends, we finally installed the glass doors and got this space open 12 hours a day. And it didn’t take long for folks to realize that this space itself was an important ministry to the city and all passersby seeking refuge. That’s what the word “sanctuary” actually references, a haven of protection and safety. And it was very evident to me offering such a place for New Yorkers was no small matter. It’s just a short step from the gritty sidewalk into another realm.
And I’ve been intrigued with the choices that were made for the interior design. Mostly symbols, icons and pictures, there are very few words inscribed on the walls. In Jesus’ lap a book is opened with this phrase: “I am the light of the world.” Ringing the apse above the gospel writers is the summary commandment to love God and neighbor, and then the two phrases on either side. Above me, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” And on the other side, “Wait on the Lord. Be of good courage.”
Those two phrases are quite prominent. Even if you don’t recognize John the Baptist or Moses, you can make out those words. The designers could have chosen anything. As it is, they chose words emphasizing the experience of sanctuary, of safety and help, words of hopeful encouragement. These are the words that share the heart of religious consolation.
Speaking with a young professional I learned that he had recently emerged from a very dark place. Among other personal dilemmas he had been caught in an extremely difficult situation at work for several years and couldn’t see a way out. He said that from time to time he came and sat in these pews focused on those lines of scripture—they became his mantra. Over time, they seemed the only prayer he had.
I told him that many years ago, not long after I first came to Christ Church, I also discovered the power of those phrases. Finding myself in a dark time roughly the same age as my luncheon companion, I discovered that if I sat up in the balcony at certain hours during the day, the light coming in from the back window illumined those phrases—and I let them hold my heart. I came to depend on them.
My young friend said he learned about patience and waiting during the last couple of years. He learned something important about faith and life and how they linked up. He had suffered over these years—terrible depression, confusion about his sense of identity and purpose, his freedom and future. He felt trapped, suffocated. So he worked at “waiting on the Lord.” He chose to sweat it out with God, as it were, praying that his troubled heart could find courage to endure the waiting.
His experience wasn’t very dramatic in the telling, but it was profoundly real for him. Over lunch he told me about a leg of his spiritual journey. We didn’t set it up that way. After ordering our meals I didn’t say, so, tell me about your spiritual pilgrimage. But that’s what he did. And I shared some of mine. And I was struck by certain similarities though we were separated by more than twenty years occupying very different moments in our lives.
Of course, the similarities extend beyond the two of us. I imagine that if I were to meet with a random sampling of everyone present and somewhere between the entrée and coffee the conversation swerved onto the road of your spiritual pilgrimage, I would hear something recognizable, something about suffering and waiting and trusting.
My lunchmate told me his wait is over for the time being. His life situation clarified. He credited his waiting on God and praying. And now on this side of his dark time, he said he was learning something important about trust.
He was credible and humble. I’m hopeful the learning sunk deep roots within him because my extra decades of experience suggest he’ll need ready access to trust, prayer and courage again, and then at least once or twice more after that. Because that’s the nature of long journeys, isn’t it? Never know what pothole might appear knocking your alignment out of whack if not causing a terrible accident.
We all have our own story to tell about the map we’ve followed thus far. All the adventures, calamities, wrong turns, dead ends, and filling stations that have made their mark. And isn’t it interesting how those maps have brought us all here today? Having been drawn together, didn’t we all hear a short while ago what Paul wrote to his friends in Rome? Did you hear him say, oddly, we can actually “boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts...?”
And couldn’t I weave a sermon around those powerful sentiments written two thousand years ago, jogged by the conversations I’ve had with you concerning your own sufferings, your own experience of waiting-on-the-Lord?
Interesting that we’ve changed so very little over twenty centuries that Paul’s words are still relevant in twenty-seventeen. My young friend learned something about patient endurance drawn from suffering, and I’m confident that his character edged forward as a result. He didn’t say this, but there’s no question he grew up some, becoming stronger, wiser and more faithful. And this emergent character gave birth to a new hopefulness about his life’s trajectory. He credited God using the ancient words inscribed on our walls. In his longing for courage from a source beyond himself he was met halfway with hope.
Paul also ascribed his hope to God, specifically in the pilgrimage of Jesus who was the prototype for tracking through suffering. Jesus revealed the new life that awaits those who wait on the Lord. That’s why he’s the light of the world.
That’s the rhythm of faith we profess in here. This same hopefulness caused Paul to write in just a few paragraphs forward “that all things work together for good for those who love God.” He did not say all things were good, but that out of all manner of things, good can come for the one who is turned God-ward. That happened for my friend. In a sense, that was his testimony, although he never used those words.
Sometimes we use the word character to mean a person of good repute. But as we all know one’s character could be good or bad, strong or weak. Paul uses it in the positive sense, that hopeful perseverance in suffering produces qualities of integrity, compassion and depth. We become better, larger persons formed in the image of the one in whom we have hope. Just as our bodies are formed by what we put into our mouths, our character is formed by what we put into our hearts and minds and souls, what we deeply yearn to emulate. Pretty basic, right?
Here’s where this whole pilgrimage thing gets really interesting. When we turn our eyes God-ward in the midst of suffering, learning how to endure, and persevere in hope, we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of the one who offers the aid.
In our gospel lesson there’s a wonderful moment that comes after Jesus has spoken with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. John writes, “Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.” They’re astonished because Jesus is breaking the strict conventions of his day. For one thing, the woman is a Samaritan; the Jews despised Samaritans. They were unclean, heathen, the dreaded “other”. For another thing, this Samaritan is a woman, whose subservient gender role was well established in this ancient culture. No self-respecting rabbi would have addressed a woman directly. And for a final insult to propriety, this Samaritan woman had a notorious lifestyle.
Why does Jesus break all of these conventions? Because of his compassion for her, or we might say, his love for her. He breaks the rules in order to love her.
Now imagine you’re one of the disciples and this is your teacher, your mentor. Your worldview is this big. And his is THIS BIG, much larger than you had ever conceived. Trying to grasp that, take it in, causes a different sort of suffering, doesn’t it? It’s the suffering endured by groaning into a larger version of yourself, a bigger version. We might call it growing pains, but excruciating nonetheless. “You mean, Jesus, I’m supposed to love people I’ve been taught to hate?”
The disciples had to learn to break the rules in order to love like Jesus; rules that seemed as natural as the rising of the sun; rules that shaped the contours of their culture and kept it small and cramped. These rules restricted the range of God’s grace, rules the disciples imbibed in their mothers’ milk.
You can sense how tough it was to grow into the sort of character Jesus emulated. You can see how breaking those rules would upset many people, especially those who were most invested in the rules, and you can further sense how breaking these rules would loop back on the disciples creating another sort of suffering caused by one’s enlarging character that put him at odds with his own culture, maybe even his own family. That’s the pilgrimage Jesus modeled for us.
And now we begin to see that this character we’re mapping in our life’s pilgrimage isn’t only about hopefully enduring personal dilemmas, although it is surely at least that. But more, we discover it’s about transformation, first our own, and then the world’s.
Sounds grandiose, I suppose. But there’s no denying the truth of it. That’s the size of the grace we attempt to grasp in here.
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
I’m guessing that more than 95% of those present this morning did not grow up in New York City. There might be a few natives scattered around, but the overwhelming majority have their roots in other parts of this country or in numerous nations around the world. This means that most of you chose to come here.
Some might report you had to come because your employer insisted on it. Still, that would mean you chose to stay with that employer. Some came to school and stayed on longer than originally intended. Some thought a stint here in banking, finance, law, medicine or some other profession would set up your careers in another geography only to discover the powerful seductiveness of the city can grow like kudzu strangling old notions of a life’s direction.
Many of you were prompted by a spirit of adventure—maybe most of you, really. Some came without much of a resume other than a conviction that the city held a promise about your future. There are some present today that came to sing, act, paint, dance, or otherwise unleash their creative energies. Some overcame great hurdles to get here—hurdles of money, family, language, culture and government.
Some came fleeing oppressive or dysfunctional environments seeking a geographical cure. Others always knew the city had a part to play in your life adventure. You experienced it like a call on your life. You may have been surprised by the turns in the road that brought you here and surprised that you’ve stayed on. Of course, some of you think you’ll be here for just a year or two or three.
Over the last decades, New York City has been rediscovered as a surprisingly wonderful place to raise children. It’s one of the safest cities in the world. So, adventuresome couples shock their relatives and friends with the news that city life has claimed them for better or worse.
And with thirty years of experience here under my belt, I’ve been struck by a restless spirituality. I’ve been thinking that my work has never seemed more relevant in a time of cultural upheaval. I’ve told you before that this gig has never been more challenging given the sociological, technological, and political disruptions in recent years. People are spiritually restless, agitated, unmoored, undisciplined, and unidentified religiously.
Does that describe you? Account for your presence here this morning? Take a moment to consider the improbability of sharing this space with everyone else gathered here. Highly improbable, right? Can you see how every decision you’ve ever made thus far has had a part to play in landing you here at this precise minute on March 12, 2017?
In theory, there are any number of other places you might be—even wish you were—but you’re not. You’re here. And since this is a church, it occurs to me to ask if you think God had anything to do with this. You probably function from the perspective that not only are you the main actor in your own life drama, but you’re also the playwright, director, and producer as well. If so, has the script been written from this point forward? From here, do you know where you’re going? I suppose you might say, “Well after service I’m going to brunch,” which is all well and good as far as it goes, but we’re asking a more substantial question.
Where are you really headed? By what light do you travel? What matters to you most of all? What gods do you serve? And are you wanting something authentic and powerful on which to rely? Are you looking for faith, by any chance, the kind that pierces through your cellular membranes into the very heart of your invisible essence?
I think we are mostly a people who live every day somewhere between verse one and verse two of Psalm 121. That Psalm begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” The second verse answers, “My help comes from the Lord.” There should be a long silence between these verses since most of us much of the time live our lives in that space. Distracted New Yorkers find it hard to stake a claim on where their help actually comes from. Stake a claim and follow it through—man, is that ever a hard sell today.
Where does our help come from, anyway?
An advertisement caught my eye. The bold letters up top announce: “You just sold your company for $50 million. How quickly that feeling of euphoria can turn to fear.”
Having captured your attention by touching the sensitive fear button, you squint to read the small copy down below: “Finally, you can relax. All your hard work and late nights just turned into more wealth than you ever imagined. You experience a feeling of euphoria. Then, just as suddenly, you experience a feeling quite foreign: fear. You realize that after years of knowing exactly what to do, you don’t even know where to start.” You quickly learn that what you need, where your true help comes from, is a certain wealth management firm.
Notwithstanding this ad was directed to a highly select group of people, I thought it was an apt metaphor for those of us who have been caught like moths around the light of Manhattan. Not that most of us have managed to amass a fortune, but most of us have stepped out to follow our own byway of the yellow brick road to Emerald City, the place where dreams can come true. And just as Dorothy and her Kansas sidekicks were dogged by fear in the land of Oz, so we are, which is why that famous story remains so iconic within our culture. As that ad makes clear, even amassing a fortune is no hedge against fear. Hitting the fear button is an excellent marketing tool since most of us are fearful about something nearly all of the time.
Our scripture lessons today concern questing for authentic faith. The short verses from Genesis set the stage for 4 billion people today. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Abram as their spiritual forebear, as prototype in faith. Those few words hardly seem adequate for such an astonishing outcome.
Abram, listening to the voice of God, left his own version of Kansas—the home of his parents and family—for a new place where he’s promised to become the father to a great nation. He can’t possibly comprehend the result of his questing that we now assign to him thousands of years later. As the story is told, he stepped out in faith and let God handle the rest.
Nicodemus took a much shorter journey under cover of night, but he’s clearly searching for the heart of faith as well. Jesus’ cryptic words about being born from above, or born again, leave Nicodemus wanting more.
Nicodemus was a religious leader in his day. (Evidently, even religious leaders want renewal of their faith.) Did he receive what he was after? Was he reborn of the spirit from above? As John tells the tale, at the end of the gospel Nicodemus returns, now laden with a hundred pounds of spices and perfumes. He will help prepare Jesus’ body for burial and lay him in the tomb. I suspect he was as well positioned as anyone to receive the startling gift that was given Easter morn.
And where does this leave us today? Well, as we said all the life decisions you’ve ever taken have landed you here at this very moment. Looking out at everyone and imagining the uniquely designed yellow brick paths that brought each of you here I’m overwhelmed by the random complexity leading to this precise moment. But in this minute each of us hears the same proposition that a life well-lived, a life tuned to listening for truth and oriented towards God boils down to the matter of receiving the gift of faith.
It could be that you thought the spiritual quest was more complicated than this. It isn’t really. On the other hand, I know this sort of faith can seem elusive, even for those of us, like Nicodemus, who have been well-schooled in the religious arts. I know many secret agnostic religious leaders.
But here’s a very small discipline I recommend during this season of Lent. Intentionally walk with Jesus through his final days. Read the story. Come to worship. Brood upon his words and actions. Sit in his presence. Listen. Take stock. Bracket your own agenda every now and then in the course of a day. Let God speak to you for a change. Force yourself to be free of technology for at least 10 minutes at a time. Turn it off. Leave it at home for a walk through the park.
As part of your discipline repeat this short sentence: “Lord, increase my faith.” Let it become a repetitive mantra throughout your day. Let’s say that together so you get the feel of it: “Lord, increase my faith.” And again, “Lord, increase my faith.” When you wake up in the morning offer that prayer. Say it out loud or silently to yourself when eating breakfast. Then again at lunch and dinner.
Learn to have that short mantra at the ready in any other moment that occurs to you. There is no wrong time to say it There are only right times. If you stumble into a dark place, let the experience remind you to say this prayer. When looking up in the Wall Street canyons, let it come to your mind. When folding the laundry, preparing a meal, waiting at a restaurant, saying good night to your children, brushing your teeth, let it come to your mind. Make it your Lenten discipline.
Here’s a prediction. If you do this with a sincere heart, you may discover that New York becomes imbued with a quality you hadn’t thought possible. This city might actually begin to have the feel of the kingdom of God.
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
I imagine Piper, Kansas, is a pretty typical middle-class, Midwestern town. A farming community founded in 1888, it was annexed by Kansas City in 1992 and is now identified mainly as a school district with thirteen hundred students. It’s the ordinary American character of this town that made a small cheating scandal in the High School stand out some years ago.
Here’s what happened. A biology teacher discovered that twenty-eight of her students had stolen sections of their botany project off the internet. She gave these students zeroes for their efforts, which may have caused some to fail the semester.
A number of the plagiarizers’ parents complained to the school board, which in turn ordered the teacher to raise the grades. She promptly resigned. A following school board meeting attracted an overflow crowd where community response was heard. Half the faculty and the new principal vowed to resign by the end of the academic year over the board’s intervention, while some worried about the school’s reputation and a potential decline in property values.
Between interview appearances several days later the offending biology teacher said, “It’s not just biology—you’re teaching them a lot more than that. You’re teaching them to be honest people, to have integrity, to listen, to be good citizens.”After she had been ordered to raise the students’ grades she reported that one student approached her and said, “We won!”
And I wonder what those complaining parents might have said if a large portion of their pension had been invested with someone like Bernie Madoff, the mastermind behind the world’s largest Ponzi scheme. I bet they’d want justice. And they’d likely miss connections with how integrity was modeled for their kids at school.
Here we have average Americans in an average town, going about the average business of raising kids, struggling to get ahead. I’ll go out on a limb here and guess that if I asked for a show of hands of those who ever cheated in some form or another in order to gain some advantage and we were all truthful, we’d have a thick field of waving arms.
This story came to mind as I was processing new cultural phrases like, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” The news and blogosphere are awash in the claims and counter-claims of truth and fiction as it pertains to persons in the public sphere. I wonder how citizens today might respond to this comment made by George Washington: “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an ‘Honest Man’.”
Sounds quaint and creaky today, doesn’t it? --Could come from a fiction novel about an alternate universe. It’s hard to imagine leaders in nearly any field of endeavor today making that sort of statement. When you go home today, find Washington’s quote in my sermon and try saying those words as though you really meant them: I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an ‘Honest Man or Woman’. See how they roll around in your mouth…
Is that important to you—your reputation as an honest person? Here’s a question that comes to mind: Would you have a different standard about this for someone in, say, my occupation than for yourself? How bout for our politicians? Of course, I do want to live with integrity. We might assume that’s a prerequisite of my job. Although, as for that, the necessity for integrity isn’t really any different for the lawyer, accountant, financier, biology teacher, school board member, spouse or most crucially, the parent.
Anyone from any field of endeavor, who travels any distance down the road called Christian, comes to understand integrity as a very large concept that defines the universe of an authentic life. The first dictionary definition says that integrity is the quality or state of being complete; wholeness; entireness; an unbroken state. The paradox the Christian discovers is that integrity begins with the admission one doesn’t really have all that much—in other words, with the admission of brokenness, with the admission of the truth about oneself. Sometimes we call that admission repentance. So generally speaking a person with integrity will also display flashes of humility.
Now as you know at Christ Church we claim that love is our principal agenda. You hear repeatedly that “loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves” is our mission. That’s an excellent mission. But if love is the essential verb of a Christian life, integrity is the essential condition. Real love cannot happen without integrity. They come as a package.
One of Christianity’s foundational truths states that all of us are sprung from God. That’s what the story of Adam and Eve reveals. They are nothing less than God’s beloved companions who were fashioned in God’s image. The Garden of Eden is a place of integrity. It is whole, complete, unbroken. Unbroken, that is, until temptation leads to corruption. And their corruption isn’t really about eating a fruit. It’s about believing a lie—that they, too, might become gods—that they could step outside of God’s dominion and establish their own rules.
Well, that’s a pretty common temptation, isn’t it? I know you understand that. I certainly do. We might say that’s temptation with a capital “T”. It’s the temptation that lies behind all others. From the biblical perspective that is the fundamental corruption of our human nature: pretending something we’re not. This pretense is a lie.
The temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness were an attack on his integrity. As with Adam and Eve, the bearer of the lies comes in the form of Satan who has been named in Christian lore as “the father of lies.” The wilderness replaces the Garden of Eden where humanity now finds itself. The confrontation is intensely personal. It happens out of view, when Jesus is most vulnerable. This extreme vulnerability accounts for our attraction to this story. Here is Jesus in his unadorned humanity struggling with the boundaries of his integrity.
The choices he makes remain consistent with God’s intentions, which frankly, seem much less glamorous than what Satan offers. God’s intentions seem small by comparison. Satan suggests that Jesus could live like a god on earth! He could have it all—the only required thing involved relinquishing his integrity. There’s a wonderful line spoken by the sleazy character J.R. Ewing in the 1980’s evening soap opera, Dallas, that stuck in my mind years ago: “Once you lose your integrity, the rest is a piece of cake….”
The tempter wants to split Jesus’ soul into divergent loyalties. Yet Jesus cannot live with integrity except by unswerving love for and trust in his Father. And there you see, love and integrity are revealed as inseparably linked. That’s how it is for us humans, how we’ve been made.
It’s the divergent loyalties that so confound us! For instance we can believe our intentions are pure enough sitting in these pews on any given Sunday yet completely miss how life on Monday has anything to do with our time spent here. We’re adept at rationalizing every sort of behavior. Our souls wind up broken into little unrelated compartments. And then we wonder what’s wrong with our lives; how did things get so out of kilter; what’s up with our relationships? Why do we feel so alienated from ourselves and, sometimes, even from the universe?
Integrity begins with the acceptance of our situation as it is, and finds its fulfillment in unswerving love for God. At our beginning and at our end, at our birth and at our death, we belong to God. Most of us in here don’t have difficulty believing that. It’s the time in between we’re not so certain of. That time seems a lot like ours alone, that we can do with it whatever the hell we feel like doing. Of course, the results of our choices in the meantime may be exactly what hell feels like.
I take comfort in the knowledge that all of us share this predicament, that our struggles, though different in detail, are actually quite similar in their deepest essence. I take comfort that we all have the same divine lineage and that God loves us in our confused and broken state.
In the scripture’s poetic language we hear how God sent angels to minister to Jesus, that he was enveloped by God’s spirit. God abides with us no matter what. This is an aspect of God’s integrity. There is finally nothing we might do that will prevent God from loving us. Nothing. It’s hard to believe, I know. But that’s the promise. And therein lies our hope.
Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
A small boy, maybe around 4-years-old-or-so, asked me on a Sunday morning if I thought God would show up today. He asked it eagerly, not cynically, as though repeating something he heard his father toss off sarcastically. I told him I thought there was a very good chance of it. Did he hope for it? After a long pause he said he didn’t know—the thought of it sort of scared him.
This brought to mind my own memory from about the same age as my new acquaintance—the earliest memory I have of being in church. During Sunday worship I sat on the edge of my pew waiting for God to make an entrance. I had my eyes glued on the carved altarpiece at the back of the chancel thinking God would emerge from the shadows behind. I was both excited and scared.
Needless to say, God didn’t appear in the manner I was expecting. And I suppose I could say I’ve had my focus fixed on that spot ever since—waiting expectantly, hopefully, with just enough fear to make my desire honest. After all, it’s God, we’re speaking about here, the one who flung the stars into distant space and fashioned life out of dust.
Childhood dreams are washed away by adult realities, of course. The child’s imagination succumbs to the onslaught of secular education and the demand for sticking to the tangible and material. The five physical senses have pride of place in our culture over the one unnamed and under-utilized sense that has a bead on Mystery and transcendence. Spiritual yearnings get short shrift in educational and family settings overfull with busy stuff. The wonderment about life—its origins, meaning and purpose—gets lost in the din of many distractions.
Interestingly, this can even happen within the church. Adult religion is easily stripped of an intimate sense of the transcendent. And it can happen in both conservative and liberal settings that gather in the rather comfortable state of being quite clear about whom God is or is not, having honed it down to a set of propositions.
God becomes more of an idea than a living, dynamic reality in the present moment. Forms of prayer can seem anachronistic, or artificial, certainly nothing that really amounts to much now that we’ve outgrown childish fantasies and superstitions.
And true enough, there are plenty of superstitions we ought to leave behind. There is a lot of bad religion out there, neurotic religion, narcissistic religion, destructive religion. We all know something about that. Some of us know of it quite personally. And you know people who are persuaded that all religion is bad, or at best simply irrelevant. For them to be an adult means, in part, leaving behind in the toy box what they might refer to as the crutch or the delusion of God.
For me, that would be like leaving my heart behind in the toy box, or my soul—the precious aspect of my essential identity. I’ve never understood why so many people do not see this the way I do, that is, don’t see God lurking everywhere behind creation and sense God mixed up in the air of every breath they take. This is a great conundrum to me: that what I know to be the deepest truth would be for others a curious improbability.
You can tell the designers of this space understood what I’m talking about. We can surmise by the results of their obvious effort and investment of resources that they thought God should be seen and heard. That wonder was an important component of life.
If not, this was a horribly expensive folly, wasn’t it? There are plenty of New Yorkers who think that, of course. They think that the purpose for which this place was built is complete bunk, although they like that it sits here on the corner as opposed to, say, yet one more condominium. They may like that they live in a city with useless but very attractive cultural artifacts.
When I first moved into the city at the tail end of a hot building boom, I was routinely telephoned by real estate developers who shared the exact same rap: “Reverend, did you know that you’re sitting on one of the five most valuable undeveloped properties in all of New York?” And I repeated the same response every time: “And here I thought that it was developed.”
We’ve often reflected that when you make your way into a place like this on a Sunday morning in this city you’re behaving counter-culturally. You know that many, maybe most, of your friends and business associates did not go to a religious observance this weekend. And they’re not entirely certain what to make of those who do.
From their vantage point it’s a bit strange that people choose to gather in these decorative buildings on an otherwise perfectly fine Sunday morning, singing songs about someone named God and reading opaque ancient writings, while practicing esoteric rituals with people wearing blue and white robes.
But then that’s all part of the mystery we’re marketing. We use imaginative means and materials to hook all of our senses so that underused sixth sense might be tweaked into life. We take that 4-year-old’s wonder seriously, as though it just might be the most important thing there is.
To be completely truthful, what we’re really selling here is change. If we were simply concerned with portraying an entertaining idea about God and leave it at that, church would be a bit like a religious zoo with our version of god safely caged. With the passing of the plate we’d pay our price of admission, throw a few peanuts in the direction of that which we’ve come to see and be on our way.
What we’re really selling here, is God uncaged—God on God’s own terms. But to actually allow for that possibility requires a break with the status quo in our lives. It requires an expectation like that of my young 4-year-old friend asking if God would be showing up on a Sunday. I’m reminded of Jesus once commenting that unless we become like little children we will never find the kingdom of God. Children have an innocent anticipation of what they do not know because they know so very little, really. Can we admit how little we actually know and how little we actually control behind our masquerades of competence and mastery?
Annie Dillard offers this observation: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? …It is madness to wear…hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We don’t know what happened at Mt. Sinai as Moses led the Hebrew people from captivity in Egypt, but we do know this: that whatever happened “released a torrent of spiritual energy which transformed Israel into a people of priests and prophets, bringing enlightenment to humanity,” and establishing a course of human civilization to the present day. (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook)
In the Gospel passage concerning the disciples’ vision of a transfigured Jesus, that Sinai experience is recalled. Again the sacred event happens on a mountaintop. Peter reports that Jesus was changed. When they looked at him in one direction it was the same old Jesus, but then looking again they were astonished and rattled by glory. The witnesses would be changed as well, but they wouldn’t get the full force of it until some time later, after they descended the mountain and got on with life.
Commenting on the transfiguration, Harry Emerson Fosdick said an inner transformation took place in Jesus…”faith replaced fear, strength for anxiety, confidence for hesitation, inward power adequate for outward tension. That showed in his face.” Ultimately, it would show in the faces of Jesus’ witnesses, and the spiritual power released through them brings us to this moment 2000 years later.
The 40-something man said he wanted to speak with me during the week as he left the sanctuary. He had been profoundly shaken. Monday morning he called me; we met that afternoon. He wasn’t sure what had happened, he said. He even felt a bit childish. But something had turned him upside down. Something I had said sliced like a knife into a deep part of him. He added, “No offense, but I didn’t even think that the sermon was all that interesting.” Nevertheless, it was during the music following that he felt the deep incision. He couldn’t stand for the offering hymn. His knees were wobbly when he finally got up to leave.
He identified himself as a successful corporate officer, Harvard MBA. Traveled all over the world; had dropped in on church off and on, but it had never felt like this. This was different. He was like a kid in Sunday school. “Imagine that!” he said. “I went to church and found God…” He had the same look of excitement, fear and confusion as the boy who asked me if God would be showing up on a Sunday a while ago...
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1st Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
So I’ve been thinking of late that these are really interesting times to be a preacher. Current conditions have challenged the status quo for churches and ministers of the gospel. The fractious political culture dividing American citizens doesn’t offer a receptive environment for the call to spiritual unity. Today Jesus teaches that we’re supposed to love our enemies, and I guess that includes everyone with whom we strongly disagree as well. That’s a hard discipline, isn’t it?
There are a lot of opinions among Christians about how politics should or should not find their way into church. I like to remind people that Jesus was not a partisan but he did die a political death at the hands of the state. He was accused and executed for sedition, as in, promoting discontent or rebellion against the government. That didn’t exactly describe his mission, but on the other hand it held several grains of truth.
Over the years this has led me to keep a clear-eyed focused on the heart of what it means to love God and neighbor, letting the chips fall where they may. In this way the point was never about learning to behave or sound like a Republican or a Democrat in here, but like a Christian, committed to the ethical system appropriate for the citizens of the kingdom of God. I’ve tried to maintain that discipline over the years.
But followers after the way of Jesus will inevitably find themselves engaged in matters of public policy. To love authentically has political consequences, up and down the scale of importance, as Jesus’ own life exemplifies. Since this is President’s weekend, we might consider our nation’s blood-drenched road to the abolition of slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a staunch abolitionist. That was a result of his Christian faith. You couldn’t be a Methodist and a slaveholder simultaneously. There was no true middle ground on the matter. To be sort of against slavery but do nothing to stop it was really to be sort of for it, for the end result was the same. There was a political consequence to the matter of how we were to love among the races.
I’ve always appreciated that Christ Church has assembled a broadly diverse congregation over the last three decades—more than 50 different nationalities and ethnicities, from all walks of life. Despite this diversity we discover that we share many of the same questions about suffering and meaning. Over the years I’ve often heard that you seek simple instruction and clear direction—you desire a clear point of view anchored in the wisdom of our tradition fashioned through thousands of years of human struggle. The music, the preaching, the praying, the architecture can all provide fine sacred stimulus, but after all is said and done, “What should we do?” may be the relevant question.
And as if responding to that specific concern today’s scripture speaks directly. First, from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” And what does it mean to be holy? Well, we’re supposed to take care of the poor; we should live lives of integrity, that is, no lying, cheating or stealing. We should have compassionate regard for others. You should not hate or take vengeance or bear a grudge… indeed, “you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
And as if that wasn’t clear and direct enough, some hundreds of years later Jesus ups the ante by radicalizing the old teaching. In the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson, Jesus says, “You’re familiar with the old law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy…’ I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless; the good and bad, the nice and the nasty.”
“You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
I don’t know what you came expecting to hear today, what kernel of an idea for self-improvement or pathway to happiness. Likely it wasn’t, “love your enemy and pray for those that persecute you.” If you’ve hung around a church for any length of time, well, maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard this admonition from Jesus and like most people have dismissed it as hopelessly utopian. Love your enemy?—yeah, right, Steve, I’ll get right on that…
Every once in a long while exemplars arise that clarify the matter. Consider these words of Martin Luther King Jr. that he wrote in 1958: “Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities and fears. Agape [the main Greek word for love in the New Testament] is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action.
“Agape love seeks to preserve and create community... It doesn’t stop at the first mile, but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community….
“If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.”
And we then recognize this love had political consequences. Still does. Still does...
Now with 20/20 hindsight I invite anyone to suggest how King’s words do not square in their entirety with Jesus’ instruction. What I can tell you as one who lived through that time period as a young person, much of so-called Christian America would not have seen this strikingly obvious truth and its ramifications for our society since it was spoken by a black preacher.
In retrospect that’s a real head-scratcher. I mean, how could those who claimed they followed after the way Jesus blazed get it so fundamentally wrong? At the time, a popular critique of civil rights talk in church was that politics shouldn’t come inside the church door, which was a cover for the incipient racism that filled the pews. Jesus was lost in the noise and it was forgotten he died a political death. An uncomfortable truth better left unsaid.
Every now and again I like to return to G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Love my enemy, you say. Pray for those who persecute me… hmm, well then...
One of the regular criticisms leveled at the church goes like this: What difference does it really make, other than dividing people up into those that belong and those that don’t? What’s its purpose? For all of the great music and architecture, so what, really? And it’s just here that our desire for clear, direct teaching meets Jesus as though for the first time.
Notice that he does not say that the point of it all is right doctrines. Nothing about agreeing to a correct set of propositions about God, something we Christians tend to fight about as of absolutely greatest importance. Instead, Jesus says that in God’s kingdom of grace our primary interest should concern how well we love one another.
Honestly, I think it’s a lot easier to argue about the fine points of a creed than it is to love one’s enemy. A lot easier. Arguing about who’s got it right set of words, who’s in and who’s out, is a fantastic distraction. Indeed, doesn’t one’s enemy often follow a different creed? And this disagreeable person doesn’t need to live in a far-away land. Again, in our incredibly shrinking world Chesterton had his finger on the truth when he said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
What an incredibly daunting agenda is set before us: breathtaking; bracing; ennobling; life-altering! You won’t hear about this anywhere else. The poet Robert Browning captured the essence of our circumstance in his famous line: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We’re meant to stretch beyond our current condition, reaching all the way into the kingdom of God.
That’s what we’ll be praying in a moment: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as is in heaven.” This yearning for the better way prompted Paul to write, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus…[because] our citizenship is in heaven…”
Friends, if the pursuit of the better way tugs at your heart then you are well on your way to joining the ranks of those who are bent on changing the world—Love’s rabble-rousing revolutionaries! And make no mistake, just as with Jesus and the disciples, there may come a moment to stand up and be counted among the righteous.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Because I’m a graduate of Yale Divinity School and serve on its Board of Advisors, I’ve had interest in how the university was going to handle the matter of possibly renaming its John C. Calhoun residential college. Though this issue had been simmering for decades it roared into life in 2015 following the murder of nine African American church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a self-described white supremacist who had posed with confederate flags in photos.
John C. Calhoun was also from South Carolina, graduating from Yale in 1804 as valedictorian, eventually serving the United States as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and a U.S. senator. But he left behind the legacy of a leading statesman who used his office to strongly advocate for slavery and white supremacy. As a national leader, Calhoun helped enshrine his racist views in American policy. While other southern statesmen and slaveholders treated slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun actually insisted it was a “positive good,” beneficial to enslaved people and essential to republican institutions.
As a result of these considerations, Yale has just now decided to remove his name from the school since, in the Yale President’s words, “[The] legacy of Calhoun…conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed. Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them.”
So, in effect what has happened in the last year and half is that Yale did some serious soul-searching and wound up recovering its root values and commitments. This required stripping away encrusted, barnacle-like accretions of privilege, legacy, and tradition until the underlying values were laid bare. When that was finally accomplished, the decision was obvious.
Of course, it’s tempting to say it was always obvious. Even from the moment the college was first given the name Calhoun in 1931— when the stained-glass window was installed depicting slaves picking cotton with a portrait of the great man placed nearby. Calhoun was a racist white supremacist in 1804, and in 1860 when he led South Carolina to secede, and in 1931 with the founding of the college, and now in 2017. The facts haven’t changed a bit. It just took a good long while for the hypocrisy to so weigh down on the truth that it couldn’t be carried any longer.
I’m sharing this as an up-to-the-minute example of what can happen when a decision is made to affirm one’s core values. In this case, it was a system-wide process, but still comprised of individual decisions, which I’m guessing were highly nuanced by all interested parties: students, professors, administrators, funders, development officers, trustees, alumni and so forth. In some soul-searching way, each individual decision had to take account of what to do about idolizing a racist white supremacist in one of the nation’s most storied institutions. An African-American student living at Calhoun College adorned with the slave window might have a different gut perspective on this than a prosperous, 70-year-old, white alumni living in Greenwich.
We can imagine that it took 86 years to reach this point because until now the folks who had place and position within the system didn’t really want to consider it seriously. As I said, Calhoun was also vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war and a U.S. senator. Surely a lot of money had been donated in his name, although, at least some of that was no doubt an extended legacy from the sweat of slaves. After all, slavery was at the heart of an economic system that produced wealth for a comparatively few. The slaughter in a Charleston church is what ripped the skin off this corruption of values today.
But you can sense how complicated these matters get when you start traveling down the path of self-examination leading to a decision about fundamental values. Human nature being what it is, we likely just as soon not start that process at all. We defensively demur that everyone’s got skeletons in their closet, some more than others… but then, some have a whole cemetery locked away…
As the story is told, near the end of Moses’ life, as the Israelites are finally ending their 40 years in the wilderness and about to settle in the land of Canaan, Moses reminds them that they have a fundamental decision ahead of them. He starkly tells them they have options about the sort of people they will become: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors.”
This reaffirms the constituting promise for the Hebrew people, reminding them of their most basic value commitment. The Hebrew Scriptures tell story after story of their individual and collective tendency to let other matters, other gods, if you will, capture their attention, causing them to forget this core value at the heart of life. But the stories also tell of God’s relentless pursuit of his people because God wants nothing more than their flourishing.
The heart of healthy religion keeps a laser focus on what matters most of all: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s the core insight from our tradition. From this flow all the qualities that reveal the glory of our humanity. Things like humility, integrity, courage, fidelity, kindness, compassion and justice.
This is the religious impulse at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. He invites everyone who will listen to strip away all the life-sucking accretions that prevent human flourishing. That’s the underlying agenda behind the Sermon on the Mount. In the portion we heard today he radicalizes the law so that no one can escape judgment.
Who hasn’t been viciously angry with someone wishing them great harm; who hasn’t lied or lusted or tried to take unfair advantage of someone? Who hasn’t fallen into the trap from time to time of self-delusional corruption? Jesus means to level the playing field, stripping away all our defenses and conceits so we can see clearly the heart of the matter.
And here’s the heart of the matter: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s it. You want to know the secret of a meaningful, joyful life filled with love and hope? You want to know the Grand Unified Theory to abundant life? Love God and love everything God loves.
Man, that sounds so simple! But I know from personal experience that attempting to hold on to it cuts to the bone. This is not a sentimental discipline because after the manner of Jesus, it calls us to hold ourselves accountable to what we say we value most of all. And all sorts of things that have captured our attention and allegiance don’t measure up; some are actually antithetical to love; these need to be named and discarded for the sake of our flourishing. Sometimes we call this justice.
Here’s the wonderful thing. Every single day provides a fresh opportunity for us to choose life. Every day. Today, for instance, is a fantastic day to say yes to life and to love. I choose to love God and all the things that God loves; that shall be my foundational commitment.
And how good is it that we do this in the presence of others who are also choosing the way of abundant life? I’m heartened and strengthened by your presence and your willingness to join my imperfect intentions, and hopefully you are heartened and strengthened by the others in this room as well. We’re meant to do this in a company of friends. We call it church, but at the heart of it we’re just a band of pilgrims seeking to live and promote abundant life for all.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b - 12); Matthew 5:13-20
Many of us will gather with friends later today to watch our country’s highest rated sports event, the Super Bowl. We’ll eat millions, if not billions, of chicken wings. We’ll gorge on pizza, chips, and beer. We’ll wear our favorite team’s colors or paraphernalia. Some have spent thousands or tens of thousands for the elite privilege of viewing the game live at NRG stadium. Others will watch on their rented or newly purchased 60-inch flat screen televisions. The Super Bowl is a religious experience of sorts. While we may be reluctant to say that football is a god, certainly we have placed supreme importance on this particular game. Theologian Barbara Lundblad notes that when we consider all the rituals of this celebration, we might realize that it is not altogether different from what we do in church on Sundays. Many have sojourned to Houston just to be in the vicinity of the celebration. People will stand at attention while the American flag, our sacred object, is being carried onto the field. Men will remove their caps. We’ll place our hands over our hearts as the national anthem is played. Many will mouth the words quietly as if they were in prayer.
To many, this occasion feels like one of our noblest moments as a nation. Regardless of which team people cheer for, feelings of patriotism will be almost palpable. Cameras panning the crowd will show people standing tall with tears in their eyes reflecting pride in their homeland. And yet, while this ritual is happening, something else will be happening in our nation. While we eat our chicken wings and chips, 1 in 6 people in our country will continue to fight hunger. While some view the game from suites priced at over $300,000, others will sleep on streets with temperatures below 30 degrees. While we laud one team’s ability to conquer their opponent, some trafficked sex worker will become another person’s sexual conquest.
And after all the ritual of the evening is complete, we will return to our daily routines, consumed largely by our own personal needs, problems, and pursuits. Many Muslims will continue to fear for their safety here and abroad. Our nation’s indigenous people will continue facing intimidation and discrimination as they defend their land from oil pipelines. Coal companies will resume dumping waste into our water. Families in Flint will still have lead in their pipes. Millions of children will still receive a substandard education. And time will reveal that the rituals surrounding today’s game, have done little, if anything, to close the chasm between who we aspire to be and who we really are.
Now I pause here to say that I recognize that our nation is not a religious community. In fact, one of our nation’s founding principles is the separation of Church and State. The rituals of the Super Bowl are not—at least intentionally—a declaration about our theological beliefs. They are not meant to bring us closer to God. Nevertheless, these rituals lift up the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and unity, and they reveal to us a chasm between our nation’s ideals and people’s lived reality.
Today’s lectionary readings have something to offer about that. In Isaiah 58, we encounter a community that is also experiencing a chasm between who they espouse to be and who they really are. The community in Isaiah 58 has returned to Jerusalem and Judea from Babylonian captivity. They are navigating the challenges of rebuilding their lives, and the community is seeking to renew their relationship with the holy. In an erroneous attempt to connect with God, the Israelites focus on rituals instead of righteousness. But God is having none of it. In Isaiah 58:1, God tells the speaker to announce the people’s sin and rebellion. God is not pleased with how they were living because their worship was disconnected from their daily lives. Outside of worship, the community had done little to protect and provide for its most vulnerable. They were worshipping, but they had no witness. And worship without witness is worthless. And it remains true for us that if we are to have a worship that is worthy of our God, then when we finish praying, when we finish fasting, and when we finish singing, we must get up from these pews and go out into the world to work; to be the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew.
So how do we do that? Through the prophet Isaiah, God provides guidance on how we can witness to our faith in the world. And while this list is not exhaustive of all we are to do, we discover here that being salt and light requires few things: resistance, insistence, and persistence.
Resistance. It’s a hot word being used right now. With all that is going on in the world many are finding it important to resist laws, policies and practices that they consider unjust. Some resist by marching in the streets. Others are refusing to follow laws they consider unjust. Some cities are resisting what they view unjust immigration policies by offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Still, there are those who view resistance, organized or disorganized, as a nuisance to society. But what our text reveals to us is that resistance—withstanding the effects of something—does not begin with us. The text illustrates that resistance begins with God.
God tells the prophet to shout out the people’s sin. In The Message Bible God says “Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives.” The text continues: “The people are busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. They maintain the appearances of a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring [people]…The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.”
God recognized that the community’s busyness in worship, their prayers, their fasts were insincere. Why? Because they didn’t result in any change of heart. The people’s worship was not about God but about themselves. If anything, they were hoping to cajole God into giving them prosperity and protection. They wanted to avoid another stint in Babylonian exile. But God resisted their prayers. God refused to hear them; refused to be moved by false worship.
Instead, God insisted on how the people should live: “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” God says I’m interested in seeing you, “sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] being available to your own families. Get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. Be generous with the hungry, and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.”
And the same principles that were true for the Israelites thousands of years ago remain true for us today. If we are to help change our world from a place filled with unnecessary brokenness to a place filled with light and love, then we must resist those who do not sincerely try to make positive change. Shout out the truth about laws and policies that keep people oppressed. We insist that our nation live up to its ideals of liberty, freedom and justice. And we insist that we treat all people with compassion, dignity, and respect.
And not only do we resist and insist, but we must persist. Persist in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Persist in loving our neighbors as ourselves. Persist in being the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew 5. And God says to the people if you do this, when you do these things, I’ll continue to guide. If you do this, then your light will shine. Isaiah records: “Your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’”
Now, persistence is not easy. It demands commitment and courage. It takes energy and strength. It’s easier to rest in our own comfort than to work on behalf of others. But as Civil Rights leader Ella Bker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest…” We must work until freedom comes. Not just for a few. But for all.
This reminds me of a story I hear about a man who fell into a dark hole. He was crying out for help and a priest came by. The priest said a prayer for the man and then kept going. Later a wealthy man came by. The wealthy man wrote a check, dropped it in the hole, and then kept walking. Finally, the man’s friend came by. He heard the man crying out for help and he jumped in the hole with him. The trapped man said to his friend, why did you get down in here with me. Now we’re both trapped. The friend replied, I’ve been in this whole before, and I know the way out.
There are some among us who are trapped in a dark hole. And they don’t just need our prayers. They don’t just need our money. They need those of us who know the way out to get in the hole with them and help them out. Some of us know the way out because our people have been in the hole before. Some were in the hole during slavery, and they found their way out. Some were in the hole during women’s suffrage, but they found their way out. Some of us were in the hole in Japanese internment camps, but we found our way out. Some were in the hole during Jim Crow, but we found our way out. Today, persisting means that those of us who are out may have to climb back in to help others find their way. But in 40 or 50, years when the world looks back at this moment in our history and asks us “What did you do?” what will be our response? We will say, we tried to be good people. We prayed for people every Sunday at church. Or will those who come behind us be able to see what we did. That we persisted in caring for the immigrant, for the poor, for people of color, for women? We will be able to say, I served at El Nido? I made a meal at Sharing Table? I resisted unjust policies and laws? I marched for equal rights?
So go. Enjoy the Super Bowl. Eat some chicken wings. Cheer for your favorite team. Be moved by the rituals of the day. And when it’s over, get up from your space, go out into the world, and help close the gap. Help bring forth the kingdom of God.
Micah 6:1-8; 1st Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
I confess that I’m at something of a loss today, still processing the executive order concerning refugees and immigrants. Don’t know if you were unaware of it, but the order was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a shockingly offensive conflation given that prior to and during World War II the United States shamefully refused asylum to Jews who were being murdered in Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism was not only a German problem.
One Jewish group said, “The fact that the President’s order appears designed to specifically limit the entry of Muslims evokes horrible memories of Jews turned away during World War II. Most ultimately perished in the Holocaust. That episode remains a blot on the conscience of the United States. It is a terrible irony that today, the same day on which this order is to be signed, is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day” (1).
On Thursday, Pope Francis was greeting a group of young German Catholics and Lutherans and as though anticipating what would happen the next day he said to the pilgrims that he does not like “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions… The sickness or, you can say the sin, that Jesus condemns most is hypocrisy…
“You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he said. As though anticipating the assigned readings for this Sunday added, “You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes…”And, “You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25,” a reference to Christ’s injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger (2).
The National Association of Evangelicals responded saying that the country should not give favor to Christians or bar Muslims. "We would resist that strongly," said Scott Arbeiter, president of the organization’s humanitarian arm. "Some of the most vulnerable people in the world right now are Muslims. If we say no Muslim should be let in, we are denying the humanity and dignity of people made in the image of God" (3).
And lest you think this policy actually will keep us safe, a study conducted by the libertarian Cato Institute found that "the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.64 billion a year" (4) Providing a bit of perspective and by comparison your chance of winning the lottery is about 1 in 14 million, which is far, far better odds. The worst attacks on our soil since 9/11 have been homegrown. This executive action is a blatant play to fear and prejudice. And I am appalled.
Now, I had in mind a different sort of sermon today, a little less raw, but sometimes life happens and we’re left no option but to consider something relevant to the exact present moment. And I am struck that this church is chock full of immigrants, people born elsewhere who came to call the United States home like hundreds of thousands, millions, before them. Our nation has always been at its best when its arms were stretched wide and at its worst when it codified its prejudices and fears in hateful laws like the exclusion of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, the internment of the Japanese in the same timeframe, the annihilation of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws, and before that, slavery itself.
But friends, we are followers after the way of Jesus and as Pope Francis told his guests, Christians are only as good as their actions and tangible commitments. If they say one thing but live differently, well then, they’ve missed the essential point of the matter. Because the real point to our fellowship isn’t to get each other to affirm a particular set of words, but to live a certain kind of life. The words serve as potent symbols of the life that conforms to citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we pray every single Sunday, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…” Here and now.
Now I’ll grant you, this pattern that Jesus sets forth runs counter to the world’s priorities. I don’t think I could come up with a more radically divergent list of attributes from current conditions than the Beatitudes.
For instance, see if this roster doesn’t sound more like the world’s wisdom: Blessed are the rich in spirit; blessed are those who celebrate; blessed are the ruthless climbers; blessed are you when you have your own reality TV show; stock worth millions, even billions, of dollars; a signed contract with the New York Jets; a huge promotion; a PhD after your name; 5,000, 10,000 people in your congregation. Blessed are you when you succeed; rejoice and be glad for your reward is great on earth. In the same way they heaped praise and adulation on the rich, famous and successful before you.
That sounds like a pretty fair summary of the world’s notion of blessing, doesn’t it? A particularly American version at that. I’m all for success, of course. I hope that all of you are successful, that you maximize your talents, stretch your various capacities, reach for the stars and even attain them.
This city pulsates with high energy drivenness and the vitality of extraordinary diversity. It throbs with many passionate cultural expressions and still flashes a bright a homing beacon for immigrants the world over. Our Washington Heights congregation is full of recent immigrants. There are very good reasons people want to come here. They’re reaching for a better life and opportunity.
But still, you’ll notice that in Jesus’ list of blessings there isn’t a word about success, per se. Not a word about being rich in spirit, or rich in anything for that matter. It’s the poor in spirit that get the blessing.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers; blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Let’s be clear about what sorts of people Jesus includes here. We’re not only talking about someone who’s temporarily depressed. The language here refers to those who are not only poor, but utterly crushed and empty.
Frankly, this is problematic for us. It’s problematic for me. And it’s problematic for the church, because, along with every other institution in this nation, the church is just as committed to success of a certain sort. This grand edifice is evidence of that, and we all like it. I certainly want Christ Church to be successful and I hope you do too.
But you see the problem, the tension in the message we bear. From Jesus’ perspective the people who are truly able to receive his blessing are the spiritually inept, those who know their sin and feel it, those who understand their emptiness and their distance from true fulfillment. Those who bear a certain humility, a certain commitment to values that run counter to the world’s agenda. Say again Steve, how is it a blessing to be persecuted for righteousness sake?
The prophet Micah sets up the spiritual conundrum in the manner of a prosecuting attorney: he asks, what does successful worship look like in the eyes of God? In the ancient scheme, are a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, or even the offering of my first-born child enough that I should find favor with God? He answers his own question by thundering those famous words that have rumbled down through the centuries: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It doesn’t take much hard thinking to realize that authentic justice and kindness are dependent upon the level of humility we maintain in our walk with God. True justice is rooted in our understanding that all of us share the same sacred genetics, that no one is inherently above another in the eyes of God.
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus’ sermon took place not in the magnificent temple in Jerusalem from a marble pulpit, but on a mountainside in the vicinity of Capernaum. And do you suppose it was the spiritual giants, the learned scholars, successful merchants and well-connected politicians who crowded the natural amphitheater to listen to this topsy-turvy wisdom? Well, maybe there were some. Maybe so. Maybe about as many then, on a percentage basis, as are attending church today in New York City this morning.
But if so, then perhaps, they too, knew of their own poverty and could identify with the poverty of others no matter the form it took. Because surely we are more alike in our poverty than we are in our seeming successes. Indeed, one of the less noble, if still wildly popular reasons to succeed is the demonstration of our supposed superiority over everyone else. But prick the skin of any successful individual and we’ll discover the genetic predisposition for death just like everyone else.
Paul said, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.’ God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Have you ever done the equivalent of that, boasted in the presence of God? Sad to say, I know I have.
And who brought this radical kingdom message? The famous learned scholar from the University of Jerusalem? The temple’s Senior Minister? An emperor-in-waiting perhaps? The CEO of the Bank of Rome? No. It was an itinerant carpenter from Nazareth. Gossip had it there was a question about his father, and whether his mother ever married. He was a charismatic preacher, but certainly no typical success story. Crucifixion was his destiny. He died as an enemy of the state. Certainly not the successful career trajectory my mother would have had in mind for me, her youngest son. No my mother said she wanted a brain surgeon in the family—that was her goal.
Strange religion, this Christianity. Relentlessly proclaiming a message of hope in the face of failure, resurrection in the face of death, abundant blessing in the face of many poverties while espousing a radical ethic of justice, kindness and humility—it comes at us with a force multiplier effect, knocking us off balance. I don’t think we should right ourselves too soon. Stay in that awkward stance for a while—the rest of the week at least. Hold the question right up front: How goes your success with justice, kindness and humility… Taking Jesus’ cue, I’m thinking that if we do this, blessings will abound…
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
For more than twelve years I provided commentary on WCBS NewsRadio on topics under the banner of “Simple Truths: on Values, Civility and Our Common Good,” eventually collected into a book by the same name. Christ Church felt this was a useful incursion into the public square concerning things that mattered most emerging from our mission— not advertising, but commentary about human flourishing.
As I wrote in the preface, “As one man—husband, father, friend, citizen, child of God—I want to live with greater attention to the things that up-build my individual life, relationships, and healthy community. Yet, this often seems a lonely enterprise, and I find that I am easily distracted. After all, I am making my way in the very same cultural context as everyone else; we share the struggle for identifying and then maintaining the values that promote the common good. And this isn’t easy, even for those who attempt to practice and advance a particular religious tradition. I know only too well how religious practice can be overwhelmed by cultural tidal forces.”
Given current conditions in our nation, this focus now seems prescient, anticipating an accelerating breakdown of shared values and definitions of the common good. The 2016 presidential election results revealed the biggest gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote since 1876.
Award-winning journalist, E.J. Dionne, notes that, “We are having a very difficult time as a country empathizing with each other. One thing that we might take out of this campaign: empathy needs to be complete. There can’t be groups toward which we feel obligated to feel empathetic and groups toward which we don’t feel obligated to feel empathetic.” But then, 56 percent of Democrats didn’t have a close friend or family member who voted for Donald Trump and 52 percent of Republicans didn’t have a close friend or family member who voted for Hilary Clinton.
It seems we’re increasingly talking to ourselves inside echo chambers. Yes, to a great degree this is an outcome of encroaching technology. And, as the comparative maps of blue and red reveal, we seem to be separating geographically as well—an odd coupling of increasing individual atomization with tribalist tendencies.
Still, today I marvel at and celebrate our nation’s capacity for a peaceful, democratic leadership transition. I pray our new president and administration will courageously and wisely fashion a government for all the people, that from the fractious chaos of this season, stability will emerge protecting and advancing the common good.
Underneath our disagreements most of us probably want similar things: security, useful work that pays a living wage, equal rights and dignity before the law and one another, clean air and water, easy access to quality healthcare—things like that. Given these common desires I will seek to be in conversation with those whose opinions differ from mine, admitting limits to my knowledge and wisdom, and seeking to love my neighbor.
As Paul pointed out to the Corinthians their unity would not be found in the competition between various factions and leaders, but in their essential commitment to Christ. We well know from experience that this doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement in all matters, but it should hold us accountable to enduring gospel values emphasizing God’s love for all persons, especially those at the margins, the ones Jesus regularly embraced.
Here’s a gospel paradox: Jesus was not a political partisan, but he died a political death. Some wanted him to pick up a banner and a weapon and lead a political movement to overthrow the government. But that would have diminished, well, really, crushed his purpose, which had several layers. Instead of walking a path towards power he chose a path of humility that kept him in solidarity with the powerless. As we point out during Christmas his birth in a stable was emblematic of how he would track in life despite his exceptional qualities.
As he began his public ministry from the margins, people were drawn to his topsy-turvy yet profoundly insightful teaching. And as we heard in our passage from Matthew, he invited a few of them to follow along more closely, those we call his disciples. But here, it’s useful to ask what followership actually meant. What did it mean to follow along then? And by turn, what does it mean to follow along today?
Jesus was a brilliant educator in the school of experiential learning. Last week we heard him ask those who had come out to see him this question: “What are you looking for?” throwing the onus for their learning back on them. Then responding to their question about where he was headed he said, “Come and see.” In other words, come see for yourselves. Don’t simply take my word, but observe, discover by doing. Intrigued, some followed along with him.
As the story unfolds we learn these followers are both loyal and feckless—a lot like us, really. Jesus’ message was as confounding as it was liberating. He was a messiah who eschewed political power while simultaneously exerting profound authority. Most confounding of all, no one was excluded from his concern. He was as comfortable addressing the specific needs of a marginalized, desperate individual as he was admonishing huge crowds to prepare for God’s way in the world.
Next week, we’ll read his famous words that open the Sermon on the Mount, the so-called beatitudes, or blessings. On a mountainside crammed with thousands he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…[and] those who are persecuted” (Matt 5ff). That turns the world’s grading system completely upside down.
He’ll go on to say outrageous things like how we are to love our enemies; and rather than storing up riches on earth we should store them up in heaven; and how we should not judge since we are blind to the log in our own eye while we curse the speck in the eye of someone else; how we are meant to become salt and light for the world.”
So we learn that his followers are meant to commit to these same values rooted in humility. Later, towards the end of his life he’ll teach that the nations will be judged on how well they care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). And his followers will take this to heart that now shows up in their generosity of dollars, time and energy as well as their commitment to dismantling systemic roadblocks to human flourishing for everyone.
Modeling Jesus’ behavior, his followers will confront the powers that favor one group over another. They’ll promote the safety and dignity of all persons regardless of external conditions. As the prophet Micah famously admonished, they will “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.” (Micah 6:8)
These have always been the hallmarks of faith as modeled and mentored by Jesus who told his close friends to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34). Stunningly, shortly after this instruction he was arrested by the state. His subsequent death raised this command high for all to see, looming over the centuries to our present moment. It remains our highest calling and the source of our enduring hope.
So on this momentous weekend, I ask that God bless the United States of America. And God bless Christ Church as we continue to seek to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1st Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Magrey DeVega, the Senior Minister of Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa, Florida, writes a blog that I check out from time to time. A generation younger than me, he has a thoughtful, sincere perspective, with evidence of deep faith and compassionate regard for others. He’d do well here, I suspect. Anticipating the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration here’s how he began his post this week:
“One of the first churches I served after graduating from seminary was a small, rural congregation in the deep South. I was young and eager to please, and still somewhat oblivious to the realities of ministry in the real world. Within the first few months of my arrival, we scheduled a congregation-wide cleanup day for the church. Parishioners gathered to pick up branches, rake pine needles, and trim overgrown bushes.
Toward the end of the workday, I placed the last of the debris into the pick-up truck of one of the church members, whom I'll call Ben, so that we could haul it off to the burn pile for incineration. Ben's stern, commanding personality effused authority as a leader in the church. With the truck loaded, he stepped into the driver's seat in the front cab, as I opened the passenger's side to sit next to him.
“‘No,’ Ben said, in a mumbling drawl. ‘Minorities sit in the back.’
“I looked at him as he turned the key in the ignition. He looked the other way out the window. I didn't know him well enough to know if he was joking. If he was, then he had an odd way of teasing someone he barely knew. If he wasn't, then he had an odd way of broaching a sensitive subject with the person serving as his pastor. Either way, the last thing this young, eager-to-please preacher wanted to do was fan a firestorm with such a powerful person in the church, even if he was joking.
“So, for better or worse, I climbed into the bed of the truck with the branches.
“To be honest, it was a stunning and somewhat painful moment. But in retrospect, I feel quite fortunate that episodes like this have been very rare in my life. I recognize that many people have had to overcome barriers far greater than mine: African-Americans throughout history, Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, American Muslims since September 11. Women have suffered from inequality in the workplace; gays and lesbians have struggled for equal rights...
Now I don’t really know how Magrey identifies ethnically or racially. He isn’t Caucasian, and clearly from Ben’s point of view, he didn’t belong in the front seat, but back with the debris and branches in the truck bed.
But a question comes to mind: Who did Ben see when Magrey opened the passenger side door? Did he see his pastor, or something else first of all? What mattered most in his seeing?
This issue of “seeing” dogs all of us, that is, seeing the world and its inhabitants myopically. Mostly we have no clear idea of what we’re looking at, especially if it’s another person. We bring our biases and predispositions to every new circumstance—we can’t help this. If we’ve developed some self-awareness, we understand we have this limitation. It’s very hard to remain vigilant and open to new information even if we say we’re on the lookout for it.
Consider this: I can’t know all the reasons each of you came this morning, but I can tell you that one of my objectives is to present Jesus Christ—to lift him up, as it were—so all who’ve come might get a good look at him. What each of you sees is another matter all together. That will be conditioned by your history and expectations and these vary dramatically from person to person. The image up there sparkling in the mosaic may or may not be useful in this moment—I could imagine that going either way.
I take comfort that as the story is told even John the Baptist had this problem. As we heard in our gospel lesson this morning when Jesus walked into view John says, “Here is the Lamb of God,” but then adds, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed.” In other words, John didn’t have a clear picture of who would be following him; Jesus was something of a surprise. (Actually, truth be told, he’s still a surprise…especially for many unsuspecting Christians who haven’t taken a good long look at him for a while.)
John repeats his confession to ignorance: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” This refers to the one who embodies God’s way in the world, someone who exudes the spirit of God from within, made evident by how he lives his life and to what ends he dedicates his energy and focus.
Jesus is an enigmatic figure. He comes into view as one who was not known beyond the costume of a carpenter from Nazareth. How he tracks from that image to the image we have in our mosaics is a remarkable story, but it’s not exactly crystal clear, is it?
Who, what, do you see when you actually take the time to look in the direction of Jesus? Turning to his followers Jesus said, “What are you looking for?” They replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Which is like saying, “Well, we’re not entirely sure, but you what you teach is pretty compelling.” He said to them, “Come and see.” And so they went. The attentive reader then accompanies them in their discovery. At the end of their journey they see a very different Jesus than at the beginning, which is as it should be for anyone desiring to see a larger truth than they already know, looking beyond their own reflection in a mirror. Stands to reason that if we set out to learn something new, the end of our journey will look different than the beginning.
When Martin Luther King Jr. looked at Jesus, among the things he eventually saw were freedom and justice. Other Christians, seeing only their own reflection when looking to Jesus, saw the comfort of the status quo. In 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham on Good Friday afternoon. Over that Easter weekend he penned one of the most significant Christian documents of the last half century. He addressed his letter not to abusive police officers or racist politicians, but to a group of white clergymen who were urging people to withdraw from the demonstrations, which they called “unwise and untimely.”
At one point King writes, “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block is not…the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”
Jesus invited the newly interested to “come and see.” Come see who I am and what I’m about; consider how the Spirit of God is moving in the world. Most thoughtful Christians today would agree that King’s words were more in synch with Jesus’ spirit, purpose and focus than those of the so-called Christian “moderates,” back in the day, who preferred the stability of the status quo in uncivil, unequal America. Both Jesus and King were martyred for stating, among other things, that the emperor had no clothes.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince, or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it. All you have to do is recognize another you ‘out there’—your other self in the world—for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself. To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.” (from An Altar in the World).
I think she may be right in that. Of course, to love you is to try to see you on your own terms, in your own skin, and also as someone related to me despite external conditions. Someone who can trace their lineage to Adam and Eve, as it were, just like me. That’s among the things Jesus wants us to see when we follow along his way, observing his behavior, listening to his stories as he makes his way to Jerusalem.
“Come and see,” he says innocently enough, knowing full well how skilled we are at seeing exactly what we want to see, and not a lick more. Very difficult to look at people the way Jesus looks at them. Hard to absorb how he looks at each of us. Who does he see when he looks into your face?
It can be confoundingly hard to open our hearts to see a larger version of the truth. Hard, but not impossible. This is no hammer-over-the-head demand. It’s an act of hospitality on the part of Jesus. Come, see for yourself. See where I live, what I do, what I say. Mix it up with others who have also followed along…
Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Many years ago, when my kids were still in school here in the city, I attended a softball game in which my daughter was playing second base. I’m thinking she must have been in sixth grade or so. There were only a few stalwart parents in attendance standing off first base. One father in particular from the opposing team stood out because of his jerky agitation walking up and down the base line. His daughter was also playing second base, and he shouted regular instructions to her.
At one point the play came to her, and she flubbed the out, which prompted her father to scream out, “My God, you are such an idiot player! That should be your name, Idiot Player!” The game came to end quickly then but not before the coach went over and had a little chat with Dad, who clearly would have none of it and told the coach where she could get off…
Several things impressed me about this little exchange: One, that Dad was there at all; and, two, that if he took the time to come, why did he spend it in such a hateful manner? Intriguing and troubling. Later, as the girls were leaving, I heard one of her teammates call out, “Idiot Player who lost the game!” I wondered if the name would stick.
At that time, I remember thinking I had just witnessed something important, not to be missed or forgotten, not that it was so very large. I had certainly witnessed worse, grosser, behavior. But I guess I was ready for the lesson at that moment, because it was as though a window opened on a universal human tragedy. And it has stayed with me all these many years later.
Intuitively you know about this tragedy. You know how people are often trained from the time they’re powerless little persons to doubt their essential worth. And how in turn, their own fragile egos and insecurities lead them to prop themselves up by putting others down in myriad ways, from the exquisitely subtle, to the blatantly abusive. Who could deny this is one of the fundamental human flaws? Who would deny his or her own culpability?
We often participate in this universal conspiracy unwittingly, foolishly, without so much as a nano-second of reflection. It’s part of the source of the struggle between races and classes and religions, between women and men, and any of the people we wind up defining as the dreaded “other.” We could always find ourselves better than them. These tendencies are so ingrained we’re often unconscious of our own complicity in the tragedy.
When it is brought to our attention we tend to see it as a problem for psychologists, sociologists and educators to sort out for us, to look at the tragedy through the lens of the social scientists so that they might then engineer certain “cures”. We develop elaborate methodologies around self-esteem, for instance. I don’t doubt for an instant that social scientists shed light on this, and offer palliatives, but this is a much larger problem than their tools can fix by themselves. That’s because at its heart this problem is a spiritual disease.
In the Gospel lesson, we heard a story with a different outcome. If you were paying attention, you recognize it was also a story about a certain parent and child, in this case, a father and son. Now granted, it’s a bit difficult to pull out the literal details of the story, but the important lesson is there for those with open minds and hearts.
We’re told that a man named John was baptizing people at the Jordan River. Some among the crowds that flocked to him thought John might be the saving leader for the Jews, the Messiah, the one to lead them to freedom. But John is clear that another is coming who is more powerful than him.
So, while John is doing his thing at the river, Jesus comes to be baptized. And afterwards the story paints that lovely but rather surreal picture that has captured pious Christian artists for centuries—the descending dove embodying God’s Spirit. Its descent is accompanied by this essential detail—the voice of God. Do you remember what that voice says? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Contrast that for a moment with, “My God, you’re such an idiot player! That should be your name, Idiot Player!”
At its heart, Christianity is absolutely unequivocal about the centrality of love. Love is the glue, the force, the grace, the life and breath of God. Life is one of love’s primary outcomes. Love is the essence of life-force and it has its genesis in the creator. All love is an emanation from relationship with the creator.
Love alone has the height and length and breadth and depth to embrace suffering. It calls forth courage and integrity. The way our scriptures speak of it, love is the medium through which all things have come into being and it defines God’s very nature. So, the Father says to the Son, “You are the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Relating to such a God as this leads to the inexorable conclusion that each of us is cherished beyond time and measure. And if this is true, you can see then that the father in my little soft-ball story was suffering a spiritual malaise. But even now, from this clinical distance, I don’t want to pick on him. It’s too easy to heap blame on an easy mark.
Because the truth is, while we pay lip service to this lovely idea of love, in most of us, in our heart of hearts, we secretly don’t quite believe it. We can’t quite believe that we are that valuable in the grand scheme of things. In fact, our more routine, earth bound associations lead us to believe just the opposite—that our true worth is suspect.
There’s a very good chance that even the most successful among us may be driven by the secret conviction that no amount of success will in the end prove our true value. And most likely this truth lurks in the gray haze of the unconscious because we don’t want to face it. We keep our suspicions locked down, as it were, where we believe they stay safe. Yet they can’t help breaking out from time to time, like on the ball field with our daughter, for instance.
Do you see why this transcends psychology? Our problem lies in our core, in our soul, with our understanding of the essential organization of the universe and our place within it. This is one of the reasons we have the sacramental act of baptism. In a few moments, if we’re wide awake we’ll see how far and how deep it actually intends to reach. If we pay attention, we’ll be reminded of what the deepest truth is, namely, that every last one of us has a sacred genealogy that reaches all the way to God.
If we listen very carefully as a drop of water touches our face, we just might hear a voice that says, “You are my daughter, you are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And if that seeps into our souls, then starting from the inside out, we’ll find ourselves changing, literally becoming what we are in our essential nature.
For one thing, we’ll become increasingly conscious. More and more we’ll discover how we have capitulated to the power of fear and attempted to prove our worth either by our own striving, or by propping ourselves up by putting others down. We’ll become increasingly dissatisfied with that way of life. That way of life will no longer have congruence with what we know to be true. We’ll find our old ways patterns unacceptable. We’ll find the patterns of fear in our culture, unacceptable. We’ll find ourselves caring more about how well we receive those who have been otherwise rejected or displaced. We’ll be thinking less about ourselves and more about others.
Right here in the central act of initiation of our faith is a revelation of the complete truth. That we feel unworthy is understandable; in the presence of such love, a humble sense of our unworthiness is a completely natural response. Most important though, is the full realization that God loves us with an everlasting love that inflated our lungs at the first, set our lives in motion and brought us to this very moment when you are hearing these very words about your sacred worth and the sacred worth of everyone else who shares your pews, shares our city, shares our world.
There isn’t a grander or more important thing going on anywhere around town this morning than your hearing either for the first or the hundredth time the deep truth at the core of all things.
Friends, it's time to gather at the river that flows by the throne of God…
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 • Psalm 8 • Revelation 21:1-6a • Matthew 25:31-46Read MoreLess
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-17; Matthew 1:18-25
You’re likely aware there’s a growing a body of research that suggests human brains are being rewired by our interface with technology. Parents are learning about this at their children’s schools as teachers negotiate the issues of information bombardment—the crush of electronic communication and the struggle for deep, sustained, focused learning.
Studies indicate that ever-greater access to information bits is inversely proportional to depth of knowledge and developing wisdom. We seem to be swapping out an ability for sustained focus for adaptive information gathering, which researchers describe as a mental “surface” activity. Some years ago a famous Atlantic Monthly article captured the negative side of this idea entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Underscoring this question we’re now in the throes of a texting while driving addiction. The statistics are startling. Over 2.5 million people in the U.S. are involved in road accidents each year. 1 out of 4 are specifically caused by texting while driving. Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving. It’s actually safer for someone to get wasted and get behind the wheel than to text and drive. These statistics put the lie to the idea that we’re all excellent multi-taskers. Fact is, we’re much smarter doing one thing at a time with complete focus.
Emerging from the recent election cycle, I realized that I had been devouring much more media than I used to and yet didn’t feel any smarter for it. In retrospect I think it made me less thoughtful about what I was watching and reading. I’ve now cut way back, re-engaging books I’ve let languish, among other activities. It’s kind of a relief. And as we’re discovering, one of the problems of all this information surfing concerns our decreasing ability to sort fact from fiction. We can’t, or simply won’t, stop to ponder whether the latest wacky conspiracy theory actually holds water.
Some mornings I can’t decide whether the stuff we do in here adds or detracts from the problem of sensory overload. Sometimes it feels oddly surreal to dress up in robes and process into an ornate building lighting candles, ringing bells, singing sentimental carols in an age awash in technological wizardry and cultural overstimulation. But mostly this spiritual activity seems an act of quiet rebellion, even revolution on behalf of what really matters.
Hard to say what perspective any given person brings who walks through these doors at this time of year. None of us knows what particular bits of information predominate for any other person who shares our pew, or what they’re thinking about while sitting here. Are you mostly focused or mostly distracted?
Have you ever noticed the little announcement at the top of your worship program that says, “please turn off all electronic devices?” It would be fun to see a show of hands of those who have actually done that. Because, of course, I see you texting. Of course, not so much is at stake sitting in a pew compared with behind the wheel of a car. But you know its true—you know you’re not the brilliant multi-tasker you think you are. Your brain cannot retain a depth of knowledge, wisdom or experience doing two or three things at once.
So I invite you to name your multiple preoccupations and then set them aside for the next few minutes. Allow yourself the luxury of scaling back your attention to a small event with an improbable meaning.
It concerns an illegitimate pregnancy in an inconsequential backwater town among poor, simple people. Just the sort of people who are the first to be affected by the machinations of the powerful, just the sort of inconsequential people we’d quickly overlook as we scan the web, the tube, the stores.
The old story has the added burden of being overly familiar. You know the basic characters and plot lines. You remember roughly how it begins and how it ends. You recall certain details with greater clarity than others. Angels, shepherds and so on. But these bits of details are clearer than a deep understanding of their collective meaning.
Today we drill down to one particular character who gets a top billing, but no lines. An enigma, really. But to really hear this bit of the story, we have to shift gears from the day’s preoccupations. From the thralldom of a thousand distractions we need to shift our thinking down to just one vulnerable man of the disposable masses—Joseph, the cuckolded fiancé, caught in a serious personal predicament of seeming little significance in the grand scheme of things. Just one throw-away information bit.
The ancient law called for the death penalty when a woman committed adultery. By rabbinic practice over the centuries that penalty had been reduced to divorce and public disgrace. Matthew reports that Joseph was a “righteous man,” meaning he wanted to protect Mary from humiliation while still getting out of the marriage. He didn’t want to impose an unnecessary hardship.
Then a surprising thing happened. Certainly he could exert his rights as the aggrieved party, but Joseph chose another way, the way of trust and love, and in response to a dream, he takes Mary as his wife after all and receives her child as his own.
This was a small act in comparison to the size of decisions within the purview of Caesar or Herod the King. But an act that changed the world, nevertheless. Interesting, isn’t it? This juxtaposition of the large, supposedly consequential decisions among the world’s power brokers and the decision of a simple, humble man caught in a personal dilemma. And then the way the story has it, discovering that God was not cavorting in human affairs on the scale of the Caesar, but in the birth of this single, seemingly illegitimate child.
This is one of the reasons the story has hung around as long as it has, this revelation that while the world’s powerful gyrating egos play out their dramas, holding populations hostage to their whimsies, God slips in to reveal how real power manifests in the world. Think Clinton, Trump and Putin as opposed to say, one of the families in our El Nido program in Washington Heights. Here’s our tradition’s point of view: this bit of information is a lot more important than other bits. Miss this bit from among all the other bombarding bits and you’ll miss a whole mess of other really important stuff. I’d go so far as to say you’ll miss what it means to be human in the highest and best sense—the equivalent of a car accident, as it were, while texting.
In Joseph we have the character of the story who is most like us. It’s easy to imagine him trying to get to sleep after learning about the pregnancy of his fiancé, spent, exhausted from anger, frustration and humiliation, grappling with his conscience, tossing and turning in the night. In his restlessness a dream angel whispers in his ear.
Victimized by circumstance beyond his control Joseph is presented with a variation of life he would not have chosen for himself, trapped by his options yet surprisingly, wanting to do the right thing. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests the whispering angel says something like this: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God will be born here, too, if you permit it.”
So Joseph does the unexpected thing. On the face of it, he takes the more difficult path, the narrow road, as his son will describe it about thirty years later. Joseph will take Mary’s predicament on himself, and together they will give birth to love. And to hope. And even joy. Joy to the world! We will soon sing.
Probably 25 years ago now, I was speaking with a young man about important life-stage decisions. At one point he mentioned he was embarrassed to tell me a little discipline he tried to include as part of his decision-making. “It’s a very little thing,” he said. “Sometimes, when I think of it, I ask myself this question: ‘Are you ready to accept joy in your life? Are you ready?’”
He then produced a well-folded slip of paper from his pocket with the question neatly printed. He kept it there as a reminder. He added, “The funny thing is that once you ask that question, ‘Are you ready to accept joy in your life?’ it’s very, very hard to answer, ‘No, I don’t think I want it, not today.’” He said this reminded him to ask God to bless whatever endeavor he was engaged in, or in whatever circumstance confounded him. He had an unusual spiritual innocence, wise beyond his years.
In that little exchange, I found a complete sermon that I’ve remembered ever since. To ask the question, “Are you ready to accept joy?” is to slip into Joseph’s skin for a moment. And considering his circumstance, doesn’t it seem an odd question to ask? How could he expect to find joy when it seems he’s been taken advantage of? When his honor has been damaged, his plan so disrupted, his love seemingly betrayed?
But this led him to certain decisions, difficult decisions that welcomed joy into the world. Sadly, we don’t speak much about joy in our daily lives. I wonder if we consider it an actual option, as an available and natural way of living. Perhaps we’re too sophisticated, or too cynical, or just simply too distracted to consider joy an actual option. It almost sounds surreal. Importantly, our ancient stories reveal that joy does not exist in some pristine alternative universe, separate from the travails and struggles of our lives. Instead, they reveal that joy comes whenever we’re able to disarm ourselves enough to honestly welcome God into our world.
Now again, here at the end, my perspective is that this information is among the most important you’ll receive this December. You’re welcome to disagree with me, of course. But don’t leave here today without hearing the simple bit that some information really is more important than other information, just as some food is more nutritious than other food. It really does matter what we think about in the day, and what we dream about at night. Like Joseph, the meaning of our lives hangs in the balance…
(2) Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing the Impossible,” Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley, 1995.