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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Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2nd Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Sometimes events erupt in the middle of the week that disrupt the normal flow of business here. Generally, we have a program in mind for the week’s activities leading to Sunday worship. But sometimes, something happens that catches us up short, something that is so “up front” in people’s faces, so much in the news, or so distressing that I must address it. Fact is I’m all worked up over this.
Those of you who receive my Faith Matters blog know where I’m headed here today. I want to state very clearly that there is nothing remotely biblical or Christian about ripping children away from their mothers and fathers. As I said in my piece on Friday, I almost couldn’t write about it given my sputtering anger over our federal officials quoting scripture defending the righteousness of their obscene policy at our borders. This surely violates the gospel of redemptive love.
Remember that in early May, the US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced a “zero tolerance” policy for persons attempting to migrate to the United States resulting in de facto family separation: children are immediately removed from their parents as they are apprehended after crossing the border. And three days ago, he also announced a policy reversing protections for asylum seekers fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence. Neither threat of violence is now considered grounds for asylum.
You’ve seen the pictures, heard the stories, and likely have read about the tent city being erected for the express purpose of warehousing kids taken from their parents. Session’s use of scripture defending this policy should appall every thoughtful follower after the way Jesus blazed. And irony of ironies, this story broke just in time for Father’s Day.
Let’s be reminded of other biblical texts like this one from the prophet Isaiah who, within the Christian tradition, helps describe the titanium chord of justice linking us throughout human history to the present moment: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1-3 NIV)
And do we really need to recount the relentless messages pertaining to love of neighbor that resound on nearly every page of the gospel? Do we really need to recall that when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan? Do we need to remember that calling children to himself he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these?”
Page after page, verse after verse, story after story, our sacred texts reveal what God requires of us, namely, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
I’m going to give Attorney General Sessions the benefit of the doubt that he did not know how the passage he quoted has been used in the past. Here’s what he repeated from the 13th chapter of Romans: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
He neglected to frame the context of that passage, however. A few verses ahead Paul says this: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
That provides the powerful gospel corrective to unjust laws. But as Blasé Pascal, once wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Historically, the passage Sessions quoted out of context has been read as an unequivocal order for Christians to obey state authority, no matter what, a reading that was often used to justify Southern slavery in the United States, but also authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.
In this latter case, “Afrikaner theologians, pastors, and politicians alike in South Africa all emphasized Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 that everyone must submit to the governing authorities as the central Scripture concerning Christian relations to the state,” say scholars Joel A. Nichols and James W. McCarty. “Read through an Afrikaner lens, theologians claimed that the apartheid state was ordained by God and must be obeyed by all living in South Africa.”
And the same was true of Southern Christians defending the legitimacy of slavery, and German Christians defending the authoritarian impulse of Adolph Hitler. History books are rife with examples. They all used this verse out of context. Like most everyone else, Christians are susceptible to gross manipulation if it confirms their prejudices and suits their self-interest. Nothing like a bible verse out of context to clobber one’s enemies and defend one’s tribe.
That’s why this incident hit me in the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of me. Like I said, I’m giving the Attorney General the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know about these historic antecedents. But then again, who knows…
The problem in this case is that the biblical evidence for answering that fluffy question evangelicals like to ask, What Would Jesus Do? is glaringly obvious when considering the fate of moms and dads and kids fleeing terrifying circumstance.
Now of course, there isn’t a straight line from gospel truth to secular law, but the gospel truth does provide an overarching framework for understanding our complicated place as citizens of two kingdoms—the kingdom of humanity and the kingdom of God.
Jesus said God’s kingdom was like the smallest seed in the world, and when planted, mysteriously and miraculously grew into a very large bush or tree. He clearly taught that citizenship in God’s realm has ramifications for how we should conduct ourselves in the human realm, how we should care for one another, how we should love our neighbors as ourselves, how every act of compassionate regard for others was like planting kingdom seeds.
This doesn’t mean that nations shouldn’t have secure borders and useful laws establishing appropriate boundaries among flawed humans. After all, we have laws precisely because we are flawed and self-centered, out for our own good. Good and just laws, take the broadest view of human dignity and safety while providing the bounds and rules of the game. They create the case and advance the cause of the common good. And here we mean the common good of everyone.
Unjust laws do the opposite, stripping people of their dignity, their well-being and sense of place in the world. Unjust laws stack the deck in favor of wealth and privilege. Unjust laws ramp up tribalistic tendencies, feeding on fear, while creating scapegoats and “less-thans”—the dreaded “others”, however they might be defined.
These sorts of laws must be challenged, confronted and changed. And from the vantage point of God’s realm that’s like planting kingdom seeds that will mysteriously and miraculously grow into mighty oaks of righteousness; a righteousness defined by Jesus’ self-giving love. That kind of human is a beautiful thing to behold.
You may know that I’ve had my issues with United Methodist denominational leadership in recent years, but on this matter the church has been rock solid for decades. It behooves me to commend the church when it so clearly and definitively defends the weakest among us.
This week the United Methodist Council of Bishops asked the government to stop the terrible policies at our southern border. “Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children,” they wrote. The United Methodist Women called for the Department of Justice to “do right by the immigrant children on our borders — surely among the weakest and most vulnerable among us — and immediately end the policy of separating children from their families.”
And providing a larger frame of reference, at the most recent general conference resolutions were passed that advocated generosity and charity toward immigrants, making numerous references to scripture and noting that Christ started life as a refugee, with his family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide. It reads: “Throughout the history of the United States, the most recently arrived group of migrants has often been a target of racism, marginalization and violence. We regret any and all violence committed against migrants in the past and we resolve, as followers of Jesus, to work to eliminate racism and violence directed toward newly arriving migrants to the United States.”
That’s the appropriate conclusion that arises from the witness of our scriptures. We are meant to be working with God, sharing God’s interest in justice, human dignity and compassionate regard for all of creation. We’re meant to be planters of the seeds of the kingdom of God.
1 Samuel 8:4-20 (11:14-15); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:30-35Read MoreLess
1 Samuel 3:1-20Read MoreLess
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Some years ago we published a small pamphlet called "Spiritual Mosaics: Stories of Faith from the Christ Church Family." It was a collection of 12 short spiritual autobiographies of members of the congregation. It fell out of my bookshelf this past week, and I refreshed my memory about the lives of these twelve family members and what struck me was that every story was about change. Some spoke of larger scale change, others smaller. But each observed a process that brought them to a new place or a new understanding; some described an enlightening serendipitous moment, others wrote of a longer journey and surprising outcomes.
Lorraine summarized her coming to faith this way: “It is a story of personal growth, guided step by step by the rituals of Christ Church. [Over time] I was able to hear in harmonic [messages] just those notes that I was able to understand and temporarily leave the rest. First, I heard about me and let the God part go. Then I heard the parables and found truth in them. Then I accepted God as metaphor. Then I understood the examples of Jesus; and then, finally, I believed that I was a child of God.”
But then she added this: “There is a downside to being a member of Christ Church. We change, and change is hard. After two years, I quit my job and went back to school [finishing my PhD] to become a teacher. Many of my friends in our original connection group quit their jobs as well… we misfits and soul-searchers alike… gather strength at Christ Church… and go off to do the important work of learning about ourselves so that we can better love our neighbors as ourselves.”
The highly regarded writer of short stories, Flannery O’Connor, a woman of great faith, once reflected that “grace changes us, and change is painful.” She meant God’s grace—the Eternal Mystery, Holy Love, God’s ravishing Spirit. That theme runs through much of her writing. Of course, change can also be wonderful, even, astonishing and transforming. If that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
I don’t mean change for change’s sake, or that everything old is bad and everything new is better, or that everything that happens to us is good. But we can’t associate with God’s ravishing Spirit and not expect something to change. That’s logically obvious, right? To worship the God we see revealed through the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and expect everything to stay pretty much as it is would be foolish. To expect our lives to follow a rigid path we’ve plotted out would seem, well, at a minimum, well-defended against the Spirit having her way with us.
We could say this more directly. If we thought we were worshiping this God of transforming grace and nothing changed in our lives, we’re probably worshiping something closer in appearance to what we see in a mirror. That’s because Flannery O’Connor is correct—grace changes us. It’s mysterious in the way that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, that unless one is born from above, one cannot truly see or receive the kingdom of God. But if you do see the kingdom, stands to reason you’ll be changed. Your perspective, your point of view, your understanding of who you are and where you’re headed.
As I flipped through the small storybook I noticed a lot changed in the lives of these sisters and brothers since its original publication. Some swapped old careers for new ones. Fred and Helen moved to London where they recreated their lives entirely. Ruby had a couple of books of poetry published. Jon got married and became a father twice over and changed careers. Manuel received his PhD and became a father. Matt entered and finished seminary and still moves towards ordination. And wonderful, sassy, irreverent Janet made her final change, wrestling, struggling with God every inch of the way before God finally relented and said, “Okay, you win!” granting her reward and taking her home.
Since the publishing of that volume of "Spiritual Mosaics," most of you have wandered in and some stuck around. From my vantage point, change came quickly, and change seems an organic aspect of our natural lives. And importantly, grace changes us.
Joyce tells of her decision to reaffirm her faith during the Easter dawn service one year. She wrote, “As Easter Sunday approached I grew more and more anxious to the point where on Easter Sunday I was visibly trembling. (I know that I was trembling because during the service my son leaned over to me and asked why my hand was shaking.) It was as if I understood that something important was about to happen.”
“We came forward in the darkened chapel, surrounded by candles. We knelt. The ministers traced a cross of water on our foreheads and proclaimed us children of God. After this reaffirmation the Easter message was proclaimed, the lights came on, and the great Easter celebration began. But inside me a change occurred. I couldn’t describe it at the time. All I knew was that I felt physically different; it was a feeling that went way down deep and seemed to ground me.”
Given our track this morning we might describe what happened to Joyce this way: grace changed her. She anticipated change was on its way—that’s why her hands shook. God’s spirit was present that morning and then, as she said, “inside me a change occurred.” And this change did not occur on an especially momentous, spontaneous occasion. It happened on a highly planned-out routine ritual day in which the Spirit was evidently active. All things considered, not a big-time event on the face of it.
Which is not unlike that first Pentecost we heard about last week. In Jewish tradition the spring harvest festival of Pentecost came fifty days after Passover. As the story was told, the disciples had marched triumphantly into Jerusalem like conquering heroes, they shared a poignant last meal, followed by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Remember their cowardice and crushing sense of loss and defeat. Then the disorienting experience of resurrection. A lot had gone down in those weeks. The disciples were agitated and confused, struggling to make sense of all these events.
Many pilgrims from many nations had crammed into the city for this routine ritual festival and then grace changed things. We might say the kingdom of God was revealed. God’s Spirit ravished the disciples.
Those fifty days must have felt like a spiritual pressure cooker. I bet the disciples’ hands were trembling before it all came to pass. I bet they didn’t know what had hit them and how it would all turn out, but inside a change occurred—inside them and then inside a lot of folks who had gathered for the standard religious observance but instead got blown around by Spirit wind. They had not planned on that. But the Spirit had its way.
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. “Do not be astonished Nicodemus that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
We don’t know how Nicodemus interpreted this mystical message, but John reports that after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Evidently, some breath of spirit wind found its way inside of him. Maybe it dawned on him what being born from above meant after all. Resurrection was just around the corner in any case.
Earlier you heard Paul say this to his Roman friends, “Don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent!? There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!”
“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, ‘What’s next, Papa?’” And I’m struck that at the age of 65 that question still haunts expectantly because I’m sensing the Spirit isn’t finished with me yet and likely won’t be finished until I draw my last breath.
After telling his story of personal confusion in the face of death, Matt put it this way: “Grace intervened. At the same time Christ Church opened and lifted me to God and the Spirit…the circumstances of my life shifted dramatically…So much of what I claimed for my identity turned out to be never really mine. This was a house built on sand. [Finally] face to face with myself I began to stop hiding…there was suffering… through it all I knew I was watched over and ministered to by the Spirit… An offering of love was extended to me at Christ Church. As space was made for me…I was offered hope…”
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
I well remember when my two children were confirmed by this congregation at this altar. That was nearly 25 years ago since they’re now in their mid 30’s. I remember their questions about what it all meant. Melissa and I answered them as best we could, and then proceeded to share their adventures into adulthood, the details of which we could not have anticipated at the time of their confirmation. We had our expectations for them, of course, but we learned—sometimes the hard way—that much of the work of parenting involves learning to hold those expectations lightly. As Kahlil Gibran aptly put it in his famous poem about children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. And I mostly subscribe to it. On the other hand, it also bends towards the sentimental. As we adults well know, life isn’t always clear-cut and easy. The bow can sometimes crack when bent and the arrow does not always fly straight. There will be tears ahead as well as triumphs.
One of my enduring prayers for my kids over the years has been a prayer for protection—that God would hold them close and help them to remember that no matter what trouble found them, they would not lose heart or lose the conviction that they were loved. My thought was that if they could see that conviction at work in their parents’ lives—in Melissa and me—as best we could live it, they would be well served for whatever life dished up for them. And when, for whatever reason, we couldn’t do that very well, they would remember that God was present still—always had been, always would be. God was their fortress and their rock. I hoped that would sink into their innermost being, way down into bedrock, below their doubts and questions. From that deep place then the Spirit could groan out their prayer that was too deep for words… that’s how we heard Paul say it a few minutes ago.
There’s a reason we have confirmation on Pentecost Sunday. As our story is told, Pentecost is the day God’s spirit came upon the ragtag, dispirited and cowardly band of disciples that had abandoned their mentor and friend at his time of greatest need. Jesus had told them he would not leave them comfortless, that God would provide a counselor, a Spirit of Truth, that would mediate Jesus’ presence. I will not leave you as orphans, he said. “I will come to you.”
This coming is perhaps the greatest mystery of our spiritual life. If we interviewed all of you about this we’d have quite a wide spectrum of reports concerning if and how you experience God’s presence in your life. There are several Christian denominations that have very specific ideas about what qualifies for “authentic spiritual experience.” For me, that always had the whiff of overcontrolling something that could not, in fact, be controlled and that God was an entirely free agent on how God might manifest in someone’s life.
The problem with spiritual experience, of course, is that its self-authenticating. One just knows it. Or not. Our scriptures and tradition tell us that the evidence will be found in how people live their lives. We see this evidence, for instance, in the lives of those cowardly disciples who are transformed utterly into courageous men and women of faith on Pentecost. Because the Spirit wind blew through them that day, we are now all here in this space. Imagine that!? That’s a kind of evidence.
But then how do we connect the dots to our own lives? How does faith in this graceful God show up in the lives of ordinary people, people like us, for instance, going about our day-to-day business? What does the evidence of our lives reveal? Scott Hoezee recalls that Maya Angelou’s classic essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” (*) describes what this evidence of God’s presence might look like in someone’s life.
Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl, (confirmation age I might add…) even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and eventually left, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory, glory hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see a whole lot deeper, farther than just those girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. She knew who she was and whose she was. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her. Her life gave evidence of the inner reality.
We surmise there had been a little Pentecost on that porch when Momma had been filled with the spirit of God and her daughter, Maya, had heard of it in her own language, that is, in a language that would touch Maya’s heart and change Maya forever. In that way Momma was a true bow in the hands of God and Maya was a sure arrow that flew swift and far.
And we pray that may be so for all of us…
(*) As suggested by Scott Hoezee here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/day-of-pentecost-c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53Read MoreLess
Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
There’s no getting around the fact that certain themes are relentlessly presented here at Christ Church, certain themes that lie at the heart of what we profess. Different churches might focus on slightly different aspects of the Christian tradition, but just around the bend of nearly every theological topic we could discuss lies the great progenitor theme of love. And as Christ Church folks know, that’s front and center in our mission here: we seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.
While some Christians seem to manage it, you have to try pretty hard to not have that as your first principle, especially after hearing Jesus say on the night of his arrest that his foundational commandment is for his friends and followers to love as he loves. In our recent Sunday readings, that theme has been rung loud and clear. God is love, we heard last week. Love as I love, we hear this week.
Love gets a lot play in our culture of course. And there’s a whole lot of confusion about it. Given that the word love is one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language, it might not be a bad idea to give some attention to the status of your loving over these next few minutes.
We use the word “love” to refer to a whole host of widely disparate feelings, emotions and relationships. We say we “fall in love” when we have strong physical, sexual and/or emotional attraction for another person. But then, too, if you’re a car enthusiast you might say you love your vintage Corvette. If you have a family pet, you will likely report you love your dog or cat—she’s a full member of the family. If chocolate is a favorite, your friends will hear how you love it, gotta have it. Sexual relations are described as “making love.” We speak of brotherly and sisterly love, love between friends, love of money, love of oneself.
The Greeks had four words for love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. That we have only one word that generally covers these topics doesn’t help. Seems we could benefit from pulling these ideas apart to discern what we’re actually addressing when we use the word in here.
A whole lot gets labeled as love that has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Sometimes it’s saddled with masking abusive behavior, or self-serving, manipulative behavior. Sometimes sexual exploitation is presented as love. I know from my work that authentic love can seem complicated, confusing and very elusive for people.
Then there’s the widespread cultural assumption that love ought to be easy, simple as 1, 2, 3. Experience teaches something else, but this fantasy dies hard, and some will consistently behave as though it should be easy so that anything which borders on the difficult sends them bouncing from one person, one friendship, even one church to another, never giving themselves permission to do the work of love.
Missing the payoff of warm feelings and easy times we can believe love is in very short supply in the world, resisting to learn the truth that love exists wherever and whenever we will it to exist.
Because love is as love does. That’s the point I will make today.
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” You’ll note that he did not say love was a warm feeling, as in, “Go forth and feel warmly towards people!” The example he gave was laying down one’s life for another. Not a feeling, not even a desire, really. Instead, the will to act.
The desire to love is not the same thing as the will to love. The distinction becomes clear when we compare the sentences, “I desire to go swimming,” versus, “I will go swimming.” The second implies intention and action. So simply desiring to love, while often a precursor to the real thing, does not, cannot replace real love. This is a very common misunderstanding. (M. Scott Peck)
That’s because love is as love does. Love is active, not passive. Whenever we choose and then act for the good of another, we are involved in the work of love.
Through quiet tears, Mary told me about another failed relationship. Now in her mid-forties and nearly desperate to find the right partner, she questioned whether it would ever happen. She had always believed there was just one person who was her true soul mate. Most of her serious relationships started out well enough, but at some point each fell flat. There always came that day when she awakened to the feeling she was no longer “in love.” What was wrong with her? Mary asked.
I said I had no idea if anything was wrong. But I did know that even if she ever were to find her true soul mate, so-called, there would inevitably come the day she would roll over in bed and think to herself, “What on earth am I doing here?” Then, I added, would come her opportunity to discover what love was more nearly about, because at that moment she would have to choose to love or not.
Though we’re allergic to this truth, love really has a lot to do with choice. We would rather think of it as something that happens to us than as something that is created by us. I think this allergy helps explain why there’s so little of it in our world and how easy it is to lose.
Love is as love does. The desire to love is not the same thing as love. The test comes when examining what one actually does.
“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” There is no other statement, no other teaching in the Bible that’s any clearer than this. If you were to summarize in a single sentence the primary teaching of Jesus, this is it. And if someone then questioned what you meant by love, you could respond that it moves along a continuum that ends with this: greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.
In the ultimate sense, the very most I can do for another is to hand over my life. That’s the model Jesus presents. Now, on a daily basis we aren’t usually called upon to give up our physical lives. But if we’re intent upon really loving, then we live with the will to extend ourselves for others. The promise that comes with our faith is that the more we give ourselves in love, the more our own lives become transformed by love. And at the end, even death itself is swallowed up by love.
But be clear, this sort of love has no tangible reality unless it is acted out in the world. When Tertullian, a Christian convert who became a prominent theologian of the second century declared, “See how the Christians love one another,” he was not referring to expressions of warm desires and feelings between them—as though they frequently exchanged lovely Hallmark cards. He’s referring to how they acted—what they did—what the content of their lives revealed. They put themselves—their possessions, their commitments, their lives—on the line. They extended themselves to others. They acted in love, for love is as love does.
There is no higher calling for the living of our days. To love authentically requires one to be a risk taker. To love at all is to be vulnerable in action. One cannot love and simultaneously maintain a controlled and steely existence, or an existence in flagrant disregard for others.
The best example of the sort of love we read, sing and speak about in here comes in the life of a man who said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” who was then summarily betrayed, arrested and left for dead by the very ones to whom he had addressed himself. That’s the prescriptive example of divine love. That was God’s definition.
The miracle, the thing we celebrate in the Easter season, is that this sort of love ultimately triumphs in this world. As the First Letter of John says it: “For the love of God is this…that whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”
Love is as love does. There are so many things to be done that range from feeding a hungry person, to listening to a friend’s turmoil, asking forgiveness of a co-worker, spending time with children, giving generously, extravagantly, of material resources, learning how to build lasting, committed relationships, working for justice for all people.
To actively love is a radical, intentional way of living in the world, the most radical way there is. To actively love is a life stance, a way of orienting ourselves in the world. To love authentically stakes a claim on what matters most in this life, and it runs counter to much of what we experience day-to-day.
A daunting, inspiring challenge. Thank God we have one another. Thank God we have the rock solid, sustaining model in Jesus and his abiding presence. Thank God for love.
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
I entered Yale Divinity School when I was 22-years-old, which seems really, really young to me today. Sociologists are telling us that mature adulthood is arriving quite a bit later now, so 22 is more like the start of a protracted adolescence. And honestly, when I look back on those days I would tell you that I was sort of an emotional basket case when I made my way from the west coast to the east, not really having a clue as to how I might fashion a meaningful life; and I suffered from what has now become the neurotic benchmark of our moment—excessive anxiety. I dripped with it.
Some of that anxiety was driven by the belief that I was supposed to have my act together as I graduated from college. The implicit cultural expectation was that college prepared you for your career which would commence immediately upon graduation. Marriage would soon follow, then kids and a mortgage resulting in great satisfaction and happiness as you made your way up whichever occupational ladder you had chosen, eventually to retire when work would cease, and your well-earned playtime would begin.
That was the post-World War II script. The world had been saved from tyranny and a golden time of infinite opportunity lay ahead. The apple was ripe for the picking… at least for some of us… who were the right gender, race and class.
But then, that catalyzed some of the agitated anxiety for someone like me who was not especially well-suited to the most conventional or, shall we say, opportune occupations. My mother wanted me to become a brain surgeon. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. And when word got around that I was headed off to Divinity School that came as quite a shock to nearly everyone, including my friends, by the way.
I didn’t enter divinity school headed towards ordination. It was just that I was very intrigued with God, who had become increasingly real to me. A fluky set of circumstances is what got me to Yale, although, in retrospect I see the golden thread linking the days of my life to the present moment.
But one’s vocation is only one facet of the conundrum of living into a meaningful life. Perhaps you saw the recent film All the Money in the World which chronicles the time in 1973 when J. Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped. Getty was then the world’s richest man and the film tells a harrowing tale of a capitalist attitude run amok. Christopher Plummer was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of this awful man who nevertheless had a knack for accumulating wealth.
This knack did not serve his offspring, however. And in fact, begs the question of what else actually matters for a life well-lived. Getty was enamored of accumulating stuff and things. He said he loved his children and grandchildren, but as I will discuss next week, love is as love does.
Still, even in that thoroughly dysfunctional family, there was an implicit understanding that love was supposed to have a central role in human flourishing. Love was an aspect of their conceptual framework. Their inability to execute actual love drives of the story forward.
Of course, love is part of the conceptual framework for most everyone and lies at the heart of all the enduring religious traditions. That’s where we most regularly learn about it. So, while we’re growing up and making our way out into the world, figuring out our vocations and life patterns, we’re also figuring out how love fits in. With various degrees of intention, all of us try to work out what it is.
I can tell you that many, if not most of the problems people come to talk with me about involve an issue with love, even if that word never enters the conversation. And while I believe love is woven into every part of creation—indeed, it’s the very engine of creation—we’re nevertheless victims of defective role-modeling.
We humans have been so fashioned that it seems love must be chosen by us—it’s an option in our human freedom. God’s love for us is not optional, but for us it is an option in every moment of every day. And very often we simply don’t choose it.
Same was true for our parents to greater or lesser degrees, and their parents before them and so on drifting back into the misty past until we find ourselves in that lovely garden called Eden when Eve invites Adam to take a bite of the apple—and look what happened to the brothers Cain and Able!
That’s the story lore that our tradition teaches. It’s hung around in our collective memory as long as it has because it resonates with human experience. It reveals something authentic about us. In this way the story is archetypal: it describes a general condition. We are fickle and idolatrous, narcissistic and petty, often disregarding the voices of the better angels of our nature.
And so, love can seem terribly elusive, if simultaneously really important.
We heard the writer of First John say it explicitly: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him… since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another…”
In here we say that statement describes the heart of our faith. If we seek to learn how to love, we have only to look to God’s son, Jesus Christ, as our model. And his way of love followed this pattern: birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection. At each step along the way he chose the loving alternative, and this was both glorious and fraught with anguish.
We have an instinct about the anguish that is tied to love. You know this from experience—that if you love something, someone, you set yourself up for hurt. We see that writ large in the life and times of Jesus who loved so very well.
In this way we say that genuine love comes only through our vulnerability. If we extend ourselves to someone in love we run the risk of rejection, or misunderstanding, or the lack of what we deem “appropriate reciprocation.” We run the risk of needing to give something up that we have otherwise decided is really important to us. A word like sacrifice takes on meaning in real time.
In his discussion of love C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no safe investment [here]. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one... Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
“But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable… The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell.” (The Four Loves)
So back to my time in divinity school: after I woke up to the necessity of ordination, I took an intensive summer course in New Testament Greek. One of the exams involved translating the First Letter of John, from which we read today. At one point I recall parsing out, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…” and very tired of the project at this point, I felt like writing, yada, yada, yada. But then this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”
And for whatever reason, it felt like I was hit by a 2x4. Though I wasn’t reading for content at the time, it struck me hard: the opposite of love was not hate, but fear. Fear was the great enemy. And love the great antidote. I had never really heard that before though I had read the passage many times. And so, at the age of 22 I internalized the lesson that if I were ever going to learn how to love well, I would be contending with fear. And I have since learned well that fear lies behind so much bad behavior of every sort—the big flashy arrogant kind, and the quiet, passive, victimized kind—and every kind of bad behavior in between.
I started the practice of paying attention to my fears…to name them, bring them to consciousness…to recognize and own them. This is a difficult, sometimes excruciating, even humiliating discipline…but little by little I discovered that if I did that I was often able to move through my fear. I learned that I could love better. Not perfectly mind you, but better. And then I learned bit by bit that the more I attempted to genuinely love, the less I feared.
And I began to see how our social ills are fashioned and driven by fear: racism, sexism, and all the tribalisms that keep us on lockdown among our own kind… so much fear and resulting defensiveness, aggression and violence. It made so much sense. It opened my heart and mind to what happened to Jesus and why his triumph was so profoundly liberating.
Here was another kind of archetypal story: a man walked into his life and through his fear with the creative power of love and he triumphed over death itself. That was a story I could give my life to because it wasn’t just a story, it described reality, my reality…I felt it in every fiber of my being.
Friends, that’s the sort of love we talk about in here—the gluing agent of life itself, the core, the heart of the matter, the essence of life’s meaning and purpose, the true antidote to fear that agitates so many of our problems.
I come here because I need you to help me learn how to love. We do that for each other. At its best, this place, this congregation is a school for love. And I, for one, am very, very grateful for that…
Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
It’s hard to think of myself as a sheep. But there’s no escaping the logical consequence of claiming, “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the Lord’s my shepherd, then it stands to reason I’m one of the sheep.
Sheep are passive and stupid. After millennia of domesticated herd life, they’ve lost the instincts they once had to defend themselves. When a wolf or coyote gets into the flock they’re incapable of mounting any kind of defense—either singly or as a group. By taking the role of sheep we would seem to be admitting our inability to care for and protect ourselves.
So, this leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Besides, it feels a little foolish and dated to force this metaphor into 21st century urban America. The last vestige of the pastoral life we have in New York City is what we quaintly call the sheep’s meadow in Central Park. And pretty soon that will become tanning central covered with blankets and half-naked bodies.
Every culture has its mythical image of itself, often drawn from some romanticized notion of its past. For instance, in the American psyche, there’s the eternally free-spirited cowboy, lone ranger, rugged individualist, capitalist rodeo rider. When danger comes knocking on our door, it’s not our nature to stand back and let a protector answer it for us. For the rugged individualist, nothing could be more maudlin than imaging oneself as a sheep.
We see this mythology currently playing out in our culture subsequent to the Parkland High School shooting. On Friday thousands of students across the nation walked out of schools saying they shouldn't fear for their lives while in class. On the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre in Colorado, many students set aside their fear of now-common school shootings to raise their voices against what they see as political inaction on meaningful gun control. But of course, guns are part of our cowboy mythology that’s deeply embedded in our national psyche.
At Heritage High School in Frisco, Texas, students learned a lesson about Texas gun laws during their walkout.
After students had gathered in the school's gym for a rally, a few headed toward a nearby park to continue their protest beyond the 30 minutes allotted by the school district.
That's when a few men were spotted carrying long guns slung across their shoulders just off campus. Student organizers said in a tweet that the men were protesting the walkout.
"We didn't know people could just legally carry AR-15s in the street," said junior Kundai Nyamandi, 16. "That was really jarring for most of us.” They didn’t know that rugged individualists don’t like it when the sheep don’t stay in their pen.
In ancient Israel, sheep imagery had very different standing. Hebrew culture unflinchingly characterized itself as sheep, in constant need of a shepherd. Of course, they were a shepherding society. Their greatest king—David—was a shepherd. And when Jesus tells his friends that he is the Good Shepherd they would have understood immediately the meaning in his words.
So notwithstanding American individualism, I’ve learned this sort of shepherding provides a more profound understanding of how life, my life, fits into the created order of things. But this is a hard slog in American church culture. How’s a rugged individualist supposed to understand what it means to follow a good shepherd?
Up to a point, self-reliance is a good thing, one of the marks of adulthood. But it can’t stand as the ultimate good because that would have the effect of making us into little gods, entire unto ourselves. It would limit us to a small and pinched universe because contrary to our desire, we cannot and actually, do not, control, and we certainly don’t understand, most of what life flings at us.
I sat at the bedside of a terminally ill parishioner. Her memory was beginning to fail; she could speak only haltingly. Yet when I began repeating the words, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” she began to say them with me. She had learned the psalm as a child. Now those words served to comfort her and assure her of God’s faithful presence. As she entered the valley of the shadow of death, she visioned a God who greeted her by name, defended her against all dangers and blessed her as she reached the other side. The terror was real. But the shepherd’s promise bound fear’s power. A table was prepared for her. Goodness and mercy prevailed.
Now the assurance evoked by the good shepherd doesn’t only belong to the moment of physical death, but with all transitions, all those times when endings invite beginnings. What is life but a series of transitions—endings and beginnings—sometimes joyful, other times painful and confusing. When change is upon us we sense our vulnerability. Real and imagined dangers can threaten to undo us.
Oftentimes, instead of moving through transitions with open hands and hearts we try to wrestle them to the ground, control them beyond reasonable limits. The unknown, the hidden, the yet-to-be-revealed seems ominous. Paralysis, despair, or flailing about in useless or destructive activity can supplant creative, productive forward movement.
Thirty-five years ago a parishioner in a former church owned the local store specializing in climbing equipment. A master climber himself and the person who wrote the book on the best climbing routes east of the Mississippi, he was anxious to take me out onto the famous nearby cliffs. I didn’t have to worry about a thing, he assured me. He would outfit me at the store and teach me the basics. Though I had never climbed before I was in pretty good shape, so one Saturday I met him early and the climb was on.
Taking the lead, he was loaded down with bolts and clips and rope. I had been equipped with shoes and a harness and all went well for the better part of the morning. I learned a lot following his lead that gradually brought us to increasingly difficult rock on a high cliff face, several hundred feet above the valley floor. Though tentative and nervous I was fine until I came to an outcropping that required maneuvering backwards. Losing my traction I swung out from the rock face and bobbed liked a pendulum in sheer terror several hundred feet in the air.
For some long minutes I was completely frozen. My friend began to speak soothingly about inconsequential matters for what seemed like an eternity before I regained enough composure to listen to his calm instructions about gently letting go of my fear and trusting what he was telling me. I had to trust him. Eventually he got me to swing my way to the rock surface and finish the climb.
This was my first adventure of this sort and I was intrigued enough that once I came to the city I found my way onto the board of directors of Outward Bound, the personal development adventure organization, primarily geared towards young people, where I learned the importance of one of their fundamental mottos: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it!”
Consider that for a moment: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it…” There’s wisdom in this, wisdom that would appeal even to a rugged individualist. Yet if one is truly up against it, truly at a crossroads, in the midst of a significant transition whether by crisis, accident, error of judgment, or simple inevitability, the capacity to move into it successfully requires at least courage and faith and a willingness to let go and to trust. But where do these things come from? What is their source?
The ancient Hebrew answer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Jesus’ answer: “I am the good shepherd. I will defend you against the dangers of the day and the terrors of the night. I lay down my life for the sheep. Depend upon me. Let go of your inadequate control.”
There is in these images something of the most fundamental understanding of the nature of our existence. They affirm that life is good, and that God is to be trusted no matter what comes down the pike, even death itself. This may sound simple bordering on the simplistic, but what we say we believe is often at odds with how we actually live into our lives.
More often than not we behave as though the world is fundamentally not a good place, not to be trusted and we must do our best to control most every aspect of our lives for nothing else will save us. So conditioned, we interpret our vulnerability as something to be avoided at all costs and miss opportunity after opportunity to live into life with the passion and abandon that, say, Jesus did.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the years of engagement with hundreds of people: we cannot experience real, profound loving relationship without living into our vulnerability, without disarming ourselves and without trusting the other with the least defensible part of our natures. In the deepest loving relationships each partner holds gracefully and tenderly the weakness of the other.
People and organizations alike can stall in their transitions because fear and stagnation batter down the vision of a world that is secure in the hands of a loving God. Without an implicit trust in a reliable presence, individuals and whole communities linger on the edge of a promising future resisting the risk that is required, the risk of trusting and letting go.
Courage and faith are the engines that drive a life well lived. These are born of a transcendent trust that life has direction and a goal. In here we say that goal is reunion with our Creator, also with each other, and especially with ourselves. All of that is pregnant potential when we say with confident trust:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
Would you be surprised to hear me say that I’m not entirely sure what to make of the resurrection accounts recorded in the Gospels? I mean, I’m not certain how we should read them. Were they intended as history, simply relating facts meant to be taken at face value, like a cub reporter might write when covering his first murder? If so, they aren’t very good history; the narrative details are incomplete and vary wildly from writer to writer.
That something dramatic happened to the disciples following Jesus’ death can’t be denied. Even a thoughtful unbeliever has to be perplexed over the dramatic success of the early Christians considering that their leader was put to a humiliating death as an enemy of the state. But these stories don’t neatly wrap-up the events of that first Easter, do they, the way we might expect a good, factual history or even a novel might? And it’s not as though they don’t have the ring of truth, it’s just that the truth they ring extends beyond rational comprehension. I suppose we could say that these stories are bigger than we are.
So maybe they’re more like the parables, not so focused on specific historical detail per se, as on revelation of larger truth. Still they don’t fit neatly into a particular category. In the lesson we just heard, what seems the overriding concern for the writer is that the disciples’ grasp of the truth had to be enlarged. Their old categories for understanding the way the world was organized could not contain this new information.
So, we’re told that when Jesus stands among them they were startled and frightened. They thought they were seeing a ghost perhaps. Then Jesus reassures them by eating a bit of fish. Part of the message the reader gleans is this: whatever it was the disciples experienced, it was unlike anything they had known or imagined.
Of course, our predispositions often prevent new information from penetrating our consciousness. It’s simple human nature, as Luke tells it: the disciples tried to apply existing categories to something that was alien to them. That’s why they leapt to the conclusion they were seeing a ghost. Not that this was particularly plausible, but they had to no other way of interpreting what they experienced.
Reading this again got me thinking how often new information remains unabsorbed by us because of our habituated patterns of organizing our world. Much of the time we don’t really want to hear there’s a new way of understanding something. We’re quite attached to our own biases and prejudices, our own habits and ways of thinking about things, and woe to those who shatter our comfort in these matters.
That’s a primary reason Jesus was put to death in the first place—he shattered the comfort of status quo thinking. But then, the crucifixion didn’t put an end to it. Instead, after his death the power of his life continued as though amplified a thousand-fold rippling down through the centuries reaching us today when we’re now the ones confronted by these perplexing, hard-to-categorize stories.
In our reading and pondering it helps to consider how rigid and compartmentalized our thinking really is. This is difficult because, of course, we don’t like to think of ourselves as rigid and compartmentalized. We like to think of ourselves as enlightened and responsive to new information.
But among our many biases is our belief that we already have the truth pretty well in hand. This is a problem because as the resurrection stories indicate, the truth is very much larger than we are and if we were just a bit smarter and less smug we would see that we have it exactly backwards: it’s not that we have the truth in hand, but that the truth has us in hand! Which makes for a very different way of looking at things.
Leroy Collins, a former Governor of Florida, told of a day he was beach combing with his then 6-year-old granddaughter. The tide was going out, leaving all of those beautiful treasures that come in from the Gulf of Mexico. He was carrying the bag in which they were collecting the shells of all shapes and colors.
Suddenly, little Jane came running to him with sparkling eyes, saying: “Granddaddy, look at this beautiful shell.” He looked at it with some deference, but firmly said to her, “Darling, it is pretty, but we don’t want to keep that one, it has a hole in it.”
Jane was crestfallen at this assessment but unwilling to surrender her view of reality. She argued, “But look, Granddaddy, how pretty it is here, and here and here.” She kept pointing to all the places on the shell that were indeed pretty. Finally she said, “Don’t look at the hole.”
Collins reported that on another walk, months later, when he was alone on the beach, he thought again of this experience and it occurred to him that he had been looking at Jane’s shell from the wrong end of the telescope. He was seeing only the hole. When looked at differently, something much larger loomed into view.
“I once asked a blind man what was the greatest obstacle he felt he had to overcome. I thought he would say walking across a busy street or preparing his food, something like that. But instead he said, ‘My greatest problem is that everybody just thinks of me as a blind man. They may express sympathy, but it is not sympathy I want…it’s understanding that I am not just a blind man. I want them to just see me.’”
On Friday I read a report about a 14-year-old boy who nearly lost his life after being shot at while trying to stop at a home to ask for directions to school. For some reason the homeowner seemed to think that when he knocked on her door he wanted to rob her.
The encounter began when Brennan Walker woke up late, missing the bus to school. He tried to walk the bus route but got lost and without a phone with a map, he resorted to the old tried and true method of stopping and asking for help. He chose the home because he saw a neighborhood-watch sticker on the house and thought it would be a safe spot to stop.
Unfortunately, after knocking on the door the woman who answered started yelling at Brennan screaming, “Why are you trying to break into my house?” He tried to explain his situation, but a guy came out with a gun, so he ran away as the man fired off a round. Luckily, he missed.
But the homeowners’ security system recorded the whole ordeal, including the woman exclaiming, “Why did ‘these people’ choose my house?”
You may already have surmised the 14-year-old was black and the homeowners were white.
We often get things wrong by reading persons and events through rigid predispositions and prejudices. We do this all of the time. We structure our world according to a prescribed set of well-formed, but often quite erroneous propositions.
We do this with external reality and we do this with our internal reality as well. The former prevents us from really seeing others, the latter prevents us from really seeing ourselves. And so, the irony from Leroy Collins’ story concerns this question: which person is truly blind—the one whose eyes don’t work or the one who just doesn’t see?
One of the glories of our humanity is our capacity to learn and change. One of our strengths is that every once in a while, the status quo of our thinking gives way to a much larger truth—a truth we may not at first have anticipated, or even wanted. We come to see a larger reality. That’s what truth means after all—“non-concealment,” the disclosure of the “full or real state of affairs.”
I think that whenever such a breakthrough occurs, resurrection energy is at work; energy that brings the new thing out of the old, energy that brings life where only death seemed real, energy that has the power to shatter entrenched ways of thinking about things, even religious, spiritual things.
Among the reasons some of us have gathered in church this morning is due to a spiritual restlessness, or a quest for meaning, salvation, hope, something that is bigger than what we already know or have. Still, we have strong predispositions even concerning these matters. We have the tendency to want to control and anticipate the
larger truth we seek. Actually, there is a powerful tendency within all religious systems to so organize revealed truth that the largest truth becomes the enemy. This is what happens with fundamentalisms of every stripe. Adherents come to believe they own the truth rather than the other way ‘round. Then holding their little bit of it in their hands they wield it like a weapon and watch out if you happen to be within arms’ reach.
Looking through the wrong end of the telescope, as it were, guarantees that we will keep our realm of truth small, neat and tidy. This will also keep our faith small, our world small, and our hope and love small as well. We might, say, see a ghost rather than resurrection—see only the hole in the shell—when if we opened up our view we could see beauty everywhere.
Like the disciples we live our days waffling between confusion and clarity, doubt and faith. We each have our own personally designed blindness and prejudice. We have all known the agony of defeat, dashed hopes and dreams, fears, personal corruptions, death of loved ones.
Nevertheless, we have found our way into this sanctuary this morning, which, is not so dissimilar to standing in front of the empty tomb. And the good news, nearly impossible news we hear in stories difficult to explain, is that in our willingness to make ourselves available to the God of life, in our asking and in our listening, Jesus, himself—himself—stands among us. And if we let him, with our hands and hearts held open, he will open our minds so that we might understand. That’s the promise.
Acts 4:32-35; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31Read MoreLess
Act 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18
So it turns out last time Easter fell on April Fools day was in 1956 when I was 3 years old. Honestly, there’s a kind of ironic symmetry to that coupling. From the atheist’s perspective this makes for an obvious joke: Hey, did you hear that Jesus rose from the dead?! Really? Just kidding…April Fools! As though billions of people for 2 millennia have been duped into believing an otherwise preposterous proposition. Think of the scale of such a joke…boggles the mind.
If such were the case consider the folly of a place like this and all the effort that’s gone in to our preparation. Either we’ve been stupidly bamboozled or brainwashed, or something else entirely is going on. So I’m thinking that starting with the April Fools joke properly sets the context for asking, just what is it that we’re doing here today?
In a book entitled "The Quest for Beauty," the famous 20th century psychologist, Rollo May, recalled scenes from his lifelong search for beauty, among them a visit to Mount Athos, that famous peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece. He was recovering from a recent nervous breakdown and one morning, he stumbled upon the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, the tail end of a church service that had been proceeding all night long.
The ceremony was thick with symbolism, thick with beauty. Icon’s were everywhere. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candles. And at the height of that service, the priest gave everyone present three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil. “Christos Anesti!” He said. “Christ is risen!” Each person there, including May, responded according to custom, “He is risen indeed!”
Now May was not a believer, but he reported being “seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: what would it mean for our world if He had truly risen?”
If it were within my power this morning, I would create the same context that gave rise to May’s inspired spiritual clarity—one of those rare moments that catch us by surprise when all of our spiritual senses are on fire. All there is for the moment is the haunting transcendent mystical question….
But for all of the Byzantine architecture, mosaics and iconography of this space, it isn’t Mt. Athos, and likely you haven’t been on a conscious lifelong quest for beauty; and I should tell you now that I’m not going to be handing you three beautifully decorated Easter eggs. We’re sitting just off a bustling sidewalk in New York City, and you know well what its like out there—the set location for Law and Order Special Victims Unit. No doubt there are many visitors present who’ve come to the city for all of its diversions and distractions that provide its drive and pulse. On Mt. Athos, beyond the dramatic setting, church is pretty much all there is. Rollo May was part of a captive audience on that special day.
Still, I would do everything in my power to have you consider the question. You haven’t forgotten it yet, have you? What would it mean for our world if he had truly risen? We don’t have much time for conversation this morning. And I know that when you leave here today the culture out there isn’t particularly hospitable to the sorts of things we say and do in here. Monks and penitents and pilgrims on a quest for beauty will not immediately surround you when you step out onto Park Avenue. It won’t be outright hostile, just indifferent to what goes on in here. Majorly indifferent.
So, since we have just a short time I will ask the question again, with a personal twist: what would it mean for you if He truly is raised?
The middle-aged man came to tell me his story. Not so long ago he had been stuck in a loop of anger, regret and depression. He couldn’t let go of the past. Over the last decade or so the memories of his uncle’s abuse had clarified. He had found a compassionate counselor who helped him organize his life better. And though he had become quite successful— by his reckoning he had amassed a small fortune—he couldn’t let go of the pain and humiliation.
But his real issue was this: that had all happened thirty years ago. Only in recent years had he awakened to the fact that for the past decades he had lived with his uncle smack in the middle of his life, and this relentless focus had kept him wound up in resentment and bitterness.
Then one year he walked into this Byzantine sanctuary on Easter and he heard a word that confronted him personally and directly. And the word he heard concerned the person he was becoming. Or another way to say it, he experienced a shocking and overwhelming sense of hope for the future.
Surprised by a rare moment of spiritual clarity he realized that he could not heal his past. That was gone. What he could do was reclaim his future through the power of forgiveness. Forgiveness was a tool of hope. Hope was a fruit of resurrection. It dawned on him that if Christ is truly raised, he could be too. It clicked into place for the first time in his life. Resurrection was a present reality as well as a future hope. He was shocked and awed, and he reported he wept through the rest of the day.
These tears were complicated, he said. On the one hand they were tears of grief for the abuse and loss of innocence. But they were also tears of liberation and joy because he was ready to be released from his addictive bondage to his past. His anger and resentment had come to fashion his identity and he was ready to let it go, and he was ready to release his uncle into the hands of God. He couldn’t change his past, but he could release its hold on his present and future. That’s what he had come to tell me. He felt a thousand pounds lighter. He needed to tell someone who might understand.
Now I don’t know your individual stories of course, but I do know that whatever they are, they fall well within the range of human striving and all the permutations of success and failure. You’ve likely been both victim and perpetrator. But there’s nothing that could be reported by anyone here that falls beyond the range of redemptive hope. That’s because if Jesus truly is raised he has nail prints in his hands—the archetypal victim. Put to death on a trumped up charge. Abandoned by his friends. This sorry loser is the one that is raised.
Consider Jesus’ friend, Peter, the rock—his right hand man. He’s the one who at the arrest of Jesus denied he ever knew him. When he rushed to the tomb he couldn’t leave his cowardice and betrayal home with his fishing nets. It came right along with him as he ran to see for himself.
When the impossible truth finally dawned Peter got his future back, because if Jesus had truly been raised then the world was fashioned far more wonderfully, mystically, than he could possibly have imagined. And discovering he had been raised with Christ, forgiven and restored, along with his friends he would seek the things that are above. That’s how Paul phrased it: “So, if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is...”
Even Judas—if he hadn’t short-circuited his options—would have retrieved his future and been empowered to set his sights on the things that are above. How do I know this? Because from the cross of death Jesus was heard to say this prayer: “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing…” If Jesus is raised, that prayer takes on cosmic significance.
If Jesus is raised this same energy can show up in our lives. That’s the inevitable truth. That’s what struck Rollo May on Mt. Athos in a moment of spiritual clarity. If we’re raised along with Christ we too wind up setting our sights on the things that are above. But friends, this setting of our sights has implications that initially lie very close to home.
I hate to disappoint you, but the vast majority of you will not receive some exotic calling as you embrace the astonishing news of Easter that will transport you to another life. I doubt there’s another Mother Teresa sitting here this morning, although, on the other hand, I wouldn’t rule it out either. So be forewarned. She could be sitting next to you unawares…
Far more likely you’ll discover that setting your sights on the things that are above has homely implications right where you live, right in the middle of your own mundane lives; in your personal corruptions, or agonies or failures or wounded-ness— right smack in the middle of your confusion and uncertainty and doubt—right in the middle of all that… that’s where resurrection can re-arrange your worldview—like the man who came to tell me about the joyful liberation and power of forgiveness he found in this very space one Easter morning.
And here I’m reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous observation that “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” That insight and wisdom emerged by King’s answering Rollo May’s question: What does it mean if Jesus is truly raised?
And that same wisdom fueled King’s passion for justice, another of the remarkable outcomes if Jesus is truly raised. George Weigel calls this the Easter Effect. And here’s the thing: the disciples didn’t get it right away. They didn’t understand it. Our scriptures are clear that most of them doubted. How could they not? Don’t some of you? I don’t understand it fully. After all, the disciples are like us. But they held on to the same question Rollo May heard on Mt Athos and over time they began to change.
In particular, “The way they thought about their responsibilities changed. What had happened to Jesus, they slowly began to grasp, was not just about their former teacher and friend; it was about all of them. His destiny was their destiny. It concerned their present and their future. So not only could they face opposition, scorn and even death with confidence; they could offer to others the truth and the fellowship they had been given.”
They could experience in their own mundane lives that they were loved and cherished, and that this same love was extended to everyone, everywhere, which truth continues to upend the world to our present time. April Fools indeed!
Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
A story is told about William Barclay, one of the 20th century’s most beloved New Testament scholars, who sometimes took controversial positions on the scriptures. A lively and colorful commentator, he made a popular series for the BBC. In an interview following the airing of this series he related the experience of knowing God’s sustaining strength during and after the time his twenty-one-year old daughter drowned in a yachting accident. A listener, angry over something Barclay had said in his program, wrote an anonymous letter. It said, “Dear Dr. Barclay, I know now why God killed your daughter; it was to save her from being corrupted by your heresies.”
But Barclay knew that God did not go around drowning people’s daughters in order to punish them. Had he known the writer’s address, he said that he would have written back in words that John Wesley said to someone: “Your God is my devil.”
In 1995 the highly respected Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin, was assassinated. He came to mind this week when I noticed the release of a new movie about the Entebbe raid in 1976 that was a successful counter-terrorism rescue of a hijacked airliner — Rabin had ordered the raid. Eventually he was re-elected as prime minister on a platform embracing the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and became a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. One wonders how these last decades would have evolved had this courageous politician survived. The assassin was a Jewish religious zealot who asserted that he had served his people and his country when he killed Rabin following a peace rally.
In making the sentence of life imprisonment the judge declared, “There is no greater desecration of God’s name than to justify this murder as a religious commandment or a moral mission.” In response, the assassin self-righteously stated, “Everything I did was for the God of Israel” — a poignant example of our human tendency to assign to God our own depraved motives.
Some pundits would have us believe that’s all God has ever been – a cosmic screen for human projections against a vast sea of unknowing. If that were all we believed, I should not be standing here and you should not be sitting here today. Despite our limitations, we do assert certain truths arise from the mysterious origins of life that make claims upon us.
Still, at best, we know only in part and the part we know is often less than crystal clear. Sometimes we do project our own biases onto God. How could it be otherwise given that we do it to one another all of the time? One of the primary reasons we cannot be healthy spiritual beings apart from a mature faith community is precisely because of our tendencies to get carried away with our individual opinion.
I realize that as a preacher you indulge my opinions on many things, but I’m mindful that my word is not the final word and it only finds life as it engages the hearts and minds of all of you, as though at the end of it we are really having a dialogue. And as a matter of course, many of you will reflexively share your opinions and faith with me which is all to the good.
So, thinking long and hard about the story we hear on this most dramatic day in the Christian year, we can only deduce that humans are at best extremely fickle. We are very prone for self-deception. As I described, not so long ago a self-righteous man says he must kill the leader of his nation which has as one of its ten basic principles, “Thou shalt not kill,” or more closely translated, “Thou shalt not murder,” in order to promote a political agenda.
And as we heard today, on another day 2 millennia ago, in the same city of Jerusalem, another pious man determines he must betray his friend into the hands of his enemies to execute a plan that will topple the oppressive government. Or was it only for the bounty of silver coins?
As that story is told, however, Judas isn’t the only conspirator. By the end, everyone conspires in Jesus’ death. His closest friends flee. Crowds intoxicated by the smell of blood replace the jubilant crowds who received him just a few days earlier. The colonial government desiring nothing more than maintenance of established power arrangements sentences an innocent man to death under the pretense of justice. The whole depressing story is a tissue of lies, deceptions and cowardice. There are no heroes standing in the wings. And there is no one at all who stands outside the proceedings.
This story continues to speak with great power because we’re able to read ourselves into it. When we’re honest, we know that we have the movement for both good and evil, for life and death, within us. None of us is exempt from this human condition. Each one of us falls short of an idealized version of ourselves. We can hope and pray and work to become more alive to that which brings life—I mean, that’s why we gather in places like this year after year, isn’t it? But we never completely sever our relationship to dark motives.
To lose connection with this truth puts us and those we love at great peril. Then we can do real damage. That’s part of the universal character of the story. Everyone is a participant. Not always a happy truth to behold. But in beholding it, we paradoxically discover a powerful hope.
A story is told of a man who came home drunk after a night of carousing in a number of neighborhood bars. His pious wife helped him up to the bedroom, helped him to undress and tucked him into bed. Then she kneeled at his bedside and whispered, “John, do you want me to pray for you?” He nodded a bleary “yes,” and she began to pray, “Dear Lord, I pray for my husband, John, who lies here before you drunk…”
Before she could finish, he interrupts. “Don’t tell him I’m drunk,” he says, “just tell him I’m a little sick.”
We’re all dissemblers before God. And before that, we’re dissemblers with ourselves. Always in some disguise. Always pretending. Never quite fully exposed. Hiding our true identity. Projecting an image of ourselves for mass consumption. Often propping ourselves up by putting others down.
There’s a sense in which we are ashamed of our humanity. Ashamed that we aren’t quite what we would like to be – that we aren’t exactly what we project. Ashamed, or perhaps angry, that our lives are what they are at any given time. It’s not uncommon for us to project our shame onto others, make them wear the clothes we don’t like in our own personal closets and then exile them from our circles of inclusion. Isn’t that what all the social isms and phobias are about? Chances are pretty good that if we’re feeling inherently superior to others we’ve managed to clothe those others in our discards. I love this bit of wisdom phrased by Anne Lamott: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Jesus played against type as a divine messenger. At the end of it, what was he but a failure? A has-been. A could-a, would-a, should-a been. What a convenient mannequin for everyone’s closets of shame and failure and fear. Put him to death. And just maybe all those secret parts of us will die as well.
Paradoxically, even shockingly, for an entirely different reason, that is exactly the potential in this crucifixion. Not by our own doing, but by God’s, our deceit, shame, failure and fear can all be buried with this man. For he was pleased to leave his place of splendor to become one of us. He emptied himself so that he might fill himself with our fickle humanity and allow our frailty to die with him as life drained from his body. That’s the mystery we proclaim. I know it sounds both preposterous and too good to be true.
You mean I don’t have to continue to pretend I’m something I’m not? That I can be free of fear and anger? That I can put aside my blustering arrogance? That I have the real opportunity to rise into the full height of my humanity, becoming what God intended all along? It isn’t too late to learn love’s lessons? No, it’s not too late.
If we empty ourselves like Jesus did, if we allow our minds to share in his humility, will shall rise with him on Easter. That’s the heart of faith.
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
In my first year as an ordained minister, I came to know an older woman of quiet serenity, deep, sensible wisdom and abiding faith. The serenity was especially poignant after I heard a piece of her story one day over coffee. She told of a very bright and ambitious young woman, destined for great things. Driven and competent she broke through the ranks of a corporation known for its hard glass ceilings. Along the way, she married a supportive man, delivered two beautiful children and achieved great material success.
But she had secrets, some of which she kept even from herself. Secrets about fear and self-loathing among other things. One secret she did know about was the bottle of vodka in her desk drawer which was never allowed to run dry. Eventually, her alcoholism caused her to lose it all – her career, her marriage, even her children for a time. She reported that her need to control, her desperate attempt to make life conform to her worldview, and what she now saw as her fear-driven arrogance, drove her to a state of humiliation and despair.
She couldn’t really say what finally caused her to take the hand of a friend who drove her to her first AA meeting. But she began to rebuild her life into something that more nearly approximated, as she put it, “the truth.” Along the way she found God, or better perhaps, God found her. She said to me, “I don’t know what you’ll think about this, but I knew I had found my center when, surprisingly, I heard myself saying one night at a meeting that I thanked God I was an alcoholic. I didn’t mean I was thankful for the pain and ruin, but instead, that by smacking up hard against my limitations and failure my spirit cracked open and I found myself.”
That would be the first of many similar statements I would hear from people in a wide variety of contexts over the next four decades, right to the present moment. Honest, sincere people thanking God for all manner of difficulties of one sort or another, some for which they were personally responsible and others that came at them sideways out of nowhere. The gratitude was never for the actual failure, loss, or disruption, but for the new person or the new faith that wound up emerging on the other side.
Now I don’t subscribe to the sentimental “God never gives us something we can’t handle” school of thought. I’ve seen too much bad stuff go down to imagine that this stripped-down theology summarizes the human situation. On the other hand, it is often the case that a gift is hidden within challenging circumstance, regardless of its origins, that without the challenging circumstance the gift would never be realized.
I recently wrote about a comment by Helen Keller… You remember her? She was an American author, political activist, and lecturer; the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She campaigned for women's suffrage, labor rights, antimilitarism and other causes, proving to the world that deaf-blind people could all learn to communicate and that they could survive in the hearing/seeing world. Here’s what she said: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”
I know from my own version of the-dark-night-of-the-soul that but for the stunning desperation I experienced I would never have really understood the limitations of my own powers, and then how to truly and for real rely on a power much greater than my own. And while I would never want to go through such a thing again, I am profoundly grateful and utterly changed as a result. I would tell you that prior to this time I dabbled in the outer rings of faith. After that time, I had a visceral sense of what it might mean to die in order to live. The heart of the Christian message transformed from a flat two dimensions into all four.
I’m well aware that others have had far grittier, grimmer circumstances to endure than me. But as for that, who’s to say which circumstance for which person has the greater claim on authenticity? What I can tell you is that at some point along the way something happened, something I hadn’t expected, something that came at me sideways from out of nowhere — so far as it seemed to me at the time — and I had choices to make about whether or not to let go and fall into the arms of God.
In the passage from John’s gospel we just heard, we’re told that some Greeks wanted to “see” Jesus, and by that I suppose the writer means they would like to meet him, perhaps speak with him. Evidently, these Greeks had heard of Jesus, and they were intrigued.
John’s interest in the telling, however, is not on these seekers, but on the one they wish to see. In the presence of his disciples, Jesus states, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But this glorification has nothing to do with becoming either a political savior on the one hand, or a celebrity preacher on the other. It has nothing to do with success in the ordinary meanings we attach to it. His next words are shockingly distant from what we might think of as a great accomplishment – he speaks of his death. “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit….”
Life, death, and life restored is the heart of the Christian gospel. We’re now moving into the season in which this theme is displayed in its full archetypal glory. Jesus, the seed, will be sown in the earth which will, in turn, bring forth an astonishing fruitfulness, a great flowering of life abundant. That’s the story of Holy Week. A stunning, incomprehensible revelation about how the world has been fashioned.
Of course, if this were only a story, say, a colorful legend from a long time ago in a land far, far away, rather than a searing description of how the life of the world has been wrought in the hands of God, there would be no places like this for the sharing of it 2000 years later. It’s an incredible mystery for certain, how lifting a man upon a cross — an instrument of torture and capital punishment — could draw billions to himself. How does that make any sense at all?
Honestly, I don’t know how we are to make full sense of this mystery. The man on the cross remains stunningly charismatic. The church has offered a number of theories about this over the centuries, explanations, doctrines and dogmas about its meaning. Yet none of these finally stand fully on their own, none completely hold the truth of it.
But then, you see, along comes a woman who tells you her story about dying to her old self and rising again to a brand-new self, and she knows for certain that this has come to her as a mysterious gift from God. And the story of Jesus’ last days begins to resonate in a very deep place within, a place that is less comfortable with words and more comfortable with flat-out reality where certain decisions are made, such as whether to let go, risking what seems like death for certain, only to fall into the arms of God, like a seed that falls to the ground and dies, as it were, to become the miraculous thing that was always latent within.
Or along comes a man who has suffered a heart attack two years earlier who tells you it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Nearly died in the emergency room. In fact, he was told that he had died. Turned his world upside down and inside out, first causing a profound depression but then, miraculously, somehow, during an especially dark night, he gave up. That is, he threw in the towel on his puny powers, and he awoke the next day knowing he was different, new. Everything sort of looked the same, but sharper, clearer. He realized it was his sight—he saw things in four dimensions instead of his normal two. And he saw that he wasn’t alone. In fact, he was held by something—no, Someone—who loved him more than he could describe. His words couldn’t capture the experience.
Or, as the story is told, along comes a man who betrayed his best friend, in fact, watched as his friend was led away on trumped up charges that would lead to his death. This man was afraid for his own life. Just flat out afraid. He would have betrayed his own mother in that moment. Indeed, it was as if that is just what he had done, betrayed everything he ever thought he really honored in his life. And then one night in a sweaty anxiety his friend somehow came to him mystically and he knew that an overwhelming, life-transforming forgiveness was offered. The man he had been fell into the earth and died that night; the next morning a brand-new shoot had sprung up from the fertile spot where the seed husk had fallen. That man’s name was Peter, the Apostle, the supposed rock upon whom the church would be built. We’ll be hearing his story next week.
Or along comes persons like you and me who have heard about this Jesus, similar to the Greeks in our Gospel lesson. The Greeks are us. We’re intrigued by the stories we’ve heard, by the buildings that have been erected in his memory and the communities dedicated to serve the world in his name. Many have said they’ve thrown in their lot with him so far as they’ve understood it. Yet, maybe the seeds of their lives have yet to fall to the earth and die so that the latent fruitfulness can finally be released. I don’t know. How does anyone really know the heart of another, let alone their own heart? What do you think? How is it for you?
In the language of John’s gospel, a voice from heaven speaks as Jesus asks for his Father’s blessing and some hear a ratifying thunder as he asserts, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also…
And the mystery looms large and the mystery sounds like thunder, sometimes rattling and resonating our material and spiritual selves. Though we hadn’t thought of it like this before, it’s almost as if the seed is being put on alert that the time is near for its transformation. Time for the life God has intended for us all along. And the voice says, “Watch this Jesus. Listen to what he says. Let him stay with you for a while and see what can happen….”
Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Not so long ago the Bronx Zoo closed its famed monkey house, officially the Primates House. Finally succumbing to the same maturing rationale that closed the Lion, Elephant, and Ape houses before it, the monkey house had outlived its usefulness having been born in what might be called zookeeping's colonialism period.
Part of the Monkey House lore includes a truly terrible, but darkly compelling, story from 1906 when a small African man named Ota Benga, was placed on display in one of the cages. It's a difficult story from many angles including the awful legacy of racist colonialism, but if you'll bear with me, it may help us think deeply about the work we attempt to accomplish during our season of Lent, and especially those words attributed to Jesus we just heard: "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil…Those who do what is true, come to the light…"
Benga was a member of the Mbuti people in what was then known as the Belgian Congo. The tragedy unfolds when his people were slaughtered by the Belgian military who needed to control the natives in order to exploit the large supply of rubber in the region. Benga lost his wife and two children, surviving only because he was away on a hunting expedition when the military attacked his village. He was later captured by slavers.
An American businessman and missionary, Samuel Verner, was sent to Africa in 1904 under contract from the St. Louis World Fair to bring back an assortment of pygmies, so-called, to be part of an exhibition. On route to a particular village, he discovered Ota Benga and negotiated his release from the slavers for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.
Verner brought him back to the United States where Benga was exhibited at the World's Fair as part of a display of so-called "emblematic savages" and other "strange people" in the anthropology wing. This first stop in America was influenced by an incipient racist Darwinism.
By 1906 Benga had been brought to New York, first as a curiosity at the Natural History Museum, but ultimately finding his way to the Bronx Zoo where he was put on display in the monkey house. Although the zoo director insisted he was merely offering an 'intriguing exhibit' for the public's edification, he apparently saw no difference between a monkey and the little man; for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity-a parrot and an Orangutan.
It was widely believed at this time, even by eminent scientists, that blacks were evolutionarily inferior to Caucasians, but caging one in a zoo produced a lot of publicity. Ota Benga worked-or played-with the animals in a cage, naturally, and the spectacle of a black man in a cage gave a reporter the springboard for a story that worked up a storm of protest among African American ministers in the city. Their indignation was made known to the Mayor, but he refused to take action. They wrote, "Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes ... We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls."
But in a striking defense of the depiction of Benga as a lesser human, an editorial in The New York Times suggested this:
We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter... It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies... are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place... from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
In other words, even the enlightened and exalted New York Times was under the thrall of racist science not to mention racist cultural norms. And friends, I don't really have to tell you how that got wound up over the next few decades in Europe into a principle rationale behind the holocaust.
Here's what's relevant for our purposes today. Given the time and distance that has now passed, although all things considered, not so very long ago at all - just over 100 years. I've lived for more than half that timeframe. In one sense it's just a short while ago, but perhaps enough distant to allow us a bit of perspective and a sense of the cultural freight of institutionalized evil. And by institutionalized I refer to both formal and informal structures that conferred assumptive power on evil motives and outcomes that were taken for granted. People just "knew".
The plaintive request of the black clergy haunts our conscience: "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls." That could ring backwards and forwards through the ages, right to the present moment, as the humble rebuke of every person who has been stripped or denied their basic human dignity. They speak for Jesus in this for certain.
Now we cannot change the past and I've not retold the story to foster a backwards - looking, handwringing moralizing. Instead, I want to present it as is, free of a manipulative emotional charge, to make a summary observation. It's probably fair to say that most people of privilege in that day were enthralled with a corrupt pseudo-scientific theory confirming their already well-institutionalized beliefs about human rankings. And of course, for those in power it's always quite gratifying and obvious that they should be on top, among the elect, or otherwise just basically better than so many others.
You've heard me confess the sins of the church in these matters over the years. And it's not lost to me that the businessman that brought Ota Benga back to the US for display, was also a missionary. Many a fine upstanding Christian could then, and still today, find many reasons why some people are just obviously inferior and beyond the bounds of God's graceful care. With Benga, seeing him caged with an orangutan just simply made the obvious case that most everyone already assumed.
And this is what I find so challenging. I mean, do you suppose that had you been to the Bronx Zoo in 1906 you would have held a different point of view than what the institutionalized powers espoused, including the scientific community and the wise New York Times? And yet, from our distance we see what an insidious evil it was and how mutated versions of this same human ignorance wended its way through the decades of the 20th century wreaking havoc right into the present.
Although, here's my real point. Can we see it now? Is it actually possible to see the darkness of our otherwise benign existence here on Park Avenue in New York City in 2018? Is it possible to see how we collude with powers and principalities that put others down and out, excluding them from God's hospitality, God's grace? Is it possible to see how we collude with the groupthink of our day?
For that matter, can we see how we ourselves are corrupted in our own character? How is it possible to get a helicopter view of our lives in order to gain a perspective on the interplay of darkness and light there? For instance, how we treat those we say we love, or our friends and neighbors close to home, let alone those we don't even know. Even if we wanted to get a handle on this, is it even possible to do so? How can we ever gain perspective?
Do you suppose anyone in 1916 would have thought they were in any way responsible for Ota Benga's suicide who one day found a gun and shot himself in the heart? I suspect the typical response would have gone something like this: Well, see? There you have it. What more could be expected of an inferior specimen?
Now as I mentioned in the beginning, I've shared Ota Benga's story this morning because at the end of our gospel lesson Jesus tells Nicodemus that though light has come into the world, people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil… but those who do what is true come to the light…
Doesn't that seem an apt description of our situation, albeit in first century poetry? But then, where does our help actually lie if we prefer wallowing in the darkness? And here the writer of Ephesians helps us out; he explained that we are saved by grace through faith that comes as a gift of God. In other words, what we cannot do for ourselves, God can do for us, if we have the humility to ask.
God can awaken the heart of truth, just as he did with the former slaver John Newton, writer of that most famous of all hymns, "Amazing Grace." Do you remember his story? Former captain of a slave ship turned abolitionist… He got turned around in his life in just the manner Jesus describes: by coming to the light and by doing what is true. "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see," he sang.
Maybe the light just smacked him on the side of his head in such a way that he could no longer look away. Or maybe he finally decided to take it on, full in the face, finding the heat of the light opening his eyes, purifying his mind, heart, and soul, singeing his hair, while restoring his life.
The clergymen's humility responding to Ota Benga haunts: "We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls." That they have to actually say that prosecutes the case against the world's wisdom. And as we read the stories about the life and times of Jesus, his teachings, suffering, death and resurrection, we can arrive at no other conclusion but that those men spoke for him.
Who's willing to take a long hard look at the dark contours of their culture as well as the content of their character? Setting it out in the bright daylight where nothing is hidden? I tell you, that's a very big sort of work. But it's just the sort of work that faithful, courageous people take on because they have an instinct for knowing it's the pathway to abundant life for everyone. Those who do what is true come to the light…
For further reading about Ota Benga check out these links:
Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-25
Emily was experiencing something psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance - that's when behavior doesn't match beliefs, short-circuiting our wiring, causing dissonance, or disharmony, friction in our psychological world. For instance, a person who smokes knows this behavior is dissonant with knowledge about how to stay healthy. Or, telling a lie creates dissonance within a person who holds to a value of telling the truth. Whenever dissonance is created, we will want to eliminate it, bringing thinking and behavior into harmony. Something has to give. Either, the behavior changes, thinking changes or some form or rationalization smooths-over the dissonance.
If you think about it for a minute, you'll be surprised how many places it crops up large and small. Well, actually, you may discover you don't want to think about it too much-which is another way of dealing with dissonance-pretend it doesn't really exist by living in the land of denial and/or avoidance. Of course, if you're like me, you may find it has a way of waking you up in the middle of the night.
That's what Emily was dealing with. She called it anxiety and confusion, but those were just the symptoms. No doubt about it, she was in a full-blown spiritual version of cognitive dissonance. That's why she was speaking with a minister and not another sort of counselor.
Several things had come to a head in her life all at once: the reality of a dreadful marriage that had led her into an affair that had devolved into a sort of unpleasant duty; she was estranged from her children; and she was in a job that demanded she routinely misrepresent the truth to the customer, or as she said, flat out lie. Although the company never formally espoused such behavior, it was simply expected of the loyal employee. Loyalty meant adherence to the company's reverse ethic of misrepresentation-do that and loyalty from the company meant hanging on to your job and paycheck. And he had a big job with a big check.
As our conversation warmed up, Emily told me she had grown up attending Sunday School, though she had never thought of herself as especially religious. Fact is she had been away from church and religion for about two decades. But for some reason, the older she got, the more the old learning haunted her. She referenced the Ten Commandments and said she felt there was likely none that she hadn't broken. Of course, while she had never actually killed anyone, it was a good thing she didn't own a gun - but don't think she hadn't thought about it…
I said something like, "Well, welcome to the real church-you meet all the prerequisites as a member of the family. Hope you'll stick around."
We wound up having a series of good conversations about life and faith before she moved away-truthful conversations, rich and deep. I found it interesting that the Ten Commandments popped up every now and then, unusual in my experience; they evidently served as a touchstone for her, giving voice to the dissonance she experienced in her life.
Spiritual cognitive dissonance. That diagnosis lies behind many of the conversations that take place in my office. For that matter, spiritual dissonance often animates my personal prayer. It's a ubiquitous human condition. We each suffer our variations. I don't think it's possible to grow up without wandering into its terrain. And then attempt any number of remedies-booze, drugs, sex are pretty standard. Lots of things can seem to deaden the symptoms. So too, simple acquiescence a la Darth Vader and throwing your lot in with the Dark Lord. Lots of others do it, and it seems to pay off.
Anyone who takes the first proposition of the Ten Commandments with any degree of sincerity is bound to experience spiritual dissonance. "You shall have no other gods before me." This exposes the fundamental human problem of idolatrous self-regard, putting something first, namely ourselves, besides that which actually belongs there, namely God. In this way, we do not stand securely on the first principle of who's who and what's what; who we are, who God is, and how things have been arranged for our flourishing.
We don't generally think of the commandments in this light-as the means to human flourishing. We tend to get stuck on the "thou shall not" part of the repetitive equation which prompts a response like a rebellious child. But as the story is told God seems to suggest to the Israelites that these laws will help secure the freedom he has already provided for them. That's how the passage begins: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In other words, I'm the one who provided you liberty and here are some words that will help you flourish in liberty.
This can be a tough sell in 21st century USA because we've made something of an idol of liberty and freedom extending it into every conceivable arena of our lives and it gets trivialized like this: Don't tell me what to do! Even good things can become idols for us. We can swap places with God quicker than we can say lickety-split. In fact, I would say that is our favorite trick in resolving spiritual dissonance. It doesn't change the facts at the heart of all things, but this can seem to resolve our moral dilemmas for a time.
Of course, sooner or later, since this formulation doesn't square with actual reality, we set up a whole new theater of spiritual dissonance. Think it's hard to live with God at the center of all things? Just wait until you've displaced him. Actually, that's largely our human predicament much of the time, isn't it?
Honest spiritual dissonance is good fodder for our work in the season of Lent. It can fuel our own inward journey traveling with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. I don't remember the time of year my dialogue with Emily began. Don't know if it happened to coincide with Lent. Either way, she found herself confronting full in the face a raw experience of spiritual dissonance. She became aware of the uncomfortable disjunction between what she thought she really valued and how she was living her life. She had become aware of the rot and was no longer willing to avoid it. This admission was the fulcrum of a renewal of her life and faith.
I was aware how little I had to do with her discovery. It bubbled up into her consciousness from a deep source, like the Spirit's groan too deep for words that comes as a gift identifying our heart's desire. I was simply the person she found to share her groan. Like so many stories people tell me of their awakenings, I find my own faith walk confirmed and ennobled. Emily was a courageous woman who was about to have a major breakthrough into a glorious freedom she found in affirming the first proposition of the Commandments: have no other gods before me.
I should tell you that eventually Emily found her way out of her work situation and ended the string of deadening affairs. Her marriage never recovered, which was probably the best outcome there, but she was on her way to mending her relationship with her children. Life wasn't perfect, she wasn't perfect, but she wound up feeling freer than she had for decades.
How did this happen? She learned a variation of Paul's discovery: "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." We might say that she began to resolve her spiritual dissonance by deciding to do the harder thing, addressing the deep truth of her situation, stepping off the pedestal, and taking on the work that would lead to her flourishing.
It seems counter-intuitive that freedom comes by letting go and letting God. Reminiscent of Jesus' paradoxical wisdom when he said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?"
Learning to live that paradox lies at the heart of authentic Christian faith. That's it…
Acts 1:6-8, 2:1-4Read MoreLess
Genesis 9:8-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 (substitution); Mark 1:9-15
In honor of Presidents Day many took advantage of the short work week. A lot of New Yorkers grabbed the opportunity for a mid-winter holiday out of the city. For myself, being a bit of an Abraham Lincoln dilettante, I was reminded of an old story concerning another Sunday about 150 years ago when President Lincoln was returning home from church and he was asked by a companion how he liked the sermon. Mr. Lincoln responded that he thought the message was well prepared and thoughtfully constructed but that it lacked the most important ingredient. His companion inquired what that might be. Lincoln responded, "The preacher failed to ask us to do anything great."
This got me to thinking about that word, "great." We've heard it a lot in recent years. And I got to wondering about its meaning. What exactly do we mean when we aspire to something great? Is it interchangeable with success for instance? Could we interpose that word in Lincoln's remark: "The preacher failed to ask us to be really successful?" I've heard the call to success, of course. Over the span of my life, I heard it from my parents, my schools and the wider culture.
Or does it mean notoriety or fame like a movie star, or, say, a reality television celebrity... aspire to a great name or brand recognition.
These definitions clearly don't square with the little vignette about Lincoln. Given the trajectory of his life commitments, we can be certain he didn't have in mind the amassing of a fortune or the fickle fame of celebrity.
Lincoln was President during our nation's most perilous moment, during the war we ironically refer to as "civil" - our Civil War. At a time of great distress, the call to do something great has particular poignancy. It's telling that Lincoln's comment pertains to what a preacher addressed during a church service and especially telling that he was longing for the words himself. I'm thinking Lincoln himself desired to hear the challenge as in "Abraham, do something great! Do the harder thing, the right thing, the truest thing." He needed the support for the terrible sacrifice that lay ahead.
Following this line of thinking takes us into the realm of virtuous character and notions of courage and sacrifice. He longed for a word that would challenge and stimulate a response within him, and to the extent he was looking for that in church, we surmise it was a deeply soulful concern.
This quality of brooding soulfulness, this desire to continually grow into greater character and to do the better thing - as he would artfully and famously phrase it, to listen to "the better angels of our nature" - defines in part the reason historians rate him our greatest president.
Now it turns out the challenge Lincoln longed to hear could have been heard in Philadelphia on that same Sunday where a younger contemporary preached. Phillips Brooks was an up-and-coming Episcopal clergyman known for his ringing oratory. A staunch abolitionist, Brooks located the essential battle for soulful character in the hearts of individual women and men.
"The ideal life," he said, "is in our blood and never will be still. Sad will be the day for any man when he becomes contented with the thoughts he is thinking and the deeds he is doing-where there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger, which he knows that he was meant and made to do."
For Brooks, one "great desire to do something larger" was putting an end to human slavery. That required changing the minds of more than half the population of the United States to see that skin color did not privilege one group over another-that slavery was antithetical to following the path Jesus blazed.
We can't hear this kind of forceful rhetoric today. It's hard to get it even in here. We've been too well marinated in the shallow noise of social media and before that, decades of reality TV and its ilk.
But the same tradition that motivated people like Lincoln and Brooks is still found written in these walls. The same tradition that located the essential moral battleground in the hearts of individual women and men is alive and well in the scriptures we read in here. The same clarion call for deep soul work can still pierce the cultural clutter if we allow ourselves to become silent and listen well, and that seems very much harder to do today.
It's an uphill battle. Listen to Brooks again. "Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men and women! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for power equal to your tasks." Embedded within this is a call to take on the more important tasks that flow from the same God to whom we're praying.
Popular culture idolizes living easy lives requiring little struggle or sacrifice-moral or material. Or, radically successful lives built on fame or fortune. The goal our culture fashions for us, the mark of life fulfilled, is either the adulation of our peers or at least substantial material prosperity or, best of all, both.
Now, there's lots to commend about success, of course, I'm all for it. I've wanted a bit of it myself. I have wanted it for my children. We should for certain, maximize our various talents and abilities. Still this is not on point with the deepest, greatest values. When was the last time, for instance, you heard the word sacrifice used as a matter of some moral urgency? When was it powerfully mentored for you?
I'm reminded of a father's lament in Chaim Potok's novel, The Chosen, who at the climax speaks to his brilliant but heartless son saying, "A heart I need for a son, a soul I need for a son, compassion I want from my son, righteous¬ness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my son, not a mind without a soul."
The father is a rabbi steeped in biblical wisdom and he knows something about true greatness, its source and its agency in the world. He knows about our sacred genetics holding the potential for a greatness that reflects God's glory.
Parents, what do you want for your children? Could you say something similar, that your heart for a son, a soul for a daughter, compassion for a son, righteousness, mercy, strength to suffer and carry pain, that I want from my children, not a mind without a soul…? And what do you mentor? What do you want for yourselves, for your community and world? What are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good?
Page after page our scriptures tell stories about people who are called to grow into larger versions of themselves. Noah was one of them, as the story is told, risking ridicule and fortune. The Apostle Paul turning from persecutor to lover. Peter, the fisherman, the supposed friend who flatly denied he ever knew Jesus at the time of his greatest need finally coming to his senses.
Most crucially we see this modeled in the life of the carpenter from Nazareth. On the first Sunday in Lent, we read about the beginning of Jesus' ministry, when he decides to step into his call. He strides to the Jordan River and receives a baptism of humility and solidarity. Immediately he's driven into the desert for 40 days to contend with his demons.
The other gospels describe this torment in greater depth. Mark only summarizes the outline. Jesus is baptized, driven into the desert where he's tempted with the powerful, seductive desires of his lesser self. After 40 days of hunger and thirst, he emerges from the ordeal having chosen the better way that ran counter to the world's patterns.
We have the advantage of knowing how his story turns out, how in a few years he'll face a brutal test and a horrible death. But the whole of the gospel hangs on Jesus' initial choice right here, in the wilderness, and his willingness to grapple with the very seductive, but ultimately lesser alternatives to the way of compassionate integrity. Here is where the die is cast; here is his defining moment. Here is where he leaves his lesser, uncertain self behind and stretches for his authentic greatness. He makes a clear choice.
Now we are not Jesus of course. But he mentors the pattern for our own inward journey. If you've wondered about the meaning of the forty days of Lent, here we have it clearly stated. Lent is a call into our greatness, which is to say it invites the self-examination that seeks the truth about ourselves and our situation, listening for the better angels of our nature, listening for the higher calling, purging what holds us back and accepting the power that is equal to the tasks to which we've been assigned.
"It does not take great people to do great things; it only takes consecrated people" (Brooks). That is, people who commit themselves to matters of the soul. Striving to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves counts us among their numbers. Do this and you too are consecrated to do great things.
2 Kings 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
So how many of you watched the Super Bowl last Sunday? Someone commented after the sermon that Isaiah seemed to prophesy about the eventual winner. We had read the famous passage that says, "Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31). So, eagles had the day and Isaiah had no word concerning patriots…
Fabulous game. Right? Among the best ever.
I'm not sure the same could be said about Justin Timberlake's half time show. Generally, I'm not too interested in those spectacles. At the end of the second quarter, I'm just as likely to head into the kitchen to start getting dinner ready or putting in a load of laundry. But this year Melissa was sitting with me, and she said she wanted to see it.
All in, we weren't that captivated. Although I think I did remark that it was visually impressive. Each year the organizers seem to want to outdo prior years in the razzle dazzle. That seems the point: how visually stunning can they make it? A lot has to do with how they handle light - and like I said, it had its visual moments.
But then I think I said at one point to Melissa, if you close your eyes the sound was pretty dismal. A couple of commentators reported the same. After all, Timberlake is firstly a singer, at least that's how he's packaged. I think that for a blind person the whole thing would have been a big yawn. The audience is supposed to be blown away with the visual extravaganza.
I like a good show, of course. There's a time and place for spectacle. Like the opening ceremony for the Olympics. Nothing much to hear during that show. Spectacle is the whole point.
We're suckers for the impressive visual display which is why CGI (computer generated effects) has taken over the movies. Big and flashy sells. Star Wars and its ilk are entirely dependent upon surprising the viewer with spectacle after spectacle. In the latest release, I especially liked the whole sequence with Luke Skywalker's final confrontation with Kylo Ren, Darth Vader's grandson, and his subsequent disappearance. The scene is actually a spectacle within a spectacle. Even Kylo is taken in by the artifice.
It's true in the religion business too. You've likely seen Joel Osteen's show in his arena. Tremendous production values, big hoo-ha and whatnot. Lots of megachurch ministers attempt to outdo one another in visual effects.
Of course, there's a long history for this in the world of religion. Pyramids and cathedrals and elaborate costuming have all been employed to capture the attention of the faithful. You can't help but be impressed when walking through St. Peter's Square in the Vatican or stepping through the basilica's portal into the space designed, in part, by Michelangelo. The most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, it's the largest church in the world. It was meant to be visually impressive. And it is.
And of course, in our own way here at Christ Church, our space is meant to capture the attention of cynical New Yorkers. Stepping into the sanctuary people inevitably look up, and around, and marvel at what they see immediately from coming off the sidewalk.
The Bible has stories filled with spectacle as well. We heard two of them today. TGI engineers would have fun with the scene of Elijah whisking away in a chariot of fire. And then the mystical transfiguration of Jesus on the top of a mountain who, Mark tells us, has more razzle-dazzle than the hottest pop-star, enveloped in shrouds of smoky clouds, and that voice, that voice that says, "This is my Son, the Beloved; Listen to him!" And with that, all in one fell swoop the spectacle evaporates. Poof! And its only Jesus and the three disciples left standing in bewilderment.
But here's the takeaway: the razzle-dazzle was never the point. The point was found in the voice of God who said, "Listen to him!"
Just prior to this dramatic episode, Mark reports that Jesus described how he would undergo great suffering, rejection, and even death at the hands of the elders and leaders. Peter rebukes Jesus for saying this sort of thing, and Jesus famously responds, "Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things, not on holy things."
And what do you suppose the human things were? Well, that's pretty easy given the disciple's transparent nature. They were following along with the expectation of a big payoff when Jesus came into his glory. That was the bargain they'd made. Though following after the way of Jesus, they had lost the point of what this journey was all about.
And here, just as Jesus is about to turn his path towards Jerusalem for the final leg of his journey, the lead disciples get a wake-up call, not that they'll get it, as the story is told. They're denser than thick mud. Just a few miles ahead they'll be arguing about who's the greatest among them. They want their big payday, by God!
So, one clear interpretation of the transfiguration concerns the fact that the disciples are captured by the razzle-dazzle opportunity and miss the content of the mission. Listen to him! God says. And the other gospels report it exactly the same way, with the same words. Listen to him… Listen…
Alert parents become aware of the reality of "teachable moments." These refer to the unplanned opportunities that come along when child and parent are both receptive to deep listening and sharing. These times can't be forced. In fact, parents learn the hard way that repetitive admonishments are regularly ignored, often inducing the exasperated, "Am I talking to myself?!?"
But then, maybe riding along in a car, or in a quiet walk down the street, a window of opportunity opens, you sense you are in a healthy emotional space, as is your child, and something is said or experienced, and a lesson is taught and heard.
Growing in faith is like that. Adults are stubborn students, actually worse than kids, because they've had years of honing their expectations and desires. We know what we know, after all. And we know what we want, need and expect. This is especially true in our relationship with God. We like to set the terms.
And like the disciples, our following along the path Jesus blazed is chock full of our expectations and desires for personal advancement and fulfillment. We want God to deliver the goods, to do some razzle-dazzle on our behalf, right? I've certainly been in that place.
And every now and again we may even experience some spiritual razzle-dazzle on the top of some high mountain, as it were, but if we're really alert to our circumstance, we'll also hear a loud, "Listen to him!" meant to bring us to our senses, to get a grip on the most meaningful content for the living our days. That after all is said and done, life isn't about going after one mountaintop experience after another, one success after another, one more trophy after another, one more razzle-dazzle distraction devoid of actual, consequential content.
As the story is told, the disciples were confronted up on that mountain with a voice that told them not to gawk, but to listen, yet the spectacle overwhelmed the message nevertheless, so when they descended the mountain they weren't any wiser and wouldn't become wiser until after they had had all their hopes dashed in a great conflagration of disloyalty and cowardice. Finally, after death and resurrection, stripped of all their expectations, vulnerable in their weakness, they had their teachable moment, and they remembered the words they were meant to hear all along as though for the very first time.
Here is just a smattering of some of those words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.
"You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world…let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to God…
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
"When you stand to pray, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
And this: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"
Jesus said these things walking along the road with his disciples. Honestly, this wisdom is hard to hear, that is, it's hard to actually let it penetrate the thick crust of our own selfish preoccupations. As Paul said to his friends in Corinth, [The gospel] is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this world has blinded [their minds] to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. God…said, "Let light shine out of darkness…"
One simple way to understand your presence here in this space pertains to our helping one another to listen. To really listen. Because left to our individual selves we're really quite deaf. That's true for me. Man, do I ever need help to actually hear what's being said… That's been true in my marriage, with work colleagues, with my kids, and perhaps most especially with God. Fortunately, we have each other to hold us accountable to the things that matter most of all…
Isaiah 40:21-32; Mark 1:29-39
The question crops up in conversation quite a lot—why go to church? What’s the point of organized religion? Can’t I have my own private spiritual perspective and let it go at that? Aren’t all religions the same anyway and does it really make any difference?
If you pay attention to this line of thinking, follow its pattern, it leads to a more generalized disaffection with nearly all organized behavior—a growing lack of confidence in not just religious institutions, but government, education, business, too. A lot has been written about the collapse of institutional life in the last decade.
A while ago David Brooks nailed this situation squarely (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/03/opinion/brooks-how-to-fight-the-man.html). He recounted how a 22-year-old man named Jefferson Bethke produced a video called “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.” The video shows Bethke standing in a courtyard rhyming about the purity of the teachings of Jesus and the hypocrisy of the church. Jesus preaches healing, surrender and love, he argues, but religion is rigid, phony and stale. “Jesus came to abolish religion,” Bethke insists. “Religion puts you in bondage, but Jesus sets you free.”
The video went viral, acquiring millions of hits. Evidently it spoke for many young people who felt close to God but not to the church. Brooks reasoned that this represented the passionate voice of those who think their institutions lack integrity—not just the religious ones, but the political and corporate ones, too.
He went on to say that we currently suffer from an over-reliance on the narcissism of the individual point of view. “This seems to be a moment when many people — in religion, economics and politics — are disgusted by current institutions, but then they are vague about what sorts of institutions should replace them. This seems to be a moment of fervent protest…that is ultimately vague and ineffectual.
But in fact, belief systems help...”people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act.
Just a bit of reflection reveals we are the beneficiaries of an astonishing depth of collected wisdom gathered and refined over decades and centuries, passed on through institutional means. To assume we individually and separately have the singular bead on the truth is a remarkably arrogant, not to say profoundly limited point of view and a great diminishment of our potential.
Consider the Bible for a moment. A vast library collected, edited and redacted over 1000 years; passed on generation after generation; argued, debated, re-interpreted; advancing God’s graceful, potent and life-affirming message that has captured the attention of billions of people, but made possible only through so-called “organized religion”. One doesn’t have to be any sort of believer in its transcendence to stand in wonderment at this legacy. We could almost say the Bible is its own institution.
To simply dismiss institutional life as irrelevant, is to dismiss human history out of hand. Corruption abounds, of course. No argument there. But corruption abounds as easily, even more fundamentally I think, in individuals as it does in collectives. It’s useful to remember that whenever people choose to accomplish a good end they inevitably form structures of common concern to implement positive outcomes. In other words, they make institutions. Because institutions have the ability to survive over time. At its best, the church is one of the towering examples of such accomplishment.
Consider our small brand called Methodism. It has figured prominently in American history as an engine for the development of hospitals, social work, public education and many colleges and universities. Methodists were early abolitionists, helped establish communal commitments to self-improvement, moral development and compassionate engagement with the world. It’s certainly not perfect. It has faults, but also a resilient commitment to the things that matter most of all, calling us to love the way God loves.
I say this as simple observation. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s part of a much wider, broader, deeper consortium of structures, movements, collectives and communities that have organized to advance a profound spiritual perspective energized by Jesus of Nazareth, who was himself energized by an older wisdom tradition. It’s a point of view and way of life in which I’ve immersed myself to clarify and amplify my own potential and to focus my priorities in a life bounded by time.
My disagreements with the organization—and I have several significant ones—don’t diminish the power of this larger frame of reference. Instead, I wrestle and debate with the tradition. In the process, I am found and formed, not as in a plastic mold poured by robots, but as a resilient human man, open, yearning, questing after the most important things; discovering mentors and companions who will support me and challenge me and allow me to flourish while together standing upon a very secure foundation. This has been my experience.
This past week Melissa and I saw the musical Come from Away that tells the remarkable true story of 7,000 stranded airline passengers who were grounded midflight on 9/11, and the small town with a large moth-balled airport in Newfoundland, Canada that welcomed them. It was excellent, btw, and I highly recommend it. But it also brought to mind those fateful days.
For me today’s lesson from Isaiah will forever be tied to those days following the attack on our island. We read it here several times in short order back then as part of our worship, including the service of prayer at noon on the Thursday following the fateful Tuesday to which everyone in the nation had been called. Our sanctuary was filled to overflowing—standing room only. As the noon hour struck and we were about to begin I saw a sanitation truck screech to a halt through our glass doors; several men leapt off and ran into the overcrowded space just as I was about to begin at the stroke of 12—such was the power of our mere institutional presence on the corner of Park and 60th.
I knew that a very high percentage of attendees that day likely hadn’t darkened the door of a church for years, maybe ever. But I also understood that when the ground shakes you reach for the very best handhold available. In such moments our thinking shifts to a ground that touches bedrock, a foundation addressed by our tradition’s scriptures. They provide an ancient library of the recurring human discovery that God is. Behind all things lies a fundamental order. Friends who believed that were part of an organization that built this place. And in this way, they gave it forward to the generations that would follow.
That’s why people flocked to churches. They needed to remember something just on the edge of consciousness. And so, the scriptures were opened, and people resonated with ancient poetry: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary…Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Those gathered here had an instinct for understanding that these words were forged in the crucible of great human adversity and tragedy. For millennia people confronted with great crises had seen behind and beneath their experience a more fundamental order and others who then followed over the decades and centuries learned the wisdom of their forebears that God is.
Institutions evolve of course. We’re now living in a time of great upheaval in part instigated by technology and the subsequent shattering of old boundaries of knowledge, information, cultures, and epistemologies. We’re in for a very wild ride in the next decades, institutionally speaking.
In the meantime, I assert there are powerful human, even divine, resources that put the ground beneath our feet and inflate our lungs with breath. These have been collected, organized, redacted and edited through a continuous flow of human spiritual energy that even today fills this space. Regardless of your current level of commitment, involvement, interest or understanding, your mere presence here within these walls locates you within this dynamic spiritual flow. And I say, thank God for that! And thank God for the church, battered but unbowed, corrupt but standing on the most solid foundation. Held tenderly in love for the sake of love. Just like you and me.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18, 21 (optional reading); Mark 1:21-28
Yesterday, January 27th, was the 73rd annual Holocaust Memorial Day. It dates from the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945 by the Soviet Army, and the stunning discovery of the incomprehensible systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews.
If you join the next Christ Church pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine in May 2019, among the sites we'll visit in Jerusalem will be the World Holocaust Remembrance Center called Yad Vashem. It's a difficult museum to walk through as it traces the origins of anti-Semitism, especially within Christian sources, and in Christian majority nations like the United States; and the bewildering complicity of the majority of Germans who followed through with maximum efficiency and organization to systematically eliminate an entire ethnic population.
One of the ancillary memorials there is dedicated to the nearly two million children who were victims of the holocaust. I've walked through it now about 8 times and my eyes never fail to leak tears at the staggering incomprehensibility.
Among the things I've wondered about over the years was the paucity of prophetic voices in those days. There were some. We know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christian theologians who wrote the Barmen Declaration that stood against the policies of Christian nationalism. But even in the United States strains of anti-Semitism prevented Jewish refugees from landing on our shores. Politicians all the way to FDR were cowed into refusing their entry for lack of national support - in other words, for brazen, incipient anti-Semitism.
Consider the famed entrepreneur Henry Ford. In 1918, Ford purchased his hometown newspaper, "The Dearborn Independent," and began publishing articles that claimed a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting America. The articles were bound into volumes titled "The International Jew," and he distributed half a million copies to his vast network of Ford dealerships and subscribers. As one of the most famous men in America, Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority.
These were the same days that the Ku Klux Klan claimed at least 4 million members. Virulent strains of anti-black and anti-Jew blended into an amalgam of white supremacy that lingers to this day, 100 years later, as we saw in Charlottesville last year.
And since the Klan liked to burn huge crosses as an emblem of fear, we're reminded that they cast their point of view with a Christian tint. Likely most Klan members were also members of local churches. But then, Christians had long defended segregation, and slavery before it, by piously quoting scripture.
Christians have never been immune to missing the point at the heart of what it means to follow after the way of Jesus. That's simply factual. It's important for us to admit and remember. And that's why it's so essential we remain true to the central organizing principle Jesus set before us with both his words and the content of his life: love God above all things; love your neighbors as yourselves.
Creating enemies and fostering fear and hatred of others is absolutely antithetical to this fundamental proposition. It's completely baffling to me how easily this can get lost as the essential cornerstone of Christian faith.
Everything else flows forward from this: all people have equal standing before God since all have been created in God's image. What's so difficult to comprehend about that? And yet, every generation needs its prophets to proclaim this truth.
Considering the necessity of this prophetic witness of love today we can see how it is that someone like, say, Martin Luther King Jr., rose up from out of the church to call it back to its essential witness, namely, to love as Jesus did, all persons regardless of any distinguishing characteristic. This included, by the way, loving one's enemies. This was the heart of non-violent protest.
How can we misconstrue Paul's meaning when he writes, "Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers"?
I know I'm repeating what you just heard a moment ago, but I think it bears hearing again given our propensity to deafness: "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.:."
Now look, I think this is what we're called to embody. It's no more complicated than that. This is what we're called to embody amidst the rancor and enmity of our current moment. The insidious tribalism runs counter to our call. We're meant to stand apart from this, not in disinterest or disengagement, but as advocates for healing and reconciliation in the manner of Jesus who spoke as one with authority. We're meant to love God and neighbor. That's it.
Listen to how the Gospel of Mark described the situation after Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit. Don't get hung up on the literal specifics. Listen to the response of the amazed witnesses "who kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him…'"
Following his way in the world would put us at odds with current conditions. And we should ask ourselves, what does fidelity to this mission look like? What does it mean for us to comport ourselves in keeping with the prophetic witness of Jesus?
After the Germans overwhelmed France and their policy concerning Jews was being implemented, the response of a certain village of protestant Christians becomes instructive, especially considering that the vast majority of identified Christians aligned themselves with Adolph Hitler's agenda.
From December 1940 to September 1944, the inhabitants of the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon (population 5,000) and the villages on the surrounding plateau (population 24,000) provided refuge for…3,500 Jews who were fleeing from…Germans.
Led by Pastor André Trocmé of the Reformed Church of France, his wife Magda, and his assistant, Pastor Edouard Theis, the residents of these villages offered shelter in private homes, in hotels, on farms, and in schools. They forged identification and ration cards for the refugees, and…guided them across the border to neutral Switzerland. These actions of rescue were unusual…insofar as they involved the majority of the population of an entire region.
Why did they do this? Why did they risk arrest and imprisonment? A clue is found in a public sermon by Pastor Trocme who said, "the Christian Church must kneel down and ask God to forgive its present failings and cowardice." That was a prophetic voice in a perilous time. A voice calling the church to rekindle faithfulness to its actual message.
As you've heard me say in the past, taking this mission on, living in the manner Paul described and Jesus modeled has the effect of dignifying our humanity and holds the key to human flourishing. Healthy, wholesome communities are built with resilient, sacrificial love. Tribalism, hate, fear-mongering, selfishness, lack of compassionate regard for others, are all viruses that attack the human organism and must be resisted.
There's no question that this message runs counter to current conditions, yet has never seemed more relevant and important.
You've likely heard of Anne Frank, the 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid with her family in Amsterdam during the 2nd World War. She wrote a famous diary that is filled with compassionate wisdom way beyond her years. Eventually Anne and her family were betrayed and carted off to Auschwitz.
An entry dated July 22nd reads, "It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. It's utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more."
"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait to a single moment to start improving the world…"
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
One of the small but enduring personal anecdotes that has stayed with me for several decades occurred at a cocktail party a couple of years into my New York City gig. Some of you have likely heard it before even though it’s just a little, inconsequential story. Nevertheless, it has served as a kind of touchstone for my professional life.
Two hours into the party where I had arrived anonymously, a sophisticated, successful woman asked me what I did for a living. She had had more than a little bit to drink and had shared more of herself than perhaps she had intended, so when I told her I was an ordained Methodist minister she became wide-eyed and speechless—the proverbial “deer-in-headlights” look. Her mouth fell open in complete bewilderment. When she regained her voice she said, “But you don’t look like a minister!”
After a pause she asked, “Don’t you ever wear a collar?” And by the inflection in her voice I could tell she meant, “Don’t you think you should do everyone a favor by warning them ahead of time about the nature of your occupation?!”
Early on I learned that the sudden revelation of my profession in an otherwise anonymous setting could be quite jarring for people. Sometimes that had to do with a vague feeling they had been caught with their pants down, so to speak. For others who lacked religious experience or perspective—especially here in the city—I seemed an oddly exotic specimen inducing incomprehension and stupefaction.
As I said in Faith Matters this week this tracks along the rapid cultural evolution of greater and greater numbers of people with no religious identification. If someone finds religion irrelevant to her life, well, then, stands to reason a professional religionist has an irrelevant occupation. Sometimes I sense this judgment informing a questioner’s point of view.
But then, everyone who identifies as Christian shares a similar burden. From what I’ve heard from parishioners here, Christian New Yorkers are not inclined to readily self-identify in most environments, say, in one’s workplace, for instance—although over time this might leak out.
How about dating sites? I’ve had a lot of chats about that in recent years, the pros and cons of Christian self-disclosure, and more often than not, the cons, due to stereotyped perceptions. Many want to let that out a bit later on when forming a new relationship.
On that front I don’t have any useful advice (just gratitude I’ve graduated from the necessity of using OKCupid). But this does cause me to reflect on what’s at stake in our willingness to self-identify.
A pithy bit of wisdom attributed to St. Francis goes like this: “Preach the gospel: if necessary use words.” He was emphasizing the content of our lives takes precedence over everything else. We demonstrate what we value by the wake we leave behind as we make our way forward in life’s currents, rather than whatever we blather on about in the meantime. As C.S. Lewis put it, “What you do screams so loud I can’t hear what you say”—a crucially relevant bit of wisdom for parents, not to exclude all the rest of us.
But words do matter. How we align our words with our faith seems especially important today. We need to get braver about this, willing to take a risk or two. Let’s not have the fundamentalists on the right or the left define what it means to be Christian, giving up on our language of faith for fear of being misunderstood. The quality of our love-in-action is our proof of what we mean. We should be able to speak to this confidently.
So back at the cocktail party, after recovering her composure, our conversation settled into a rather deep sharing. Inevitably my new friend asked me why I became a minister which has a rather nuanced answer. It didn’t get all theological on her, although God did come up. But this led to my asking her about her life and work and the different directions our lives had taken. And since God was a subtext, did she have any sort of spiritual life?
Rather than answering that directly, after a pause she told me she wasn’t very happy. Though she hadn’t confided this to anyone recently, at the age of 45 she felt lost. “Successful…but lost,” she snorted. I could tell by the look in her eyes that she definitely now felt she had said way too much. Then quietly staring into her drink she mused that had I worn a collar she definitely would have avoided me.
That was about as far as our conversation was going to go under the circumstance. She thanked me for this little unexpected chat. But then, if only I had worn a collar she could have avoided all the introspection. As it was, she said she was now headed home with more than just a few drinks in her system...and oh, maybe I might see her some Sunday.
Well, as I said, that was quite a few years ago. Eventually she moved away, but not before she wound up joining our ranks and becoming actively involved, especially in our outreach efforts.
One of the enduring riddles of the life of Jesus concerns his selection of his disciples, that core group of companions. We know a few details about the twelve men closest to him. We know there were a group of women who also were part of the inner circle. We know that as a whole these friends didn’t have a well-established pedigree. Some had a borderline relationship with the laws of government and religion.
As the story is told, what do you suppose Jesus looked like when he called those first fishermen? I imagine he looked very much like the village carpenter—rough hands, hard and strong, like the hands of the fishermen. I imagine he had spoken with these men before, perhaps as they dried their nets at the end of a day. And in the course of conversation Jesus did what he did better than anyone else—he related their lives to the life of the Spirit, to the things that matter most of all in the midst of the living of their days.
Given how we’ve cleaned him up and mythologized him to a fare-thee-well, building extravagant marble-encrusted buildings in his name and emblazing his image in glittering mosaics, its important to remember that he didn’t appear out of nowhere, walking out of the sunrise making sacred esoteric declarations while the heavenly chorus sang “alleluia” in the background so that these fishermen might be sufficiently impressed to drop everything and follow him into the sunset and beyond.
It seems Jesus was an uncommonly wise carpenter who found his voice as he grew in years until one day it became clear that when he spoke you really had better listen, because if you did, you wound up learning things about yourself and the world that completely altered the goal of your life.
In the biblical stories we hear him saying that the Spirit of God could be found in very homely settings—in the tale of a shepherd, a farmer, a tax collector, a businessman, politician, even an embezzler and a prostitute…all the types of people there are, and in our day, those we could meet at a bar or cocktail party. His stories were the stories of everyday life into which everyone might read the content of their own lives.
While coming to a place like this has great value, where, when we’re at our best, we uncloak the truth and make ourselves available to it, out there beyond these walls is where you spend the great bulk of your time, where you work, go on dates, invest your money, eat, drink, make sense of your sexuality, use your bodies for good or ill, raise children, grapple with death. That’s where God’s claim on your life has its real impact. If God’s call doesn’t have meaning out there in the hurley-burley of your daily lives, it hasn’t yet been heard.
There is no more likely candidate to hear God’s voice than you. In fact, so far as your own corner of the world is concerned, you are the only true candidate. Of course, God’s voice is heard in a wide variety of tonalities. You can hear it as scripture is read and proclaimed, you can hear it in music; you can hear it in nearly any occasion through a vast array of mediums. You can hear it at a cocktail party, on the subway, walking along the sidewalk, taking a friend or lover to dinner.
Here’s a remarkable surprise: sometimes we’re the vessels for God’s voice. I don’t mean that in the sense of the biblical prophet making grand pronouncements. I mean it in the sense of the quality of our love and care, our ability to listen and question, our willingness to be known authentically, to share who we are, what we think and believe with open hands and hearts.
Hearing God’s voice is closely allied to our finding our own voice. These are linked. I’m currently experiencing how my 2-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter is learning to speak. It’s clear that as she struggles to find the words she needs, she’s making sense of who she is. And it occurs to me that this process never really ends. When I call out to little Adeline she hears my voice and invariably finds her own.
I think that’s how it works with faith as well.
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51Read MoreLess
Baptism of the Lord
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
In just a few minutes following a rather involved liturgical prayer Leslie, Violet and I will flow through the congregation flicking water at you with evergreen branches. I’m telling you this now so that those who are newcomers to Christ Church might be forewarned because depending upon your point of view or life experience this could seem an absurd activity.
If you’re new to the religious scene, or newly returned to church, I suppose much of our liturgy could appear quite foreign, maybe even requiring a translation. You are likely well-aware that there’s no standard today for what constitutes relevant Christian worship behavior. The options are numerous, running the gamut from praise bands in a bar, to high mass at St. Peter’s in Rome, and everything in between. Worship leaders can dress in Hawaiian shirts and sandals or in elaborate religious regalia with pointy hats and embroidered robes.
A solid case can be made for all these forms and methods, but what matters most is the sincerity of the worshipers in their desire to be fully known to God and vice versa.
In other words, does the worship experience have integrity? Are the leaders and participants speaking authentically? Does the music from time to time open subterranean mystic doorways supporting a faithful expression of heart and mind; does the worship activity hold-up the best of what it means to be human, made in God’s image, and so forth?
Christ Church has been bequeathed a rather remarkable and noble sanctuary here that has always seemed to me to inspire a kind of noble worship. Noble—not to say, opaque or tiresome or disconnected from real people living real lives.
Given the gift of this space we subscribe to some traditional worship patterns, to the best of what our long Christian tradition offers, while remaining alert to current culture; in part, this is why the clergy wear robes and the choir processes – to amplify the idea that what we’re about in here actually matters quite a lot, with a deep taproot to the faith of our forebears. We understand that we stand on the shoulders of others and future generations will follow us. Holy ritual captures this perspective of time as sacred gift and obligation. At its best ritual amplifies the things that matter most of all.
While our themes change from week to week as we follow a pattern of the church year built on the life and times of Jesus, undergirding all of our activity are a few very fundamental affirmations that ennoble our lives out there on the street beyond these walls.
So, for instance, today, like I said, the clergy will be flicking water at you from evergreen branches—an odd sort of thing for several robed people to do, unless you pay close attention to what’s actually being said and proclaimed in the service. And it’s something that you won’t hear outside of these walls; something quite important about you, about all of us, about our human situation.
Today we mark Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, and here at Christ Church, we incorporate a baptismal remembrance service into our liturgy. We do this because this day in particular allows us to remember and affirm something very crucial about our essential identity.
Having been born, every last one of us confronts this essential question: Who am I, really? And this variation: Who am I going to be when I grow up? Interestingly, these questions aren’t static or time-bound. At the age of 65, I can attest to their continuing relevance. I know this from my own experience, and I know it from hearing the experience of hundreds of other people as they make their way forward in their years.
When we baptize several infants in a few minutes, we’ll have in our hearts and minds the beauty of human potential bundled in swaddling clothes. We’ll ask parents the names of these children and tell them that they are loved immeasurably—and in all of this, that they are beloved children of God, that they should never forget this because knowing this gives confidence to live life fully, courageously, and righteously; and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate them from God’s love.
I believe that an inadequate answer to the question, “who am I?” drives most of our human problems and tragedies. Baptism concerns our essential identity. As you heard the story earlier, a voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children – and confers upon us the promise of God’s unconditional regard.
We sentimentalize this notion with babies, but honestly, I’ve known many 70-year-old men and women, not to mention 30 and 40-year-olds, who have either forgotten or never learned the factual answer to the question: Who am I? We probably could say that this question undergirds everything we do here.
Humans have a natural craving to figure out who they are. This drives the burgeoning business model of ancestry.com. People flock to discover their genetic roots. It would be interesting to ask how many of you have had your saliva analyzed. But whether or not you’ve found you’re related to Charlemagne, Genghis Kahn or an Ethiopian prince, baptism reveals that all of us share a sacred genetic ancestry as children of God. Baptism is a tangible sign of our kinship.
There’s nothing magical about it. Baptism doesn’t confer some new mystical power. It names and claims a fundamental truth—each one of us, child of God, precious in our given-ness. And if we will have it, destined for reunion at our true home not made with human hands.
Baptism is God’s work conferring confidence that no matter how often we fall short, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God is the one relationship in life we cannot screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go.
In a time when so many of our relationships flounder and fail, which can leave us feeling bereft and beleaguered, hear me when I say that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. By trusting this truth, we’re freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives. Can we trust, do we trust that we are firmly held by God? That first and last we are God’s?
When a drop of water reaches you today remember this. Take it on and in. Let it nourish the root system of your own identity. Let it inform your future. Let it renew your present. Let it remind you that nothing you’ve done, nothing that’s happened, no failing or confusion, no loss or remorse, no weakness or distress can separate you from God’s great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We go to the river now to stake this claim…