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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Mark 8:27-38Read MoreLess
John 6:35, 41-51Read MoreLess
Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35
An article in Christianity Today magazine reports that 53% of Pentecostal Christians and 41% of evangelical Christians believe that if they give more to their church God will reward them financially. In common parlance this is known as the prosperity gospel which could be defined like this: “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings.”
Hundreds of churches now promote the 90-day challenge: tithe 10% of your income to the church and if you are not blessed by God in 90 days, they guarantee to return all the money you’ve donated. As one pastor put it, “God says, ‘Test me out. See if I’m God.’”
Even if they don’t see a direct link between offerings and blessings, many churchgoers say God wants them to do well. Across all categories, including mainline Protestants, sixty-nine percent agree with the statement, “God wants me to prosper financially.” Twenty percent disagree. Ten percent are not sure.
The more people go to church, the more likely they are to think God wants them to do well. Among those who attend at least once a week, 71 percent say God wants them to prosper financially. That drops to 56 percent for those who go to church once or twice a month. And churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs are more likely to believe this, with Pentecostals out ahead of everyone else.
Evidently the 90-day challenge is picking up steam. And of course, in a land saturated with lottery hype, you can see why this theology appeals to people, because it’s sort of a nicer version of the lottery. Sure, you’re putting out substantially more cash, but it’s for a good cause and the money-back guarantee sounds pretty solid. Although, pastors who’ve gone this route report that just a small percentage of folks actually ask for their money back. I imagine that once caught with the bug of potential prosperity, it’s hard to shake.
Benjamin Sparks(1) relates that back in the 19th century there was a name for persons in Asia who came to church because they were hungry for material food. They converted, were baptized, joined the church, and remained active members as long as their physical needs were met. But once their situation improved and they and their families no longer needed rice, they drifted away from the church. Missionaries called them “rice Christians.”
Of course, just as today’s prosperity evangelists often take advantage of their congregants accruing wealth for themselves, missionaries could also abuse the people by bribing them with material means for the express purpose of converting them. A somewhat cynical tit-for-tat kind of theology. This ploy has been long discredited now. The faithful follower of Jesus doesn’t need a payback for doing good, for loving one’s neighbor.
At our Sunday sharing table where we serve homeless and hungry folks we don’t require conversion as the natural outcome for our provision. Not to say we wouldn’t be glad to have any and all join us in our walk following after the way Jesus blazed. Y’all come...
And in Flor de Campo, our partner church outside of Cartagena, Colombia doesn’t require membership in the congregation for the daily meal served to 100 children, or for the recipients of the loans in our micro lending program. And we don’t ask them to tithe to the church so that God can prove his bona fides. God doesn’t require a down payment, as it were, to release a flood of blessings.
The Colombian Methodist Church has a laser focus on the poor in their nation. They’re clear about the mandate to love God and neighbor. They still need money, of course, the clergy work for next to nothing, but they love God and they want to live the gospel. I’ve learned from them in this. And some of you have as well. It’s hard to reconcile, to make sense of, the great material disparity.
It is true, as Mahatma Gandhi observed, that “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except as bread.”
But there are levels of revelation beyond that, beyond sating physical hunger. There’s another hunger we all humans share, something deeper, broader, higher and wider. Something that gnaws at our souls. Hard to describe, really; hard to pin down exactly, this sense of something important, transcendent that pervades our existence. It defies tangibility.
Just prior to the passage we read from John this morning, more than 5000 people had dinner on a hillside as they had gathered to hear the increasingly famous preacher, Jesus from Nazareth—a local guy who surprised everyone. He had blessed a couple of loaves and fish and low and behold all had been fed.
As the story is told, Jesus and his friends then tried to find some solitude, because the people wanted to make him king. But that wasn’t Jesus’ schtick. The text put it this way, “When he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain.” Then he slips away with the disciples across the sea to Capernaum.
That’s how our passage began today with the crowds trying to find him. Eventually they do find him, and they question him about his intentions. Jesus responds that the only reason they want him is because he fed their bellies, which leads him to say cryptically, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
Still not getting it, they ask him, well, what sign will you give us that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do for us? What more are you going to do for us Jesus? Will you bless us with material prosperity, for instance? Do that and we’ll believe. And they mention how Moses provided food for the Israelites in the wilderness.
Eventually this conversation leads Jesus to say that he is the bread of life—a supremely wild metaphor, really. He’s prodding them to consider their deepest hunger, namely, the longing for reunion with the One who gave them life in the first place. The food Jesus provides is already present and powerful in their midst. He is their sign.
Now we’re as fixated on the material aspect of our existence as the crowd in Jesus’ time. Throughout John’s gospel he tries to redirect their attention to the things that matter most of all, those things pertaining to the inner person, the essence of their human dignity and purpose, the location of their identity as God’s own beloved children. And God’s children need spiritual food.
This sort of food doesn’t come by way of marketing a material payoff. Faith is the actual goal here, but today we’re prone to approach the matter like consumers, because that’s how we’ve been trained and nurtured, to be consumers, and picky ones at that. I buy and accumulate, therefore I am.
I fight the same tendency. I’m a product of the same culture you are. We have an extremely difficult time seeing our situation objectively, say from a vantage point 30,000 feet in the air, looking down on the context of our time, taking stock of what preoccupies our attention, how we hand over our allegiances so easily to things that simply don’t matter much at all.
Quite apart from any political perspective, I have been fascinated with the unfolding trial of Paul Manafort, the international lobbyist and erstwhile presidential campaign manager. It seems that among other things, Mr. Manafort was a consummate consumer, and it was this very quality that led him into a rabbit hole of needing, wanting to accumulate more and more stuff, ultimately bending, if not breaking the rules of the game.
Emblematic of this hunger for material things we learned this week that he spent over $1M on clothes over the last several years—an astonishing sum. This seems such an apt metaphor for our time. I predict that this will be remembered years from now as emblem of life in the first decades of the 21st century.
But I honestly don’t want to pick on Mr. Manafort. Rather, I’d like to relearn the lesson about which hungers matter most of all. I want to be pointed back to examining my own heart and mind, my own preoccupations. I want to refocus my attention on true food that sates my deepest hunger. I want to remember that no one is excluded from the food that Jesus offers, and by way of example, I want to remember that everyone is invited to the meal we are about to share.
At Christ Church we practice an open communion table, meaning there is no precondition for receiving the true food that’s offered. We believe this reflects Jesus’ own practice. There is no ticket, no confession or proposition to agree to, no obstacle at all from receiving this good gift, save by your own choosing. Rather than talking about it, let’s just experience it.
And as you come forward today hold this famous aphorism in your heart and mind: you are what you eat…
(1) Benjamin Sparks in “Pastoral Perspective”, John 6:24-35, Feasting on the Word, Year B, v. 3, p.308, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
2 Kings 4:42-44; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
If you’ve been overwhelmed by national and world affairs this week, it’s possible you came to church today to get away from all the news feeds and social media. After all, this space is called a sanctuary, meaning among other things, a safe haven, a place of peace and security. I have found it so over the years for myself. I do find it a true sanctuary, a safe place.
But then, I’m also aware that the world still does follow me in here. I never have been able to completely check the world at the door like my coat at a nice restaurant. Try as I might, I find the world insists on taking my hand as I cross the threshold, almost as though, it’s also desperate for sanctuary.
Jesus and the disciples had something of that problem, according to our story from Mark. He wanted them to come away to a deserted place all by themselves, so they might rest, getting away from the trials of their days. So, they got into a boat to travel to a place that would be for them a sanctuary. But as it was, the crowds seeing where they were headed, hurried by another route and arrived ahead of them. And so, arriving at their “sanctuary” Jesus and his friends were greeted by the world. And the writer adds, hopefully, I think: “[Jesus] had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.”
Most of you know we have candles to light in this space during the week. I often light one for someone, as I did for my father this week who turns 96 today. Sometimes I’ll light a candle for one of you when I’ve become aware of some need or difficulty, some pain or conflict that has arisen in your life.
I suppose you should know that I do this. Sometimes I’ll tell you when I’ve lit a candle with your name on it. Sometimes I won’t. But the thing is, it does very much feel like I’ve brought the concern from out there into a safe place where it can be named, honored, heard and received. It’s a small thing, I suppose, but then I happen to believe that small gestures of compassionate regard provide the mortar holding the structure of healthy human community together.
On Wednesdays, a team from Christ Church offers prayers for the concerns you write on the connection cards. And people drop concerns into our prayer box in the entryway during the week. All in, there’s quite a lot of spiritual aspiration due to our physical presence here at Park and 60, made possible by the commitment of all our members and friends to provide sanctuary for the citizens of our city.
And I was thinking this week that what we offer here with our open doors, open hearts, hands and minds, seems especially timely given the state of things. Are you not overwhelmed by the chaos in our national life, and within the echo chambers of social media? Don’t you feel sort of beat up by all the raucous noise in our media? Hasn’t the political rancor and hostility ratcheted up into, I don’t know, a kind of wacky circus act, yet, having real-time consequences? Aren’t we riven into rivaling camps, divided and sequestered in every imaginable way?
This awareness was enhanced as I was thinking about the passage from Ephesians which proclaims that Christ has broken down the “wall of hostility” that separated the Gentiles from God, and Jews and Gentiles from one another “so that he might create in himself one new humanity, thus making peace, and might reconcile everyone to God through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility...” The writer boldly proclaims, “Christ is our peace…So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.” And we’re told he did this from compassion, for we were like sheep without a shepherd.
Given how worked up I am about current state of our national life, I’m not entirely sure how to hear such a radical and hopeful sounding word as this today. But I do know several things quite certainly. This place is called Christ Church. That’s a rather stylized depiction in our mosaics of our namesake, this prince of peace, as he was called. Because he is our peace it seems especially relevant to bring the world in here with us today.
Of course, among the things we’ve brought in today include our own personal walls of hostility. That’s right, isn’t it? Those came in here with us. It won’t do any good to say we don’t have any. Each one of us can name at least some of the walls that separate us from each other and by default, from a closer relationship with God. And those are only the walls about which we have conscious awareness. The Gospel proclaims that through the cross, Christ has the power to break down those walls. What do you make of that?
Quite apart from our puny powers, Christ shatters these walls of hostility. That’s why this place can be sanctuary for anyone who walks in. Christ has already done the heavy lifting, we say. All we must do is accept the obvious condition of our lives and receive the gift of his hammer blows that bring down our walls of hostility.
But it’s not just for our individual lives that Christ wields his hammer of peace. Clearly, he also has a much larger agenda. Look beyond the ragged edge of our national politics, say, at our own borders, for instance, populated with children stripped from their families. And then, out beyond where so many millions of refugee families seek some kind of hopeful future from out of the violent wreckage of their homelands. So many places around our world cordoned by walls of hostility.
Maybe you feel as I do. Maybe as a result of our dyspeptic cultural/political moment, and the world’s chaos you carry around a kind of background anxiety, agitation, anger and don’t know quite what to do with it. But it’s very, very tempting to indulge a chronic state of enemy formation, of knowing for certain who does not deserve our compassionate regard.
Jesus resisted the movement to divide the world into the good people and the bad. His ruined body lifted high, visible to aggressive foe and cowardly friend alike, gave evidence to that. The cross was God’s unilateral disarmament, God’s ultimate rebuke to every wall that divides people into enemies instead of revealing them as neighbors, even sisters and brothers.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. allowed, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” And, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
Now I am not, strictly speaking, a pacifist. Sometimes I wish I could be, but living in a fallen world is a complicated matter that often requires complicated and difficult decisions, decisions we might, in some cases, even loath, but for them, see no reasonable alternative. Still, I very much bewail our weak human tendency to insist on hostility as our first, second, and third strategic, defensive or impulsive position in the world. Because here’s the elusive truth, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (MLK) I have lived long enough now to know this with absolute certainty.
These are the sorts of lessons we learn in this sanctuary sitting at this man’s feet, gathered at the base of the cross. Here we learn to love God and neighbor. Here we learn the hard lessons pertaining to human sin, and here, too, learn of the astonishing hope in the power of God’s love.
Now this is no mere naiveté or sentimentalism. Instead it’s the very energy of creation that burns away the dross in love’s refining fire. Sometimes we get singed in the heat of it. The cross is no sentimental token only to be worn as decoration. It is instead the very power of God set loose in the world.
We best be aware of just who or what we’re addressing in this sanctuary. In one sense, it is indeed the safest place in the world. But it is also a place to set the world’s agenda on its ear—actually, that’s what makes it the safest place in the world. In the Gospel of John, near the end of his time, Jesus addresses his disciples saying, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
He does not give to us as the world gives…. Thank God. That’s why this place is so important.
In the concluding paragraphs of his letter to the Ephesians, we read this: “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”3 Imagine for a moment, what it would take for you to be an agent for the gospel of peace. Imagine if we were a church full of persons who upon leaving the sanctuary, put on new pairs of shoes, as it were, that set us on that very course into our corners of the world. That’s part of our burden, our responsibility, our joy, as children of the God of love.
It’s a small gesture, I know. But in the spirit of all the candles that are lit in this space throughout the week, giving evidence that this is indeed a place of prayer and sanctuary, I will light this candle on our altar as a reminder for us that Christ is our peace. That he breaks down the walls of our hostility. That he comes to proclaim peace to those who are near and those who are far.
We’ll keep this lit each day for a number of weeks—at least through the remainder of the summer—as testimony to the fact that Christ is our peace. That he is the bringer of peace and that we have been admonished to become agents of peace. Perhaps it will keep a prayer alive within you for our world and for yourselves.
Rev. Dr. Stephen Bauman was pleased to welcome Rev. Dr. L. Roger Owens to Christ Church on Sunday, July 15th.
L. Roger Owens is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An ordained United Methodist minister, Roger served rural and urban congregations in North Carolina before moving to Pittsburgh. He is the author of a number of books including most recently, A New Day in the City: Urban Church Revival. He is married to Rev. Ginger Thomas, and they are the parents of Simeon, Silas, and Mary Clare.
From Ephesians 1:3-14; John 17:6-21
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
A few years into my ministry here—when I was in my late 30’s—I found myself in a very dark personal place. It was all-encompassing, and I was wracked by debilitating anxiety, a condition that periodically has occurred over the course of my life, although much less in later years. I was an emotional mess and spiritually adrift.
Stuck in this dark place, I felt at a loss to affect a positive outcome. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried, the less effective the outcome. Old motivational strategies felt hollow, even untrue. An aphorism like, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” and all of its cousins, left a bitter taste on my tongue. The fact that I was a Christian minister actually exacerbated the experience, amplifying my profound frustration and helplessness. On the surface, things seemed fine, but on the inside, I was a mess.
I’m guessing there’s more than one person present who has some sense of what I’m talking about—maybe not in its detail, but in its genre. Interesting, isn’t it, how uniquely personal experiences among a variety of persons can seem to play the same melody. I suppose that’s why anything we say in a place like this, anything that attempts to speak to deep meaning and our existential predicament can be understood by others.
Back to my days of darkness. I began to have a series of dreams. It’s the only time in my life I’ve had such a series. Over the course of several days, I dreamt that I was venturing on a journey into the desert. Each night I experienced a short, startling vignette; the first began in a non-descript town, while during successive nights I began to methodically walk into an increasingly desolate expanse. Initially I had no idea why, but eventually I thought that I was going into the desert to meet Jesus. Now I had never had a dream about Jesus before, and never since.
At first, the landscape was lush and green. Gradually, as the week wore on, I entered an increasingly arid landscape leaving friends and family behind, uncertain of my direction, but clear that I had to let go of anything that encumbered my progress. I needed to push on.
Finally, one night, in a landscape like the Arizona desert with little scrub brush and cacti, I stumbled into a campfire that seemed a temporary home for a single person. I noticed the bedroll and cooking implements, a small fire under a tripod with a pot, and, in the dream, I realized these belonged to Jesus. He was physically there, I never did see him, but I received the intuition that this wasn’t my final destination in any case. I wasn’t supposed to linger here and chat. My journey was not yet ended. He wanted me to go further out into the desert.
In the final dream, I was now in what appeared to be the vast emptiness of the Saharan wasteland. Only sand dunes as far as the eye could see. I had wandered into an impossible circumstance and would not survive. In unbearable heat, I was starving and thirsting. I could not understand why I had been sent here. It felt like a death sentence. I could not save myself – there was no escape route.
Collapsing into the sand, the earth began to shake and rumble. And from out of the ground a glistening, gleaming and beautiful city erupted all around. Beneath my feet came a tower and as I stood it rose to a great height. Soon the city flowed with rivers and streams and fountains. It was a startling experience.
I jerked awake into a sitting position in bewilderment. And this phrase came to my mind, the phrase that concluded our passage from Corinthians today. The short phrase that summarized Paul’s faith: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong… My grace is sufficient for you.”
Whatever happened during that dream sequence brought me out of my dark place, and reframed my point of view. It’s hard to describe really, but it had something to do with trusting God no matter what. I know this story doesn’t sound like a very big deal, but honestly, it came to me as a great gift that I’ve never forgotten.
“Whenever I am weak, then I am strong. My grace is sufficient for you.” That’s a troubling sentence for many people. It smacks of failure, incompetence. More than one person has asked, how could weakness ever be strength? The answer: It’s a spiritual paradox. In Paul’s case, he suffered from something he named “a thorn in the flesh”, something from which he had prayed to be delivered. He reports he prayed over and over again. I could imagine Paul as chronically anxiety-ridden, although, no doubt that’s a simple projection on my part.
Still, he finds he is in an untenable situation – he can’t deliver himself from the affliction, whatever it is. And the answer that came to him was simply this: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Grace speaks through his weakness which, in a paradoxical way, is proof of God’s activity, for left to his own limitations, he couldn’t accomplish what God could. My grace is sufficient for you – that was the lesson imbedded in my dream. That was nearly 30 years ago, and the insight has never left. As a matter of fact, I cherish it as one of the best gifts I have ever received.
More often than not we take a very different approach to life. Many take it on like some giant wrestling match, something to conquer by force of will and dint of hard conditioning. And there is no question that there is much for us to do with all we’ve been given. A lot is asked and expected of us. We ought to train and work hard.
Elsewhere in his letters, Paul exhorts his readers to run the race in such a way that they may win it… “I do not run aimlessly,” he writes, “nor do I box as though beating the air, but I punish my body and enslave it…” Paul is no slouch when it comes to working hard and long for goals that matter to him.
Still, at the end of the day, no matter how well trained, no matter how gifted, no matter how perfected in his skills, his best work, his noblest work, his enduring work came through the agency of his human weakness as a gift of grace that spoke out of his weakness. That exposes a spiritual truth that is among the most difficult for Christians to accept.
Indeed, much of the time, we function as though only the strong and successful are worthy of God’s attention. Even if we say otherwise, we very much secretly believe it. How else to explain all the ways we slice and dice one another into the haves and have nots, the elect and the damned, the in and the out, the blessed and the cursed, the black and the white, the gay and the straight, the rich and the poor? Unfortunately, Christians are at least as good at that slicing and dicing as anything else they profess to be and do. We might as well confess it.
But you can sense how potent an antidote to that very human failing it is to say, “when I am weak, then I am strong…God’s grace is sufficient for me,” because this locates our actual situation in the scheme of things. It’s in our weakness, our limitations, offered to God, that our true strength emerges, for it’s a strength born on the wings of grace.
Isn’t that what happens at our death? We can no more prevent our death than we can plan our birth. It comes, that’s all. Evidence of our ultimate limitation. And yet the Christian hope stipulates that this weakness offered to God is gifted back to us as life with him eternally. Do you see?
And didn’t we learn this from a great failure of a would-be spiritual giant? Didn’t Jesus live a small-scale life in a backwater country and die like a criminal? Isn’t that our model for understanding how grace intercedes in the midst of human weakness and limitation? And don’t those who gather around at the base of the cross find more in common with their brothers and sisters in their fundamental human need than in all the many ways they would rather demonstrate their superiority? At the base of the cross, we all look alike in our naked, vulnerable humanity.
This past week David Brooks wrote a piece for the New York Times about the new documentary on Fred Rogers, "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?" And, by the way, if you need a jolt of goodness at this depressing cultural, political moment, I strongly suggest you get yourself to a theater to see this. Of his own experience viewing the movie, Brooks writes, “the audience is moved: sniffling, wiping the moisture from their cheeks. The power is in Rogers’s radical kindness at a time when public kindness is scarce. It’s as if the pressure of living in a time such as ours gets released in that theater as we’re reminded that, oh yes, that’s how people can be.
“Once, as Tom Junod described in a profile for Esquire, Rogers met a 14-year-old boy whose cerebral palsy left him sometimes unable to walk or talk. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was thunderstruck. He had been the object of prayers many times, but nobody had asked him to pray for another. He said he would try since Mister Rogers must be close to God and if Mister Rogers liked him he must be O.K.
“Junod complimented Rogers on cleverly boosting the boy’s self-esteem, but Rogers didn’t look at the situation that way at all: “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
“And here is the radicalism that infused that show: that the child is closer to God than the adult; that the sick are closer than the healthy; that the poor are closer than the rich and the marginalized closer than the celebrated.”
That discovery lies at the heart of the deepest Christian spirituality...
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43
So, we made the move! We moved out of our home of nearly eight years for a Manhattan apartment. I hear some of you wondering to yourselves, “How have they survived?” It’s an excellent question, indeed. Yes, we are still swimming in boxes! It has been a decidedly eventful week, as moves can go. As you can imagine, there’s lots and lots of unpacking for the set-up of a new home. Our children have already begun to ask questions which are prefaced by, “When we move back into a house…?”
As we struggle to get our bearings and find a new sense of normal, learn a new community, the adventure has been good for the family. Yes, even when we are getting on each other’s nerves with fewer spaces to retreat and recreate, we have found pleasure in each other’s company. One of the week’s highlights has been the preparation of family meals. Anyone here today who has a memory of moving, will understand how difficult it can be to get yourself organized to cook a meal. I have convinced my children that some of life’s greatest dinners are breakfasts! That’s right, breakfast for dinner. Not only do I have fond memories from my childhood, I find it easier to whip up a pot of hot grits, fried or scrambled eggs, toast, turkey bacon or sausage, than to try to pull a well prepared and seasoned meal together. Maybe you’re not a “Girl Raised in the South” Southerner like me and grits are not your thing (pun intended). Maybe you’re partial to pancakes, old fashioned French Toast, or a waffle with special toppings. Or perhaps you like the vegetable omelet, a bowl of fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, with a glass of cranberry juice? No matter your favorite meal, the fast-food service industry has begun to capitalize on the late-night appeal of the New York Diners. Back in college, where there was a shortage of diners, we’d end up at the local Waffle House or Huddle House for a breakfast meal, anytime day or night.
While we don’t know the exact time of day the second healing takes place, we are clear that Jesus commands that the recipient of his healing touch receive food. That’s like the breakfast meal, that meal which breaks the fast; the most important meal of the day. This wasn’t merely to extend his compassion upon the little girl. Neither was it to prove to onlookers that she really had survived a near death coma and there was no longer a need to plan her funeral. It had more to do with giving her the nutrients needed to live an abundant life! We don’t know of any dietary restrictions, food allergies, or preferences. What we know is, breakfast helps to replenish your body with the fuel it needs to start the day. As nutritionists and physicians tell us, “When you wake up, the blood sugar your body needs to make your muscles and brain work their best is usually low”. It’s time for breakfast!
In the Gospel according to Mark, the power of God is made evident in the healing powers of Jesus. The gospel writer gives us a powerful sampling of Jesus prerogative to heal the haves and the have-nots. The stories of a 12-year-old girl and a woman with an issue of blood for 12 years are both very compelling. The wealthy, elite, and powerful leader is juxtaposed to the impoverished, unnamed, and vulnerable in a way that proves that God is no respector of persons. God will and can heal the fortunate and the less fortunate, the insured and the uninsured, those documented and undocumented, the named and the unnamed. In fact, as Jesus is summoned to the aid of Jairus’s daughter, he interrupts his initial plan and timetable to acknowledge the healing of the destitute woman in today’s text, calling her “daughter.” There’s enough healing to go around when Jesus is on the scene. This is the lesson learned by the synagogue ruler’s messengers and the mourners. While his messengers think it appropriate for Jairus to go on and return home to properly grieve and prepare for his daughter’s burial rites, Jesus is not directly addressed, but overhears them. They say to him, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further” (v.35c)? Jesus responds to Jairus, directly, “Do not fear, only believe” (v.36). No miracle can be performed in your life and no healing effectuated if you don’t believe. Remember, Jesus couldn’t do any work of healing power in his own town among his own people because of their unbelief.
Yes, Jairus was probably accustomed to responding to all types of concerns and requests for favors, but here, he is no different than our unnamed sister who pressed her way in for her personal healing. She knew where the source of her strength came from and new the strength of her life was in Him. Healing is always a personal experience, even when it takes place in a communal setting. Jesus dismisses all the cynics, professional mourners, and skeptics when he arrives at Jairus’s house. A public scene becomes a private healing as he initiates a prayer circle. Her parents are invited and the disciples for whom Jesus will call upon at the Transfiguration, but as for all others, your services are no longer needed. The one who is the author and the finisher of her faith, takes her by the hand and says in his native Aramaic, “Talitha, cum…or little girl, get up!” Your potential has not been realized! Your being on this earth has yet to make an impact on others! Your wealth does not dictate your power, the spirit that has been awakened in you dictates your power! So, don’t sleep too long! It’s time to be about the business of glorifying God! It’s time to serve your neighbors! It’s time to live an abundant life, according to the power that works within you! “Through food God signals not random provision or pleasure but rather a certain intended order to life” (Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman, III, Editors Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Illionois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 297.) The bible gives us some instruction about the need to eat for the role we play in the kingdom building enterprise:
1) Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Mt 5:6).
2) For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things (Psalm 107:9).
3) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).
4) He says to his disciples in John, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4:34, NIV).
If you’ve been skipping on breakfast, you shouldn’t. It helps to get your metabolism going, have the energy needed to focus whether at work or at school, and burn the necessary calories throughout the day. Don’t deprive yourself of breakfast. Jesus needs daughters and sons in the work of ministry, ready to do every good work for the sake of the gospel.
But I would say to you on this day; do not deprive yourself of God’s heavenly food. Food that will not only sustain your physical body, but your soul. This spiritual food, called The Lord’s Supper, which you will receive in a moment, is the “real” food which helps to give us that abundant life! Yes, it is the Lord’s Supper, but today it will serve as breakfast for dinner.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Years ago while attending a party during a fierce winter storm, an interesting conversation evolved with a woman I’ll identify as Alice. She was a smart professional—a lawyer, I think—and, as small talk among strangers at such a gathering under such conditions might evolve, we were discussing the weather under the heading, “Big Storms We Had Remembered and Endured.”
Alice reported that she had a special affinity for storms—in fact, it was during a storm that she experienced a profound spiritual awakening. She said she didn’t speak of it to very many people, because though it was dramatic in a way, she wasn’t certain that, 1) anyone would really believe her, or, 2) that she should share it at all anyway, since it was such an intensely personal event. My curiosity aroused and choosing to take her at her word, I invited her to say more.
Alice then recounted that when she was growing up on the Chesapeake Bay her family often spent time on their boat sailing up and down the east coast and sometimes venturing into the waters of the Caribbean. Both parents were competent sailors, and great respecters of their relative frailty in comparison to the elements. But on one occasion, they were caught off guard in a fierce squall. Alice was 17, she said—old enough to be a seasoned mariner and helpful to the captains, but not quite mature enough to understand her true vulnerability.
And so it happened that while trying to tie down a loosened rope, the boat rocked sharply starboard, allowing a large swell to break over the hull whisking her of the deck. She didn’t know how long she was encased in the swirling blackness—shear terror—maybe ten seconds? Then, bobbing up in another swell she was set back aboard, just a few feet from where she had been standing. No one else witnessed this. Her parents did not know that for several intense seconds they had lost their daughter to the sea. Only Alice was left in a completely astonished state.
Well into her thirties when I heard her tale, Alice said she was transformed in that moment—even reborn, she thinks, although it had taken the last twenty years to absorb the meaning of those ten seconds. And then she was sure she would never really completely absorb it, except, perhaps, at her death. Alice didn’t understand how the equation was put together, but somehow the alchemy of fear, vulnerability and rescue added up to faith. That’s why she loved storms so—they reminded her of who was who and what was what. Storms aroused the adrenalin rush of fear, but the fear brought faith. She said she knew it sounded strange, but that’s how it was for her. That’s how it was that she came to know God.
Now as another story is told, perhaps wearied from teaching, Jesus suggests to his friends they take their boats to the other side of the Lake of Galilee. During the night, a fierce storm arises. The disciples fear for their lives as the waves overwhelm the sides of the boat. They find Jesus in the stern reclining on a cushion fast asleep. Awakening him they ask, “Don’t you care that we are perishing in this storm?” The storyteller relates that after calming the storm Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”(Mark 4:35-41)
The question this story raises is among the most basic: Will we trust God? As is often the case in the scriptures, the disciples initially fail the test. Even though they’ve had the advantage of traveling around with Jesus, when up against the power of their own fear, trust is the first casualty. Fear and doubt overwhelm the disciples as the water overwhelms the boat.
And why not? Surely they had lost comrades, perhaps family members to violent water. After all, they were fishermen. Fishing was a reasonably hazardous occupation. Beyond a certain point, water was a completely unforgiving environment. Even experienced sailors knew that just one mistake could be one’s last.
Evidently, these disciples thought they had their literal life preserver in the form of Jesus sleeping in their stern. And, as the story is told, so he turned out to be, but only for the time being. After all, none of them would live forever.
In our clearer moments, we recognize that every life-saving moment is but a reprieve from the inevitable. We make uneasy peace with this by saying that if only we could live into old age with our various faculties intact, we will have lived well. In a sense, we think of it as a question of fairness, as in, it’s only fair that I live to be a healthy and hearty 90. This attitude focuses our entire medical system. I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment, but I do recognize it is driven by our concern and sometimes despair over the inevitable reality of our ultimate demise.
Experience in my work has revealed that to greater or lesser degrees, all of us run scared much of the time. As M. Scott Peck put it, “Many don’t realize how frightened they are. They’ve been running scared for so long they’ve forgotten what it’s like not to. And the macho people who proclaim that they are not sacred of anything are the most frightened of all, because they even fear their own fear. Fear is such a constant companion in the background of our being we are usually neither aware of it nor able to imagine being without it.” (M. Scott Peck, What Return Can I Make: The Dimensions of the Christian Experience.)
A woman recently reported to me that she had a condition that her doctor described as pre-cancerous. As she told me this she threw her head back and laughed, recounting how comedian, George Carlin, once remarked that we’re all pre-cancerous. And so we are. Is it impolite to say so? Perhaps, but no less true.
Life is fragile, and exhilarating. A boat on a sea is at best a precarious adventure. The sea is mighty and completely indifferent to those who float upon its surface. It would seem to defy reason that we would ever embark upon the sea with no more than the enlarged pea pod of a hull to keep us above the waves. But people have been defying reason in this manner for many thousands of years. We are out of place. We are literally, out of our element.
Do you remember what this space is called in which you’re sitting? The central space in a church sanctuary is called the nave, derived from the Latin, navis, meaning, “ship,” no doubt in part inspired by today’s story. This sanctuary, this upside down hull, this nave, is a ship with an odd collection of mates and travelers on board, each of which, to varying degrees, are acquainted with a primal fear of their predicament, whether or not they have conscious awareness of this.
In the gospel story, the disciples discover their fear is no match for the God Jesus reveals. Yes, he grants a reprieve for the time being, he intervenes in this way for now, but his motive is larger than this immediate situation. He knows what yet lies ahead for most of them. He seeks to overcome their fear forever, regardless of the circumstance, regardless of ultimate physical outcomes. He seeks to provide an eternal peace born from an internal, spiritual calming of the waters. Writing from a prison cell the Apostle Paul referred to this as the “peace from God surpassing all understanding.” Jesus not only saves their lives, he wants them liberated from fear forever.
This confidence is found elsewhere in Paul as he writes to his friends in Corinth. As you heard this morning, he endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger and, still, as though having nothing, yet possessed everything. How can this be? As he will write to other friends, “in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Nothing is able to separate us from God’s love, not even death itself. The one essential fact of our existence is that we are God’s—that we are loved beyond our wildest imaginings. As the 13th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, understood, “All shall be well. All shall be well. All manner of thing, shall be well.”
How did she know this? Through a heart of faith. Where does faith like that come from? It comes as a gift from God for those who will receive it. It could be as simple as holding your hands open like this and asking simply: “Loving God, grant me a heart of faith.” Could be as simple as that. Faith drives life confidently into the future regardless of circumstance.
On the one hand this morning, we see ourselves in the disciples, scared out of our wits caught in a storm at sea. On the other, we want to identify with Paul’s joyful, if bewildering, confidence in the midst of danger and calamity…
There’s ancient symbolism in baptism, which we don’t quite capture with the little bit of water we use. If we were to practice immersion more regularly we would have a more potent reminder that in baptism we are spiritually drowned, just like Alice was, and then, re-emerging from the water, set upon the deck of the ship. That’s why this is a nave. A vessel set to sail on a sometimes perilous journey. Fear? Yes, we will have fear. But it’s no match for the divine grace that’s larger than any power we could imagine. It’s of the same power that gave us life and breath in the first place.
O God, who gave us birth… Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are accomplished, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in you, and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from your great love...
Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2nd Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Sometimes events erupt in the middle of the week that disrupt the normal flow of business here. Generally, we have a program in mind for the week’s activities leading to Sunday worship. But sometimes, something happens that catches us up short, something that is so “up front” in people’s faces, so much in the news, or so distressing that I must address it. Fact is I’m all worked up over this.
Those of you who receive my Faith Matters blog know where I’m headed here today. I want to state very clearly that there is nothing remotely biblical or Christian about ripping children away from their mothers and fathers. As I said in my piece on Friday, I almost couldn’t write about it given my sputtering anger over our federal officials quoting scripture defending the righteousness of their obscene policy at our borders. This surely violates the gospel of redemptive love.
Remember that in early May, the US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced a “zero tolerance” policy for persons attempting to migrate to the United States resulting in de facto family separation: children are immediately removed from their parents as they are apprehended after crossing the border. And three days ago, he also announced a policy reversing protections for asylum seekers fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence. Neither threat of violence is now considered grounds for asylum.
You’ve seen the pictures, heard the stories, and likely have read about the tent city being erected for the express purpose of warehousing kids taken from their parents. Session’s use of scripture defending this policy should appall every thoughtful follower after the way Jesus blazed. And irony of ironies, this story broke just in time for Father’s Day.
Let’s be reminded of other biblical texts like this one from the prophet Isaiah who, within the Christian tradition, helps describe the titanium chord of justice linking us throughout human history to the present moment: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10: 1-3 NIV)
And do we really need to recount the relentless messages pertaining to love of neighbor that resound on nearly every page of the gospel? Do we really need to recall that when asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan? Do we need to remember that calling children to himself he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these?”
Page after page, verse after verse, story after story, our sacred texts reveal what God requires of us, namely, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
I’m going to give Attorney General Sessions the benefit of the doubt that he did not know how the passage he quoted has been used in the past. Here’s what he repeated from the 13th chapter of Romans: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
He neglected to frame the context of that passage, however. A few verses ahead Paul says this: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet;' and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
That provides the powerful gospel corrective to unjust laws. But as Blasé Pascal, once wrote, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Historically, the passage Sessions quoted out of context has been read as an unequivocal order for Christians to obey state authority, no matter what, a reading that was often used to justify Southern slavery in the United States, but also authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany and South African apartheid.
In this latter case, “Afrikaner theologians, pastors, and politicians alike in South Africa all emphasized Paul’s admonition in Romans 13 that everyone must submit to the governing authorities as the central Scripture concerning Christian relations to the state,” say scholars Joel A. Nichols and James W. McCarty. “Read through an Afrikaner lens, theologians claimed that the apartheid state was ordained by God and must be obeyed by all living in South Africa.”
And the same was true of Southern Christians defending the legitimacy of slavery, and German Christians defending the authoritarian impulse of Adolph Hitler. History books are rife with examples. They all used this verse out of context. Like most everyone else, Christians are susceptible to gross manipulation if it confirms their prejudices and suits their self-interest. Nothing like a bible verse out of context to clobber one’s enemies and defend one’s tribe.
That’s why this incident hit me in the solar plexus and knocked the wind out of me. Like I said, I’m giving the Attorney General the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know about these historic antecedents. But then again, who knows…
The problem in this case is that the biblical evidence for answering that fluffy question evangelicals like to ask, What Would Jesus Do? is glaringly obvious when considering the fate of moms and dads and kids fleeing terrifying circumstance.
Now of course, there isn’t a straight line from gospel truth to secular law, but the gospel truth does provide an overarching framework for understanding our complicated place as citizens of two kingdoms—the kingdom of humanity and the kingdom of God.
Jesus said God’s kingdom was like the smallest seed in the world, and when planted, mysteriously and miraculously grew into a very large bush or tree. He clearly taught that citizenship in God’s realm has ramifications for how we should conduct ourselves in the human realm, how we should care for one another, how we should love our neighbors as ourselves, how every act of compassionate regard for others was like planting kingdom seeds.
This doesn’t mean that nations shouldn’t have secure borders and useful laws establishing appropriate boundaries among flawed humans. After all, we have laws precisely because we are flawed and self-centered, out for our own good. Good and just laws, take the broadest view of human dignity and safety while providing the bounds and rules of the game. They create the case and advance the cause of the common good. And here we mean the common good of everyone.
Unjust laws do the opposite, stripping people of their dignity, their well-being and sense of place in the world. Unjust laws stack the deck in favor of wealth and privilege. Unjust laws ramp up tribalistic tendencies, feeding on fear, while creating scapegoats and “less-thans”—the dreaded “others”, however they might be defined.
These sorts of laws must be challenged, confronted and changed. And from the vantage point of God’s realm that’s like planting kingdom seeds that will mysteriously and miraculously grow into mighty oaks of righteousness; a righteousness defined by Jesus’ self-giving love. That kind of human is a beautiful thing to behold.
You may know that I’ve had my issues with United Methodist denominational leadership in recent years, but on this matter the church has been rock solid for decades. It behooves me to commend the church when it so clearly and definitively defends the weakest among us.
This week the United Methodist Council of Bishops asked the government to stop the terrible policies at our southern border. “Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children,” they wrote. The United Methodist Women called for the Department of Justice to “do right by the immigrant children on our borders — surely among the weakest and most vulnerable among us — and immediately end the policy of separating children from their families.”
And providing a larger frame of reference, at the most recent general conference resolutions were passed that advocated generosity and charity toward immigrants, making numerous references to scripture and noting that Christ started life as a refugee, with his family fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticide. It reads: “Throughout the history of the United States, the most recently arrived group of migrants has often been a target of racism, marginalization and violence. We regret any and all violence committed against migrants in the past and we resolve, as followers of Jesus, to work to eliminate racism and violence directed toward newly arriving migrants to the United States.”
That’s the appropriate conclusion that arises from the witness of our scriptures. We are meant to be working with God, sharing God’s interest in justice, human dignity and compassionate regard for all of creation. We’re meant to be planters of the seeds of the kingdom of God.
1 Samuel 8:4-20 (11:14-15); 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:30-35Read MoreLess
1 Samuel 3:1-20Read MoreLess
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
Some years ago we published a small pamphlet called "Spiritual Mosaics: Stories of Faith from the Christ Church Family." It was a collection of 12 short spiritual autobiographies of members of the congregation. It fell out of my bookshelf this past week, and I refreshed my memory about the lives of these twelve family members and what struck me was that every story was about change. Some spoke of larger scale change, others smaller. But each observed a process that brought them to a new place or a new understanding; some described an enlightening serendipitous moment, others wrote of a longer journey and surprising outcomes.
Lorraine summarized her coming to faith this way: “It is a story of personal growth, guided step by step by the rituals of Christ Church. [Over time] I was able to hear in harmonic [messages] just those notes that I was able to understand and temporarily leave the rest. First, I heard about me and let the God part go. Then I heard the parables and found truth in them. Then I accepted God as metaphor. Then I understood the examples of Jesus; and then, finally, I believed that I was a child of God.”
But then she added this: “There is a downside to being a member of Christ Church. We change, and change is hard. After two years, I quit my job and went back to school [finishing my PhD] to become a teacher. Many of my friends in our original connection group quit their jobs as well… we misfits and soul-searchers alike… gather strength at Christ Church… and go off to do the important work of learning about ourselves so that we can better love our neighbors as ourselves.”
The highly regarded writer of short stories, Flannery O’Connor, a woman of great faith, once reflected that “grace changes us, and change is painful.” She meant God’s grace—the Eternal Mystery, Holy Love, God’s ravishing Spirit. That theme runs through much of her writing. Of course, change can also be wonderful, even, astonishing and transforming. If that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
I don’t mean change for change’s sake, or that everything old is bad and everything new is better, or that everything that happens to us is good. But we can’t associate with God’s ravishing Spirit and not expect something to change. That’s logically obvious, right? To worship the God we see revealed through the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and expect everything to stay pretty much as it is would be foolish. To expect our lives to follow a rigid path we’ve plotted out would seem, well, at a minimum, well-defended against the Spirit having her way with us.
We could say this more directly. If we thought we were worshiping this God of transforming grace and nothing changed in our lives, we’re probably worshiping something closer in appearance to what we see in a mirror. That’s because Flannery O’Connor is correct—grace changes us. It’s mysterious in the way that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, that unless one is born from above, one cannot truly see or receive the kingdom of God. But if you do see the kingdom, stands to reason you’ll be changed. Your perspective, your point of view, your understanding of who you are and where you’re headed.
As I flipped through the small storybook I noticed a lot changed in the lives of these sisters and brothers since its original publication. Some swapped old careers for new ones. Fred and Helen moved to London where they recreated their lives entirely. Ruby had a couple of books of poetry published. Jon got married and became a father twice over and changed careers. Manuel received his PhD and became a father. Matt entered and finished seminary and still moves towards ordination. And wonderful, sassy, irreverent Janet made her final change, wrestling, struggling with God every inch of the way before God finally relented and said, “Okay, you win!” granting her reward and taking her home.
Since the publishing of that volume of "Spiritual Mosaics," most of you have wandered in and some stuck around. From my vantage point, change came quickly, and change seems an organic aspect of our natural lives. And importantly, grace changes us.
Joyce tells of her decision to reaffirm her faith during the Easter dawn service one year. She wrote, “As Easter Sunday approached I grew more and more anxious to the point where on Easter Sunday I was visibly trembling. (I know that I was trembling because during the service my son leaned over to me and asked why my hand was shaking.) It was as if I understood that something important was about to happen.”
“We came forward in the darkened chapel, surrounded by candles. We knelt. The ministers traced a cross of water on our foreheads and proclaimed us children of God. After this reaffirmation the Easter message was proclaimed, the lights came on, and the great Easter celebration began. But inside me a change occurred. I couldn’t describe it at the time. All I knew was that I felt physically different; it was a feeling that went way down deep and seemed to ground me.”
Given our track this morning we might describe what happened to Joyce this way: grace changed her. She anticipated change was on its way—that’s why her hands shook. God’s spirit was present that morning and then, as she said, “inside me a change occurred.” And this change did not occur on an especially momentous, spontaneous occasion. It happened on a highly planned-out routine ritual day in which the Spirit was evidently active. All things considered, not a big-time event on the face of it.
Which is not unlike that first Pentecost we heard about last week. In Jewish tradition the spring harvest festival of Pentecost came fifty days after Passover. As the story was told, the disciples had marched triumphantly into Jerusalem like conquering heroes, they shared a poignant last meal, followed by Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. Remember their cowardice and crushing sense of loss and defeat. Then the disorienting experience of resurrection. A lot had gone down in those weeks. The disciples were agitated and confused, struggling to make sense of all these events.
Many pilgrims from many nations had crammed into the city for this routine ritual festival and then grace changed things. We might say the kingdom of God was revealed. God’s Spirit ravished the disciples.
Those fifty days must have felt like a spiritual pressure cooker. I bet the disciples’ hands were trembling before it all came to pass. I bet they didn’t know what had hit them and how it would all turn out, but inside a change occurred—inside them and then inside a lot of folks who had gathered for the standard religious observance but instead got blown around by Spirit wind. They had not planned on that. But the Spirit had its way.
That’s what Jesus was trying to tell Nicodemus. “Do not be astonished Nicodemus that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
We don’t know how Nicodemus interpreted this mystical message, but John reports that after the crucifixion Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Evidently, some breath of spirit wind found its way inside of him. Maybe it dawned on him what being born from above meant after all. Resurrection was just around the corner in any case.
Earlier you heard Paul say this to his Roman friends, “Don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent!? There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!”
“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike, ‘What’s next, Papa?’” And I’m struck that at the age of 65 that question still haunts expectantly because I’m sensing the Spirit isn’t finished with me yet and likely won’t be finished until I draw my last breath.
After telling his story of personal confusion in the face of death, Matt put it this way: “Grace intervened. At the same time Christ Church opened and lifted me to God and the Spirit…the circumstances of my life shifted dramatically…So much of what I claimed for my identity turned out to be never really mine. This was a house built on sand. [Finally] face to face with myself I began to stop hiding…there was suffering… through it all I knew I was watched over and ministered to by the Spirit… An offering of love was extended to me at Christ Church. As space was made for me…I was offered hope…”
Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
I well remember when my two children were confirmed by this congregation at this altar. That was nearly 25 years ago since they’re now in their mid 30’s. I remember their questions about what it all meant. Melissa and I answered them as best we could, and then proceeded to share their adventures into adulthood, the details of which we could not have anticipated at the time of their confirmation. We had our expectations for them, of course, but we learned—sometimes the hard way—that much of the work of parenting involves learning to hold those expectations lightly. As Kahlil Gibran aptly put it in his famous poem about children:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. And I mostly subscribe to it. On the other hand, it also bends towards the sentimental. As we adults well know, life isn’t always clear-cut and easy. The bow can sometimes crack when bent and the arrow does not always fly straight. There will be tears ahead as well as triumphs.
One of my enduring prayers for my kids over the years has been a prayer for protection—that God would hold them close and help them to remember that no matter what trouble found them, they would not lose heart or lose the conviction that they were loved. My thought was that if they could see that conviction at work in their parents’ lives—in Melissa and me—as best we could live it, they would be well served for whatever life dished up for them. And when, for whatever reason, we couldn’t do that very well, they would remember that God was present still—always had been, always would be. God was their fortress and their rock. I hoped that would sink into their innermost being, way down into bedrock, below their doubts and questions. From that deep place then the Spirit could groan out their prayer that was too deep for words… that’s how we heard Paul say it a few minutes ago.
There’s a reason we have confirmation on Pentecost Sunday. As our story is told, Pentecost is the day God’s spirit came upon the ragtag, dispirited and cowardly band of disciples that had abandoned their mentor and friend at his time of greatest need. Jesus had told them he would not leave them comfortless, that God would provide a counselor, a Spirit of Truth, that would mediate Jesus’ presence. I will not leave you as orphans, he said. “I will come to you.”
This coming is perhaps the greatest mystery of our spiritual life. If we interviewed all of you about this we’d have quite a wide spectrum of reports concerning if and how you experience God’s presence in your life. There are several Christian denominations that have very specific ideas about what qualifies for “authentic spiritual experience.” For me, that always had the whiff of overcontrolling something that could not, in fact, be controlled and that God was an entirely free agent on how God might manifest in someone’s life.
The problem with spiritual experience, of course, is that its self-authenticating. One just knows it. Or not. Our scriptures and tradition tell us that the evidence will be found in how people live their lives. We see this evidence, for instance, in the lives of those cowardly disciples who are transformed utterly into courageous men and women of faith on Pentecost. Because the Spirit wind blew through them that day, we are now all here in this space. Imagine that!? That’s a kind of evidence.
But then how do we connect the dots to our own lives? How does faith in this graceful God show up in the lives of ordinary people, people like us, for instance, going about our day-to-day business? What does the evidence of our lives reveal? Scott Hoezee recalls that Maya Angelou’s classic essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” (*) describes what this evidence of God’s presence might look like in someone’s life.
Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl, (confirmation age I might add…) even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom. Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and eventually left, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory, glory hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”
Momma could see a whole lot deeper, farther than just those girls and their despising of her. She saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and it changed everything. She knew who she was and whose she was. And she knew all that and could see all that because the Spirit of the Lord was with her. Her life gave evidence of the inner reality.
We surmise there had been a little Pentecost on that porch when Momma had been filled with the spirit of God and her daughter, Maya, had heard of it in her own language, that is, in a language that would touch Maya’s heart and change Maya forever. In that way Momma was a true bow in the hands of God and Maya was a sure arrow that flew swift and far.
And we pray that may be so for all of us…
(*) As suggested by Scott Hoezee here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/day-of-pentecost-c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel
Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53Read MoreLess
Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
There’s no getting around the fact that certain themes are relentlessly presented here at Christ Church, certain themes that lie at the heart of what we profess. Different churches might focus on slightly different aspects of the Christian tradition, but just around the bend of nearly every theological topic we could discuss lies the great progenitor theme of love. And as Christ Church folks know, that’s front and center in our mission here: we seek to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.
While some Christians seem to manage it, you have to try pretty hard to not have that as your first principle, especially after hearing Jesus say on the night of his arrest that his foundational commandment is for his friends and followers to love as he loves. In our recent Sunday readings, that theme has been rung loud and clear. God is love, we heard last week. Love as I love, we hear this week.
Love gets a lot play in our culture of course. And there’s a whole lot of confusion about it. Given that the word love is one of the most overused yet least understood words in the English language, it might not be a bad idea to give some attention to the status of your loving over these next few minutes.
We use the word “love” to refer to a whole host of widely disparate feelings, emotions and relationships. We say we “fall in love” when we have strong physical, sexual and/or emotional attraction for another person. But then, too, if you’re a car enthusiast you might say you love your vintage Corvette. If you have a family pet, you will likely report you love your dog or cat—she’s a full member of the family. If chocolate is a favorite, your friends will hear how you love it, gotta have it. Sexual relations are described as “making love.” We speak of brotherly and sisterly love, love between friends, love of money, love of oneself.
The Greeks had four words for love: affection, friendship, eros, and charity. That we have only one word that generally covers these topics doesn’t help. Seems we could benefit from pulling these ideas apart to discern what we’re actually addressing when we use the word in here.
A whole lot gets labeled as love that has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Sometimes it’s saddled with masking abusive behavior, or self-serving, manipulative behavior. Sometimes sexual exploitation is presented as love. I know from my work that authentic love can seem complicated, confusing and very elusive for people.
Then there’s the widespread cultural assumption that love ought to be easy, simple as 1, 2, 3. Experience teaches something else, but this fantasy dies hard, and some will consistently behave as though it should be easy so that anything which borders on the difficult sends them bouncing from one person, one friendship, even one church to another, never giving themselves permission to do the work of love.
Missing the payoff of warm feelings and easy times we can believe love is in very short supply in the world, resisting to learn the truth that love exists wherever and whenever we will it to exist.
Because love is as love does. That’s the point I will make today.
Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” You’ll note that he did not say love was a warm feeling, as in, “Go forth and feel warmly towards people!” The example he gave was laying down one’s life for another. Not a feeling, not even a desire, really. Instead, the will to act.
The desire to love is not the same thing as the will to love. The distinction becomes clear when we compare the sentences, “I desire to go swimming,” versus, “I will go swimming.” The second implies intention and action. So simply desiring to love, while often a precursor to the real thing, does not, cannot replace real love. This is a very common misunderstanding. (M. Scott Peck)
That’s because love is as love does. Love is active, not passive. Whenever we choose and then act for the good of another, we are involved in the work of love.
Through quiet tears, Mary told me about another failed relationship. Now in her mid-forties and nearly desperate to find the right partner, she questioned whether it would ever happen. She had always believed there was just one person who was her true soul mate. Most of her serious relationships started out well enough, but at some point each fell flat. There always came that day when she awakened to the feeling she was no longer “in love.” What was wrong with her? Mary asked.
I said I had no idea if anything was wrong. But I did know that even if she ever were to find her true soul mate, so-called, there would inevitably come the day she would roll over in bed and think to herself, “What on earth am I doing here?” Then, I added, would come her opportunity to discover what love was more nearly about, because at that moment she would have to choose to love or not.
Though we’re allergic to this truth, love really has a lot to do with choice. We would rather think of it as something that happens to us than as something that is created by us. I think this allergy helps explain why there’s so little of it in our world and how easy it is to lose.
Love is as love does. The desire to love is not the same thing as love. The test comes when examining what one actually does.
“My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” There is no other statement, no other teaching in the Bible that’s any clearer than this. If you were to summarize in a single sentence the primary teaching of Jesus, this is it. And if someone then questioned what you meant by love, you could respond that it moves along a continuum that ends with this: greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for another.
In the ultimate sense, the very most I can do for another is to hand over my life. That’s the model Jesus presents. Now, on a daily basis we aren’t usually called upon to give up our physical lives. But if we’re intent upon really loving, then we live with the will to extend ourselves for others. The promise that comes with our faith is that the more we give ourselves in love, the more our own lives become transformed by love. And at the end, even death itself is swallowed up by love.
But be clear, this sort of love has no tangible reality unless it is acted out in the world. When Tertullian, a Christian convert who became a prominent theologian of the second century declared, “See how the Christians love one another,” he was not referring to expressions of warm desires and feelings between them—as though they frequently exchanged lovely Hallmark cards. He’s referring to how they acted—what they did—what the content of their lives revealed. They put themselves—their possessions, their commitments, their lives—on the line. They extended themselves to others. They acted in love, for love is as love does.
There is no higher calling for the living of our days. To love authentically requires one to be a risk taker. To love at all is to be vulnerable in action. One cannot love and simultaneously maintain a controlled and steely existence, or an existence in flagrant disregard for others.
The best example of the sort of love we read, sing and speak about in here comes in the life of a man who said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” who was then summarily betrayed, arrested and left for dead by the very ones to whom he had addressed himself. That’s the prescriptive example of divine love. That was God’s definition.
The miracle, the thing we celebrate in the Easter season, is that this sort of love ultimately triumphs in this world. As the First Letter of John says it: “For the love of God is this…that whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.”
Love is as love does. There are so many things to be done that range from feeding a hungry person, to listening to a friend’s turmoil, asking forgiveness of a co-worker, spending time with children, giving generously, extravagantly, of material resources, learning how to build lasting, committed relationships, working for justice for all people.
To actively love is a radical, intentional way of living in the world, the most radical way there is. To actively love is a life stance, a way of orienting ourselves in the world. To love authentically stakes a claim on what matters most in this life, and it runs counter to much of what we experience day-to-day.
A daunting, inspiring challenge. Thank God we have one another. Thank God we have the rock solid, sustaining model in Jesus and his abiding presence. Thank God for love.
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
I entered Yale Divinity School when I was 22-years-old, which seems really, really young to me today. Sociologists are telling us that mature adulthood is arriving quite a bit later now, so 22 is more like the start of a protracted adolescence. And honestly, when I look back on those days I would tell you that I was sort of an emotional basket case when I made my way from the west coast to the east, not really having a clue as to how I might fashion a meaningful life; and I suffered from what has now become the neurotic benchmark of our moment—excessive anxiety. I dripped with it.
Some of that anxiety was driven by the belief that I was supposed to have my act together as I graduated from college. The implicit cultural expectation was that college prepared you for your career which would commence immediately upon graduation. Marriage would soon follow, then kids and a mortgage resulting in great satisfaction and happiness as you made your way up whichever occupational ladder you had chosen, eventually to retire when work would cease, and your well-earned playtime would begin.
That was the post-World War II script. The world had been saved from tyranny and a golden time of infinite opportunity lay ahead. The apple was ripe for the picking… at least for some of us… who were the right gender, race and class.
But then, that catalyzed some of the agitated anxiety for someone like me who was not especially well-suited to the most conventional or, shall we say, opportune occupations. My mother wanted me to become a brain surgeon. Well, that wasn’t going to happen. And when word got around that I was headed off to Divinity School that came as quite a shock to nearly everyone, including my friends, by the way.
I didn’t enter divinity school headed towards ordination. It was just that I was very intrigued with God, who had become increasingly real to me. A fluky set of circumstances is what got me to Yale, although, in retrospect I see the golden thread linking the days of my life to the present moment.
But one’s vocation is only one facet of the conundrum of living into a meaningful life. Perhaps you saw the recent film All the Money in the World which chronicles the time in 1973 when J. Paul Getty’s grandson was kidnapped. Getty was then the world’s richest man and the film tells a harrowing tale of a capitalist attitude run amok. Christopher Plummer was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of this awful man who nevertheless had a knack for accumulating wealth.
This knack did not serve his offspring, however. And in fact, begs the question of what else actually matters for a life well-lived. Getty was enamored of accumulating stuff and things. He said he loved his children and grandchildren, but as I will discuss next week, love is as love does.
Still, even in that thoroughly dysfunctional family, there was an implicit understanding that love was supposed to have a central role in human flourishing. Love was an aspect of their conceptual framework. Their inability to execute actual love drives of the story forward.
Of course, love is part of the conceptual framework for most everyone and lies at the heart of all the enduring religious traditions. That’s where we most regularly learn about it. So, while we’re growing up and making our way out into the world, figuring out our vocations and life patterns, we’re also figuring out how love fits in. With various degrees of intention, all of us try to work out what it is.
I can tell you that many, if not most of the problems people come to talk with me about involve an issue with love, even if that word never enters the conversation. And while I believe love is woven into every part of creation—indeed, it’s the very engine of creation—we’re nevertheless victims of defective role-modeling.
We humans have been so fashioned that it seems love must be chosen by us—it’s an option in our human freedom. God’s love for us is not optional, but for us it is an option in every moment of every day. And very often we simply don’t choose it.
Same was true for our parents to greater or lesser degrees, and their parents before them and so on drifting back into the misty past until we find ourselves in that lovely garden called Eden when Eve invites Adam to take a bite of the apple—and look what happened to the brothers Cain and Able!
That’s the story lore that our tradition teaches. It’s hung around in our collective memory as long as it has because it resonates with human experience. It reveals something authentic about us. In this way the story is archetypal: it describes a general condition. We are fickle and idolatrous, narcissistic and petty, often disregarding the voices of the better angels of our nature.
And so, love can seem terribly elusive, if simultaneously really important.
We heard the writer of First John say it explicitly: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only son into the world so that we might live through him… since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another…”
In here we say that statement describes the heart of our faith. If we seek to learn how to love, we have only to look to God’s son, Jesus Christ, as our model. And his way of love followed this pattern: birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection. At each step along the way he chose the loving alternative, and this was both glorious and fraught with anguish.
We have an instinct about the anguish that is tied to love. You know this from experience—that if you love something, someone, you set yourself up for hurt. We see that writ large in the life and times of Jesus who loved so very well.
In this way we say that genuine love comes only through our vulnerability. If we extend ourselves to someone in love we run the risk of rejection, or misunderstanding, or the lack of what we deem “appropriate reciprocation.” We run the risk of needing to give something up that we have otherwise decided is really important to us. A word like sacrifice takes on meaning in real time.
In his discussion of love C.S. Lewis wrote, “There is no safe investment [here]. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one... Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.
“But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable… The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell.” (The Four Loves)
So back to my time in divinity school: after I woke up to the necessity of ordination, I took an intensive summer course in New Testament Greek. One of the exams involved translating the First Letter of John, from which we read today. At one point I recall parsing out, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…” and very tired of the project at this point, I felt like writing, yada, yada, yada. But then this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”
And for whatever reason, it felt like I was hit by a 2x4. Though I wasn’t reading for content at the time, it struck me hard: the opposite of love was not hate, but fear. Fear was the great enemy. And love the great antidote. I had never really heard that before though I had read the passage many times. And so, at the age of 22 I internalized the lesson that if I were ever going to learn how to love well, I would be contending with fear. And I have since learned well that fear lies behind so much bad behavior of every sort—the big flashy arrogant kind, and the quiet, passive, victimized kind—and every kind of bad behavior in between.
I started the practice of paying attention to my fears…to name them, bring them to consciousness…to recognize and own them. This is a difficult, sometimes excruciating, even humiliating discipline…but little by little I discovered that if I did that I was often able to move through my fear. I learned that I could love better. Not perfectly mind you, but better. And then I learned bit by bit that the more I attempted to genuinely love, the less I feared.
And I began to see how our social ills are fashioned and driven by fear: racism, sexism, and all the tribalisms that keep us on lockdown among our own kind… so much fear and resulting defensiveness, aggression and violence. It made so much sense. It opened my heart and mind to what happened to Jesus and why his triumph was so profoundly liberating.
Here was another kind of archetypal story: a man walked into his life and through his fear with the creative power of love and he triumphed over death itself. That was a story I could give my life to because it wasn’t just a story, it described reality, my reality…I felt it in every fiber of my being.
Friends, that’s the sort of love we talk about in here—the gluing agent of life itself, the core, the heart of the matter, the essence of life’s meaning and purpose, the true antidote to fear that agitates so many of our problems.
I come here because I need you to help me learn how to love. We do that for each other. At its best, this place, this congregation is a school for love. And I, for one, am very, very grateful for that…
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…