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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Jeremiah 17:5-10; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26Read MoreLess
Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
According to the Pew Forum, 49% of the U.S. public claims to have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.” This statistic surprised me even though in the quiet of my office I often hear about such things. Still, half of those polled said they had experienced a sudden religious insight or awakening which struck me as a lot of spiritual activity out and about in our land.
I’m tempted to test this out. In fact, let me test it out this morning. Take a moment to gather your wits and your courage. In a minute I’m going to ask you to raise your hand if you’ve ever had a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening. I’m thinking this may take a bit of courage for some of you. After all, one of the advantages of a private poll is its privacy; for some reason many are embarrassed to reveal anything about their spiritual life. But I won’t be asking about the details of your experience— whether it came in the form of a dream or a vision or a startling intuition or a profound and transforming sense of awe and wonder, perhaps a life-changing encounter through music or art, or anything else—just whether or not you’ve ever had one of this dramatic experiences by your own definition.
To prime the pump, I’ll tell you now that I’ll be raising my hand. You might think that doesn’t count. But if the poll holds true and you reveal the truth about your experience, we could expect at least half the congregation will lift a hand. And further speculating here, since we’re gathered within in a church glistening with sparkling mosaics, we might predict that more than 50% of hands would go up, unless the embarrassment factor kicks in.
So, are you ready? Worked up your courage? If you’ve ever had a moment of sudden religious insight or awakening will you please raise your hand… If it helps, don’t look around the room to see who’s checking you out… Well, there you have it. Yes, indeed, the Spirit of God has been loosed upon the world!
I’m certain that if we unpacked everyone’s experience, we’d have a very large and interesting array of stories. I know that’s the case given the sampling I’ve heard in my office and over lunch. Spiritual experience has made quite a comeback from out of the wreckage of modernism and militant secularism. Contrary to the patterns of the last half of the 20th century, we now seem to be moving into a time of much greater acceptance of matters of transcendent, spiritual concern, even if there’s less certainty around traditional religious forms and hierarchies. Poll after poll are accumulating the evidence for this.
Potentially this situates a place like Christ Church quite strategically in our cultural moment, in such a fantastic, multicultural, world-class city like New York. And I think we have an opportunity to recover the dynamism of our ancient scriptures that had suffered some calcification through a deadly combination of two-dimensional churchy, sentimentalized and manipulative patterns of interpretation.
For instance, in today’s readings we have three references to profound, life-changing spiritual events in the lives of three different people spanning 7 or 8 hundred years. Isaiah is thunderstruck by glory while worshipping in the temple. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” he hears; “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Paul references how he encountered the living God, even he, the least of the apostles, even unfit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church, but his holy encounter turned him inside out. And Peter, the professional fisherman who, in today’s story had fruitlessly put out hard effort for many hours—as he said, “Master we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”—Peter wound up falling to his knees in stupefaction after his meeting Jesus on the shore who had told him to cast his nets into the deep water.
Each of these short vignettes tell of life-changing spiritual encounter. Though the language and cultural contexts span nearly a millennium, they each speak to authentic human experience of the mystery that lies beyond our material senses. As those of you who raised your hands earlier know, these experiences are hard to capture in words. They touch the most important matters, like how we ought to organize and understand our lives.
For instance, it’s in a place like this where we learn that no material accomplishment is a guarantee of a fulfilled life; but also, and importantly, that no material failure can prevent a fulfilled life. The spiritual giants have always taught that the emptiness we sense at our core can only be filled by launching out into the deep, letting down our nets, casting our fate into the depths of God.
This leap into faith is our deepest, most natural and passionate response to our being born and having to die. This is the primary religious movement and lies at the heart of all authentic worship. Really, this is our most fundamental task—launching out into the deep, taking the plunge, as it were, with God.
Everyday language falters here. That’s why we engage in ritual activity, why we use art and beauty to help make the translations between the heart, the mind and the soul, why our forebears invested so much in this space and why we value excellent, inspiring music, why we teach this language to our children. We need multiple languages to speak to this deep human need. Even if you didn’t raise your hand earlier, I bet you’ve sensed the yawning maw of the Great Mystery. Maybe you didn’t know quite what to call it, but here you are addressing yourselves to God. And I wonder if we actually expect holy encounter.
This being Black History Month, I was reminded of a story Martin Luther King, Jr. told about his own leap into the deep. You’ll recall he was thrust into civil rights leadership in Montgomery, Alabama after Rosa Parks had made her decision not to move to the back of the bus. The community formed a new organization to lead a bus boycott and chose as a compromise candidate the new minister in town, King, who was then just 26 years old. All you millennials take note—not to mention all you Xers and Boomers….
As soon as King’s leadership was announced the threat from the Ku Klux Klan and the harassment of the police began. He was arrested for going 30 MPH in a 25 MPH zone and thrown in jail. Afterwards, late at night he wondered if he should resign. The phone rang, employing the notorious “N” word the voice said, “We’re tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in 3 days we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.”
King tells of sitting staring at an untouched cup of coffee trying to think of a way out. In the next room lay his sleeping wife along with their newborn daughter. Here’s how he remembers it: “And I sat at the table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute. And I started thinking about the dedicated devoted wife, who was over there asleep…And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak…
“And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing courage.
“’And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. Never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.’”
Religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself… That was the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. launched out into the deep. Perhaps in a manner like Peter at the lakeshore, he had toiled all day and had caught nothing. He heard God’s voice say, “Try it again, only this time, go way out to the deep water. Let down your net there.”
To know God for oneself is to launch out into the deep. We’re all invited there and there’s no special time to receive the invitation. Peter and his friends heard this while engaged in their mundane work. Martin King’s story is dramatic in its context, but the fundamental issue is the same. Millennia before, Isaiah heard God’s voice causing him to proclaim, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” God cleansed and held him still and sent him out as a powerful witness for righteousness and truth.
Religion had to become real to me…I had to know God for myself. I have toiled the whole night and taken nothing. And Jesus says, “Put out into the deep water, let down your nets there. And the seraphs called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory….”
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
It wasn’t very clear in our Gospel reading today, but Jesus is back in his hometown of Nazareth, starting out his mission and he’s been invited to speak at the local synagogue. He starts out very well according to Luke; he lived up to their hometown expectations; he won the favor of the gathered. Way to go, Jesus, you’ve got them eating out of the palm of your hand. The ratings and collection will be way up today.
But then something goes terribly wrong. Jesus takes their good will and turns it against them and at the end of his message as you heard, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill so that they might hurl him of the cliff.” He must have said something that really ticked them off—with his hometown crowd no less.
Last week we considered this same story and I mentioned that I have a hard time imagining that scenario today on the corner of Park and 60th . From time to time I have upset some folks by things I’ve said over the last 32 years. Although never has everyone gotten up en masse and stormed out.
By and large I’m wanting to help build up a loving community a la Paul’s magnificent hymn read for us earlier—that famous poem to love—the more excellent way. Love is patient and kind; never arrogant or rude, irritable or resentful. We sentimentalize and romanticize these words to a fare-thee-well, but their beauty and power are never diminished by time or place. For most thoughtful people, love does indeed seem to be the heart of the matter.
But, one would think that if love were the heart of the matter, and if one were to preach about that with some regularity, the crowds would be pleased; like the initial response Jesus received, all would speak well of the preacher and appreciate the gracious words that came from his mouth.
And the interesting thing is, of course, that Jesus spent a lot of his time expounding about love—God’s love for us, our love for God, loving one another and so on. He put some teeth into when he said that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for others, and then went off to Golgotha to do just that.
But then, at his first hometown preaching gig, what went wrong? Why did everyone get so exercised over this man whose message about love would lead him into a gruesome state execution? What was it exactly?
And here the story does get interesting, because although the details are a bit sketchy, what we do have of what he says next suggests that the crowd got angry precisely because of how Jesus understood the limitless bounds of love.
Now remember, the Jews of his day were living under Roman oppression. They longed for the restitution of their nation, throwing off the yoke of the oppressors. We could imagine that in living under such conditions they’re tribal identity was extremely important. In the pressure-cooker of 1st century Palestine the “us vs. them” mentality was brewed piping hot. Though the details differ, we see a similar sort of brew in the same land today, 2000 years later.
Jesus strolls into the Nazareth synagogue, a local boy made good, even a potential leader, and the crowds are impressed by his eloquent exposition of the Jewish scriptures. But then, he does something they can’t stomach. By citing at least two examples he explains that God’s loving care is not limited by Jewish blood—it extends even to their potential enemies—to gentiles and potentates, people they might have despised. Later we’ll learn from his example that prostitutes and Samaritans and centurions and every sort of person is meant to be accorded the dignity that love prescribes. Everyone.
In effect, he told them God’s revolution was not a national call to arms, but a spiritual call to love. He referenced how in more ancient days, God came to the rescue of non-Jews even in the face of great Jewish affliction. And then the crowd moved against him.
So here’s the irony—the crowd couldn’t stomach the size of God’s love as Jesus expressed it. Surely God was theirs alone, prescribed by their boundaries. They knew who belonged to them and who didn’t. Jesus challenged this thinking by using examples from their own sacred writings. And this enraged them, because they already knew what the sacred writings meant.
We don’t have to look very far to feel resonance with these sorts of themes of who belongs and who doesn’t. As I alerted readers of my Faith Matters blog this week, the bishops of the United Methodist Church have called for a special meeting of the General Conference on February 23rd, which is our top policy-making body. This meeting will address the single purpose of evaluating the way forward for our denomination given the UMC’s current restrictive policies around human sexuality. There’s frank talk about schism and the national media will be all over it. It’s important you are informed; over the months ahead we will likely have decisions to make as a congregation.
Over the last months, we’ve held several conversations concerning this development, which has arisen due to a sharp division across the denomination. Many clergy and congregations (including me and Christ Church collectively) are on record as opposing the existing language in our Discipline proscribing same-sex marriage and the ordination of so-called, “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
Unfortunately these issues are often discussed and debated in a disembodied manner, depersonalized, often excluding from conversation the very persons being discussed. It’s natural to exclude the dreaded other, the ones under consideration. Just ask democrats about Trump lovers, or Trump lovers about Hillary, and you catch a sense of the tribalism involved here.
Turns out that Christ Church members have a tragic relationship with the matters under consideration. The vestry on the second floor at Christ Church is reached by walking through a dark mosaic-embossed passageway overlooking the splendid Byzantine/Romanesque chapel and sanctuary beyond. It’s quite dramatic. The room is comfortably furnished as a meeting space and also holds clerical vestments, so it has been my launching pad every Sunday for the past 32 years.
Above the fireplace mantel, a fancy plaque reports the room was appointed and dedicated in memory of the son of founding pastor, Ralph Sockman, who died at the age of 21 in 1940. Sockman was a famous and highly respected elder of our church in his day, having served as NBC Radio’s featured preacher for more than 30 years. He was the charismatic personality responsible for assembling the people and resources to build Methodism’s cathedral on Park Avenue in New York City.
I didn’t give much thought to the dedication until about 10 years ago when an old friend asked me if I knew the story of William Sockman’s death. She was the aged matriarch of a family that had owned and operated an upstate resort for multiple generations. For more than thirty years my family spent the month of August there since I was “minister-in-residence” (like a chaplain)—it’s been a wonderful respite for us.
Now by coincidence Sockman’s family also spent the month of August at the same resort 80 years ago. Like us, he needed a summer escape from the city for his son and daughter.
My friend told of a terrible tragedy, something unexpected and startling. It seems young Sockman fell in love with one of the men of the matriarch’s extended family. Given religious and cultural conditions of the time—and young William being the son of one of the most famous preachers in the nation—they saw no discernable path forward for their love, and so they created a suicide pact. William leapt to his death from the 9th floor of the Sockman Park Avenue apartment. His paramour ended his life by inhaling the gas from his kitchen oven.
It was hard to hear and absorb this story as she told it. Frankly, it’s still hard. And I’m left with the knowledge that the tragedy is baked in to the actual church building here. Each Sunday I now notice the dedication above the mantel in the vestry as a perpetual memorial to our human failure to love as expansively, as courageously, as Jesus did. In this way it helps me stay focused on what matters most and recommitted to the Christ Church mission to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.
And there’s one more coincidence here: my son, Luke, is gay, too. He’s a beautiful expression of God’s grace and possesses great spiritual depth. It wasn’t long after I learned about the tragedy that he quietly told me how difficult it was to know that the denomination he had grown up in did not really want him. At the time he was second year in seminary, discerning his future.
Unlike how a former generation performed, Luke has been surrounded by love and acceptance by his family and this local church community. But some years have passed and he’s now on the vestry of a church of another denomination that understands the gifts he holds for them, currently discerning his future.
What a terrible waste the church creates in its self-righteous obstinacy!
Christ Church has long been a reconciling congregation. We started that process years before I learned about the Sockman tragedy, but that now serves as a prod to get on with the program for restoring redemptive and compassionate regard for all those the wider church and culture have historically excluded, creating the conditions for despair and hopelessness among those deemed irredeemably different.
So, after the manner of Jesus, I try to preach the gospel of love. I try to make that my message, as best as I can understand it, preached and embodied by Christ, our namesake here. We’re Christ Church, after all. And I am aware that the size of this love can terrify and enrage; that God’s love can be destabilizing of current conditions and beliefs.
It’s bigger than we are. Thank God. If it were not bigger than we are, we’d really be in trouble. This astonishing love is what inspired Paul to write his beautiful hymn. He sent it out to a Corinthian church deeply mired in conflict. He called it, “the more excellent way”. And so it is. But it’s costly, demanding, and the only thing truly worth a life’s desire.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Public worship in New York City can be a rather frothy experience. I mean, true to our ideals, everyone is welcome to come, which means that people come as they are, regardless of any material condition or mental state. And as you know, the city is a wondrous cauldron of every material condition and mental state.
Some years ago now I had a focused, first-hand experience of this reality during a service not unlike this one. At one point I had stepped down for a baptism and after it was over, and I was returning to my place, a young man who was sitting several rows back from the pulpit got out of his seat and followed me up here. Looking into his face I could tell this was likely going to be a challenging encounter—he had a determined and somewhat crazed look in his eyes as he leaned into me and said directly, “May I address the congregation…I have a word from the Lord.”
So, this was a kind of dramatic moment. I didn’t really have time to think, although I’ve known from experience that if a person is not bent on violence, a firm direct response was best. So without thinking really I leaned in to him and said quite forcefully. “No! There will be no word from the Lord! Please take your seat.”
This confused and flustered him, but with the directness of my response he turned around, went back to his seat and sat down.
Now truth be told, I lied of course. Because in just a few minutes forward we heard scripture read and we recited the versicle we say at every service, “The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” It goes by quickly. Those who’ve been around for a while say it by rote and, I suspect, without too much thought. But as for that, it nevertheless places a sort of exclamation point on the value of the words we use and hear in worship.
I wonder, though, if most pew sitters really expect the Lord to actually speak on any given Sunday, let alone Monday through Saturday. Now, we have a sophisticated understanding about this. There’s a long protestant tradition that what I’m doing up here is one variation on sharing the word. The minister is supposed to have done his or her homework well enough, prayed long enough, and practiced hard enough, so that some glimmer of insight, some leakage of the Spirit, might spark a holy inspiration. I know those of you who have been around church for some years have had experience with preaching that was dry as dust—as I have.
But, you know, the interesting thing about this is that sometimes, not always mind you, but sometimes, even during a pitiful sermon, something might be heard or experienced that prompts a glimmering insight, something unexpected, something that except for God’s graceful speaking despite faulty human vessels, nothing would have been seen, heard or received. That’s both a humbling and hopeful truth for all who would preach.
That doesn’t let any of us off the hook for doing our own homework, saying our own prayers and practicing a disciple’s life. We all know those disciplines are useful in most life arenas. But you also know that were you to hear the “word of the Lord” on a day like today, that would be of a different order of magnitude altogether than the word from, say, Steve. Of course, the word could surprise in the voice of an anonymous person overheard from the pew behind you, too. Or perhaps mediated through music, or by startling silence, or by a visual clue, say in the mosaics as your mind wandered off in a boring moment.
When you come on a Sunday morning, do you want to hear God’s voice? Are you after that do you think? My guess is that the honest answer would be an equivocal, “well, maybe yes, maybe no.” Yes, if it conforms to the limits of our expectation—if we hear what we want to hear. But no, if it announces a truth that’s significantly larger or tougher than we want to hear, or bear. Especially if its contrary to our current opinion.
As Jesus began his ministry, he stepped into the pulpit of his hometown synagogue and read the word of the Lord. In this case, it was a word from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Then he gave the shortest sermon on record. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now that would have been an in-your-face sort of word. He had their attention. And you’ll note that this wasn’t some esoteric sort of word, some abstraction. When God speaks, it has a way of being more real, more immediate than anything else we’re currently experiencing. Jesus’ word was electrifying. We didn’t finish the story today, but rather quickly the crowd became so agitated by what he said they wanted to throw him off a cliff. That’s in verse 29. Evidently, they didn’t like that particular word from the Lord.
So, by comparison, you might imagine my saying something so disruptive that y’all would rise up and throw me out into busy Park Avenue. Hard to picture that I guess. More likely someone would give my bishop a call and ask for a change.
Will Willimon tells this story: In the Nazi-attempted decimation of World War II, when they took over Prague, they rounded up the Jews. In one of the synagogues, before they torched it, they found an old rabbi sitting in his study, working on his sermon for the next Sabbath. To utterly humiliate the old man, they forced him to strip naked. They had him stand up in his pulpit naked, clad only in his rabbi’s hat.
“Say something in Hebrew for us,” they taunted. “Yes, preach to us, preach what you were going to say next service. Preach.”
The old rabbi stood there. Then he began to speak in a Hebrew none of the Nazi tormentors could understand. He spoke the words that had time and again constituted Israel.
“In the beginning God created the world. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And it was good.’”
Willimon says that power shifted from the cruel men to the old rabbi in that moment. In speaking the word, the rabbi was assaulting, dismantling all that the Nazis believed and he was reclaiming the future for God.
I agree with him. I think the word was spoken to that odd congregation. The rabbi’s homework, prayer and practice hit pay dirt that day. I’m guessing he was also thrown off the cliff.
God’s word is always larger than our word. How could it be otherwise? As a result, we’re caught in this paradox of human limitation straining for the voice that is larger than we often can bear. And yet, we recognize that but for this voice that brought forth all of creation we would not live and move and have our being. When the time was right God whispered our names and we came into being. Is it any wonder that we would have a predilection to spend the rest of our lives straining to hear that same voice?
Here’s what I think: Our worship, and the importance of our worship, is all about our listening for the word of God. We say it’s about other things, of course. Good things. Useful and hopeful things, things like values and community and so on. And so it is.
But the truly radical dimension of what we do, the audacious and to some people outside these walls, the absurd thing we do, is listen for the Word, capital “W”. Without that, we might just as well be any other sort of community organization. We have the audacity to say that God speaks and that we ought to be listening.
And we’re honest enough to say that this speaking is both wonderful and terrible. Wonderful because we recognize in that voice the timbre of life and love that wraps us in hope and peace. Terrible because it calls us to shed everything that constricts God’s intention which is often so very, very difficult for us, so committed we have become to habits and patterns of thought that are no longer useful or helpful, if they ever were. Jesus hints at this by saying he came for the poor, the blind, the captives and the oppressed. Do we identify with this cause in our world?
We know that the Romans attempted to silence this word 2000 years ago. They tried to kill it, throwing it over the cliff as it were, which paradoxically had the effect of amplification so that this word is now heard the world over.
In countless communities today, in hundreds of languages, scripture is read; millions of persons recount the wonderment of a God of life who is never defeated by death, who spoke and their lungs inflated with breath, who even now continues to speak that they might have life and have it abundantly and share in the unfolding miracle of God’s glorious project.
Luke 6:27-38Read MoreLess
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I’ve been leading an Old Testament survey course on Thursday nights and this past week our reading included portions of the old Mosaic law, starting with the Ten Commandments, but then also many of the other laws pertaining to social organization, food, sex and so forth. It had been a while since I had read through these chapters, but I was once again struck in particular about the number of provisions pertaining to slave ownership.
Most Christians are unfamiliar with these so-called laws because we’ve left slavery behind in history’s dustbin, or so we think. But actually, the Bible is at best somewhat ambivalent on the matter of slavery, and indeed, the tradition tells us that Moses stipulated a number of laws for ordered slaveholding.
Thousands of years later, slave-holding Christians relied upon these sorts of texts as proof that slavery was not antithetical to Christianity, along with its incipient racism. Fortunately, biblical themes pertaining to Jesus’ remarkable inclusion of every outcast and outsider within God’s kingdom of grace ultimately triumphed, as did his summary of the law which serves as our mission statement here at Christ Church: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus explains, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The legacy of the aberrant theology stills lingers in our culture in the form of racist systemic structures and attitudes, and in phrases like “white nationalism.” Remember that it wasn’t so long ago that the Ku Klux Klan rampaged through our land with their burning crosses, counting millions of members. Most would have been members of local Christian congregations.
I share this as simple reminder that religious traditions of every stripe have their haunting skeletons. Our tradition no less so. And by the way, this also includes non-theistic movements relying on rationalistic formulations a la Nazism and Stalinism to name just a few famous ones. Human contradictions exist wherever humans happen to live and have their being, regardless of their official religion.
Now you’ve heard me say more than once that I believe everyone has a religion, that is, everyone has a first principle, or god, defining how the world and cosmos are organized, and the meaning of human experience. Everyone operates from a “point of view” about their existence whether or not they do this consciously, and this point of view predicts their patterns of behavior.
Atheists identify as non-religious, but some speak with as much arrogant “truth-telling” as any bible-thumping fundamentalist, advancing their own brand of ultimate truth. I don’t believe humans have any chance of escaping this predisposition for what I’m referring to as “religious” belief—it seems a genetically embedded aspect of our nature. We’re hard-wired for it. This belief might be theistic, or anti-theistic, or something in-between, but the competition for our transcendent allegiance is fierce out beyond these walls.
The 250 Americans who went abroad to join the ranks of ISIS made a conscious choice about which sort of god, which organizing principle, they would follow. For most of them their allegiance was drawn out of the internet. But we should be clear that all the rest of us make choices about whom we will follow as well, whether we’re conscious of this or not.
In this moment there’s no question that traditional religions are facing a very strong headwind in American culture. What could be less hip than identifying as Methodist in 2019 New York City? This may be less apparent today in, say, Savannah, Georgia, but the spigot is locked on open for the draining of traditional religious identity from American culture.
Still, this does not mean the American population’s predisposition for belief disappears; instead, it goes incognito. Everyone still awakens each morning subscribed to a set of organizing criteria that patterns their ethics, relationships, and values. Everyone has this predisposition for belief of some sort or another.
This is important to keep in mind as those of us who consciously and deliberately follow after the way of Jesus face those strongly opposing headwinds in our culture. Those strong headwinds prevent you from speaking of your Christian identity very much, if ever, on the job, at the bar or social scene, or among your larger group of friends.
Still, no one can escape the matter of choosing which gods they will follow. Pressure builds to choose the popular, trending point of view. Truth claims fiercely compete for our allegiance. And as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, there is both very good and very bad religion, and many gradations in between. Indeed, how we define “the good” is dependent upon our transcending Point of View. Jesus has been my mentor in this. My point of view. I think of him as mentor with a capital “M”. As scripture puts it, “the way, the truth and the life.”
Which brings me to this particular day in this sanctuary. We read about Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan which became a marker for those who found his teaching especially resonant with their own best instincts. Baptism became a way to formally and personally identify with him and his program, and a way to join with others who also found astonishing, life-changing hope in the God Jesus revealed.
Over time, once Christianity became the official religion of the western world, baptism became more of a cultural marker than a spiritual one, blending with other cultural markers and functioning like a tribal tattoo. Over many decades and centuries debilitating accretions obscured Jesus’ way in the world. For instance, it doesn’t take a learned scholar to tell us he would never have owned a slave. He modeled a way for us to understand God’s liberating movement.
The debilitating accretions are like barnacles that attach to the hull of a ship if it stops moving forward, rotting away in the water. The church has been like this from time to time. Periodically some prophets rediscover the authentic core of our tradition, the thread connecting with Jesus, shake off the rotting accretions and once again set off in a life-transforming direction.
We read about that thread in our scriptures. In a sense, that’s what the scriptures are for, to keep us as close as possible to the struggle for understanding the essence of what it means to be human in the best sense of the word, especially as this revolves around the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Millions and millions and millions of people have found the deepest spiritual connection with his witness and the God he experienced and shared.
That’s true for me. Granted, I grew up in a Christian household and was baptized as an infant. I don’t remember that, of course. But my life could have turned out quite differently even so, like it has for so many other people who had the tribal watermark and have now drifted away. I don’t understand this really, but at a rather early age, I was very keenly aware of a sacred presence in my life. Not a person exactly, but a pervading loving presence of which I felt a part, something or someone that had only my best interests at heart.
By the time I drifted off to college I announced I was an agnostic, since that seemed the smart and hip posture to adopt, but the truth is I couldn’t shake this pervading presence. Eventually I realized this presence was among my most important certainties. I couldn’t have been talked into denying it; that would have been akin to my saying my name wasn’t Stephen Bauman.
I discovered that some of the religious language I had learned growing up provided a means to greater understanding. I was attracted to Jesus the man, that is, his humanity, which seemed so clear in the gospel stories. I recognized early on that the essence of his message—loving God above everything else and loving my neighbor as myself—was devilishly difficult and easily ignored in favor of self-serving, narcissistic ends.
The love Jesus lived and taught is the most compelling and simultaneously most demanding discipline there is for those who want to grow into the heights of their humanity. And again, seeking to grow into those heights is a choice.
Coming ‘round every year at this time in our worship cycle we remember this choice in the mark of our baptism. That’s what we’re doing today. I suppose that to the uninitiated this might seem like so much mumbo jumbo. But for those with a heart for loving God and neighbor this is nothing less than a reaffirmation of the things that matter most of all, binding us together in a common cause facing very strong headwinds.
Whether you have been baptized or not, when in a short while you feel a drop of water consider that in that moment a voice is heard: “You are my Son, my Daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Let that settle in on your consciousness. And consider the choices that realization sets before you…
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Josh told me he grew up in a nominally Christian household. Though his father was a non-practicing Jew his mother identified herself as Presbyterian and attended the nearby church once in a while where she had Josh baptized as an infant. He went with her sometimes and attended the youth group when they took work-trips to Appalachia in the summertime. Now in his late-twenties and working the Wall Street beat, Josh described himself as increasingly “spiritual”, but he wasn’t sure what that had to do with religion per se.
Still, he couldn’t ignore the undeniable tug he felt when he had stepped into church here one Sunday sort of by accident—he had been walking by as folks were gathering. Uncertain of what to make of this inner awakening, one day between trades he decided on the spur of the moment to shoot me an email asking for an appointment. When we met, among the things he wanted to talk about was “this whole Jesus thing.” “Jesus seemed to have it going on,” he said. But he just couldn’t put it all together. Eventually he joined up until he transferred out of the city.
Meredith is a 60-something professional woman. Married once and divorced, no children. Reasonably successful, affable, and thoughtfully alert. She told me she had grown up a “rock-ribbed Baptist”—that’s the way she put it. Religion was big in her family’s household…as was racism and sexism and a whole amalgam of stuff that had been smashed up together. Much of what her father practiced was given the patina of scriptural righteousness, so his semi-abusive treatment of her mother was peppered with quotes from the Bible about how the man was head of the household and stuff like that.
On the one hand, she had always felt God-connected when she had been in worship. On the other hand, when she went to college, she couldn’t wait to throw off the claustrophobic trappings of her family’s neurotic religion. She still prayed. She wondered if I would be surprised to learn that she had studied Tai Chi for a decade or so and had immersed herself in several spiritual traditions over the years, one or two she felt sure I would not approve of. Still, to some extent, these had sort of scratched that religious itch that had never left her alone.
But the day she came to church at the suggestion of a friend, she had been unprepared for the tears that welled up starting with the first hymn. They just started to flow and they didn’t stop until after lunch. There was sadness in them she realized, but also gladness and hope and maybe most of all, relief. She didn’t quite get that, but thought it had something to do with finding home. That night she said she went to her apartment and before she fell asleep spontaneously went to her knees and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. She had never done that before, she said. It had never occurred to her before. But it seemed the right thing at the time. Now, she wanted to make some sense of all this.
I’m guessing you’d agree with me that we live in a time of great spiritual agitation; our culture is rife with spiritual seekers of every sort who attempt to make their way to the most fulfilling destination they can, as they respond to a deep interior longing. Notwithstanding all the current political chatter about the contours of evangelical America, many dabble in myriad spiritual approaches, including ancient esoteric traditions like astrology and psychic phenomenon, as well as amalgams of eastern practices and western science. Every variety of religious expression is as available today as a click of a mouse or meeting one’s next-door neighbor. I suppose this is especially true within the astonishing diversity of New York City.
Over the years, the church has often condemned these alternative spiritual means and their practitioners, yet it occurred to me as I re-read the famous story of the wise men’s trek to Bethlehem that Matthew takes a different measure of the integrity of their purpose. From Matthew’s point of view the three magi were authentic spiritual seekers. Even though their methodology was star-gazing, they discovered a remarkable truth that transcended their immediate context and led them into alien territory. In a surprising location far from home they found what they had been searching for in the birth of a child to a young peasant woman in a foreign land.
Even Jewish scholars were summoned to confirm the potential in the magi’s quest. From Matthew’s perspective, these foreign exotics have better instincts about the nature of this child than most inhabitants of Jerusalem. At the end of their journey, of course, these so-called wise men from the east discover a truth that transcends all reasonable expectation—their seeking is honored and rewarded.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew reports a mature Jesus saying this: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). Jesus was addressing a crowded hillside of people, no doubt representing every sort of background. He had no litmus test for their seeking and, after all, Jesus himself was eventually excluded from the accredited list of rabbis and teachers of his day, ultimately led to the cross as a condemned outsider. Those who followed him broke with established religious norms. The seeking that he advocated was a radical departure from status quo thinking.
This suggests an important corollary for today: any seeker, either by chance or authentic pursuit, can lurch into the stable holding the Christ child. I’m thinking that includes any number of persons present today. Certainly, the church would not exist but for the simple faith and subsequent determination of seekers who stumbled into the hay surrounding Jesus’ birthing trough. On any given Sunday the congregation likely includes a number of persons who could be classified as seekers rather than, say, the fully committed, or the truly knowledgeable.
And yet, the truth is, that among the various amateur spiritualists who attend may be some who are better able to kneel at the manger than those who have gawked there for a lifetime. Not every committed Christian-in-name has a taste for actually kneeling in the dust and muck of a barn in a backwater town in astonished recognition that this is where God prefers to make an entrance, rather than more acceptable and presentable venues for the high and the mighty, or those esteemed as especially righteous.
The musty sentimentality with which this story has been swathed for cradle Christians obscures the radical implications in God’s condescension to humanity. Everyone has been invited to God’s natal party, even those who have been traveling radically different paths on their search for their true home. And those who have visited the manger many times as a matter of rote habit can sometimes miss the promise held in honest seeking; surely even the most well-schooled Christian needs regular reminding that no one is above another, that no one has a corner on the complete truth and that even the baptized travel a path with many distractions, some leading to disastrous ends with pious-sounding names.
Given the ingrained repetition of this story for many church-goers, it’s worth remembering that this child-savior will grow into a man who will say things like, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” (Matt. 20:16) and, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.” (20:26-27)
God’s compelling hospitality constantly regenerates the family of faith. The insight that prompted St. Augustine’s famous claim that, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee…O Lord,” exudes a passionate spiritual modesty that reflects the universal human quest for reunion with our creator, the author of our lives and the lover of our souls. In this, I think, we are all alike.
This is the longing I sense in the famous story of the magi. This authentic search for truth and reunion with God challenges the assumptions of the first and satisfies the thirst of the last. Churches that characterize such hospitality reflect the radiance of the Christ child and serve as a beacon for all who are restless for their true home. In this way the star of Bethlehem is replicated a thousand-fold over those churches, or shall we say, mangers, scattered here and there in cities and towns near and far away.
Everyone who happens to be worshipping today has their own idiosyncratic story to tell concerning their pathway to the manger. Some may have no idea who lies there. Others, perhaps, have mistaken ideas about the swaddled child. Nevertheless, all are present due to the prompting of God who welcomes our asking, our seeking and especially, our finding. The magi’s journey to Bethlehem exposes God’s intention to welcome everyone home. Even you and me.
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12Read MoreLess
Like many Christian households at this time of year, decorating the Christmas tree was an important time for the Baumans over the decades. It’s a rather odd activity, really. Here in the middle of the most densely populated urban environment in the United States, thousands of truckloads of cut evergreens are hauled into the city, cramming narrow sidewalks, before cramping limited apartment space and upon which all manner of peculiar things are hung.
We’ve mostly lost track of why this is done or what religious meanings can be attached to this annual routine. If I were to ask you why you decorate a tree at this time of year, what sort of answer would you come up with? And would there be any mention of spiritual associations?
The roots of the practice are anchored in pagan sources, eventually adopted by German Christians as emblematic of the promise of life in the midst of winter— the evergreen theme. Jesus, the eternal Life, capital “L,” became the Christian idea overlaid on the pagan rituals. It was Queen Victoria who first brought a tree into the royal palace for her children, festooning it with presents hanging from the limbs. That was the historic marker when ancient rituals concerning gifts, trees and Christmas smashed together forever capturing the economic engine of western capitalism.
None of this was on anyone’s mind when the tree in Rockefeller Center lit up. We’re all aware of how the decorated tree has culturally retreated back to its pagan origins as a holiday tree, marking the winter solstice and the ending of the year. But regardless, it’s now an ingrained habit everywhere.
I know from several rabbi friends that something called the Hanukkah Bush has invaded the households of many Jews who have no special devotion to the baby Jesus. My wife, Melissa, says the tradition in her non-religious childhood family involved decorating an artificial lemon tree—a trippy Southern California variation.
Still, most of us Christians have deep attachments to this practice. I made record of one particular Christmas more than twenty years ago now. My then fourteen-year-old daughter told me that when she arose in the morning and came home in the afternoon, she couldn’t wait to see the tree. The tree made her feel good, she said. I realized that it had come to symbolize an aspect of deep human need… something about place, belonging, connectedness, identity and so on.
The ritual of decorating the tree during those years made me aware of this. Typically I unpacked the motley assortment of ornaments and laid them all out on the dining room table. Many were gifts we had received over the years; others, the kids had made at various stages along the way. Some had dates and names. Most of the favorites were battered and unpretentious. But each had a history and a story to tell. As we hung them, we retold the stories to one another, sometimes quarreling over whom had the honor that year to place any given treasured object.
After hanging many and talking and laughing about our history, during a momentary silent pause, my son quietly asked, “Dad, where I am going to get ornaments?” I could tell from the expression on his face and the tone of his voice that he was asking something a lot more profound than how to start a collection. He was asking about how a life was built.
I explained that we had collected our ornaments one at a time over a lot of years. And I realized that, more than just a sentimental cultural diversion, the tree had become a visible expression of our life together. It had become a ritual of “the story of us”. In the telling and re-telling of all the collected memories, we were describing who we were, what we were about, how one thing led to another, how it all fit together. We were giving names and dates to things that normally defied tangibility—things like love, meaning, relationship, and even, God. Because, expanding our awareness even just a little bit, we remember that the story of us has its origins in God, the first and the last, the alpha and omega. The one who gave us life and breath in the first place.
Being creatures of flesh and blood, we need tangible expressions for the meanings of things and our spiritual hungers. I suspect that’s why you came to church tonight. Maybe you thought it was your spouse or mother or lover. But let me give you a different take: you came to give tangible expression to your heart’s deepest yearnings pertaining to love, meaning, relationship and God. Likely you didn’t consciously think of it like that. But maybe you will as you leave. I hope so. I really hope so.
God knows well our limitations, our need for making sense of our being born and having to die—the glories as well as the failures of the time in-between. That’s why God took on frail flesh to walk among us. That’s why the wonderful stories about Jesus’ birth were collected, why his words were remembered and the details of his exploits, teachings and death recounted. That’s where our fixation on hope and love and joy and peace comes from at this time of year.
Friends, here’s what I think: We’ve gathered tonight to remember who we are. We’ve gathered to tell the story of ourselves. So we’ve dressed up the house, opened our boxes of ornaments and re-told the old stories; sung our old songs, and gathered up the extended family to share a meal. At the end we’ll light candles of remembrance, hope, and love, to mark the night as a special occasion. To say in so many words, “this is who we are.” This is the story of us. This is how we’ve come to be. This is what we value and honor with the content of our lives. These are our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers. And ah, yes, Bethlehem’s child is the source of it all.
Isn’t it good to be home again in this space? And I say that to everyone whether it’s your first visit or your hundredth. Knowing who we are and whose we are, gives us the hope and strength we’ll want in the year ahead—a year fraught with disruptive uncertainty. You feel that, don’t you?
This is why God came to dwell among us: That through the scrim of so many counterfeit distractions, we might see the real abundant life for which we were created in the first place. Oh my, there are so many competing visions of what a life is for! But here, tonight, around a humble manger we boldly and gladly find our place—our home—among those who “long for justice, seek true spiritual depth, hunger for authentic and loving relationships, and delight in beauty” (N.T. Wright).
So in joyful abandon, we’ll join our voices with the angelic host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven. And on earth peace, goodwill to all people.” Alleluia!
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55
I happened to catch an NPR program this week concerning growing national interest in No-Gift Christmas. Several journalists and many listeners chimed in on the advantages, as well as the complications, of developing non-consumerist traditions at this time of year. Some pointed out benefits to the environment, others spoke of establishing familial habits and relationships that weren’t dependent upon heightened expectations around getting more and more stuff.
All of us moan about the seasonal advertising that now begins before Thanksgiving. We’re awash with messaging 24/7 about how we’re supposed to find happiness in getting or giving lots of things, and what a necessary component this is for our national economic vitality. It’s become a seeming citizenship responsibility for us to spend into debt to keep the markets humming. That’s Christmas in America.
At one point in the radio program a call-in mother reported becoming consumed with providing for her children “a perfect Christmas.” By that she meant the whole megillah—gifts, decorations, parties, whatnot and hoo-ha. She was captured by an addictive desire to create an ideal outcome for her kids and extended family. A very tall order. Also impossible. And, honestly, from the point of view from the manger, completely missing the point—cultural and personal expectations swamping consciousness.
Here’s a little historical factoid you may not know; Christmas has not always been so in the United States. Back in the middle of the 17th Century, about the time the Wesley brothers were founding their Methodist movement in the states, the established Puritans of New England actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas.
According to one chronicler, they had come to believe that “the feast of Christmas involved a great deal of intemperate behavior. During the long winter nights, people feasted in excess, got drunk, engaged in wanton sex, rioted in the streets, and barged into the homes of the well-to-do and demanded that they be given the best of the pantry. Christmas back then looked more like a frat party gone horribly wrong... It was far from sweet and mild.
“One public notice warned its citizens: ‘The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.’
“Because of the Puritan influence…the United States Congress regularly met on Christmas Day until 1855. [Actually, given current conditions, I could support that this year.] Public schools met on Christmas Day in Boston until 1870. That would surely have put a damper on our custom for two weeks of vacation and lots of travel right about now.
We’re a long, long way from those days. Much of what we now take for granted as part of our holiday traditions came about during the Victorian era—when the Christmas we now think of nostalgically became emblematic of warm family times that everyone aspired too.
I’m guessing that mother who called in about wanting to create the perfect Christmas for her children had that nostalgia in mind… the idea of the perfect family, the perfect outcomes, the perfect gifts and so forth… you know what I’m talking about here from all those Holiday cards with the picture perfect kids and moms and dads and the Christmas letters recounting all the wonderful exploits of the past year.
It’s a variation of the Facebook and Instagram fictions people post, packaging their public personas in masquerade, hiding the more complicated aspects of their real lives. We all do this to some degree. We all seek to present well, especially at this time of year when happiness seems what everyone’s after every which way.
Now I’m no Scrooge—I like some of the nostalgic trappings of the season, and I am somewhat invested in creating festive hospitality in our home, especially for my own now-grown children and our circle of friends and our grandkids. And I want the church well-appointed with lots of candles. But I let go of perfection a long time ago…not only for my sake, but for everyone else’s sake as well.
No one would have thought a manger in a barn was the perfect setting for giving birth. The more we make it pretty and drowned in impossible expectations, the further we move from the opportunity the occasion presents. Jesus comes speedily to us in our need and emptiness rather than our fullness. The more we engorge on attempting to fulfill impossible expectations the further we move from the manger with its meagre provisions.
Our gospel lesson this morning tells a joyful but humble story about two pregnant women who delight in their condition. Young Mary and her older cousin Elizabeth celebrate the gift of life. But let’s be clear that these are women of meagre means. They have each other, which is not nothing, but they have no place or power. As far as the world is concerned, they’re nobodies from nowhere.
And as we’ve pieced their stories together, we learn that Mary and Joseph have a complicated relationship precisely because of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph turns out to be a stand-up guy and will remain her betrothed, but given their poverty they must endure the kinds of humiliations that all poor people must endure, like giving birth in a cattle shed, eventually becoming refugees as they will flee to Egypt to save their lives and the life of their son.
We know all about refugees today, don’t we? —about parents fleeing desperate circumstance for the sake of their children. We could spend some useful time considering our immigration and border issues through the lens of these Christmas stories, and learn a thing or two about holy hospitality, but for now I want to stay with Mary.
Did you catch the topsy-turvy content of her famous song? In Latin it’s called The Magnificat and has been the source for thousands of musical settings. We’ve made it beautiful over the years, but its content is revolutionary, and it comes from the mouth of a pregnant teenager who has a clear and radical understanding of her actual circumstance and the world’s power arrangements.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sings… “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”
The perfect Christmas Mary dreams up is very different from the one rampant in our culture today. Notice that God comes to Mary in her poverty, not her wealth; in her emptiness, not her fullness; in her need, not her perfection. Unfortunately, our tendency is to get this exactly backwards.
Humble is the true byword for Christmas. Humble, empty, open-hearted and open-handed. Those are the qualities, the gifts, we might bring to the manger this year. That’s my suggestion to you.
I hope to see you manger-side tomorrow night. But if you’re unable to be with us and will visit another stable somewhere else or will skip the stable altogether in favor of another sort of holiday festivity, don’t do this with over-the-top expectations. Someone is bound to let you down, not measure up or otherwise thwart your best-laid plans. When that happens, and it will because that is the fickle nature of our expectations, be very, very glad for the opportunity to remember how it went down for Mary and Joseph. The awesome gift was given to them in their humility and poverty. And so it has always been for those who would seek and find God.
Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
Here we are in the middle of our holiday season of over-indulgence and once more John the Baptist bursts on the scene to wreck the party atmosphere. Regular church-goers know that he re-appears every year about now to bring his grim tidings of no joy as precursor to the glad tidings of great joy on Christmas Eve. For those of you who are new to the Advent tradition, it’s a bit like taking our bitter medicine today in order to feel really good in about a week.
John’s style has been so parodied over the years that twenty-first century cynics find it hard to take him seriously. His language is arch: “You brood of vipers!” Today nothing like that would ever be advanced in any school of communications as a method of gaining someone’s attention.
The interesting thing to note, however, is that the people of his day went out into the desert to listen to him. And then he verbally beat them up. Still, more came. And the people listened hard. They had to scrabble out beyond the towns’ borders and make their way into the wilderness where John held forth. And he attracted followers. They brought friends. And everybody listened.
We have a problem with listening hard today. It’s a cultural phenomenon. We’ve talked about this quite a lot. We’re so overloaded with information and media and materialism and whatnot and hooha that we barely hear our spouses or children or friends or lovers when they’re three feet away speaking directly to us. That’s an aspect of our cultural life that I have to consider as a preacher: people’s desire and ability to listen to anything being said. Of course, you’re thinking I ought to say something useful I suppose. Fair enough.
For our purposes today let’s assume that the first century Jews expected something from John after traipsing out into no-man’s-land. And they got an earful. He told them a thing or two about their priorities. He said they were turned backwards. And because they were turned backwards they were in for some very tough times. They were headed in the wrong direction – they were headed over a cliff, as a matter of fact. He told them they should wake up and turn around. Repent. That’s what the word from Greek actually means: turn around; take a new direction, and this time, get it right.
Now most of us most of the time wouldn’t put up with such talk. That is, unless we went to church during Advent and gave half a listen to John. But it’s hard to take him seriously. And then, his words don’t have the same ring and cadence said from a marble pulpit amidst glittering mosaics on the corner of Park and 60th, New York City. Sort of incongruous. We lit a pink candle signifying joy; we have sharp musicians and a fancy building. We made our way into the opposite of the wilderness, right?
And in coming did you expect me to tell you it was time to get it right!!—that we’re headed over a cliff and it might be a good thing to reconsider our direction, our priorities, our ethics and values, our commitments? And that this is a matter of some urgency because God is about to make an appearance?
Whatever else we might think about him, John is an agent of change. He thinks change ought to be made and that change can be made. And the change he believes in sets the stage for what God intends for the world.
Change agent is a very popular concept in business and among entrepreneurs. It’s become an iconic component of leadership studies. Organizations of every kind, both for profit and not-for-profit, seek change agent leaders in fast evolving environments like we’re experiencing.
Today the kind of change the so-called agent generally advances concerns organizational efficiencies and bottom-line profits. In this way, in our day, change agents will be judged largely in terms of economic results. Better organization equals better bottom line. If it doesn’t, a different change agent is brought in.
Clearly that’s not the sort of change John was about. His focus was of a different order of magnitude altogether. John was interested in changing the human heart, and then expanding outward into communal systems of justice and righteousness.
That’s where I wound up this week—thinking about change. How does it happen really? How is it that we can change our direction for the better? I’m wondering if the people who went out to hear John had a predilection for change, say, more so than we do. I’m thinking we’re more likely to have a predilection for keeping things pretty much as they are, unless we’ve already stepped over the edge of the cliff and find ourselves in freefall.
Sometimes religion is used to protect ourselves from the kind of radical change John addresses, the change of the human heart that allows us to expand our circle of care. Consider the church’s role in slavery and then segregation, women’s suffrage and today, matters of sexual identity and orientation.
It should not be lost to us that someone like Martin Luther King Jr. arose from out of the prophetic wing of the church a la John the Baptist to confront the majority church with its inverted gospel perversion concerning the dignity of all people. King spoke the language of John.
And John spoke the same prophetic language in which he had been steeped, that called for justice, for all persons to be treated fairly, equitably and for those who had much, to share with those who had little; we should have rigorous integrity, care about the other, live sacrificially on behalf of the whole; in short, we should live righteous, loving lives and a righteous society should be organized accordingly. That’s the bottom line for John. And man, does that ever sound radical in today’s culture.
Sounds good and right to me. But then, what does that look like in any given life? Say, your life, or mine. What are the stakes for us? Often I hear people say, “Well, its all well and good that I should be for a just society, but what am I supposed to do? Me, one lone person…”
That’s what I was thinking about this week when I recalled a poignant memoir that Calvin Trillin wrote about his wife, Alice. It’s an especially loving portrait of a deeply humane and loving woman that is full of rich insight in how a life is structured around the things that matter most. His observations are human scale, not monumental, and therefore readily accessible.
At one point he says, “When it came to trying to decide which theories of child-rearing were highly beneficial and which were absolutely ruinous to the future of your child—a subject of some considerable discussion among some parents we knew—we agreed on a simple notion: your children are either at the center of your life or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.
Later he relates that, “Alice always said that parents had a huge influence on children when it came to what she called ‘the big things.’ Essentially, she meant values. In a letter to [our] girls she once included among the messages we’d been trying to send them ‘to worry about being kind and generous to other people, to be honest with yourself and with others, to find meaning in the work you do, not to over-value financial success.’” That’s homely and poignant wisdom.
No “brood of viper” talk for her children, but when I read those words I heard a translation of John’s harangue in language meant to change the world. Because true to form when confronted with the imperative to live righteous lives, the crowds asked John what they should do and he said, Well, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the soldiers he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation…be satisfied with your wages.”
Pretty homely wisdom, right? Sounds like Alice, doesn’t it? Be kind and generous to other people, be honest with yourself and with others, don’t over-value financial success…
How does that take hold in a life? How does someone change, evolve into a more righteous version of him or herself? How do we help one another listen to that message?
Trillin continues: “Although we never discussed it in these terms, I think [Alice] believed in the transformative power of pure, undiluted love.” Alice volunteered at a camp for children with genetic disorders. One summer she was especially drawn “to Lauren, a magical child who was severely disabled.” …Alice reported that Lauren “had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food. She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart…One day when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind Lauren and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle…I had time to see that on top of the pile was a note from her mom…I did something truly awful…I decided to read the note. I simply had to know what this child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered….my eyes fell on this sentence: ‘If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, Lauren, we would only have chosen you.’” Trillin was sitting next to Alice at the time. Before Lauren got back to her place in the circle Alice showed him the note and said, ‘Quick. Read this. It’s the secret of life.’”
I think Alice had it exactly right, and that by any other name she had described the case for Christmas. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….” Out of love, for love, so that we might love, Christ came. And his cousin, John, was all about preparing for his arrival. Get ready, he said. Wake up to the facts of your lives. Take stock. Turn around. Time to get it right. Time to get it right. Time to get it right.
How do we change? One decision, one action at a time. One little move in a different direction, one intentional act of kindness that leads to another, and then another, and so on. One choice today and another tomorrow. One very generous act of giving some of what we have away. And before you know it, a community of care develops that honors the dignity of all persons.
Second Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-4; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Some years ago, quite unexpectedly, someone thanked me for something I didn’t know I had done. He showed up at my office one morning looking vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t even close to placing how I might have known him. He said, “You probably don’t remember me. My name is David.” He told me we had met on a city bus 18 months earlier at a time when he had been in a particularly tough personal place facing an excruciating decision. He recounted how embarrassed he had been at the time when tears welled up in his eyes as he tried to verbalize his situation.
A foggy memory began to clear. Taking a long ride home from uptown on the M15, he had dropped something near my feet, as I recalled, which led us into conversation. He was highly agitated, and I remembered that I said very little as he spilled out his story. I simply listened, murmuring a comment or question once in a while. We spoke for no more than 30 minutes or so.
Now in my office eighteen months later, he reported that moment had been a critical turning point for him. By the time he stepped from the bus to the curb, he had arrived at a decision. He was clear. And free.
And now David returned to thank me. Evidently, I had given him a business card in case he had wanted any follow-up conversation. I didn’t remember doing that. Usually I’m out of cards, forgetting to re-load my wallet. I never seem to have one when needed. He said he stuck the card in a jacket pocket and lost track of it, until recently, when wearing that same jacket, the card appeared as he pulled out a glove.
I was rather taken aback by his effort to track me down. I thought my small part in his tale was truly minimal compared to the size of his gratitude, or so it seemed to me. But in his effort to find me I learned something I haven’t forgotten over the years. It has to do with a thankful heart. That’s what David had—a thankful heart. He was a thankful man. Full of gratitude. He made a generous contribution to the church. But more than that, I could tell that to a large degree this spirit of generous gratitude defined his orientation towards life.
Now I suppose one lesson drawn from this little episode might relate to how every moment is pregnant with potential. Every single one. You just never know. Even a ride home on the bus. But, while that’s a pithy bit of practical wisdom, that isn’t my focus today. Instead, I want to stick with this matter of thankfulness. I think it deserves serious attention.
After David said his piece and went on his way, I was left with some questions: What’s the status of my heart’s gratitude quotient? How good am I at saying thanks to the people who populate my life and work? How gratitude-oriented am I in relation to God and to the mission I’ve claimed, namely, to love very well, God and neighbor. How sacrificially generous am I? How mindful of so many who have so little mired in many privations? And I recognized this was a matter of some spiritual importance.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is my favorite biblical epistle. That’s due largely to the obvious gratitude that permeates every paragraph. Paul clearly loves these friends and he can’t help letting his gratitude for them spill over. You heard him begin like this: “I thank my God every time I remember you….” And, from there his sentiments explode with joy, goodwill, and love.
And this is all the more remarkable given that Paul wrote this letter from prison. Whenever it shows up in our lectionary, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of the gratitude that pours out of this man even though he is locked behind bars. Thankfulness, joy, goodwill and love ooze from its few pages and the man writes from a first century Roman prison.
Now part of the reason we read this during Advent is Paul’s confident expectation of his vindication at the coming of Christ. As well as the vindication of the Philippians. But this is wrapped in a spirit of thanksgiving for the community they share together, how they have mutually supported one another; how they have attempted to advance the cause of Christ by loving God above all things and their neighbors as themselves.
Though his life is one of great hardship Paul is full of thanksgiving, love, goodwill and joy. Next week we’ll read another passage written from prison in which he instructs the Philippians to rejoice always. Always. I suppose that’s hyperbole, I mean, how could anyone rejoice always? Still, it points to deep spiritual wisdom about our essential relationship towards life. Call it our fundamental point of view. Gratitude.
That’s what occurred to me when David walked through my door those years ago. You know how this is, you can think a thing is true until you smack up against it for real in your own experience.
Which reminds me of a story I heard about a pastor who was talking to one of his rural parishioners about the need to raise money for the church building fund. Trying to work into the subject subtly, he asked the farmer, “Now Bill suppose you had 100 horses, would you give me 50?
The farmer said, “Certainly.”
The pastor asked, “And if you had 100 cows, would you give me 50 of those?”
The farmer said, “Well, of course.”
Then the pastor asked, “Well now, if you had two pigs, would you give me one?”
The farmer said, “Now cut that out, pastor; you know I have two pigs!”
As you well know, there’s nothing like factual experience to clarify what’s really at stake with those things we say actually count.
It was a small thing for sure, this encounter with David in my office, but a window opened on the matter of the thankful heart. I hadn’t been expecting it, but there it was.
All of us have met persons with this fundamental disposition towards life. That is, persons with what I’m calling a thankful heart. I bet if I asked, most everyone here could think of such a person they’ve known. Inevitably we enjoy their company. They are life-enhancers, aren’t they? They’re givers, not takers.
And it isn’t dependent upon one’s material position. All of us know that stuff and things do not make a thankful heart. The consumerist mindset of more and more often leads to its opposite. A thankful heart is instead an inner disposition, or orientation, towards life no matter what we have or where we are, even imprisoned behind bars of some sort or another.
Here’s the other thing to note from Paul’s letter to his friends: their evident care for one another and Paul’s expression of thanksgiving are evidence of God’s presence with and among them. In other words, their thankful community is already a harbinger of Christ’s coming. As they await their vindication, they are already living in a manner that’s consistent with the qualities of his kingdom. Thankfulness and gratitude characterize the household of God. That’s why Paul can tell them to rejoice in all things.
Well if this is true, then you can see pretty clearly one way of responding to John’s call to “prepare the way of the Lord” at this time of year. We can prepare by considering this matter of thanksgiving—reflecting on the matter of “our thankful hearts”, such as they are, or aren’t.
Here’s the good news no matter your particular situation at the moment: thankfulness is especially susceptible to the practice of the folk wisdom to “fake it till you make it.” If you sincerely desire to develop the heart muscle of gratitude, then simply start practicing it. There is no better season, no better time to re-establish your basic orientation towards life. The desire for a thankful heart is a very noble desire. One of the noblest.
Part of this spiritual practice includes developing a prayer of thanksgiving. Make it an Advent mantra. Keep it to a sentence. Something like, “Loving God, thank you for this day,” or maybe, “Generous God, give me a thankful heart today.” That sounds too simple, perhaps. But I guarantee that if you surround that short prayer with silent intention you will discover transformative power. It will change you. It’s not every proposition that can guarantee such an outcome.
And then, every day purposefully thank someone for something. Every day. Be intentional. It would be fine to make a list if that’s your style. In fact, when you go home today I encourage you to jot down three names of people you should thank. The simple act of writing
Here’s something I don’t have to fake at all: my great gratitude for really wonderful colleagues here. I have great colleagues—professional and volunteer alike. I have really good work among an increasingly thankful community. I have a loving, supportive and challenging family. I have good friends. I’m deeply thankful that all of us have each other.
And I’m increasingly aware that embedded within these good things resides the spirit of Christ. And I sense that the more I exercise my thankfulness, the closer Christ draws near. There’s mystery in this. But then, mystery is part of the wonder of this season.
You want to experience the true spirit of Christmas? A thankful heart is the one essential ingredient. If you have that, Christ will come for certain.
1st Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36
She was 39-years-old. That was one of the first things the woman said to me as she reported feeling spiritually flat and anxious. As we continued our conversation, I learned that she had tracked pretty well career-wise. She hadn’t set the world on fire, but she had achieved a position that matched her goals. She had a sense of accomplishment about that. Originally from the Midwest she was attracted to the “bright lights, big city” adventure of New York, and for the most part, things had gone pretty well.
But a couple of months ago she realized she had lost the taste in her mouth. Everything had a cast of grey, like a brooding winter sky, as she described the feeling. She was unnerved, uncertain what to make of it. Was this depression? And if it was, where did it come from? She had never felt this way before. She had experienced plenty of bad stuff in her life and gotten through that. This was different. This seemed bigger, as though some larger thing was going on.
On any given Sunday, today for instance, the people sitting in the pews, like all of you, have brought with them wide-ranging sets of personal circumstances. We share certain larger cultural experiences, like our current political mishigosh, but individually we’re all over the map with what’s going on in our lives. Some would have good things to report about their lives—job promotion, news of a pregnancy, great year-end bonus, and so on. Others would report life was pretty much status quo, nothing much new going on, same old, same old; and still others would report a health crisis, unhappiness with work, or marriage, or parenting, or romance, or maybe some personal failure.
Yet, no matter the particular details of our life circumstance this morning, all of us could identify certain times in our lives that were more difficult, times we were lost in confusion and not understanding why, waking up one day and discovering we had been wandering in the wilderness.
This can take many forms, but everyone has experienced times of anxiety, depression, or as my new acquaintance said, a prolonged season with a brooding, wintry sky. Sometimes as we live into this season, and though occasioned by a vexing issue or two, we sense it has less to do with any particularly disturbing event from past or present than a realization that the current “me” is slipping away, and the new “me” has yet to fully emerge. We feel raw, exposed and vulnerable.
At that point we can choose to move into it and through it, or attempt to turn our back, cover our eyes and flail around for a while in a state of bewilderment—maybe even for quite a long while, decades even. (Do you know anything about that flailing around?)
That’s what I wound up talking about with my new acquaintance. Over time she came to the realization that while certain issues may have prompted her dis-ease, at root her wintry season was a life-stage transition, another opportunity for growing up. I shared that I had experienced a couple of times like that in my life and I imagined that one or two remained.
I also allowed how there was a really potent spiritual component to this that had to do with hope. We usually don’t think about this, but hope is what allows us to let go of the old in order to embrace the new, I said. We tend to experience this implicitly rather than explicitly, but hope is our most powerful engine for change, and hope is a deeply spiritual value. Hope is the harbinger of the new day even as dark clouds hang low.
That made sense to her. She said she would pray for hope. I said that was a very good prayer, a very important prayer. I returned to it all of the time myself.
Hope is an essential component of human existence. Not much would be accomplished without it. Little suffering could be endured, little striving over impossible-seeming obstacles. That’s true, isn’t it? Think about the details of your own struggles. Wouldn’t it be true to say that in order to make it through some dark episode in your life, hope is what allowed you to muddle forward? It may not have seemed like much at the time, but now, looking back, you can see that without just a sliver of hope, the new day would have been impossible.
When something doesn’t work out and we try, try again, all that trying has an intimate relationship with hope. In the process, we’ll likely learn a thing or two, but hope makes the learning possible.
Not many marriages would endure without hope. In a hopeless world, no one would have a child I imagine—except by accident. Why buy stocks and bonds, or own a mortgage? Though we rarely think of it, hope animates all of our life-affirming decisions, small and large alike.
Still, for all of this hope induced behavior, sometimes we enter the season of low-hanging dark and ominous clouds, and we wonder and question. After all, we’re only frail flesh with a certain number of years to our span of life. And so, we stumble in our confidence.
To complicate the picture a bit, instead of sitting within the beauty and comfort here on Park Avenue, New York City, imagine we were in a caravan of refugees fleeing intolerable conditions in our homeland with our families at risk; or in an upstate federal prison cell; or suffering with famine in Yemen. We see clearly that without hope those circumstances, and our politics as well, for that matter, are dead, stillborn. Hope seems reckless, even arrogant considering the scale of the problems in our world. Still hope lives. How does hope live? Why does hope live?
In here we have a rather odd answer, and yet it’s an answer that has completely captured the world’s attention. It’s called Christmas. This seems perplexing in the extreme, especially given how we abuse it by our excesses. Still, that’s the answer we proclaim here. We say that at the core of all things our God intends to bring redemption out of destruction. If not today, then tomorrow for certain. We say the child of Bethlehem is our hope and reveals the hope that continues into our misty future.
We invite people to share the faith which is grounded in hope—the hope that God will have the day. We know from Jesus’ own life that hope is rooted in the exigencies of human experience. Meaning, hope isn’t an owner’s guarantee that life will always be easy. Rather, that life is held securely in God’s hands. That’s what hope proclaims, no matter what, God will have the day.
Jesus spoke of the future in a variety of ways. Today we heard how he examined the dark and ominous sky and experienced the future with a sense of foreboding. As Luke tells the story, this morning’s gospel comes just a few verses before Jesus’ arrest. Still, for all of the roaring of the sea, distress among the nations and shaking of the heavens, he says to “stand and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” …Which sounds like a proclamation of hope in the midst of current distress.
No question the Jews of 1st century Palestine lived in dangerous times. Just a few decades away their city was sacked and their temple torn down. Those ruins can be seen to this day.
How can one be hopeful when the sky itself seems to be falling? Because God looms far larger than the sky with all of its stars and planets. And God intends for life to prevail. Even my life and your life. We go so far as to say that we shall prevail even after our very last breath has been spent. That’s the promise imbedded within Advent. Easter is imbedded within Advent. This transcendent hope is woven into every single strand of creation fabric. We couldn’t escape it even if we wanted to. God will have the day. Period.
That’s our theology: life triumphing. Get on board! Get with the program! Even in the midst of crisis and catastrophe. Hope knows this deep truth. Robust hope is not undone by suffering or grief. In part, suffering and grief form the anvil upon which authentic hope is forged. Hope has no truck with Pollyanna philosophies. It’s no sentimental Christmas card. It is at least equal to the worst that life can dish out, more than equal. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about hope today. We’d be peddling despair.
Hope lies close to the heart of life. They go together. Hope and life; life and hope. Their dance animates our worship, inspires our musicians, fuels our passions, and prompts our desire to grow into the better version of ourselves that we suspect was intended in the first place. Hope is the mother of second and third and fourth chances.
God will have the day!
2 Samuel 23:1-7; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37
A young couple sat at my elbow having dinner in a mid-town restaurant. Their communication was intense. Sarah was upset, emotional. David was awkward, embarrassed. He was trying to change the nature of their relationship. Sarah wasn’t buying it. David said he still loved her, still cared about her, he was just allergic to commitment; it made him feel claustrophobic. Sarah shot back that he was making her out to be a smothering shrew, well, actually, she used other words. Didn’t he think they had good times and spoke the same language.
David paused a long while before he summoned up a line I’ve heard more than once over the years. I could tell David was reaching somewhere for just the right thing to say. Finally, with great animation in his face and body he said, “Sarah, I’m not backing out of the friendship, I’m backing out of the relationship.”
David was running scared.
“People Who Run Sacred” is a club for everyone at least some of the time. And, relationships are like that sometimes... threatening, challenging, even occasionally terrifying, especially for twenty-somethings un-used to making deep commitments.
Not just speaking of romantic relationships here. All kinds. Every kind. All human interactions are fraught with complexities. The snapshot of Sarah and David lingers in my memory as a certain kind of prototype. Two individuals trying to move into their futures, uncertain of commitment and afraid to uncover whatever deep truth lurks beneath the surface. They struggle to name their truth
Maybe I’ve overanalyzed their circumstance. It’s just that I know my own experience and I’ve heard the experiences of many, many others over the years. Beyond acts of nature or your genetics, aren’t most of your problems, issues, or concerns relational in nature? Don’t most of your vexing concerns involve others, directly or indirectly? This is what keeps pastors and counselors and psychologists and life coaches busy. We need help to see others clearly. Don’t we tend to put people in boxes that help us organize our thinking and our feelings? We view others through personalized and highly efficient filters so that we wind up seeing what we want to see.
You’ve heard me say that this often accounts for romantic love. Romantic love at least partially consists of a projection of ourselves onto another. We think we see the other, but eventually come to discover that someone else, someone more complex, someone often less likeable frankly, has possession of the person we thought we knew. I tell couples that’s when real love might actually take over, for that’s when each has the opportunity to see the truth of the other and of themselves. And robust love is all about truth. Authentic love and truth go hand in hand.
But as you know, romance isn’t the only relational quagmire. Whenever we engage others, we package them for our own purposes. We name, label, categorize them to satisfy our needs, missing the larger truth of the other. What is racism but a form of packaging? What or whom do we see when someone is identified as a liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, and so on... any label lends itself to abuse, to seeing someone other than who is actually there. We all know this since we all do this.
And it’s equally true in speaking of our God relationship. If ever there was a place we should seek to set aside our preconceptions, it’s there. But all of us come to God with biases based upon who we need or want or expect to see. Who is it that you think we’re addressing in here, anyway? Who is this God we speak of here?
All we have to do is cast a glance around the nation at all the people who call themselves Christian to realize that there’s an astonishing range of variations on a theme. Honestly, some who bear the name Christian seem to worship an entirely different God than I do. We use a lot of the same language but arrive at very different, in some cases, even diametrically opposed viewpoints on just who God is. I suppose it’s inevitable that we all have a tendency to create a god in our own image.
Anne Lamott has it right, I think, when she says, “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Now pity the position of poor Pontius Pilate. If ever a man had need of categorizing another person, of putting him in a box, of seeing someone he might recognize from out of his own experience, it was this Roman Governor. Who do you imagine he saw when looking at the bedraggled Jew who had been brought before him? Surely Pontius Pilate had his opinions about Jews. Was Pilate able to look through the filters of his biases to see the actual man standing there?
But then, it wasn’t just a Jew, he was told, but a man who also purported to be a king. A king! Well, that would have tripped his trigger. After all, Pilate was an important and imperious government official, a Governor, assigned at the pleasure of the Roman emperor. Pilate knew all about kings and kingdoms. He knew real power when he saw it. Didn’t he have some himself, if only over backwater Palestine? Still, he was in charge. The people brought this Jesus to him. Not that he liked getting involved in all their petty squabbles. Tricky business: manipulating the pieces on his game board, keeping the crowds reasonably content while still exerting enough power to show who was boss. Tricky relationships to manage.
Pilate knew this Jesus was no king. Didn’t look like one, didn’t act like one, didn’t sound like one. Still, this was perplexing because the local leaders brought him as one who was said to have royal ambition. So, Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
As the story is told Jesus gives a mystical answer, something about a kingdom from another world. Not the answer of any king Pilate knew. It was the answer of a dreamer. Kings were practical. They saw what was needed to be done and they did it. They knew the relative value of human life; one here or there didn’t matter much. What mattered was the amassing and manipulation of power. And Pilate had power over this silly Jew.
And so, in the end, he would turn over this man to be put to death in the usual manner of the day as an enemy of the state. And he would have words inscribed in three different languages at the top of his cross which said, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Was this done in sarcasm, irony, confession? All we know is that today we remember Pilate solely because he put this particular man to death.
Lo and behold, two thousand years later this same supposed enemy of the state sits emblazoned on a throne in our mosaics and lends our church his name. At the very least we could say Pilate missed something really crucial in his relationship with Jesus. He didn’t see a larger truth. Pilate saw what he wanted, or better, needed to see to shore up his worldview, which is no different than what any of us do most of the time. The truth is, it’s quite remarkable that we allow ourselves to take in any new information given the fragile nature of our egos which we’re constantly shoring up.
According to the church’s calendar, today is the last Sunday of our year – next Sunday begins another year on the First Sunday of Advent. But today, the last Sunday is designated, Reign of Christ, or Christ the King, named for the man pictured up there sitting on a throne. Who do you see when you look up there? Squint your eyes in just the right light and you’ll notice the book on his lap is opened to a page that reads: “I am the light of the world.”
When Pilate looked at Jesus he intended his question as hip, first century, philosophical sarcasm when he asked, “What is truth?” Yet that is the relevant question. It’s always the relevant question. Always, everywhere in all of our relationships. What is truth? —At home, on the job, at play, at dinner with someone we say we care about, and in the quiet of our own contemplation. Keeping an eye on the truth is an excruciating discipline. Jesus said, “People who know the truth listen to me.”
I disagree with those who say there is no truth, not really, that all truth is relative. To say there is no truth is itself a truth claim and all truth claims compete for our allegiance. Jesus Christ is up there in our mosaics because many, many people over many hundreds of years have listened to him. They don’t do this especially well, because, as I’ve said, we all suffer from the same human propensity to see what we want or need to see, like Pilate. That’s the engine of our corruption.
Still, if we actually give ourselves permission to listen and to follow along – if we actually would like to see and to hear the truth, we can’t avoid contending with this man. And at the end of it we won’t be the same because truth will always and finally have its way. Always. Thank God…
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25; Mark 13:1-8Read MoreLess
Deuteronomy 8:1-18; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Matthew 5:13-16, 6:19-21
As I mentioned in my Faith Matters blog on Friday, you might be interested to know that both Stacey Abrams, first African American woman candidate for Governor of Georgia, as well as Jeff Sessions, recently fired Attorney General, identify as United Methodists—as do both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush.
Our denomination hoists a big tent. Your favorite search engine will reveal that the Methodist movement has been home to an astonishingly broad range of diverse Americans. Sometimes the tent ripped under the strain, as happened over the issue of slavery when a church of the north and a church of the south sundered the unity while holding opposing points of view on the matter. There really was no way around that at the time given there wasn’t a true middle ground on the matter of slavery—one either is or is not a slave; there is no in-between state.
In his Second Inaugural Address, President Abraham Lincoln famously observed that, “Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
I mention this as a reminder that our national tribalistic moment has had a number of antecedents, some worse than others, but all leading to an eventual reunion of sorts—not perfectly, of course, but generally sufficient to secure for another generation a commitment to the common good of all. From break-up to reunion took the Methodists about a hundred years.
Today we’re caught in a time of fierce polarization both inside and outside the church. I am working hard to listen to God’s voice in the midst of the din. I am anchoring myself to the path Jesus blazed fashioned from love of God and neighbor. This leads me to a set of conclusions about a few things and some questions about others. I seek to stay committed to the path regardless of the cost. I also recognize that, as in the words of Paul, I only see in a mirror dimly. Here’s the thing though: no one today (except Kanye, maybe) supports slavery as a social construct. One side had it right in theory if not always in execution, and the other had it appallingly wrong.
I’m wanting to pay attention to this fact, knowing full well that I’m capable of getting something appalling wrong as well. That doesn’t prevent me from advancing my understanding of the truth, but it helps me hold it with open hands and heart in the spirit of Lincoln’s conclusion: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
He didn’t say this, but implicit within Lincoln’s reasoning is the idea that everyone is a child of God—Yankees and Confederates, people north and south, east and west and everyone else, including the enslaved Africans. For how could a child of God be treated less than any other child of God? Clearly all persons were bound together by common sacred genetics.
That remains the most basic affirmation we make in here, that we are all beloved children of God of equal worth. There’s nothing we’ve ever done to deserve that status, it’s just a given. Scripture affirms this, as does our intuition. Jesus taught this, lived this. Each one of us, child of God. We frequently speak of this here.
This affirmation lies behind the meaning of our mission to love God and neighbor and our core value of dynamic hospitality. All are welcome here because each one has been pre-certified as a member of the same family, emerging from the same spiritual DNA, all of us, children of God. Everyone who walks through these doors and throws their lot in with us—child of God. Even the late-comers. Everywhere you look a child of God! And the only work we have to accomplish in relation to this truth lies in accepting it.
Now learning that one is a child of God—really taking that on and letting it sink in—has a rather powerful impact, especially for those among us who have wondered deep down if they have ever really belonged anywhere. This wondering is part of the universal human experience. You likely wondered about this at some point in your lives. You might recognize it as that lonely anxiety that awakened you in the middle of the night during a fevered dream. Or the existential dread generated by the knowledge that one day you will die, which in turn prompts the question, Well, what’s it all about anyway?
Many spend much of their energy running from questions like these, smothering them in any number of ways, and you know all the ways there are to anesthetize yourselves from these questions. Work is a good way that many can identify with in New York. Work, booze, drugs, sex, money and so forth, all the standard stuff. And then we should make note of the individualized ways we’ve all dreamt up over the years, all of our personalized coping mechanisms.
And then, we’re very good at finding alternative means for propping ourselves up by putting others down—THE classic methodology for feeling better about our relative position in the world. Again, since it’s on my mind, think slavery for instance, an extreme version of radical exclusion, implicitly asserting that everyone does not share the same sacred DNA. I’m in, you’re out.
Human history is littered with these radical eruptions which are, at heart, a pathetic attempt to assert one’s essential humanity as inherently superior to another’s for a trumped-up and largely whack-a-do reason. Pathetic, but deadly nevertheless, and deadly serious.
So, children of God. And now add to that, salt and light. By virtue of our sacred genetics we are salt and light as well. Salt and light are so basic and essential to human life that Jesus felt no need to spell out what this meant. Although, as he says, salt can lose its integrity, its identifying quality as salt. This does not occur suddenly, but so gradually that those to whom it happens do not perceive themselves as changing and cannot identify later a single time or place when the rejection of their birthright occurred. The loss was not intentional; it was more a matter of drifting away.
Putting a lamp under a bushel certainly reduces the chance of having it blown out, but the price for such protection is darkness. In other words, God’s way in the world as exemplified by Christ, is mission: we’re meant to spread the word and make a difference. The way of Christ is to take the initiative and rather than hide from the world, let the light shine in the hopeful trust that word of each person’s essential and sacred identity can be spread across the land. Love and justice are the bywords of this movement.
That’s what accepting our birthright entails. Allowing our essence as salt and light to advance the message to others that they, too, are part of God’s beloved community. And this isn’t coercive or manipulative. It’s declarative. Here’s the good news! Believe it and live it!
Accepting this good news sets up an “if…, then” logic equation: If child of God, then salt and light. Since we’re all children of God it follows that we’re also salt and light. Our work and worship here allow this truth to seep way down into our deepest recesses. If child of God, stands to reason this truth will show up in our lives, what we do, in our life commitments, how we live, who we throw in with, how generous our love.
With this in mind then, Commitment Sunday isn’t about coercing our attitudes or squeezing our bank accounts against our will. It’s not about what we ought to be or try to be. Instead it’s a moment to acknowledge, to declare, who we are, to boldly assert our identity, our birthright and our work. To affirm the astonishing diversity of our family, naming and embracing our actual sisters and brothers to whom we are bound by virtue of sharing the same spiritual DNA.
…To align our priorities with the priorities of the enormous trust we’ve inherited. To remember, as Moses admonished the wandering Israelites entering their promised land, that God is the source of every good thing, including their various powers at manipulating the physical world into wealth and prosperity.
The scripture thunders: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God 17Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth…” We are derivative creatures of God’s astonishing love who has been very pleased to shower us with every good thing.
So, here’s where we join together in common cause writing this sermon as sisters and brothers enjoying the same inheritance. It’s a small gesture, I know, but when we stand together during the final hymn and choose to join the parade down the center aisle, we’re making a statement about our essential commitments, bound in common purpose as agents of salt and light in a world that so clearly and so desperately needs this intrusion of grace. Bracing, inspiring, affirming – feel that deeply as you take the short walk to the altar…
Then the sermon opens exponentially as we leave this space and walk out onto the street as salt and light for the transforming of our world…
Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Revelations 21:1-6a; Mark 12:28-34
I received an anonymous letter, portions of which read as follows: “A note for Stephen Bauman, Senior Minister at Christ Church –
“I am writing to tell you how your church has made an impact on my life for the last seven years. I work not too far from the church, and would visit sometimes on my breaks or lunches. During the last seven years at this job, I have experienced some of the best times of my life such as meeting my husband to be, the birth of nieces and nephews…to some of my worst (my father’s heart attack, my grandmother dying, my mother-in-law’s breast cancer.) When I needed a safe place to think, pray, find hope, get space…I would go to your church and light a candle and look at the beautiful mosaics, or write names down on your prayer cards.
“This might not seem out of the ordinary, but I am not a member of your church, or any church for that matter…I am not one for organized religion…but I do like churches…for their community aspect, their refuge, their being a gathering place for hope. I have found all those things at your church and now that I am moving on to a new chapter in my life, I wanted to say thank you and would like this anonymous donation to be put towards candles, please….as I am sure over my time here I have lit nearly 100…
“Thank you to your church for being a place of hope and solace. My dear friend also found the road to your church when she moved to New York and she and I would discuss what a special place it is, from our two different worlds, perspectives, faiths. I told her I wanted to thank your church for years now and now that I will not be here much anymore since I am moving on to a new career, its time I did it.
“So there it is – a nutshell snapshot of how your church has been an important place to me and I thank you for that. I hope this donation helps bring light into other lives….”
Of course, this is as much your church as it is my church. Our anonymous friend could just as easily have addressed her letter to each of you who have joined our ranks. That’s one good reason to pass on the thank you. Periodically I receive this sort of correspondence and it’s useful for you to know that if you’re a contributing member here you minister in ways you hardly suspect.
This points to how Christ Church serves as a true sanctuary for the city. That’s one of its ministries—its physical presence, open and hospitable, directing all who enter into a space of both spiritual depth and transcendence. Many of you know this for yourselves.
But I note a glaring mistake in our anonymous friend’s logic. It comes when she claims she is no fan of organized religion but loves what our church does for her and evidently embodies. She doesn’t see the disconnect.
It’s a common occurrence, of course; I regularly hear a phrase like, “the problem with organized religion is…” You probably hear it as well, maybe even said it yourself at some point along the way in exasperation. My favorite tongue-in-cheek rejoinder goes, “Well, I suppose you prefer disorganized religion, then.” And we’d have to agree there’s plenty of that floating around in our culture; disorganized, superficial religion, or its more common moniker today, spirituality.
But I still understand the feeling in the complaint. I’ve said it more than once: there’s certainly bad religion in the world. And there are a lot of flawed individuals practicing what is essentially good religion. In fact, the only sort of people I know practicing good religion are flawed, which makes “organized religion” subject to the full range of human potentials. Much like an organized government, hospital, PTA, hedge fund, or basketball team.
The Al Queda terrorists had to be organized in order to pull off the World Trade Center bombing. Had they been disorganized, they would never have had the necessary disciplined precision.
Still, that’s less a condemnation of organization than it is about what their organization was designed to deliver. In other words, it was the content of their devotion that was at fault.
A couple of Sundays ago I mentioned that everyone has a religion whether or not they’re aware of it. It might be organized or disorganized, but there’s no question every person has a fundamental set of core operating principles that motivates their various activities and perceptions of how the world works. Everyone has their god or gods to whom they offer daily obeisance.
Our anonymous friend has hers—this was implied within her thank you. She was susceptible to receiving what we offer here. I say this because what we offer is embedded within these very walls and she deeply appreciated what the enclosure of these walls afforded her.
And these walls reflect an astonishingly long trajectory of human history. The story of Moses up there holding the Ten Commandments over Violet probably dates from around 1400 BCE. That’s 3500 years ago. The rest of our tradition flows forward from there. So-called organized religion has produced this space we now inhabit. And that forward flow from the distant past involved many, many individuals—flawed though they be—passing on what they knew to a new generation.
We call what has been passed on wisdom, or truth, embedded within a spiritual language involving symbols and rituals. The wisdom speaks of mystery, of things that are larger than our comprehension. Holy things, sacred things, things that matter most of all. Things like love, for instance, as you heard Jesus recount today.
When I stop to deeply consider this, this flow of history arriving at my place here, now, I’m quite taken with the scope of it, with the sheer numbers of persons who are responsible for my standing here. The church has a word for these people. We call them saints. We call them this, not because of their perfection, because surely none of them were. But because of their faithfulness despite their imperfections. Because of their willingness to give themselves, what they had and what they knew, to those who would follow them.
You see this clearly when bringing to mind one or two specific persons who are most responsible for your sitting here this morning—living or dead. Persons whose authentic love for you made you available, susceptible to the overtures of the God of love. Persons who gave you a language in which to make sense of the most important things. Persons who instigated faith, hope, and love in your life —the things we treasure most in here. And even if no one person comes to mind immediately, you can still sense your spiritual forebears surrounding you, can you not, giving you this place now as your own? Here, take it. It’s yours, they say. Make something of it. Make something of the faith it proclaims. The world is in desperate need of it.
Last Monday evening I participated in an interfaith prayer service at Sutton Place Synagogue about ten blocks from here as a response to the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. The service followed a traditional Jewish pattern but was attended and partially led by a number of Muslim, Christian and Jewish clerics. A standing room only crowd assembled, every seat filled upstairs and down, the walls completely lined with people. It was a moving experience.
Sitting there listening to the cantor intone the prayer for the dead, it occurred to me how important houses of worship are to the communal life of our city. If they did not exist, what could possibly take their place as points of assembly where the things that matter most were celebrated and valued? Where ancient texts were shared that speak of the mystery of life and death and our place within the created order of things.
It brought back the memory of the service we held here after the 9/11 catastrophe, the sanctuary crammed with people at noon on the Thursday following that fateful Tuesday. Most I had never seen before, but they wanted to be here, and I was aware that they came because where else would they go to bring their profound anguish, confusion and yearning? Where else?
And who makes a congregation like this possible? The saints. In other words, us. And if not us, then no one. Bound together by love of God and neighbor we continue in the long wisdom tradition brought forward and honored by the saints, by us now, just us. We’re it. We’re the culminating generation. What we do matters. Our commitments matter. We’re the saints…
Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, wanted to see. He called out to Jesus who was on his way to Jerusalem. The crowds told him to keep quiet, but he called out all the louder, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He replied, “Let me see.”
Unlike every other healing story in Mark’s gospel, this one names the person who was healed. Over the years commentators have said this naming suggests that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, was still known within the Christian community at the time of the gospel’s writing. Unlike most all the others who cross Jesus’ path seeking his help, Bartimaeus is remembered. The clue for the reason why is in the last sentence in his short story. “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” In other words, once Jesus caused him to ‘see,’ Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, became one of those who followed him – he followed Jesus on the way.
That’s how Mark describes the gospel—it’s ‘the way.’ To have faith in Jesus and what he taught was to follow him on ‘the way.’ And Mark’s gospel is largely presented as a journey. As a result, Bartimaeus was written into the story of Jesus’ road trip.
Thoughtful biblical interpreters at this point will say that physical blindness as it’s portrayed in the gospels is a metaphor for spiritual blindness. And this episode is no exception. This vignette follows three different stories about the disciples’ inability to understand who Jesus is and what he’s about. They’re caught bickering about who was the greatest among them and who would get the best goodies at the end of the day. You may recall that I’ve recently spoken about this.
Mark places today’s story as a punctuation mark on the disciples’ ineptness, or we might say their blindness, for although Bartimaeus is physically blind, he has spiritual sight that reveals to him Jesus’ true nature. When Jesus says to him, “What do you want me to do for you? Bartimaeus responds, “My teacher, let me see.”
One clear lesson here is this: a righteous prayer for all of us repeats Bartimaeus’ request, “Teacher, let me see.” And you might ask, “Well, see what?” And the answer is, “the truth.” To see what is… what is true. Let me see you, Jesus, for who you are; let see my life for what it is; when I look in the mirror let me see the wide angle version; and let me see my sisters and brothers for who they are and my place in the scheme of things.
In another time, in a very different land and under very different circumstances, Stephen, son of Adeline and Melvin, thought he desired to see in this way. And at some point along the road after leaving home he encountered Jesus who shined a bright light on Stephen’s life that burned away part of the cataracts blurring his vision and then invited him to follow the way.
Having gained a bit of clarity, Stephen set out in fits and starts to do that. Years later, it brought him into the company of Violet, daughter of Malloy and Beulah, and a whole sanctuary of others who wanted to see in the manner of Baritmaeus.
Sometimes this band of travelers was blinded by imagining that Jesus wanted for them what they wanted—a problem-free existence, plenty of really, really good stuff, great success – whatever it took—or just plain happiness and good times. Wandering off the road in this manner, they heard Jesus calling to rejoin him on the way, sharing the road again on his journey to Jerusalem and beyond. And they wondered about this, wondered about the difference between wanting stuff and things on their terms, and Jesus’ desire for them to follow his way.
Sometimes they wondered if they really wanted to fully “see” in the manner of Jesus. Did they really want to see their lives without benefit of snazzy filters and fake settings and scenery? Did they really want to see themselves as they were? And were a few cataracts all that bad anyway given the ubiquity of suffering in the world? Did they want to see the world as it was? And come to think of it, where was Jesus headed anyway? What was up with what went down in Jerusalem at the end of his life?
But let’s pause here for a minute and consider current conditions, what we see today in our land. Consider the chaos and violence in our civic culture. First, join me in a moment of silent prayer for the victims at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh… A terrible anguishing event while we’re still digesting the pipe bomb terrorism in a time of aggressive political rancor, the worst I’ve experienced in my lifetime.
The 60’s were bad, the Vietnam era a devastating catastrophic time. But the public vitriol seems worse today. Political language has been stripped of decency and sense of common purpose. The violence this week seems an inevitable outcome given current conditions.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement yesterday that “These senseless acts of violence aren’t who we are as Americans…” And I immediately thought to myself, “I beg to differ Governor. I think we can’t ignore the truth that these senseless acts of violence are in fact part of who we are as Americans today.”
I say this because seeing “things as they are” really does matter. It’s the important first step in choosing a different outcome. It’s akin to waking up from a long coma. Part of “things as they are” is ugly. This was true in Jesus’ day as well, which provided the context for his loving intervention, to set things right, as it were. His life trajectory led him to crucifixion underscoring the ugliness factor that inspires violence and death. Yet he was on a relentless quest to open people’s eyes to the truth, and to the wonderful, hopeful opportunity that lay beyond.
Part of our job as Christians is to see this full on, even seeing the strains of ugliness in our own lives, our own tendency for enemy formation, for belittling our enemies, for falling headlong into the inky well of our shadow selves where power, fear, and self-absorption trump compassion, empathy, and personal integrity.
As followers after the way of Jesus, we must keep our wits in the midst of the chaos—our wits, our courage, our clarity, and our dignity coupled with a compassionate regard for all persons. We need each other to stay clear and focused in these days; that’s one important purpose of the church. Honestly, in times like these the habit of regular worship is more relevant than ever. The discipline of staying close to what matters most remains crucially important.
Judging by recent events, we humans are prone to stew in the darkness of our own blindness, hunkering down ever deeper into narrowly defined tribal wells of like-mindedness. Followers after the way of Jesus should be willing to confess this and then remember their commitment to love God and neighbor above all things, ordering the days of their lives accordingly, recommitting themselves to God’s justice rooted in our common genetics having been created in God’s image, every last one of us, in here and out there—every single one, a beloved child of God.
So, we continue the journey, discovering that following Jesus produces “a way of life.” This way of life is consistent with the goal of the journey, reunion with our God. As Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi from a prison cell, this way of life shapes our ethos of being of one mind, having the same love, doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves, each looking to the interests of others.
This isn’t easy; it’s radically counter cultural today. We learn that life requires us to constantly work out our salvation with fear and trembling, confident that the Spirit of Christ works within us, honing and refining us into becoming better versions of ourselves.
Along the way, we discover there is no circumstance we encounter that’s beyond the range of God’s grace. We learn how to do the more difficult thing in service of love, the courageous thing, the nobler thing. We don’t succumb to the dark angels of our lesser selves. This journey re-arranges our priorities and attitudes, growing our love larger than our fear. It makes us generous and oddly hopeful despite many adversities.
This story is very much in-progress—as of yet unfinished. No way of knowing how many stand-ins for Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, may yet join the journey. But judging current conditions, we could really use a lot more folks with his request on their lips, “My teacher, let me see…”
Mark 10:17-31Read MoreLess
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
As a life-stage kind of thing, Melissa and I recently went through a complete financial analysis with a team of professionals including an accountant, a finance guy and a lawyer. Our goal was to gain a fresh and thorough understanding of how the components of our financial and retirement structures intersect as we approach the years of social security, Medicare and beyond.
We had some anxiety going into this process, and honestly, it had the feel of an astonishingly intimate striptease. The team garnered a much clearer picture of our finances than anyone has of our current President’s. We necessarily had to provide several years of tax returns along with every other shred of info that could be construed as having any relevance whatsoever for our planning.
In the main, our situation is pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. Although, we did go through the exercise of establishing our spending habits. Have you ever done that? Done an exhaustive analysis of all the purposes for which your money has been deployed over the course of a year? I mean absolutely everything, including the cash you sequester as a secret stash? It was sobering as well as enlightening, not as though we didn’t have any idea, of course. But the focused exercise led to a heightened level of conscious objective clarity about our relationship with our money and stuff, and the habits that crept in over the decades that now seem set in cement.
Truth is, I’ve always had some anxiety about money. I remember reporting this during the process leading up to my ordination. There was some question I had to answer about any matter for which I had concern as I contemplated the adventure into ordained ministry. At 26-years-old I recall mentioning that this choice was going to lock me out of substantial prosperity, notwithstanding certain high-profile clergy peddling the prosperity gospel perversion. I knew I likely wasn’t going to inherit wealth and I could choose a different occupation to climb a more lucrative ladder. But that wasn’t how I was wired. And then I went and married a professional singer and my financial fate seemed sealed.
Over the years Melissa and I have confronted some financial complications, accompanied by sleepless nights over months and years, but overall things have worked out about as well as I could have imagined under the circumstance. Funny, though, how the anxiety still hangs around the edges.
I suspect that’s true for most of us, regardless of our occupations or how much we’ve accumulated. I’m pretty certain that far richer people than me have at least as much anxiety over money as I do, likely more. And here’s the thing, while not wealthy by American standards, Melissa and I are nevertheless at the summit of prosperity when considering the entire globe. If that’s the case, why any anxiety at all?
As I have mentioned before, of all the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels, one-sixth of them pertain to money and its derivatives – the only subject he speaks about more is the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows well that money is the most potent symbol of our secret selves, deepest loyalties and greatest anxieties. His larger lesson reveals that money, per se, is not the problem, but our attachments to it. We are not free. We are in thralldom. And we covet the thralldom we have chosen. This thralldom breeds anxiety.
And let me add something here, lest we’re tempted to think the story we read today does not pertain to us due to the law of relative magnitude. This is the little trick we play by trying to decide just how rich, rich is, so that we might conclude we’re not the focus of conversation. The facts are these: 71% of the world’s population lives on less than $10 a day; nearly 2 and a half billion live on less than $2 a day. By inference, what does that make most all of us sitting here?
I do not presume to know how this works out in your individual lives. The choice placed before the rich young man is so extreme that I find myself enumerating the reasons why what Jesus proposes would be entirely out of reach in 2018. I mean, how is it that any one of us could actually sell all that we have in order to follow Jesus? What about our families? What about health insurance? What about the fact that our apartments might not sell in this market anyway? And given my profession how could I possibly serve Jesus without transportation, cellphone and laptop? It is beyond the reach of my imagination. I expect this was also true for the man in the story.
I’ve already confessed my own anxieties, but I do not know the specific word you need to hear for your particular variation on this theme. But we all heard the word Jesus gave the young man on the road to Jerusalem. We’re told what he said to the disciples afterwards.
Let’s be clear that Jesus wasn’t interested in charity in his exchange with the young man in our story. He wasn’t on a fundraising campaign trying to make people give more. (Although, if after thinking about this you do actually give more away, that’s a very good thing.) He was interested in the man. The text said he loved him. That’s telling. Jesus cared about him and loved him.
After digesting the troubling teaching about the difficulty of a camel making it through the eye of a needle, Peter blurts out like a misunderstood child: “Well, we’ve left everything behind, Jesus.” We did good.
From my reading of the Gospel, I have the impression the disciples did not embrace poverty as a virtue. They fully expected their day would come when they would be rewarded in very tangible ways after Jesus finally came into his full power. We might say they thought of themselves like entrepreneurs biding their time and managing their investments. I could see that this saying of Jesus might have brought them nearly to the brink of despair.
“You mean we’re not on this journey for tangible material reward? That isn’t a sweet result of our blood and sweat, Jesus?”
In the paradox of the Gospel, one can only win by surrender and only gain by forfeiting everything. What does that mean for you?
I do know that someone has to manage the money of the world. I am not necessarily more sanguine about the morality of bankers and money managers than individual investors. I am not persuaded that government necessarily has greater virtue in its decisions than a given person. I certainly do not think prosperity is a bad thing. I’m all for prosperity. Poor people yearn for prosperity.
But as prophet Amos makes clear, often the rich make their wealth on the backs of the poor. Do we need a crystal clear example? Consider slavery in America: wealth literally drawn from the sweat and blood of the enslaved. That’s the most egregious form of economic and social abuse, but the pattern of those who have taking from those who don’t continues to the present day.
If I had a choice in the matter, I would prefer the world’s money and the power that money bestows, in the hands of surrendered persons, persons who know from whence their life came in the first place, and whither it will be going at the last. Persons who locate their identity somewhere other than in their material means. Humble persons who have a robust spiritual, confessional life, who understand their value is not found fundamentally in what they do or do not have. Persons who have a heart for God’s justice.
Still we must not over-simplify the teaching. As Barbara Brown Taylor put it, “The poor cannot buy [the kingdom] with their poverty any more than the rich can buy it with their riches. The kingdom of God is God’s consummate gift…”
Yet there is a deep challenge in Jesus’ confrontation – the message here is to get real.
Whatever one’s riches – however they are defined – in our world it’s hard to have an identity other than a self-made identity. Your worth, your righteousness, your wealth, power, children, job, fame, whatever – there is no freedom of real living until you hand it all over, as Jesus would have it. It is the heart of generosity that he wants to teach. This heart is what he wants to give the young man on the road. His riches stand in the way not because they are evil, but because they prevent him from identification with both the cause and the gift Jesus offers.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus was filled with love for the young man. Who knows how that love played out for him after he stepped away? I’d like to think that Jesus’ love followed after him and hounded him with relentless compassion.
Friends, in hearing a teaching like this, the honest thing for us is to confess our weakness and willful ignorance – “Yes, you nailed me, Jesus!” – and then to pray for wisdom and a generous heart, that is, a surrendered heart. That’s what I do. I pray for a surrendered heart.
Authentic generosity comes with an inner awareness of our dependence upon God, the source of every good thing, including our very lives. Without that inner awareness, without a surrendered heart, we’re prone to persuade ourselves and others that we have more virtue than we have, as though giving away the little bits we share can win us points in heaven.
The generous heart that recognizes the shores of eternity comes only with identification with the extravagant generosity of our God in Jesus Christ who said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That’s what he did. That’s our model. And we’re all counted among his friends. To be listening to this story two thousand years later is a form of his compassion and love for us, hard as it is. Why? Because it takes us to the truthful place, the heart of our anxiety, the heart of our idolatry. And paradoxically, the heart of our salvation.
Ephesians 4:17-21,25-27, 30-5:2; Mark 10:13-16
It’s been a wild and crazy week, right? It was impossible to escape the tribal hyper-ventilating emanating from Washington D.C., amplified a thousand-fold across all news and social media platforms. It’s been addictive and exhausting. '
Of course, underneath the Kavanaugh hearings life continued as usual—night followed day and we went about our business; the subway had shutdowns, the streets were clogged, the Yanks squared off with the Red Sox, and lots of other stuff happened that didn’t quite catch our attention because of the noise. We likely missed a few things that went down besides the senate vote.
For instance, you may have missed the story earlier in the week concerning how 1,600 children from across the country were transferred to a tent city in west Texas . They were loaded onto buses and moved in the middle of the night, with minimal warning, to offset the likelihood that they would try to escape.
A record 13,000 migrant children are currently detained in shelters across the United States. The numbers are increasing rapidly due to the administration’s zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents at the border. The night-time move is reportedly intended to make room for additional children that are being detained, with the older ones being sent to the tent camp. But unlike in the other locations, this does not provide the children with the same care.
This camp is not licensed, nor is it monitored by state child welfare authorities. There is no access to formal schooling. And whereas in their previous shelters the children had legal representatives assigned to their individual cases, they now face limited legal services.
It occurs to me to lift up this particular news item because of that sweet passage assigned today from Mark concerning children. I say sweet because of how it’s been sentimentalized over the years, but the truth is, Jesus meant it as a serious rebuke given the status children had in first century culture.
The familiar picture of Jesus taking a child in his arms and receiving him with love portrays an attitude of care and concern for children found nowhere else in the ancient world. Children, along with women, old men, and slaves, were viewed as physically weak burdens on society who had little value to the wider life of the community. In Greece and Rome, it was an accepted practice to abandon unwanted children along the roadsides to die.
So, the passage we heard was very much in keeping with other radical things Jesus said like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” That’s what it means to enter the kingdom of God like a child. It’s a radical posture that requires adopting a certain attitude about what matters most and then aligning the content of our commitments accordingly. So, for instance, followers after the way of Jesus would necessarily care about public policy effecting children. They would care quite a lot.
But that’s not my main point today…it’s more of an example of what it can mean to say I belong to Christ, or I am a Christian. That’s what captured the attention of the writer to Ephesians. He wrote, “My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to Christ, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus.” And, “What this adds up to, then, is this: no more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ we’re all connected to each other…Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children…Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love…”
That’s the way it works, I think, this Christian thing. It’s not so much about what I say I believe, although that’s not unimportant. It’s more about picking up and following along, watching what God does, and since mostly what God does is love us, we then follow that lead. Great faith is proved less by what we profess with our lips than the actual content of our lives—what we actually do.
The thirty-year-old man had come to talk with me about tensions in his life. Tensions around life decisions. He felt very conflicted about his options. On the one hand, he was very clear about the sort of material success he was after. But he was not certain about much of anything else. So, I asked him what he thought he was committed too. What path did he think he was on? Could he describe it? He warned me that he wasn’t going to fall for some sappy religious angle (evidently missing the irony that I was a minister…)
So, I told him about a plumber I knew, in his late forties, who over some years, had built into his schedule late afternoons and some weekends of tutoring at a school for difficult kids. A number of these kids he mentored into college, even guaranteeing their tuition. He had built a solid small business, but he was certainly not a member of the famous .1%.
And I also told him about a cocky financier, about the same age, who had built into his schedule several nights a week cruising bars, something he could manage wherever his work took him. Can’t tell whether he is proud or appalled at the number of hook-ups he’s had over the years—probably a little of both. Made a lot of money. He was a part of the .1%. By his own admission he had no real lasting relationships, though, and was now discovering that single malt scotch was the most likely candidate to be named as his best friend.
Both guys had established certain commitments, I explained. Each had been captured by a vision of what life was about. Each had set out on a path and managed the daily routines their path required. Each had acquired the skills, partly through trial and error, that they needed to succeed on the path they had chosen. Each had learned a thing or two. Each was on his way to somewhere.
I told my young friend that in my experience everyone has a religion, sappy or otherwise. Everyone functions from a grand operating principle whether or not they knew it or admitted it. Mostly that principle could be inferred by the wake they left as they passed through their lives. The tangible, material content of what we actually do tells the tale for all of us, notwithstanding our words. Both of these men were old enough to see what they had wrought with their lives thus far.
In here we say we’re following along the path Jesus blazed through the world. For me the great attraction is his truth-telling, his ability to cut through the world’s humbug and flimflam and his embodiment of the truth he tells, things like, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Seems to me a life that is aligned with Truth like that is a life that is congruent with itself and with all of creation.
I suppose I’m rather like the disciples--not entirely certain of the deepest meanings of the words I use in here. Still, the hope is in the following. And in the following I continue to learn to expect the near impossible. And I learn more and more how to take the hands of others who, however tentatively, have also chosen to walk the path.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
I can’t remember a time when tribalist tendencies have been more pronounced. Fueled now by awesome and invasive technology, we’ve splintered into tribal collections of passionate like-mindedness, like never before. And this cuts across all cultural forms. Political parties, churches, clubs, corporations, sports teams, independent schools, fraternities and most organizations with a bumper sticker express facets of this tribalist tendency; some benign, but many others toxic.
It’s hard to step out of this toxicity. We seem hard-wired to slice and dice the world into the saved and the damned, allowing ourselves the privilege of being among the saved, of course. That’s the endgame of tribalism after all, the amassing of power and privilege for the select group.
When considering how this can work out in church, I like to tell a story from the first year of my ministry, a time that now seems quite tame by comparison to current conditions. My first pastoral appointment was to a little church located in a small Connecticut town. True to form of all that divides us, mine wasn’t the only little church in this small town. Across the street was the little Catholic church. A block or two over was little Trinity Lutheran and two doors away from them was the little Congregational church. Lastly, at the main crossroads was the independent Bible church that proudly flew a flag of fundamentalism.
All the ministers excepting the fundamentalist were quite friendly, as were the congregations, and occasionally we would band together for some community-wide event. Our most significant joint undertaking while I was there involved the resettlement of a large extended family of Cambodian refugees. Pooling the resources of our congregations, we were barely able to handle the project. Realizing we could use all the help we could muster, we decided that I should approach the pastor of the independent church to see if they would like to help.
One Saturday morning I walked over to the parsonage and knocked on his door. After a brief exchange of greetings I launched into an invitation for his church’s participation. Without so much as a nano-second of hesitation he responded that he didn’t see how that would be possible given that we didn’t agree on many points of theology. Taken aback by his quick, curt reply I asked if there was anyone he could throw in with on a joint project.
He became thoughtful for a moment and then mentioned one church about an hour and a half a way in the westerly direction and another about an hour away in the easterly direction. But then catching himself, added with a chortle, “Well, actually they probably couldn’t work together after all because the minister there believed the millennium came before the rapture and the Bible was clear -- the rapture came first.”
(For those in need of a little primer in the conflicts in fundamentalism, the rapture and millennium refer to the end times and whether or not a period of a thousand years of peace comes before or after the saved are taken from the earth…)
I was dumbstruck. Eventually I said, “You mean to tell me, that disagreement would prevent you from working together, say, to re-settle a Cambodian family?” He shook his head yes. I backed out the door mumbling some incoherent thing, stumbled down the steps, and began my life-long fascination with the human propensity to draw boundaries of exclusion.
And I suppose this simply could have confirmed my opinion of certain fundamentalists, but instead had the effect of planting a pebble in my shoe. I began wondering how I reflected similar patterns, only very pleased with myself that I wasn’t nearly as obvious in my arrogance as my ignorant brother down the street.
Because fundamentalist, or what I’ll refer to here as tribalist tendencies, actually comes in many varieties. It wears all sorts of clothes – liberal and conservative alike, republican and democrat, Christian and Muslim and Jew – persons with exclusionary opinions and practice that favor those in the “know”, those that have the special advantage, those who through some enlightened state, or birthright or heritage challenge the essential validity of others. What is white nationalism other than a tribalist outburst on hyperdrive?
Recently I had a surprisingly frank conversation with an older white woman active in her church concerning racism. After a while she finally admitted that, probably, we really should try to see everyone the same and that maybe the next generations would be able to do it. Her real point being that she had no intention of addressing her own culpability in the matter. She was quite comfortable with her prejudices, thank you, with the way she had constructed her world view, and she thought not even Jesus had the power to alter that.
In my pondering over the years, what has become quite clear is that all of us suffer from this tendency to greater or lesser degrees, this tendency to draw tribal boundaries concerning the saved and the damned; the in and the out; those that deserve our compassionate regard and those that don’t, and so forth—although, few of us sitting in this room, if asked, would consider ourselves close-minded. Still, race, ethnicity, occupation, education, gender, marital state, orientation, political ideologies, and, of course, religious orthodoxy, are not only expressions of difference among us, but deployed as powerful weapons of exclusion.
Surely this human weakness lies close to the heart of most of the world’s agony and violence.
Now I would be the first among us to claim that all so-called truths are not equal, that some things are truer than others, that some expressed truths are in fact, false, and ought to be exposed as such. I believe this strongly, even passionately. In part that’s why I’m in this line of work. I believe when at my best, I’m in an occupation that helps uncover what is profoundly true. For instance, I find the deepest of truths in the witness of Jesus, and I’m committed to understanding and proclaiming this with greater depth and maturity as the years advance.
But at the same time this requires a sort of militant humility of approach. Being on the look-out for truth means being careful to hold it lightly, hold it with a certain humility, lest one forgets that despite disagreements, all of us remain linked in ways that transcend our differences. The church has always been at its worst when it has weaponized its doctrines.
In our gospel lesson today the disciples approach Jesus with this report: “Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” But Jesus answered, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
You see the humanity in disciples’ response: “He was not one of us…” You see how they so quickly moved to exclude this fellow, to put him down and keep him out. Jesus thought otherwise, and in his words we catch a glimpse of what it means for us to be curative and life-giving agents in the world. We catch a glimpse of a larger truth, which involves a spirit of inclusion, of hospitality – as we say here at Christ Church, dynamic hospitality. We also realize from the same exchange that God’s purposes are always larger than our own definitions. Godly, loving compassion exists in other guises and arenas beyond our normal comfort zones.
Now the history of Christianity is littered with failure on this point. It’s important to confess this. Once it found alignment with worldly power, this wisdom of inclusion was lost from time to time amid the rubble of human self aggrandizement, often to very deadly effect. Still, the early church struggled to learn Jesus’ lesson. Paul wrote that in God’s kingdom there was no distinguishing between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; the church came to accept this as the logical outcome of Jesus’ witness. There was no prior condition that excluded one from God’s love. That said, over the centuries we found all sorts of reasons to parse the human family into hierarchies of value. It is so very hard to let that go.
The story of Esther we heard read earlier is the story of how one race of people treated another. It’s a story about deadly human arrogance, injustice and abuse of power, and about issues of inclusion and exclusion. This predates our own time by 2500 years, the majority of those subsequent years steeped in the teachings of Christ, with his followers now numbering in excess of two billion, and still the last century is remembered as the bloodiest in human history.
This is among the most difficult lessons for us.
The Christian difference with the world does not mean that we think the world is more evil than us; that those inside the church are redeemed and the world is fallen. Instead, the mature Christian believes that the world and the church are both fallen and redeemed by the cross of Christ. That’s the language we use. All are held by our Creator God. It’s just that, when at its best, the church seeks to know this and then attempts to live in light of that knowledge. The old cliché rings true: We’re all in the same boat.
If that’s true, then the difference between “them” and “us” begins to evaporate with wisdom born of humility. And it will cause us to be on the lookout for evidence of God’s activity in the world regardless of the garb it wears, the language it speaks, or the temples it inhabits. We should be more than glad to find friends and comrades in the most unlikely of places, for in such manner God’s transcending purposes are advanced.
Good morning. My name is Jason Byassee and I’m honored to preach in this beautiful church. Thank you Stephen for having me and Christ Church for listening to me. I’m told this church, this city, this country are eaten up with a certain judge’s nomination to the supreme court, and the drama over whether he will become a Justice. I don’t really know anything about that. I live in some other country, and I have an accent that shows I’m not from here, though President Trump regularly mocks my adopted country Canada and people with my native accent, southern. So tempted as I am to weigh in on President Trump, Judge-maybe-Justice Kavanaugh, and a certain Senate hearing that may or may not include the testimony that matters, you didn’t bring me here to opine about politics and I’m no expert on any of it. In the church the question is this: is there a word from the Lord. And I believe there is. It is about wisdom. Lady wisdom. Let us listen to and believe this woman.
31:10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. 11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. 12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. 14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar. 15 She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions to her servant girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. 17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. 18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. 19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. 20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. 21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet. 22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes. 25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. 26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue. 27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: 29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. 31 Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I did my first ever funeral 20 years ago, the family chose this passage from Proverbs 31. They wanted to say they loved and honored their mother and grandmother and this passage gave them the best words to do so. I’ll never forget the woman’s name: Mary Stuart Fowlkes: may light perpetual fall on her face. The interrogative mood of the first verse is perfect: “A virtuous woman who can find?” We found one, I said, and her name is Mary Stuart Fowlkes. May she rest in peace and rise in glory. It’s enough to make you wonder—what passage do you want read at your funeral? Because that day is coming, sooner than any of us wants. What do you want the whole arc of your life to look like looking back from the end?
May all of our lives add up to the glory of this one woman’s life in scripture. Ellen Davis, my Old Testament teacher at Duke, says this woman in Proverbs 31 is praised more highly than any other human being in the entire bible other than Jesus Christ himself. Moses is wonderful, but makes mistakes and is punished. David too, and the apostles. Even Jesus’ mother Mary is gently rebuked a time or too. Not the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31. Nothing but praise for her.
In Orthodox Jewish households, this passage is read as part of the Shabbat blessing on Friday night. After Sabbath candles are lit, the father blesses the children with words from scripture. Then he turns to his wife, looks in her eyes over candlelight, and says these words of blessing that I just read. Every week. All their lives. Then when she dies, the family often says these same words over her at her funeral. She is clothed in these words from scripture. Words of dignity and honour and respect. I suspect we should listen to the woman, don’t you think?
Our New Testament passage also refers to wisdom, it shows Jesus has listened, but it’s a bit less dignified, a bit more like our rough and tumble political climate. It starts with John the Baptist. He’s disappointed in Jesus. He baptized Jesus, he pumped him up to his friends, and then Jesus seems more interested in having parties than in saving the world. The messiah’s job is to be a king like David and make Israel great again. But Jesus is too busy partying fat and drunk to do the job. There’s a clue in this: the church should be known by the quality of our parties. I think we’re more often thought of for being frowny-faced judges of others. But man, did Jesus ever love a party. He eats and drinks his way through the gospels. You can hardly open a page of the gospels where there is no reference to Jesus eating. John is impatient. He wants Jesus to act. And Jesus will not. We may want a God who does what we want. Protests what we protest. Gets outraged at what outrages us. But instead Jesus does what he wants, not what we want. We serve him, not the reverse. He endlessly forgives sins. Honours women. Builds a church of outcasts and losers not a country club for kings and judges. Because everyone is invited to Jesus’s parties. The only ones not there have chosen not to be there. Of course, if you invite religious people to a party they say they prefer funerals. So Jesus says this strange thing in our text. He says. . .
Luke 7:18-35 John’s disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, 19 he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” . . . At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 24 After John’s messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 28 I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” . . . 31 Jesus went on to say, “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’ 33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ 35 But wisdom is proved right by all her children.”
“Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Jesus is drawing on the wisdom tradition in Israel’s scripture. He is proving wisdom true. He asks John to look around. Signs of the kingdom are blooming everywhere: the blind see, the sick are healed, the dead are raised, the poor hear good news. Be wise, John. Sure, there’s a party going on. It’s a party of people using eyes for the first time. Dead people staggered they’re alive again. Sick people dancing with crutches and canes. Yeah it’s a lot of noise and ruckus, but what do you expect John? This isn’t a morgue, it’s a paradise. John’s people are not convinced, and they go home grumbling. And Jesus doesn’t mind, he praises John, that’s a real man, he says. An Old Testament mensch. But the least in the kingdom is greater than he. John sums up all that has come before and been good. Jesus is the new normal. Jesus is wisdom in flesh. Wisdom has always been with us, in every religion and culture, foolishness too, but now what’s new is wisdom has a pancreas and a spleen and a Jewish mom. The very sketch by which God made the world, the blueprint the architect used, is here as a human being. Everyone should delight. So the way God intends things for all humanity is breaking out in our midst. No illness. No death. No misery. Only joy. Tell me that’s not a party. Jesus understands that John can’t see it and doesn’t blame him. Maybe even us religious types, like John the Baptist and Franklin Graham and Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford and Baptists in Vancouver and Methodists in New York and all Christians and all religious people and all irreligious people, will also rejoice with Jesus one day.
Introduction over. Time for the sermon. Just kidding. Sort of. What to say? Wisdom is a powerful woman in the bible who helps Christians imagine what the Son of God is like before his incarnation from the virgin Mary. Proverbs says God has always had his wisdom, God made the world according to wisdom, wisdom danced and delighted in creation like a little girl helping her daddy. Well, the church has imagined, that personified figure is sort of like the Son of God before Jesus’ birth. She is with God, advising God, delighting in God, while God sparks Adam to life. Wisdom is older than Adam, full of mirth, God’s right-hand woman. And Jesus himself says “Wisdom is proved right by all her children.” Proved right is a very important Christian word, it’s the same word translated elsewhere as . . . “justified.” Wisdom is justified by all her children. What on earth does that mean?!
There is a powerful woman at the heart of the bible, justified, proved right, by her children. And that woman is the church. The best, maybe the only argument, for why the gospel is true is a church that acts like we believe it. An ancient church teacher said “No one can have God for a father without the church for a mother.” The church births wisdom in us. That’s why we meet for worship, for bible study, for prayer groups, why we visit the elderly and have camps for kids. It’s why we founded schools and universities. We’re trying to grow in wisdom, trying to be disciples, to have our whole life, even our minds, wrapped around Jesus. “Wisdom is justified by all her children,” in other words, the quality of the church’s life shows whether the gospel is true. Let me say that again . . . There is a place for arguing about the truth of faith. We have libraries and start colleges for a reason. But the best way to show the gospel’s truth is to live it out as a community. To throw parties where people are invited and treasured who aren’t treasured or invited anywhere else. To heal and teach good news and raise the dead like Jesus. Let’s show our city by our life together that there is more to life than money. That there’s something more important than being fit and young and superficially beautiful. That the grave is conquered by Christ. We can do that, can’t we church?
But maybe our neighbours aren’t interested. They’ve heard the bible is what justifies abusing, ignoring, dishonouring women. I’m here this morning, Canadian address and southern accent and all, to tell you that’s a myth, a lie actually: The claim that the bible says women should stay at home, cook, clean, and make babies is not in the bible. Now those are all good things—every household needs food, cleanliness, and if there are no babies, soon there will be no households! But the bible does not teach that those are the only things women can do. Or that women have to do those things to be valid women. Lots of Christians and non-Christians think that’s what the bible says. They just disagree on whether the bible is right. Meanwhile where the church is growing in many places worldwide outside New York or western Canada or North Carolina it’s because of the place of honour Christianity affords for women. God is born of a woman after all. The passage from Proverbs 31 shows how and why we honour women.
The passage is about an eshet hayil in Hebrew. The translation I read calls her a “wife of noble character,” and that’s right, but hayil means more than that. The same word is used in scripture to describe military leaders, people of moral renown, governors. In social media lingo today, we’d call her a boss. If she was an athlete, we would admiringly call her a beast. Verse 15 says this of her: “She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family.” The Hebrew is meant to evoke prey hunted by animals, or booty carried off by conquering soldiers. This woman is a mother lion, a victorious general. And when 31:17 says she “She sets about her work vigorously,” the Hebrew has that she is robed in splendor. Clothed in majesty. Like God almighty. Some of the most ancient language we have for baptism in the church, is that we come up out of the water naked as newborns, and are clothed with Christ, wrapped up with the one who is wrapped up with God. That’s how the eshet hayil, the “woman of valor,” is clothed in Proverbs 31. With splendor and majesty.
We had family friends in town from North Carolina earlier in the summer, and took them to Lynn Canyon in North Vancouver. It’s how British Columbians impress guests—with tall trees and suspension bridges. There’s a boulder there our boys love to try to run up and scale. So we started to say hey look at this rock . . . and our friends’ 11-year old girl tore off before I could finish the sentence. She didn’t make it. She came back, took a breath, bared her teeth, and was off again. She hit the top and roared. Now, in a few years time, many people will evaluate her on one question alone. Her looks, very narrowly defined. The bible says no. She is a soul, stamped with the image of God. She can be powerful, and needs apologize to no one. Her looks don’t matter. Her virtue does. Listen to her.
This is something else about the eshet hayil, the virtuous woman. Her physical beauty is not remarked upon. Israel’s neighbours have poetry praising women but it’s usually for their looks. Proverbs is not interested in superficial things. Verse 31:30 says this: “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Now the passage does comment on her body, it comments again and again on her hands. “She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.” Seven times it mentions her hands—she makes her own fabric, before she sows clothes for her family. And as if that weren’t enough, she dyes it all, in purple and scarlet! Royal colours. She reminds me of a woman from the frozen prairie in the 1800s where it’d be 30 degrees below zero so she’d make quilts for her family. She said “I make them warm to keep my family from freezing and I make them beautiful to keep my heart from breaking.” She’s a businesswoman. She sells in the marketplace: “she sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” She’s active in multiple businesses, “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” Ellen Davis says this is the most detailed description of an ordinary person’s work we have anywhere in the bible or in the ancient world. And the very best thing she does with her hands is this: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” In other words . . . she’s a lot like God.
Now, as I talk I can feel some of you women feeling very, very, tired, if Proverbs 31 is the model for how to be a woman. ‘So I already have to run a household, make it look effortless, and now I also have to be able to be a soldier and run multiple businesses and be cheerful too? Life is hard enough already!’ This is one of the ironies of modernity. It’s right to say women can do what men can. But often in the 20th century we just added stereotypical male roles to women’s portfolios and didn’t take anything away. Women can be soldiers and CEO’s now but they still have to look sexy. Folks used to say with great solemnity that behind every great man was a great woman. Then we made fun of that: behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Now we say, wait, she can be the man. And of course that’s true. But even the old great man had a supportive spouse keeping the house afloat. This is a ridiculous set of demands for one person. No one can do it all. No wonder you’re tired.
Here’s the thing. The gospel does not say “try harder!” The gospel says God has done everything we need. We respond with awe, delight, and love. But we don’t have to do anything. Because God has already done everything. God is mending back together every fault line we human beings have ripped open, including gender, politics, religion, and God is doing it through the church. There is not a hurt that will not be healed one day.
The church has long noticed aspects of God in this eshet hayil, this virtuous woman. And I think this is wise. No mere human being is praised this highly anywhere else in the bible, and maybe there’s a reason for that. She’s no mere human being. Wisdom in the bible is a figure of speech, a personification. Then it becomes a person. When we realize Jesus is God in our flesh, after he dies and is raised for our salvation, we see wisdom in the bible is a glimpse beforehand of God in our skin. So when we see wisdom we think Jesus, God working to save.
The church has long been spoken of as a feminine figure, a mother, the one who births us and nurses us in faith. Women have always played a disproportionate role in educating children, first their own children, then other people’s. I sometimes joke that we men kept ordination to ourselves for so long, until the 1950s in United Methodism, because otherwise women would run the whole church. They always have. Jesus speaks of himself in feminine figures at times—he longs to gather up Israel like a hen does her chicks. And the church has sometimes wondered about the Holy Spirit as the feminine face of God. She’s the shy person of the Trinity. You can’t see her, because she’s always getting out of the way—pointing to Jesus. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit don’t want attention for themselves, they want us looking at Christ, becoming like Christ, loving Christ. And that takes women and men in the body of Christ to do it.
So don’t look at this list of the virtuous woman’s characteristics and despair at falling short. Look at it and see God. God who never falls short. God who empowers us to do more than we can ask or imagine—even if we can’t imagine getting out of bed for another day. Look at her and see the church, who births us in faith and nurtures us to maturity in Christ. Look at her and see God, who protects and provides and loves. No individual alone can be the bible’s eshet hayil. All of us, church, can together be the woman God dreams about, the eshet hayil, full of valor and might and beauty. A virtuous woman who can find? We found one. We are one. And her name is the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38
For about twenty years Tom Clancy created a not-insignificant cottage industry of techno spy-thrillers with more than 100 million copies of his novels currently in print. A number of these books made their way into top-grossing films with titles like, The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger & the Sum of All Fears, which tracked the arrival into the Port of Baltimore—and eventual explosion—of a nuclear device designed to catastrophically destabilize the U.S./Russian détente.
His worldview was nurtured through the cold war, but his storylines kept pace with evolving conditions after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he had a masterful knack for exploiting national anxieties which took on new life post 9/11.
Though he died in 2013, his crackling narratives have stayed popular as evidenced by their frequent reappearance on premium channel television and continuing robust book sales. Probably, the majority of you have seen at least one of the films which have featured several of our culture’s more popular male leads in the role of Clancy’s now iconic hero, Jack Ryan. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and more recently, Chris Pine, have all taken a turn at playing the unassuming CIA analyst with history as a marine and a Ph.D. in economics.
Underscoring the enduring popularity of this character, Amazon Prime has just released an 8 episode update they’ve called, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, now starring John Krasinski in the title role. Krasinski caught fame in the wildly successful series, The Office.
The reviews have been interesting, covering the political gamut from left to right, and several exploring the personality traits of the protagonist. Some find Ryan self-righteous, and he is routinely touted as a boy scout, often in less-than-flattering terms. Of course, Clancy builds that critique into his narratives.
There’s a lot that could be useful as fodder for assessing many current political and current flashpoints. One reviewer in Vanity Fair said, “Jack Ryan is an astonishing case study in toxic narratives. I watched it twice, slack-jawed in amazement; I do not know if this is an endorsement or not.” Although, she was clearly engaged and energized as she rips its assumptions apart.
And I get that. But like that reviewer, I have now seen the series through and I was struck by something in particular—Jack Ryan is actually a very decent guy, a man of integrity. You could disagree with the undergirding geo-politico framework, I suppose, but he speaks the truth, holds others accountable to the truth and valiantly tries to do the right thing as he understands it. As he says more than once, he wants to make a difference from inside the belly of the beast.
On NPR, Eric Deggens said that “Jack Ryan is the perfect public servant, smart enough to solve everything from the drug war to international terrorism without compromising his ideals… At a time when so many government officials are mired with gaffes, scandals and corruption investigations, it feels good to see a government employee dedicated to making the right decisions for the right reasons…”
Honestly, I had that same response when Melissa and I binged watched the season last week. Sure, there are lots of things to analyze about the presumptions and prescriptions embedded in the plot. But I guess it’s the timing—how refreshing to actually find a character with personal integrity! How unusual.
Our news is jam-packed with corruptions of every sort. One political operative after another indicted and found guilty; pervasive disregard of truth; clerical sex abuse of children; and the mounting number of narcissists toppled by the #metoo moment.
As I mentioned last week, I don’t know that our time is more corrupt than others, but it certainly seems as though we’re inundated with a relentless cascade of public and private disclosures of personal and systemic corruptions. It’s exhausting.
So maybe we can be forgiven if we find relief in a character who tries to do right. Even saying this out loud sounds a bit jarring given current conditions. Are you like me in this? Do you feel bereft of mentors in the public realm who model a different way of organizing a set of life commitments?
Our passage from Proverbs announced: “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out, at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge… I will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm and your calamity comes like a whirlwind…”
How quaint this appeal to wisdom sounds today! I note the writer insists wisdom speaks right in the midst of the busiest intersection of the city. We could think of it like the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street, in the heart of the city in the heart of the world. Right there. As if to say, right in here, among us. Call it essential, practical wisdom. The wisdom that’s consistent with human flourishing.
And as though right on cue to current conditions our reading from James tells us that the tongue—our speech—reflects our character, the direction our lives have taken. Choose your words well, he argues. Don’t let your words lead you to evil deeds.
Speech directs action; action reflects character. Oh my. This reading is pure coincidence, or, I suppose, serendipity.
As we heard last week, James reveals the hypocrisy of “faith” that is merely professed without corresponding actions that inevitably manifest from authentic faith. He says that faith without works is dead and religion without compassion is worthless.
Now he aims a little deeper: the hypocrite who says one thing and does another is actively practicing deceit. It may be self-deception or it may be deliberate lies, but the water at the source is polluted. No matter how eloquently crafted, speech that springs from polluted water cannot be clean.
As Jeanyne Slettom summarizes, “Speech that uplifts, that encourages, that teaches wisdom, that resonates as true, is speech that springs from a pure heart. And that is what James is ultimately aiming for. His fuming against hypocrisy is a plea for its opposite: integrity.”
And so there you have the point of it today. A plea for integrity from the source of our faith.
And let’s be very clear here: integrity is not perfection. None of us is perfect. None of us knows the whole truth. Each of us, myself included, suffers personal corruptions to greater or lesser degrees. That’s why we often share in prayers of confession in our worship, to set the record straight. If we say these with sincerity we’re properly situating ourselves before God and one another, the opposite of hypocrisy.
So, integrity begins with humble confession of our limitations. But from there we seek with open hands and hearts to live lives that are consistent with our mission to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. Love of this sort requires a kind of transparency, or purity of intention. Now again, we don’t do this perfectly, but if we earnestly seek to love well, we can’t help but continue to evolve in a manner that honors God’s original design specifications.
In my Faith Matters blog this week, I quoted Susan Howatch, another author of fiction whose characters grapple with integrity. She wrote: “We die and we die and we die in this life, not only physically—within seven years every cell in our body is renewed—but emotionally and spiritually as change seizes us by the scruff of the neck and drags us forward into another life. We are not here simply to exist. We are here in order to become. It is the essence of the creative process: it is in the deepest nature of things.”
In one sense, our becoming is a process of integrity, of growing increasingly congruent with the things that matter most of all. This doesn’t happen all at once. Along the way we learn to slough off the bad stuff, the stuff that prevents us from loving well. We become more familiar with our limitations and weaknesses. We learn to honor what God honors, to seek justice and equity, to acknowledge the human dignity of all persons.
As this evolves we wind up embodying Jesus’ instruction to take up a cross, “For what will it profit…to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
He’s the voice of wisdom on the busy street corner calling people to wake up and see what’s most real, most vital, most important for human flourishing.
And it seems we hear his voice not a moment too soon…
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37
Back in 2005, Senator John McCain wrote a book entitled, Character Is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember. I was reminded of this through all of the media coverage of his funeral and editorializing about his life which clearly hit a resonant chord in our cultural moment. The phrase, “character is destiny,” was coined by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and refers to the idea that all of us actually participate in choosing the future that comes to us—we’re not simply victims of fate.
In the book’s introduction McCain writes this: “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.”
And now I’m reminded of an exchange I had with a young man who was preparing for college. He asked me if I thought he was foolish for not taking advantage of an opportunity to cheat on the SAT. He said the proctor was very encouraging of the students to take more time than officially allotted to be sure they had done all they could on each of the sections. “Go ahead, help each other out,” he said.
The majority availed themselves of the proctor’s offer. However, he had stuck with the formal time restraints and was now wondering if that was foolish given the cutthroat competition of the college admissions process.
On a very basic level he was asking me whether dishonest success or integrity was more important. I was impressed he was questioning this at all given the cultural climate being so heavily weighted on the side of success-at-any-and-all-costs. Was he a fool? Well, I said in a sense he was, but it was just this sort of foolishness that helped the human race grow into its greatest glory. If only we had more fools like him.
You could try out a thought experiment: Had you been in this young man’s shoes, what would you have done and why? And then I’ll ask you to hold to the side of consciousness your perspective on the current state of our national character and that of our various leaders. There’s a whole lot we could talk about there, but for our purposes today that would take us down a rabbit hole of infinite dimensions.
Our scriptures today remind us that what we hold as our deepest values shapes the character choices we make. We just heard our ancient texts speak some very homely things like this: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor [or reputation] is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” Simple. Pithy. And damning of current conditions.
Some scholars think that the book of Proverbs arose during a time of corruption and moral weakening. I suppose some of us today might feel that description characterizes our own time. Personally, I’m not certain that our time is especially corrupt. What I am certain of is that we’re subject to the same sort of corruption today as our forebears were over two thousand years ago. It’s quite compelling to consider that their hard-won wisdom is as relevant today as it was then.
Would you rather have a name associated with wealth, or one associated with great character? We want to believe these are not mutually exclusive goals, of course; but still, in a forced choice test, which comes out on top? The text functions subversively in our context, where two of the mightiest capitalist symbols came crashing down seventeen years ago in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest nation in the world. Be reminded that the anniversary of that calamity arrives on Tuesday. It was also a Tuesday in 2001. I remember it vividly.
Proverbs places the moral life squarely within the realm of choice. We have choices to make. All of the time. Every day presents us with myriad choices, many of which carry moral freight. That is, they carry some component of meaning that is larger than our individual selfish desire. What am I going to do in this situation? How shall I live? To what ends shall I direct my time and energy? What commitments and behaviors actually hallow life? Who am I in relation to everyone else? How do we belong to one another?
Since you’ve taken the time to be here this morning, you likely entertain these questions, at least from time to time. And I also know that a good chunk of the population out beyond these walls has these questions lurking around the fringe of consciousness. It must be so given our belief we were all formed by the same loving Creator whose very breath pumps our lungs. We can’t help ourselves, our moral intuition is written into our DNA.
We can’t help ourselves wondering about what a life is for, really. Well, we can put the question off, we can smother it over with every sort of preoccupation, we can stuff it, drown it, ignore it, but then something happens, say something terrible and shocking, and, at least for a moment, the clutter is ripped away, and we see our choices more starkly exposed. That happened en masse on our island seventeen years ago. People flocked to churches because they had become instantly unmoored.
When I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I had the pleasure of speaking with a number of people our culture would identify as leaders. One of them, Samuel Pisar, was one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. Captured and incarcerated at the age of 12 he lost his entire family to Hitler’s horrors before escaping from Auschwitz at the age of 16. By his own recounting, in order to survive he nurtured a very clever and canny personality and his life could have turned out very differently than it did. He told me he had become a feral child.
But somehow, through the nurturing of the larger community, he managed to achieve doctorates at both Harvard and the Sorbonne, eventually writing the treatise that became the west’s blueprint for economic engagement with Russia, China and the Far East. He became a US citizen by an act of congress and was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Post 9/11, and struggling mightily with the meanings and tensions of retribution and forgiveness, he became an advocate for finding pathways into a reconciled future; he feared the world was once again veering into camps of depraved indifference for human life.
Samuel Pisar was not a perfect man, if such a thing could be conceived, but he was a man who made a series of choices over the course of his life that clearly answered the question, “What is a life for, really?” in a way that dignified the global human community. And I wonder: how did that happen? He could have chosen so very differently… I’m thinking John McCain was cut from a similar cloth… As in a much smaller way the young man who came to ask me if he was a fool because he chose integrity over a kind of dishonest success. All of them, fools for certain…
And I’m reminded of another small story told by Rabbi Shifra Penzia, about her great aunt Sussie, who rode a bus home on a snowy evening in Munich during the Nazi pogroms. Suddenly, SS storm troopers stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into the truck around the corner.
Sussie watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he asked her why.
“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.”
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “You stupid (expletive deleted),” he roared. I can’t stand being near you!”
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
“Damn her, the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her papers again!” I’m so fed up. She always does this!”
The soldiers laughed and moved on. Sussie never saw the man again. She never even knew his name (Homiletics, Sept.-Oct. 2000, p.17).
In that moment some larger frame of reference, some big answer to the question, “what is a life for?” grabbed hold of this man. Something other than his own immediate self-interest directed his actions. He placed himself squarely against the prevailing corruption of his own society. That’s not a small thing. Would that we could see much more of that in our own society, a squaring off from the corruption that engulfs us.
Perhaps some otherwise trite sounding yet profoundly true aphorisms expressed his thinking. For instance, something about a good name—maybe a name associated with compassion, courage, integrity—was worth more than, well, at the moment, maybe even more than life itself.
Or, maybe he had taken to heart the admonition we heard from James this morning who wrote, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matters of character receive far too little focused attention in our culture. We rarely speak of virtue, which isn’t to say there is none anywhere to be discovered. But few seem ready to hold themselves accountable to virtuous ends. Perhaps that’s due to how technology strips away our privacy. It seems everyone can know anything about any one of us. In a world that transparent, who dares set a high bar for virtue? Feet of clay abound.
No one withstands The Great Scrutiny. No one. Nevertheless, in such a culture as ours, great character comes with humble self-awareness while striving to hear and to act upon the voices of the better angels of our nature. As James wrote to his friends, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” In other words, if what you say you believe doesn’t actually show up in the content of your life…
A great church invests itself in helping to create a great people formed by the faith that calls us into our better selves. That’s a fundamental reason for our existence—helping each grow into the persons God intended from the beginning…