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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Exodus 24:12-18; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
A small boy, maybe around 4-years-old-or-so, asked me on a Sunday morning if I thought God would show up today. He asked it eagerly, not cynically, as though repeating something he heard his father toss off sarcastically. I told him I thought there was a very good chance of it. Did he hope for it? After a long pause he said he didn’t know—the thought of it sort of scared him.
This brought to mind my own memory from about the same age as my new acquaintance—the earliest memory I have of being in church. During Sunday worship I sat on the edge of my pew waiting for God to make an entrance. I had my eyes glued on the carved altarpiece at the back of the chancel thinking God would emerge from the shadows behind. I was both excited and scared.
Needless to say, God didn’t appear in the manner I was expecting. And I suppose I could say I’ve had my focus fixed on that spot ever since—waiting expectantly, hopefully, with just enough fear to make my desire honest. After all, it’s God, we’re speaking about here, the one who flung the stars into distant space and fashioned life out of dust.
Childhood dreams are washed away by adult realities, of course. The child’s imagination succumbs to the onslaught of secular education and the demand for sticking to the tangible and material. The five physical senses have pride of place in our culture over the one unnamed and under-utilized sense that has a bead on Mystery and transcendence. Spiritual yearnings get short shrift in educational and family settings overfull with busy stuff. The wonderment about life—its origins, meaning and purpose—gets lost in the din of many distractions.
Interestingly, this can even happen within the church. Adult religion is easily stripped of an intimate sense of the transcendent. And it can happen in both conservative and liberal settings that gather in the rather comfortable state of being quite clear about whom God is or is not, having honed it down to a set of propositions.
God becomes more of an idea than a living, dynamic reality in the present moment. Forms of prayer can seem anachronistic, or artificial, certainly nothing that really amounts to much now that we’ve outgrown childish fantasies and superstitions.
And true enough, there are plenty of superstitions we ought to leave behind. There is a lot of bad religion out there, neurotic religion, narcissistic religion, destructive religion. We all know something about that. Some of us know of it quite personally. And you know people who are persuaded that all religion is bad, or at best simply irrelevant. For them to be an adult means, in part, leaving behind in the toy box what they might refer to as the crutch or the delusion of God.
For me, that would be like leaving my heart behind in the toy box, or my soul—the precious aspect of my essential identity. I’ve never understood why so many people do not see this the way I do, that is, don’t see God lurking everywhere behind creation and sense God mixed up in the air of every breath they take. This is a great conundrum to me: that what I know to be the deepest truth would be for others a curious improbability.
You can tell the designers of this space understood what I’m talking about. We can surmise by the results of their obvious effort and investment of resources that they thought God should be seen and heard. That wonder was an important component of life.
If not, this was a horribly expensive folly, wasn’t it? There are plenty of New Yorkers who think that, of course. They think that the purpose for which this place was built is complete bunk, although they like that it sits here on the corner as opposed to, say, yet one more condominium. They may like that they live in a city with useless but very attractive cultural artifacts.
When I first moved into the city at the tail end of a hot building boom, I was routinely telephoned by real estate developers who shared the exact same rap: “Reverend, did you know that you’re sitting on one of the five most valuable undeveloped properties in all of New York?” And I repeated the same response every time: “And here I thought that it was developed.”
We’ve often reflected that when you make your way into a place like this on a Sunday morning in this city you’re behaving counter-culturally. You know that many, maybe most, of your friends and business associates did not go to a religious observance this weekend. And they’re not entirely certain what to make of those who do.
From their vantage point it’s a bit strange that people choose to gather in these decorative buildings on an otherwise perfectly fine Sunday morning, singing songs about someone named God and reading opaque ancient writings, while practicing esoteric rituals with people wearing blue and white robes.
But then that’s all part of the mystery we’re marketing. We use imaginative means and materials to hook all of our senses so that underused sixth sense might be tweaked into life. We take that 4-year-old’s wonder seriously, as though it just might be the most important thing there is.
To be completely truthful, what we’re really selling here is change. If we were simply concerned with portraying an entertaining idea about God and leave it at that, church would be a bit like a religious zoo with our version of god safely caged. With the passing of the plate we’d pay our price of admission, throw a few peanuts in the direction of that which we’ve come to see and be on our way.
What we’re really selling here, is God uncaged—God on God’s own terms. But to actually allow for that possibility requires a break with the status quo in our lives. It requires an expectation like that of my young 4-year-old friend asking if God would be showing up on a Sunday. I’m reminded of Jesus once commenting that unless we become like little children we will never find the kingdom of God. Children have an innocent anticipation of what they do not know because they know so very little, really. Can we admit how little we actually know and how little we actually control behind our masquerades of competence and mastery?
Annie Dillard offers this observation: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? …It is madness to wear…hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
We don’t know what happened at Mt. Sinai as Moses led the Hebrew people from captivity in Egypt, but we do know this: that whatever happened “released a torrent of spiritual energy which transformed Israel into a people of priests and prophets, bringing enlightenment to humanity,” and establishing a course of human civilization to the present day. (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook)
In the Gospel passage concerning the disciples’ vision of a transfigured Jesus, that Sinai experience is recalled. Again the sacred event happens on a mountaintop. Peter reports that Jesus was changed. When they looked at him in one direction it was the same old Jesus, but then looking again they were astonished and rattled by glory. The witnesses would be changed as well, but they wouldn’t get the full force of it until some time later, after they descended the mountain and got on with life.
Commenting on the transfiguration, Harry Emerson Fosdick said an inner transformation took place in Jesus…”faith replaced fear, strength for anxiety, confidence for hesitation, inward power adequate for outward tension. That showed in his face.” Ultimately, it would show in the faces of Jesus’ witnesses, and the spiritual power released through them brings us to this moment 2000 years later.
The 40-something man said he wanted to speak with me during the week as he left the sanctuary. He had been profoundly shaken. Monday morning he called me; we met that afternoon. He wasn’t sure what had happened, he said. He even felt a bit childish. But something had turned him upside down. Something I had said sliced like a knife into a deep part of him. He added, “No offense, but I didn’t even think that the sermon was all that interesting.” Nevertheless, it was during the music following that he felt the deep incision. He couldn’t stand for the offering hymn. His knees were wobbly when he finally got up to leave.
He identified himself as a successful corporate officer, Harvard MBA. Traveled all over the world; had dropped in on church off and on, but it had never felt like this. This was different. He was like a kid in Sunday school. “Imagine that!” he said. “I went to church and found God…” He had the same look of excitement, fear and confusion as the boy who asked me if God would be showing up on a Sunday a while ago...
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1st Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
So I’ve been thinking of late that these are really interesting times to be a preacher. Current conditions have challenged the status quo for churches and ministers of the gospel. The fractious political culture dividing American citizens doesn’t offer a receptive environment for the call to spiritual unity. Today Jesus teaches that we’re supposed to love our enemies, and I guess that includes everyone with whom we strongly disagree as well. That’s a hard discipline, isn’t it?
There are a lot of opinions among Christians about how politics should or should not find their way into church. I like to remind people that Jesus was not a partisan but he did die a political death at the hands of the state. He was accused and executed for sedition, as in, promoting discontent or rebellion against the government. That didn’t exactly describe his mission, but on the other hand it held several grains of truth.
Over the years this has led me to keep a clear-eyed focused on the heart of what it means to love God and neighbor, letting the chips fall where they may. In this way the point was never about learning to behave or sound like a Republican or a Democrat in here, but like a Christian, committed to the ethical system appropriate for the citizens of the kingdom of God. I’ve tried to maintain that discipline over the years.
But followers after the way of Jesus will inevitably find themselves engaged in matters of public policy. To love authentically has political consequences, up and down the scale of importance, as Jesus’ own life exemplifies. Since this is President’s weekend, we might consider our nation’s blood-drenched road to the abolition of slavery. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a staunch abolitionist. That was a result of his Christian faith. You couldn’t be a Methodist and a slaveholder simultaneously. There was no true middle ground on the matter. To be sort of against slavery but do nothing to stop it was really to be sort of for it, for the end result was the same. There was a political consequence to the matter of how we were to love among the races.
I’ve always appreciated that Christ Church has assembled a broadly diverse congregation over the last three decades—more than 50 different nationalities and ethnicities, from all walks of life. Despite this diversity we discover that we share many of the same questions about suffering and meaning. Over the years I’ve often heard that you seek simple instruction and clear direction—you desire a clear point of view anchored in the wisdom of our tradition fashioned through thousands of years of human struggle. The music, the preaching, the praying, the architecture can all provide fine sacred stimulus, but after all is said and done, “What should we do?” may be the relevant question.
And as if responding to that specific concern today’s scripture speaks directly. First, from Leviticus: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…” And what does it mean to be holy? Well, we’re supposed to take care of the poor; we should live lives of integrity, that is, no lying, cheating or stealing. We should have compassionate regard for others. You should not hate or take vengeance or bear a grudge… indeed, “you should love your neighbor as yourself.”
And as if that wasn’t clear and direct enough, some hundreds of years later Jesus ups the ante by radicalizing the old teaching. In the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson, Jesus says, “You’re familiar with the old law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy…’ I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true, God-created selves. This is what God does. God gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless; the good and bad, the nice and the nasty.”
“You are kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
I don’t know what you came expecting to hear today, what kernel of an idea for self-improvement or pathway to happiness. Likely it wasn’t, “love your enemy and pray for those that persecute you.” If you’ve hung around a church for any length of time, well, maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard this admonition from Jesus and like most people have dismissed it as hopelessly utopian. Love your enemy?—yeah, right, Steve, I’ll get right on that…
Every once in a long while exemplars arise that clarify the matter. Consider these words of Martin Luther King Jr. that he wrote in 1958: “Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities and fears. Agape [the main Greek word for love in the New Testament] is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action.
“Agape love seeks to preserve and create community... It doesn’t stop at the first mile, but it goes the second mile to restore community. It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community….
“If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.”
And we then recognize this love had political consequences. Still does. Still does...
Now with 20/20 hindsight I invite anyone to suggest how King’s words do not square in their entirety with Jesus’ instruction. What I can tell you as one who lived through that time period as a young person, much of so-called Christian America would not have seen this strikingly obvious truth and its ramifications for our society since it was spoken by a black preacher.
In retrospect that’s a real head-scratcher. I mean, how could those who claimed they followed after the way Jesus blazed get it so fundamentally wrong? At the time, a popular critique of civil rights talk in church was that politics shouldn’t come inside the church door, which was a cover for the incipient racism that filled the pews. Jesus was lost in the noise and it was forgotten he died a political death. An uncomfortable truth better left unsaid.
Every now and again I like to return to G.K. Chesterton’s famous quip, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Love my enemy, you say. Pray for those who persecute me… hmm, well then...
One of the regular criticisms leveled at the church goes like this: What difference does it really make, other than dividing people up into those that belong and those that don’t? What’s its purpose? For all of the great music and architecture, so what, really? And it’s just here that our desire for clear, direct teaching meets Jesus as though for the first time.
Notice that he does not say that the point of it all is right doctrines. Nothing about agreeing to a correct set of propositions about God, something we Christians tend to fight about as of absolutely greatest importance. Instead, Jesus says that in God’s kingdom of grace our primary interest should concern how well we love one another.
Honestly, I think it’s a lot easier to argue about the fine points of a creed than it is to love one’s enemy. A lot easier. Arguing about who’s got it right set of words, who’s in and who’s out, is a fantastic distraction. Indeed, doesn’t one’s enemy often follow a different creed? And this disagreeable person doesn’t need to live in a far-away land. Again, in our incredibly shrinking world Chesterton had his finger on the truth when he said, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
What an incredibly daunting agenda is set before us: breathtaking; bracing; ennobling; life-altering! You won’t hear about this anywhere else. The poet Robert Browning captured the essence of our circumstance in his famous line: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” We’re meant to stretch beyond our current condition, reaching all the way into the kingdom of God.
That’s what we’ll be praying in a moment: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as is in heaven.” This yearning for the better way prompted Paul to write, “this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus…[because] our citizenship is in heaven…”
Friends, if the pursuit of the better way tugs at your heart then you are well on your way to joining the ranks of those who are bent on changing the world—Love’s rabble-rousing revolutionaries! And make no mistake, just as with Jesus and the disciples, there may come a moment to stand up and be counted among the righteous.
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
Because I’m a graduate of Yale Divinity School and serve on its Board of Advisors, I’ve had interest in how the university was going to handle the matter of possibly renaming its John C. Calhoun residential college. Though this issue had been simmering for decades it roared into life in 2015 following the murder of nine African American church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina by a self-described white supremacist who had posed with confederate flags in photos.
John C. Calhoun was also from South Carolina, graduating from Yale in 1804 as valedictorian, eventually serving the United States as vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and a U.S. senator. But he left behind the legacy of a leading statesman who used his office to strongly advocate for slavery and white supremacy. As a national leader, Calhoun helped enshrine his racist views in American policy. While other southern statesmen and slaveholders treated slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun actually insisted it was a “positive good,” beneficial to enslaved people and essential to republican institutions.
As a result of these considerations, Yale has just now decided to remove his name from the school since, in the Yale President’s words, “[The] legacy of Calhoun…conflicts fundamentally with the values Yale has long championed. Unlike other namesakes on our campus, he distinguished himself not in spite of these views but because of them.”
So, in effect what has happened in the last year and half is that Yale did some serious soul-searching and wound up recovering its root values and commitments. This required stripping away encrusted, barnacle-like accretions of privilege, legacy, and tradition until the underlying values were laid bare. When that was finally accomplished, the decision was obvious.
Of course, it’s tempting to say it was always obvious. Even from the moment the college was first given the name Calhoun in 1931— when the stained-glass window was installed depicting slaves picking cotton with a portrait of the great man placed nearby. Calhoun was a racist white supremacist in 1804, and in 1860 when he led South Carolina to secede, and in 1931 with the founding of the college, and now in 2017. The facts haven’t changed a bit. It just took a good long while for the hypocrisy to so weigh down on the truth that it couldn’t be carried any longer.
I’m sharing this as an up-to-the-minute example of what can happen when a decision is made to affirm one’s core values. In this case, it was a system-wide process, but still comprised of individual decisions, which I’m guessing were highly nuanced by all interested parties: students, professors, administrators, funders, development officers, trustees, alumni and so forth. In some soul-searching way, each individual decision had to take account of what to do about idolizing a racist white supremacist in one of the nation’s most storied institutions. An African-American student living at Calhoun College adorned with the slave window might have a different gut perspective on this than a prosperous, 70-year-old, white alumni living in Greenwich.
We can imagine that it took 86 years to reach this point because until now the folks who had place and position within the system didn’t really want to consider it seriously. As I said, Calhoun was also vice president, secretary of state, secretary of war and a U.S. senator. Surely a lot of money had been donated in his name, although, at least some of that was no doubt an extended legacy from the sweat of slaves. After all, slavery was at the heart of an economic system that produced wealth for a comparatively few. The slaughter in a Charleston church is what ripped the skin off this corruption of values today.
But you can sense how complicated these matters get when you start traveling down the path of self-examination leading to a decision about fundamental values. Human nature being what it is, we likely just as soon not start that process at all. We defensively demur that everyone’s got skeletons in their closet, some more than others… but then, some have a whole cemetery locked away…
As the story is told, near the end of Moses’ life, as the Israelites are finally ending their 40 years in the wilderness and about to settle in the land of Canaan, Moses reminds them that they have a fundamental decision ahead of them. He starkly tells them they have options about the sort of people they will become: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors.”
This reaffirms the constituting promise for the Hebrew people, reminding them of their most basic value commitment. The Hebrew Scriptures tell story after story of their individual and collective tendency to let other matters, other gods, if you will, capture their attention, causing them to forget this core value at the heart of life. But the stories also tell of God’s relentless pursuit of his people because God wants nothing more than their flourishing.
The heart of healthy religion keeps a laser focus on what matters most of all: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s the core insight from our tradition. From this flow all the qualities that reveal the glory of our humanity. Things like humility, integrity, courage, fidelity, kindness, compassion and justice.
This is the religious impulse at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching. He invites everyone who will listen to strip away all the life-sucking accretions that prevent human flourishing. That’s the underlying agenda behind the Sermon on the Mount. In the portion we heard today he radicalizes the law so that no one can escape judgment.
Who hasn’t been viciously angry with someone wishing them great harm; who hasn’t lied or lusted or tried to take unfair advantage of someone? Who hasn’t fallen into the trap from time to time of self-delusional corruption? Jesus means to level the playing field, stripping away all our defenses and conceits so we can see clearly the heart of the matter.
And here’s the heart of the matter: loving God and loving everything that God loves leads to abundant life. That’s it. You want to know the secret of a meaningful, joyful life filled with love and hope? You want to know the Grand Unified Theory to abundant life? Love God and love everything God loves.
Man, that sounds so simple! But I know from personal experience that attempting to hold on to it cuts to the bone. This is not a sentimental discipline because after the manner of Jesus, it calls us to hold ourselves accountable to what we say we value most of all. And all sorts of things that have captured our attention and allegiance don’t measure up; some are actually antithetical to love; these need to be named and discarded for the sake of our flourishing. Sometimes we call this justice.
Here’s the wonderful thing. Every single day provides a fresh opportunity for us to choose life. Every day. Today, for instance, is a fantastic day to say yes to life and to love. I choose to love God and all the things that God loves; that shall be my foundational commitment.
And how good is it that we do this in the presence of others who are also choosing the way of abundant life? I’m heartened and strengthened by your presence and your willingness to join my imperfect intentions, and hopefully you are heartened and strengthened by the others in this room as well. We’re meant to do this in a company of friends. We call it church, but at the heart of it we’re just a band of pilgrims seeking to live and promote abundant life for all.
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b - 12); Matthew 5:13-20
Many of us will gather with friends later today to watch our country’s highest rated sports event, the Super Bowl. We’ll eat millions, if not billions, of chicken wings. We’ll gorge on pizza, chips, and beer. We’ll wear our favorite team’s colors or paraphernalia. Some have spent thousands or tens of thousands for the elite privilege of viewing the game live at NRG stadium. Others will watch on their rented or newly purchased 60-inch flat screen televisions. The Super Bowl is a religious experience of sorts. While we may be reluctant to say that football is a god, certainly we have placed supreme importance on this particular game. Theologian Barbara Lundblad notes that when we consider all the rituals of this celebration, we might realize that it is not altogether different from what we do in church on Sundays. Many have sojourned to Houston just to be in the vicinity of the celebration. People will stand at attention while the American flag, our sacred object, is being carried onto the field. Men will remove their caps. We’ll place our hands over our hearts as the national anthem is played. Many will mouth the words quietly as if they were in prayer.
To many, this occasion feels like one of our noblest moments as a nation. Regardless of which team people cheer for, feelings of patriotism will be almost palpable. Cameras panning the crowd will show people standing tall with tears in their eyes reflecting pride in their homeland. And yet, while this ritual is happening, something else will be happening in our nation. While we eat our chicken wings and chips, 1 in 6 people in our country will continue to fight hunger. While some view the game from suites priced at over $300,000, others will sleep on streets with temperatures below 30 degrees. While we laud one team’s ability to conquer their opponent, some trafficked sex worker will become another person’s sexual conquest.
And after all the ritual of the evening is complete, we will return to our daily routines, consumed largely by our own personal needs, problems, and pursuits. Many Muslims will continue to fear for their safety here and abroad. Our nation’s indigenous people will continue facing intimidation and discrimination as they defend their land from oil pipelines. Coal companies will resume dumping waste into our water. Families in Flint will still have lead in their pipes. Millions of children will still receive a substandard education. And time will reveal that the rituals surrounding today’s game, have done little, if anything, to close the chasm between who we aspire to be and who we really are.
Now I pause here to say that I recognize that our nation is not a religious community. In fact, one of our nation’s founding principles is the separation of Church and State. The rituals of the Super Bowl are not—at least intentionally—a declaration about our theological beliefs. They are not meant to bring us closer to God. Nevertheless, these rituals lift up the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and unity, and they reveal to us a chasm between our nation’s ideals and people’s lived reality.
Today’s lectionary readings have something to offer about that. In Isaiah 58, we encounter a community that is also experiencing a chasm between who they espouse to be and who they really are. The community in Isaiah 58 has returned to Jerusalem and Judea from Babylonian captivity. They are navigating the challenges of rebuilding their lives, and the community is seeking to renew their relationship with the holy. In an erroneous attempt to connect with God, the Israelites focus on rituals instead of righteousness. But God is having none of it. In Isaiah 58:1, God tells the speaker to announce the people’s sin and rebellion. God is not pleased with how they were living because their worship was disconnected from their daily lives. Outside of worship, the community had done little to protect and provide for its most vulnerable. They were worshipping, but they had no witness. And worship without witness is worthless. And it remains true for us that if we are to have a worship that is worthy of our God, then when we finish praying, when we finish fasting, and when we finish singing, we must get up from these pews and go out into the world to work; to be the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew.
So how do we do that? Through the prophet Isaiah, God provides guidance on how we can witness to our faith in the world. And while this list is not exhaustive of all we are to do, we discover here that being salt and light requires few things: resistance, insistence, and persistence.
Resistance. It’s a hot word being used right now. With all that is going on in the world many are finding it important to resist laws, policies and practices that they consider unjust. Some resist by marching in the streets. Others are refusing to follow laws they consider unjust. Some cities are resisting what they view unjust immigration policies by offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Still, there are those who view resistance, organized or disorganized, as a nuisance to society. But what our text reveals to us is that resistance—withstanding the effects of something—does not begin with us. The text illustrates that resistance begins with God.
God tells the prophet to shout out the people’s sin. In The Message Bible God says “Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives.” The text continues: “The people are busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about me. They maintain the appearances of a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring [people]…The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit. You drive your employees much too hard. You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.”
God recognized that the community’s busyness in worship, their prayers, their fasts were insincere. Why? Because they didn’t result in any change of heart. The people’s worship was not about God but about themselves. If anything, they were hoping to cajole God into giving them prosperity and protection. They wanted to avoid another stint in Babylonian exile. But God resisted their prayers. God refused to hear them; refused to be moved by false worship.
Instead, God insisted on how the people should live: “This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.” God says I’m interested in seeing you, “sharing your food with the hungry, inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad, [and] being available to your own families. Get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins. Be generous with the hungry, and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out.”
And the same principles that were true for the Israelites thousands of years ago remain true for us today. If we are to help change our world from a place filled with unnecessary brokenness to a place filled with light and love, then we must resist those who do not sincerely try to make positive change. Shout out the truth about laws and policies that keep people oppressed. We insist that our nation live up to its ideals of liberty, freedom and justice. And we insist that we treat all people with compassion, dignity, and respect.
And not only do we resist and insist, but we must persist. Persist in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Persist in loving our neighbors as ourselves. Persist in being the salt and light that Jesus commands us to be in Matthew 5. And God says to the people if you do this, when you do these things, I’ll continue to guide. If you do this, then your light will shine. Isaiah records: “Your lives will turn around at once. Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage. Then when you pray, God will answer. You’ll call out for help and God will say, ‘Here I am.’”
Now, persistence is not easy. It demands commitment and courage. It takes energy and strength. It’s easier to rest in our own comfort than to work on behalf of others. But as Civil Rights leader Ella Bker said, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest…” We must work until freedom comes. Not just for a few. But for all.
This reminds me of a story I hear about a man who fell into a dark hole. He was crying out for help and a priest came by. The priest said a prayer for the man and then kept going. Later a wealthy man came by. The wealthy man wrote a check, dropped it in the hole, and then kept walking. Finally, the man’s friend came by. He heard the man crying out for help and he jumped in the hole with him. The trapped man said to his friend, why did you get down in here with me. Now we’re both trapped. The friend replied, I’ve been in this whole before, and I know the way out.
There are some among us who are trapped in a dark hole. And they don’t just need our prayers. They don’t just need our money. They need those of us who know the way out to get in the hole with them and help them out. Some of us know the way out because our people have been in the hole before. Some were in the hole during slavery, and they found their way out. Some were in the hole during women’s suffrage, but they found their way out. Some of us were in the hole in Japanese internment camps, but we found our way out. Some were in the hole during Jim Crow, but we found our way out. Today, persisting means that those of us who are out may have to climb back in to help others find their way. But in 40 or 50, years when the world looks back at this moment in our history and asks us “What did you do?” what will be our response? We will say, we tried to be good people. We prayed for people every Sunday at church. Or will those who come behind us be able to see what we did. That we persisted in caring for the immigrant, for the poor, for people of color, for women? We will be able to say, I served at El Nido? I made a meal at Sharing Table? I resisted unjust policies and laws? I marched for equal rights?
So go. Enjoy the Super Bowl. Eat some chicken wings. Cheer for your favorite team. Be moved by the rituals of the day. And when it’s over, get up from your space, go out into the world, and help close the gap. Help bring forth the kingdom of God.
Micah 6:1-8; 1st Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
I confess that I’m at something of a loss today, still processing the executive order concerning refugees and immigrants. Don’t know if you were unaware of it, but the order was signed on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a shockingly offensive conflation given that prior to and during World War II the United States shamefully refused asylum to Jews who were being murdered in Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism was not only a German problem.
One Jewish group said, “The fact that the President’s order appears designed to specifically limit the entry of Muslims evokes horrible memories of Jews turned away during World War II. Most ultimately perished in the Holocaust. That episode remains a blot on the conscience of the United States. It is a terrible irony that today, the same day on which this order is to be signed, is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day” (1).
On Thursday, Pope Francis was greeting a group of young German Catholics and Lutherans and as though anticipating what would happen the next day he said to the pilgrims that he does not like “the contradiction of those who want to defend Christianity in the West, and, on the other hand, are against refugees and other religions… The sickness or, you can say the sin, that Jesus condemns most is hypocrisy…
“You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian,” he said. As though anticipating the assigned readings for this Sunday added, “You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes…”And, “You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25,” a reference to Christ’s injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger (2).
The National Association of Evangelicals responded saying that the country should not give favor to Christians or bar Muslims. "We would resist that strongly," said Scott Arbeiter, president of the organization’s humanitarian arm. "Some of the most vulnerable people in the world right now are Muslims. If we say no Muslim should be let in, we are denying the humanity and dignity of people made in the image of God" (3).
And lest you think this policy actually will keep us safe, a study conducted by the libertarian Cato Institute found that "the chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is one in 3.64 billion a year" (4) Providing a bit of perspective and by comparison your chance of winning the lottery is about 1 in 14 million, which is far, far better odds. The worst attacks on our soil since 9/11 have been homegrown. This executive action is a blatant play to fear and prejudice. And I am appalled.
Now, I had in mind a different sort of sermon today, a little less raw, but sometimes life happens and we’re left no option but to consider something relevant to the exact present moment. And I am struck that this church is chock full of immigrants, people born elsewhere who came to call the United States home like hundreds of thousands, millions, before them. Our nation has always been at its best when its arms were stretched wide and at its worst when it codified its prejudices and fears in hateful laws like the exclusion of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, the internment of the Japanese in the same timeframe, the annihilation of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws, and before that, slavery itself.
But friends, we are followers after the way of Jesus and as Pope Francis told his guests, Christians are only as good as their actions and tangible commitments. If they say one thing but live differently, well then, they’ve missed the essential point of the matter. Because the real point to our fellowship isn’t to get each other to affirm a particular set of words, but to live a certain kind of life. The words serve as potent symbols of the life that conforms to citizenship in God’s kingdom. As we pray every single Sunday, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven…” Here and now.
Now I’ll grant you, this pattern that Jesus sets forth runs counter to the world’s priorities. I don’t think I could come up with a more radically divergent list of attributes from current conditions than the Beatitudes.
For instance, see if this roster doesn’t sound more like the world’s wisdom: Blessed are the rich in spirit; blessed are those who celebrate; blessed are the ruthless climbers; blessed are you when you have your own reality TV show; stock worth millions, even billions, of dollars; a signed contract with the New York Jets; a huge promotion; a PhD after your name; 5,000, 10,000 people in your congregation. Blessed are you when you succeed; rejoice and be glad for your reward is great on earth. In the same way they heaped praise and adulation on the rich, famous and successful before you.
That sounds like a pretty fair summary of the world’s notion of blessing, doesn’t it? A particularly American version at that. I’m all for success, of course. I hope that all of you are successful, that you maximize your talents, stretch your various capacities, reach for the stars and even attain them.
This city pulsates with high energy drivenness and the vitality of extraordinary diversity. It throbs with many passionate cultural expressions and still flashes a bright a homing beacon for immigrants the world over. Our Washington Heights congregation is full of recent immigrants. There are very good reasons people want to come here. They’re reaching for a better life and opportunity.
But still, you’ll notice that in Jesus’ list of blessings there isn’t a word about success, per se. Not a word about being rich in spirit, or rich in anything for that matter. It’s the poor in spirit that get the blessing.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the peacemakers; blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness sake.
Let’s be clear about what sorts of people Jesus includes here. We’re not only talking about someone who’s temporarily depressed. The language here refers to those who are not only poor, but utterly crushed and empty.
Frankly, this is problematic for us. It’s problematic for me. And it’s problematic for the church, because, along with every other institution in this nation, the church is just as committed to success of a certain sort. This grand edifice is evidence of that, and we all like it. I certainly want Christ Church to be successful and I hope you do too.
But you see the problem, the tension in the message we bear. From Jesus’ perspective the people who are truly able to receive his blessing are the spiritually inept, those who know their sin and feel it, those who understand their emptiness and their distance from true fulfillment. Those who bear a certain humility, a certain commitment to values that run counter to the world’s agenda. Say again Steve, how is it a blessing to be persecuted for righteousness sake?
The prophet Micah sets up the spiritual conundrum in the manner of a prosecuting attorney: he asks, what does successful worship look like in the eyes of God? In the ancient scheme, are a thousand rams, ten thousand rivers of oil, or even the offering of my first-born child enough that I should find favor with God? He answers his own question by thundering those famous words that have rumbled down through the centuries: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
It doesn’t take much hard thinking to realize that authentic justice and kindness are dependent upon the level of humility we maintain in our walk with God. True justice is rooted in our understanding that all of us share the same sacred genetics, that no one is inherently above another in the eyes of God.
The way Matthew tells the story, Jesus’ sermon took place not in the magnificent temple in Jerusalem from a marble pulpit, but on a mountainside in the vicinity of Capernaum. And do you suppose it was the spiritual giants, the learned scholars, successful merchants and well-connected politicians who crowded the natural amphitheater to listen to this topsy-turvy wisdom? Well, maybe there were some. Maybe so. Maybe about as many then, on a percentage basis, as are attending church today in New York City this morning.
But if so, then perhaps, they too, knew of their own poverty and could identify with the poverty of others no matter the form it took. Because surely we are more alike in our poverty than we are in our seeming successes. Indeed, one of the less noble, if still wildly popular reasons to succeed is the demonstration of our supposed superiority over everyone else. But prick the skin of any successful individual and we’ll discover the genetic predisposition for death just like everyone else.
Paul said, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.’ God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” Have you ever done the equivalent of that, boasted in the presence of God? Sad to say, I know I have.
And who brought this radical kingdom message? The famous learned scholar from the University of Jerusalem? The temple’s Senior Minister? An emperor-in-waiting perhaps? The CEO of the Bank of Rome? No. It was an itinerant carpenter from Nazareth. Gossip had it there was a question about his father, and whether his mother ever married. He was a charismatic preacher, but certainly no typical success story. Crucifixion was his destiny. He died as an enemy of the state. Certainly not the successful career trajectory my mother would have had in mind for me, her youngest son. No my mother said she wanted a brain surgeon in the family—that was her goal.
Strange religion, this Christianity. Relentlessly proclaiming a message of hope in the face of failure, resurrection in the face of death, abundant blessing in the face of many poverties while espousing a radical ethic of justice, kindness and humility—it comes at us with a force multiplier effect, knocking us off balance. I don’t think we should right ourselves too soon. Stay in that awkward stance for a while—the rest of the week at least. Hold the question right up front: How goes your success with justice, kindness and humility… Taking Jesus’ cue, I’m thinking that if we do this, blessings will abound…
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
For more than twelve years I provided commentary on WCBS NewsRadio on topics under the banner of “Simple Truths: on Values, Civility and Our Common Good,” eventually collected into a book by the same name. Christ Church felt this was a useful incursion into the public square concerning things that mattered most emerging from our mission— not advertising, but commentary about human flourishing.
As I wrote in the preface, “As one man—husband, father, friend, citizen, child of God—I want to live with greater attention to the things that up-build my individual life, relationships, and healthy community. Yet, this often seems a lonely enterprise, and I find that I am easily distracted. After all, I am making my way in the very same cultural context as everyone else; we share the struggle for identifying and then maintaining the values that promote the common good. And this isn’t easy, even for those who attempt to practice and advance a particular religious tradition. I know only too well how religious practice can be overwhelmed by cultural tidal forces.”
Given current conditions in our nation, this focus now seems prescient, anticipating an accelerating breakdown of shared values and definitions of the common good. The 2016 presidential election results revealed the biggest gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote since 1876.
Award-winning journalist, E.J. Dionne, notes that, “We are having a very difficult time as a country empathizing with each other. One thing that we might take out of this campaign: empathy needs to be complete. There can’t be groups toward which we feel obligated to feel empathetic and groups toward which we don’t feel obligated to feel empathetic.” But then, 56 percent of Democrats didn’t have a close friend or family member who voted for Donald Trump and 52 percent of Republicans didn’t have a close friend or family member who voted for Hilary Clinton.
It seems we’re increasingly talking to ourselves inside echo chambers. Yes, to a great degree this is an outcome of encroaching technology. And, as the comparative maps of blue and red reveal, we seem to be separating geographically as well—an odd coupling of increasing individual atomization with tribalist tendencies.
Still, today I marvel at and celebrate our nation’s capacity for a peaceful, democratic leadership transition. I pray our new president and administration will courageously and wisely fashion a government for all the people, that from the fractious chaos of this season, stability will emerge protecting and advancing the common good.
Underneath our disagreements most of us probably want similar things: security, useful work that pays a living wage, equal rights and dignity before the law and one another, clean air and water, easy access to quality healthcare—things like that. Given these common desires I will seek to be in conversation with those whose opinions differ from mine, admitting limits to my knowledge and wisdom, and seeking to love my neighbor.
As Paul pointed out to the Corinthians their unity would not be found in the competition between various factions and leaders, but in their essential commitment to Christ. We well know from experience that this doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement in all matters, but it should hold us accountable to enduring gospel values emphasizing God’s love for all persons, especially those at the margins, the ones Jesus regularly embraced.
Here’s a gospel paradox: Jesus was not a political partisan, but he died a political death. Some wanted him to pick up a banner and a weapon and lead a political movement to overthrow the government. But that would have diminished, well, really, crushed his purpose, which had several layers. Instead of walking a path towards power he chose a path of humility that kept him in solidarity with the powerless. As we point out during Christmas his birth in a stable was emblematic of how he would track in life despite his exceptional qualities.
As he began his public ministry from the margins, people were drawn to his topsy-turvy yet profoundly insightful teaching. And as we heard in our passage from Matthew, he invited a few of them to follow along more closely, those we call his disciples. But here, it’s useful to ask what followership actually meant. What did it mean to follow along then? And by turn, what does it mean to follow along today?
Jesus was a brilliant educator in the school of experiential learning. Last week we heard him ask those who had come out to see him this question: “What are you looking for?” throwing the onus for their learning back on them. Then responding to their question about where he was headed he said, “Come and see.” In other words, come see for yourselves. Don’t simply take my word, but observe, discover by doing. Intrigued, some followed along with him.
As the story unfolds we learn these followers are both loyal and feckless—a lot like us, really. Jesus’ message was as confounding as it was liberating. He was a messiah who eschewed political power while simultaneously exerting profound authority. Most confounding of all, no one was excluded from his concern. He was as comfortable addressing the specific needs of a marginalized, desperate individual as he was admonishing huge crowds to prepare for God’s way in the world.
Next week, we’ll read his famous words that open the Sermon on the Mount, the so-called beatitudes, or blessings. On a mountainside crammed with thousands he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…[and] those who are persecuted” (Matt 5ff). That turns the world’s grading system completely upside down.
He’ll go on to say outrageous things like how we are to love our enemies; and rather than storing up riches on earth we should store them up in heaven; and how we should not judge since we are blind to the log in our own eye while we curse the speck in the eye of someone else; how we are meant to become salt and light for the world.”
So we learn that his followers are meant to commit to these same values rooted in humility. Later, towards the end of his life he’ll teach that the nations will be judged on how well they care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the imprisoned (Matt. 25:31-46). And his followers will take this to heart that now shows up in their generosity of dollars, time and energy as well as their commitment to dismantling systemic roadblocks to human flourishing for everyone.
Modeling Jesus’ behavior, his followers will confront the powers that favor one group over another. They’ll promote the safety and dignity of all persons regardless of external conditions. As the prophet Micah famously admonished, they will “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with their God.” (Micah 6:8)
These have always been the hallmarks of faith as modeled and mentored by Jesus who told his close friends to “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (Jn 13:34). Stunningly, shortly after this instruction he was arrested by the state. His subsequent death raised this command high for all to see, looming over the centuries to our present moment. It remains our highest calling and the source of our enduring hope.
So on this momentous weekend, I ask that God bless the United States of America. And God bless Christ Church as we continue to seek to love God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Isaiah 49:1-7; 1st Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
Magrey DeVega, the Senior Minister of Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa, Florida, writes a blog that I check out from time to time. A generation younger than me, he has a thoughtful, sincere perspective, with evidence of deep faith and compassionate regard for others. He’d do well here, I suspect. Anticipating the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration here’s how he began his post this week:
“One of the first churches I served after graduating from seminary was a small, rural congregation in the deep South. I was young and eager to please, and still somewhat oblivious to the realities of ministry in the real world. Within the first few months of my arrival, we scheduled a congregation-wide cleanup day for the church. Parishioners gathered to pick up branches, rake pine needles, and trim overgrown bushes.
Toward the end of the workday, I placed the last of the debris into the pick-up truck of one of the church members, whom I'll call Ben, so that we could haul it off to the burn pile for incineration. Ben's stern, commanding personality effused authority as a leader in the church. With the truck loaded, he stepped into the driver's seat in the front cab, as I opened the passenger's side to sit next to him.
“‘No,’ Ben said, in a mumbling drawl. ‘Minorities sit in the back.’
“I looked at him as he turned the key in the ignition. He looked the other way out the window. I didn't know him well enough to know if he was joking. If he was, then he had an odd way of teasing someone he barely knew. If he wasn't, then he had an odd way of broaching a sensitive subject with the person serving as his pastor. Either way, the last thing this young, eager-to-please preacher wanted to do was fan a firestorm with such a powerful person in the church, even if he was joking.
“So, for better or worse, I climbed into the bed of the truck with the branches.
“To be honest, it was a stunning and somewhat painful moment. But in retrospect, I feel quite fortunate that episodes like this have been very rare in my life. I recognize that many people have had to overcome barriers far greater than mine: African-Americans throughout history, Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, American Muslims since September 11. Women have suffered from inequality in the workplace; gays and lesbians have struggled for equal rights...
Now I don’t really know how Magrey identifies ethnically or racially. He isn’t Caucasian, and clearly from Ben’s point of view, he didn’t belong in the front seat, but back with the debris and branches in the truck bed.
But a question comes to mind: Who did Ben see when Magrey opened the passenger side door? Did he see his pastor, or something else first of all? What mattered most in his seeing?
This issue of “seeing” dogs all of us, that is, seeing the world and its inhabitants myopically. Mostly we have no clear idea of what we’re looking at, especially if it’s another person. We bring our biases and predispositions to every new circumstance—we can’t help this. If we’ve developed some self-awareness, we understand we have this limitation. It’s very hard to remain vigilant and open to new information even if we say we’re on the lookout for it.
Consider this: I can’t know all the reasons each of you came this morning, but I can tell you that one of my objectives is to present Jesus Christ—to lift him up, as it were—so all who’ve come might get a good look at him. What each of you sees is another matter all together. That will be conditioned by your history and expectations and these vary dramatically from person to person. The image up there sparkling in the mosaic may or may not be useful in this moment—I could imagine that going either way.
I take comfort that as the story is told even John the Baptist had this problem. As we heard in our gospel lesson this morning when Jesus walked into view John says, “Here is the Lamb of God,” but then adds, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed.” In other words, John didn’t have a clear picture of who would be following him; Jesus was something of a surprise. (Actually, truth be told, he’s still a surprise…especially for many unsuspecting Christians who haven’t taken a good long look at him for a while.)
John repeats his confession to ignorance: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” This refers to the one who embodies God’s way in the world, someone who exudes the spirit of God from within, made evident by how he lives his life and to what ends he dedicates his energy and focus.
Jesus is an enigmatic figure. He comes into view as one who was not known beyond the costume of a carpenter from Nazareth. How he tracks from that image to the image we have in our mosaics is a remarkable story, but it’s not exactly crystal clear, is it?
Who, what, do you see when you actually take the time to look in the direction of Jesus? Turning to his followers Jesus said, “What are you looking for?” They replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Which is like saying, “Well, we’re not entirely sure, but you what you teach is pretty compelling.” He said to them, “Come and see.” And so they went. The attentive reader then accompanies them in their discovery. At the end of their journey they see a very different Jesus than at the beginning, which is as it should be for anyone desiring to see a larger truth than they already know, looking beyond their own reflection in a mirror. Stands to reason that if we set out to learn something new, the end of our journey will look different than the beginning.
When Martin Luther King Jr. looked at Jesus, among the things he eventually saw were freedom and justice. Other Christians, seeing only their own reflection when looking to Jesus, saw the comfort of the status quo. In 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham on Good Friday afternoon. Over that Easter weekend he penned one of the most significant Christian documents of the last half century. He addressed his letter not to abusive police officers or racist politicians, but to a group of white clergymen who were urging people to withdraw from the demonstrations, which they called “unwise and untimely.”
At one point King writes, “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block is not…the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action,’ who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.”
Jesus invited the newly interested to “come and see.” Come see who I am and what I’m about; consider how the Spirit of God is moving in the world. Most thoughtful Christians today would agree that King’s words were more in synch with Jesus’ spirit, purpose and focus than those of the so-called Christian “moderates,” back in the day, who preferred the stability of the status quo in uncivil, unequal America. Both Jesus and King were martyred for stating, among other things, that the emperor had no clothes.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self—to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince, or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it. All you have to do is recognize another you ‘out there’—your other self in the world—for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself. To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to your self. This can be as frightening as it is liberating. It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.” (from An Altar in the World).
I think she may be right in that. Of course, to love you is to try to see you on your own terms, in your own skin, and also as someone related to me despite external conditions. Someone who can trace their lineage to Adam and Eve, as it were, just like me. That’s among the things Jesus wants us to see when we follow along his way, observing his behavior, listening to his stories as he makes his way to Jerusalem.
“Come and see,” he says innocently enough, knowing full well how skilled we are at seeing exactly what we want to see, and not a lick more. Very difficult to look at people the way Jesus looks at them. Hard to absorb how he looks at each of us. Who does he see when he looks into your face?
It can be confoundingly hard to open our hearts to see a larger version of the truth. Hard, but not impossible. This is no hammer-over-the-head demand. It’s an act of hospitality on the part of Jesus. Come, see for yourself. See where I live, what I do, what I say. Mix it up with others who have also followed along…
Baptism of the Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Many years ago, when my kids were still in school here in the city, I attended a softball game in which my daughter was playing second base. I’m thinking she must have been in sixth grade or so. There were only a few stalwart parents in attendance standing off first base. One father in particular from the opposing team stood out because of his jerky agitation walking up and down the base line. His daughter was also playing second base, and he shouted regular instructions to her.
At one point the play came to her, and she flubbed the out, which prompted her father to scream out, “My God, you are such an idiot player! That should be your name, Idiot Player!” The game came to end quickly then but not before the coach went over and had a little chat with Dad, who clearly would have none of it and told the coach where she could get off…
Several things impressed me about this little exchange: One, that Dad was there at all; and, two, that if he took the time to come, why did he spend it in such a hateful manner? Intriguing and troubling. Later, as the girls were leaving, I heard one of her teammates call out, “Idiot Player who lost the game!” I wondered if the name would stick.
At that time, I remember thinking I had just witnessed something important, not to be missed or forgotten, not that it was so very large. I had certainly witnessed worse, grosser, behavior. But I guess I was ready for the lesson at that moment, because it was as though a window opened on a universal human tragedy. And it has stayed with me all these many years later.
Intuitively you know about this tragedy. You know how people are often trained from the time they’re powerless little persons to doubt their essential worth. And how in turn, their own fragile egos and insecurities lead them to prop themselves up by putting others down in myriad ways, from the exquisitely subtle, to the blatantly abusive. Who could deny this is one of the fundamental human flaws? Who would deny his or her own culpability?
We often participate in this universal conspiracy unwittingly, foolishly, without so much as a nano-second of reflection. It’s part of the source of the struggle between races and classes and religions, between women and men, and any of the people we wind up defining as the dreaded “other.” We could always find ourselves better than them. These tendencies are so ingrained we’re often unconscious of our own complicity in the tragedy.
When it is brought to our attention we tend to see it as a problem for psychologists, sociologists and educators to sort out for us, to look at the tragedy through the lens of the social scientists so that they might then engineer certain “cures”. We develop elaborate methodologies around self-esteem, for instance. I don’t doubt for an instant that social scientists shed light on this, and offer palliatives, but this is a much larger problem than their tools can fix by themselves. That’s because at its heart this problem is a spiritual disease.
In the Gospel lesson, we heard a story with a different outcome. If you were paying attention, you recognize it was also a story about a certain parent and child, in this case, a father and son. Now granted, it’s a bit difficult to pull out the literal details of the story, but the important lesson is there for those with open minds and hearts.
We’re told that a man named John was baptizing people at the Jordan River. Some among the crowds that flocked to him thought John might be the saving leader for the Jews, the Messiah, the one to lead them to freedom. But John is clear that another is coming who is more powerful than him.
So, while John is doing his thing at the river, Jesus comes to be baptized. And afterwards the story paints that lovely but rather surreal picture that has captured pious Christian artists for centuries—the descending dove embodying God’s Spirit. Its descent is accompanied by this essential detail—the voice of God. Do you remember what that voice says? “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Contrast that for a moment with, “My God, you’re such an idiot player! That should be your name, Idiot Player!”
At its heart, Christianity is absolutely unequivocal about the centrality of love. Love is the glue, the force, the grace, the life and breath of God. Life is one of love’s primary outcomes. Love is the essence of life-force and it has its genesis in the creator. All love is an emanation from relationship with the creator.
Love alone has the height and length and breadth and depth to embrace suffering. It calls forth courage and integrity. The way our scriptures speak of it, love is the medium through which all things have come into being and it defines God’s very nature. So, the Father says to the Son, “You are the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Relating to such a God as this leads to the inexorable conclusion that each of us is cherished beyond time and measure. And if this is true, you can see then that the father in my little soft-ball story was suffering a spiritual malaise. But even now, from this clinical distance, I don’t want to pick on him. It’s too easy to heap blame on an easy mark.
Because the truth is, while we pay lip service to this lovely idea of love, in most of us, in our heart of hearts, we secretly don’t quite believe it. We can’t quite believe that we are that valuable in the grand scheme of things. In fact, our more routine, earth bound associations lead us to believe just the opposite—that our true worth is suspect.
There’s a very good chance that even the most successful among us may be driven by the secret conviction that no amount of success will in the end prove our true value. And most likely this truth lurks in the gray haze of the unconscious because we don’t want to face it. We keep our suspicions locked down, as it were, where we believe they stay safe. Yet they can’t help breaking out from time to time, like on the ball field with our daughter, for instance.
Do you see why this transcends psychology? Our problem lies in our core, in our soul, with our understanding of the essential organization of the universe and our place within it. This is one of the reasons we have the sacramental act of baptism. In a few moments, if we’re wide awake we’ll see how far and how deep it actually intends to reach. If we pay attention, we’ll be reminded of what the deepest truth is, namely, that every last one of us has a sacred genealogy that reaches all the way to God.
If we listen very carefully as a drop of water touches our face, we just might hear a voice that says, “You are my daughter, you are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.” And if that seeps into our souls, then starting from the inside out, we’ll find ourselves changing, literally becoming what we are in our essential nature.
For one thing, we’ll become increasingly conscious. More and more we’ll discover how we have capitulated to the power of fear and attempted to prove our worth either by our own striving, or by propping ourselves up by putting others down. We’ll become increasingly dissatisfied with that way of life. That way of life will no longer have congruence with what we know to be true. We’ll find our old ways patterns unacceptable. We’ll find the patterns of fear in our culture, unacceptable. We’ll find ourselves caring more about how well we receive those who have been otherwise rejected or displaced. We’ll be thinking less about ourselves and more about others.
Right here in the central act of initiation of our faith is a revelation of the complete truth. That we feel unworthy is understandable; in the presence of such love, a humble sense of our unworthiness is a completely natural response. Most important though, is the full realization that God loves us with an everlasting love that inflated our lungs at the first, set our lives in motion and brought us to this very moment when you are hearing these very words about your sacred worth and the sacred worth of everyone else who shares your pews, shares our city, shares our world.
There isn’t a grander or more important thing going on anywhere around town this morning than your hearing either for the first or the hundredth time the deep truth at the core of all things.
Friends, it's time to gather at the river that flows by the throne of God…
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13 • Psalm 8 • Revelation 21:1-6a • Matthew 25:31-46Read MoreLess
Isaiah 7:10-16; Romans 1:1-17; Matthew 1:18-25
You’re likely aware there’s a growing a body of research that suggests human brains are being rewired by our interface with technology. Parents are learning about this at their children’s schools as teachers negotiate the issues of information bombardment—the crush of electronic communication and the struggle for deep, sustained, focused learning.
Studies indicate that ever-greater access to information bits is inversely proportional to depth of knowledge and developing wisdom. We seem to be swapping out an ability for sustained focus for adaptive information gathering, which researchers describe as a mental “surface” activity. Some years ago a famous Atlantic Monthly article captured the negative side of this idea entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Underscoring this question we’re now in the throes of a texting while driving addiction. The statistics are startling. Over 2.5 million people in the U.S. are involved in road accidents each year. 1 out of 4 are specifically caused by texting while driving. Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving. It’s actually safer for someone to get wasted and get behind the wheel than to text and drive. These statistics put the lie to the idea that we’re all excellent multi-taskers. Fact is, we’re much smarter doing one thing at a time with complete focus.
Emerging from the recent election cycle, I realized that I had been devouring much more media than I used to and yet didn’t feel any smarter for it. In retrospect I think it made me less thoughtful about what I was watching and reading. I’ve now cut way back, re-engaging books I’ve let languish, among other activities. It’s kind of a relief. And as we’re discovering, one of the problems of all this information surfing concerns our decreasing ability to sort fact from fiction. We can’t, or simply won’t, stop to ponder whether the latest wacky conspiracy theory actually holds water.
Some mornings I can’t decide whether the stuff we do in here adds or detracts from the problem of sensory overload. Sometimes it feels oddly surreal to dress up in robes and process into an ornate building lighting candles, ringing bells, singing sentimental carols in an age awash in technological wizardry and cultural overstimulation. But mostly this spiritual activity seems an act of quiet rebellion, even revolution on behalf of what really matters.
Hard to say what perspective any given person brings who walks through these doors at this time of year. None of us knows what particular bits of information predominate for any other person who shares our pew, or what they’re thinking about while sitting here. Are you mostly focused or mostly distracted?
Have you ever noticed the little announcement at the top of your worship program that says, “please turn off all electronic devices?” It would be fun to see a show of hands of those who have actually done that. Because, of course, I see you texting. Of course, not so much is at stake sitting in a pew compared with behind the wheel of a car. But you know its true—you know you’re not the brilliant multi-tasker you think you are. Your brain cannot retain a depth of knowledge, wisdom or experience doing two or three things at once.
So I invite you to name your multiple preoccupations and then set them aside for the next few minutes. Allow yourself the luxury of scaling back your attention to a small event with an improbable meaning.
It concerns an illegitimate pregnancy in an inconsequential backwater town among poor, simple people. Just the sort of people who are the first to be affected by the machinations of the powerful, just the sort of inconsequential people we’d quickly overlook as we scan the web, the tube, the stores.
The old story has the added burden of being overly familiar. You know the basic characters and plot lines. You remember roughly how it begins and how it ends. You recall certain details with greater clarity than others. Angels, shepherds and so on. But these bits of details are clearer than a deep understanding of their collective meaning.
Today we drill down to one particular character who gets a top billing, but no lines. An enigma, really. But to really hear this bit of the story, we have to shift gears from the day’s preoccupations. From the thralldom of a thousand distractions we need to shift our thinking down to just one vulnerable man of the disposable masses—Joseph, the cuckolded fiancé, caught in a serious personal predicament of seeming little significance in the grand scheme of things. Just one throw-away information bit.
The ancient law called for the death penalty when a woman committed adultery. By rabbinic practice over the centuries that penalty had been reduced to divorce and public disgrace. Matthew reports that Joseph was a “righteous man,” meaning he wanted to protect Mary from humiliation while still getting out of the marriage. He didn’t want to impose an unnecessary hardship.
Then a surprising thing happened. Certainly he could exert his rights as the aggrieved party, but Joseph chose another way, the way of trust and love, and in response to a dream, he takes Mary as his wife after all and receives her child as his own.
This was a small act in comparison to the size of decisions within the purview of Caesar or Herod the King. But an act that changed the world, nevertheless. Interesting, isn’t it? This juxtaposition of the large, supposedly consequential decisions among the world’s power brokers and the decision of a simple, humble man caught in a personal dilemma. And then the way the story has it, discovering that God was not cavorting in human affairs on the scale of the Caesar, but in the birth of this single, seemingly illegitimate child.
This is one of the reasons the story has hung around as long as it has, this revelation that while the world’s powerful gyrating egos play out their dramas, holding populations hostage to their whimsies, God slips in to reveal how real power manifests in the world. Think Clinton, Trump and Putin as opposed to say, one of the families in our El Nido program in Washington Heights. Here’s our tradition’s point of view: this bit of information is a lot more important than other bits. Miss this bit from among all the other bombarding bits and you’ll miss a whole mess of other really important stuff. I’d go so far as to say you’ll miss what it means to be human in the highest and best sense—the equivalent of a car accident, as it were, while texting.
In Joseph we have the character of the story who is most like us. It’s easy to imagine him trying to get to sleep after learning about the pregnancy of his fiancé, spent, exhausted from anger, frustration and humiliation, grappling with his conscience, tossing and turning in the night. In his restlessness a dream angel whispers in his ear.
Victimized by circumstance beyond his control Joseph is presented with a variation of life he would not have chosen for himself, trapped by his options yet surprisingly, wanting to do the right thing. Barbara Brown Taylor suggests the whispering angel says something like this: “Joseph, don’t be afraid. God is here. It may not be the life you had planned, but God will be born here, too, if you permit it.”
So Joseph does the unexpected thing. On the face of it, he takes the more difficult path, the narrow road, as his son will describe it about thirty years later. Joseph will take Mary’s predicament on himself, and together they will give birth to love. And to hope. And even joy. Joy to the world! We will soon sing.
Probably 25 years ago now, I was speaking with a young man about important life-stage decisions. At one point he mentioned he was embarrassed to tell me a little discipline he tried to include as part of his decision-making. “It’s a very little thing,” he said. “Sometimes, when I think of it, I ask myself this question: ‘Are you ready to accept joy in your life? Are you ready?’”
He then produced a well-folded slip of paper from his pocket with the question neatly printed. He kept it there as a reminder. He added, “The funny thing is that once you ask that question, ‘Are you ready to accept joy in your life?’ it’s very, very hard to answer, ‘No, I don’t think I want it, not today.’” He said this reminded him to ask God to bless whatever endeavor he was engaged in, or in whatever circumstance confounded him. He had an unusual spiritual innocence, wise beyond his years.
In that little exchange, I found a complete sermon that I’ve remembered ever since. To ask the question, “Are you ready to accept joy?” is to slip into Joseph’s skin for a moment. And considering his circumstance, doesn’t it seem an odd question to ask? How could he expect to find joy when it seems he’s been taken advantage of? When his honor has been damaged, his plan so disrupted, his love seemingly betrayed?
But this led him to certain decisions, difficult decisions that welcomed joy into the world. Sadly, we don’t speak much about joy in our daily lives. I wonder if we consider it an actual option, as an available and natural way of living. Perhaps we’re too sophisticated, or too cynical, or just simply too distracted to consider joy an actual option. It almost sounds surreal. Importantly, our ancient stories reveal that joy does not exist in some pristine alternative universe, separate from the travails and struggles of our lives. Instead, they reveal that joy comes whenever we’re able to disarm ourselves enough to honestly welcome God into our world.
Now again, here at the end, my perspective is that this information is among the most important you’ll receive this December. You’re welcome to disagree with me, of course. But don’t leave here today without hearing the simple bit that some information really is more important than other information, just as some food is more nutritious than other food. It really does matter what we think about in the day, and what we dream about at night. Like Joseph, the meaning of our lives hangs in the balance…
(2) Barbara Brown Taylor, “Believing the Impossible,” Gospel Medicine, Boston: Crowley, 1995.
Isaiah 35:1-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11
John the Baptist has landed in prison. His preaching and teaching offended the authorities. He has stirred up trouble for King Herod, accusing Herod of stealing his own brother’s wife, among other infidelities and corruptions. John lambasted Herod at every opportunity. And John was popular with the people. They listened to him. They took him seriously. Jesus took him seriously. Remember it was John who baptized Jesus in the Jordan.
John was now a political prisoner. He had kept up his tirades against the powerful tyrant who could no longer tolerate John‘s influence among the people. As the story is told, Jesus will follow a similar path. He, too, will become a political prisoner. For now, John sits in a cell with a lot of time on his hands and he wonders if he’s got it right. John questions whether Jesus is the right guy after all.
This is pretty understandable, I think. It’s a poignant human moment in the gospel story. John, the colorful, tough-talking advanceman for Jesus, now in a very tough spot, has some doubts. Is Jesus the one or not? He needs a little reassurance. So he sends several friends to ask Jesus directly about whether or not John should pin his hope on him.
I like this interlude in the gospel plot. In part that’s because I can identify with John here. I’ve had some doubts from time to time, especially in my earlier years. I cast my fate with Jesus four or five decades ago, but once in a while, when circumstance squeezed me hard, I wondered about that. Wondered about how my loyalty was supposed to be rewarded, or at least confirmed in some tangible way.
My doubts served me well, though. Oddly, I’ve come to see them as servants of hope. Often we think of our doubts as the antithesis of hope. But in that we fail to take account of the yearning behind the questions, the anticipation and forward momentum in deep, even anguished, authentic asking, railing, doubting. How do we learn anything new if we don’t question what we think we know?
As in John’s case, it’s generally the context of our present circumstance that drives our doubts and questions. We want to know that our current situation has meaning and purpose and is pointed in a useful direction. We sense that it will have meaning if the future is secure. Doesn’t that seem the basis for John’s question from prison? After all, he’s in a life-threatening situation. Is his sacrifice well placed?
Now what faith reveals is that the future belongs to God, which provides the greatest security there is. That’s one way of summing up the entire scriptural witness from Genesis to Revelation: Fear not! The future belongs to God!
Isn’t that what the story says the angel Gabriel announced to Mary: “Fear not, Mary. The future is in God’s hands. Embrace your present circumstance!” An angel appeared to Joseph as well who sincerely doubted the decision he previously had made about Mary. The angel proclaimed: “Fear not, Joseph! The future belongs to God!” And so, accepting, even celebrating their situation, Mary and Joseph walked into their future, and, as it turns out, ours as well, since here we sit.
Note that this is a much bigger thing to claim than, say, social security will maintain solvency, or the world markets will stabilize in a positive direction, or one day you’ll find a loving partner after several botched attempts, or your health will be restored following a major crisis – even though all these are all positive potential eventualities. The fact remains that one day your health will fail you. One day. But even then, in here we say, “Fear not! The future belongs to God” for even death is swallowed up in God’s good purposes.
Trusting God with the future has the direct opposite effect of escape from the present. Radical trust allows us to thrust ourselves into the moment, living it as though it were our last, freeing us to do what must be done, to see the truth and to act accordingly. This trust is the mother of profound hope and drives every worthwhile human cause.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” You’ll recall that King was also a political prisoner and was also martyred, which only amplifies his point. Hope of this sort drives the present into a transforming future, because, as King clearly learned standing at the manger in Bethlehem year after year, the future is God’s. It always has been. It always will be. That’s the message of Advent.
I’ve been preaching for close to forty years now. If you were to ask which season of the year are the hardest for me, I’d tell you Advent and Christmas. There are a number of reasons for this, but chief among them is the overwhelming sense as December comes ‘round of “been there, done that” which seems to build as the years pile up. The story is overly familiar and the themes cliché.
But lest you think I’ve turned into some crabby Christmas curmudgeon, I have discovered something very important over the years: the profound message of hope the ancient story holds for the ages sounds brand spanking new every single December.
That’s because at least 364 days have passed since the last time we were reminded. 364 days of getting up, going about our business, tuning into the news, confronting startling new information and fresh personal crises. 364 opportunities to forget what force binds the world together, keeps the universe humming, and inflates our lungs with breath. At least 364 opportunities to doubt or even forget that God is.
Consider present conditions. Part of the social/political dislocation we’re experiencing as a nation today relates to the crushing change that rushes toward us through technological innovation and cultural evolution. This crushing change disrupts our world as we have known it. While much of the effect of this dislocation lies just below conscious awareness, our national collective anxiety suggests that our emotions have already sensed what our cognition has not yet fully accepted: the near future will be irrevocably different than current conditions, no exemptions.
That’s the world the Christ child enters in 2016, an anxious and fearful world riven by divisive politics and a deep yearning for a return to an overly idealized past. But friends, as we generally learn the hard way, the only direction we have available is forward. Forward can often seem opaque and scary. But for the thoughtful Christian the way forward lies securely in God’s hands. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing” the psalmist declares. During these weeks of Advent we rehearse the radical idea that God is pleased to dwell with us, all of us, everywhere, all of the time. Our first response is simply to open our hands and hearts and minds to receive the astonishing gift of God’s own self.
Now getting this right doesn’t predict traveling an easy street ahead. It didn’t for John. Well, it didn’t for Jesus, either. But it does create an accurate framework for working out the details of our lives in fear and trembling. That’s how Paul put it when he wrote to his friends in Philippi; at the time he was a political prisoner in Rome, locked in a prison cell. From that cell we wrote, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
So today we’re invited to consider what life might be like if we lived it as though we trusted God’s future for our lives, for real. Again there’s no prediction in this that life will be easy in all of its details, but it does ensure that any present circumstance can be embraced with confidence because the future remains secure…it belongs to God, as our lives belong to God; they begin and end in God. That’s the vision that grabbed hold of Isaiah when he said,
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees,
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…’ “
It’s the same vision that grabbed hold of Paul in a prison cell, and Mary and Joseph and John and Jesus. It grabbed hold of me too along the way, and most of you as well I imagine, notwithstanding your doubts and questions. One of the reasons we’ve been brought together from so many different corners of the world is this simple reminder. We bolster one another in our affirmation of infinite hope that God will have the day for certain.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
In 1964 Bob Dylan released his third album titled for his iconic song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” You likely know he was this year’s surprising winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. In its citation, the Swedish Academy credited Mr. Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Poet Philip Larkin observes that Mr. Dylan’s words were delivered in a “cawing, derisive voice” that seemed to carry the weight of myth and prophecy(1). Over the years many have thought Dylan functioned as a late 20th century prophet, in language that seemed to defy time. Consider these lines from “Blind Willie McTell”:
Well, God is in His heaven,
And we all want what’s his.
But power and greed and corruptible seed,
Seem to be all that there is.
That has near biblical in its cadence, as do these verses of “The Times They Are A-Changin’:”
Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's the battle outside raging
It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changing.
Dylan often correlates to biblical language… you hear the great change up Jesus addresses of the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And more than 50 years later these lines seem prescient to our current conditions. Of course, Dylan follows a long line of prophetic voices. He had many antecedents, 2 of which we heard from today. I’m thinking Mr. Larkin’s observation about Dylan could be applied to John the Baptist: his words were delivered in a “cawing, derisive voice” that seemed to carry the weight of myth and prophecy.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” That’s the verse on our Christmas card today with the lovely sentiment from cousin John. It doesn’t have the same mellow ring as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” or the same sweetness of “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.”
Even cynics and atheists find it hard to resist the sentimental Christmas story. Cooing baby, mother and child, friendly animals, angelic hosts singing “alleluia,” warm family time, friends blending their voices in a spontaneous choral moment around a piano inspired by spiked drinks. That’s what Christmas and its Advent prelude have come to mean. Well that, and shopping, of course.
Over these next weeks, media will be cluttered with analysis of our collective spending patterns as though that had become the principle message from the baby Jesus—consume your way into a better tomorrow.
For our pleasure the story has been sanitized and prettified, made suitable for children of all ages, even us big ones who tend to like our religious traditions sweet and smooth and easy to swallow like a satisfying rum-laced eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg. The days between Thanksgiving and New Years have become a feel-good marketing moment of stupendous proportions for our culture, transmogrified into a major driver of our economy. We should all give good gifts because that will keep our nation solvent for another six months or so.
No Christmas pageant that I’ve ever seen begins with a little guy dressed up like the wild desert prophet shouting out to the audience, “You brood of vipers!” That would spoil the moment. So we’ll talk about John now, at a somewhat safe distance from December 24th and then, if you’re brave, you’ll remember John’s part of the story as a sort of homework assignment when you’ve returned to your room at night after over-dosing on relatives, friends, booze and rich food. At last, in your own bed, left to your own agitated thoughts you’ll have a moment to consider just what this season might be for you, after all—besides a headache, credit card payments and a New Year’s resolution to start another unsuccessful diet.
I like to point out on this Sunday each year that John stands above my head in the mosaics. He’s been cleaned up. It wouldn’t do to have a disheveled, wild-eyed nomad popping a locust into his mouth emblazoned in sparkling mosaics amidst thirty-four different kinds of marble. But you can tell it’s John because his left hand and index finger are held up, pointing to the figure in the dome mosaic.
In Christian art, John is often depicted pointing to Jesus because that was his prophetic vocation as described in scripture. He’s the one that announces the arrival of—or points to—the Messiah.
He’s an important link for us to the real world. And here’s the interesting thing: it seems that John held real spiritual power, otherwise, why would anyone go out into the desert to listen to his challenging message? Sort of a prophetic rock star, I’m thinking. If he were around today he might make a lot of money, what with his cawing, derisive voice that carried the weight of myth and prophecy.
As it is, it’s hard enough for all of us to manage to make our way to a well-appointed, artfully constructed sanctuary in the company of mostly respectable people for about an hour listening to well-organized civilized speech and lovely music in the center of a spectacular metropolis.
Given Roman oppression, John was likely anticipating that the hoped-for Messiah would have a political agenda. But this was linked with the ethical character of the people. Could they possibly reform in time for the new thing God intended for them? I’m guessing this is what drove John’s popularity, this insistence that God had something big in mind, and that meant the lazy status quo was no longer acceptable.
His words were harsh but his message was about hope.
The times they are a-changin’ he sang 2000 years before Dylan came along. Something big was afoot. Something seismic, disruptive, as we like to say—those who were unprepared would be swept away. That’s the message the people came out to the desert to hear. And we’re told all sorts of people went out.
According to Luke even corrupt tax collectors went out to listen to John and after hearing his truth-telling they asked, “Given all this, what shall we do?” He said to them, “Stop cheating.” And soldiers asked, “And what shall we do?” John said, “Don’t extort or intimidate.” And others asked, “What shall we do, John?” And he said, “If you have two coats give one to someone who has none and if you have plenty to eat, share.”
God’s big thing had homely ramifications for the people. They were supposed to clean up their act, get their lives in order, stop abusing one another, and put on the heart of compassion.
He might have said, “Love God with everything you’ve got and love your neighbors and love yourselves.”
And he might have added, “God’s way in the world is not for the faint-hearted, but it is the way of hope and faith and love. It’s a demanding path where the chaff of your life will burn away to reveal the beautiful God-nature within. This is not a sentimental process and you cannot buy it in the store. It comes by way of intention and decision, work and prayer, patience and the support of sisters and brothers traveling the same path; and most importantly, it comes through God’s providential grace that always holds and sustains us no matter what. These changin’ times require the work of love.”
That’s our Advent homework assignment. Consider your role, your work, your call. Imagine John confronting your corruptions with a word of transforming grace. I tell you this is powerful stuff you won’t get anywhere else. Bloomingdales doesn’t stock this and you won’t find it in a bottle. But man-o-man, an awesome gift is there for the taking, ‘cause the times they are a-changin…
Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
Trapped in the corner of the grocer’s produce section, a young couple with two shopping carts and an unhappy toddler had cut off all avenues of my escape as they bickered over whose job it was to address the boy’s ranting. It had started out calmly enough. Dad offered that it was Mom’s turn and he helpfully suggested she might want to pick up their son. Mom responded firmly that she had been handling him long before they decided to go to the store. What little David needed was more attention from his father.
Dad was unhappy, but Mom had played the right guilt card. Dad addressed himself to little screaming David and authoritatively told him to be quiet. Unfortunately, Mom couldn’t resist cutting in to say that was no way to handle the situation—to which Dad responded that she could have done it from the beginning; he didn’t need her parenting advice. Mom evidently thought otherwise.
Tempers were on a hair trigger, so in just a few seconds they began to say things to one another they were going to regret later. Hateful things. Spiteful things. Dangerous things. Soon little David joined the fray by bellowing his own unhappiness. All in all, a very ugly scene erupted as I considered the status of several overripe tomatoes.
I finally made my escape during a lull in their raging and pushed through the barricade of carts. Their arguing continued—periodically I heard them as I trolled the aisles. But then I witnessed something unexpected by frozen foods. Dad stopped dead in his tracks and said, “Look, this is crazy. Look at us. We’re in the grocery store, for God’s sake! Let’s just stop and take a breath.” They stood staring at each other, little David brought to startled silence. After a moment Dad resumed: “I’m sorry, Babe. Really sorry. Let’s not do this. Let’s start over. Let’s pretend we just entered the store.” Mom inhaled a deep breath, holding it for a moment, and then exhaled, “I’m sorry, too.” They embraced, little David in between.
Given the time of year it occurred to me that I had just witnessed a mini Christmas tableau framed by Stop and Shop. Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace, goodwill to all people! This spontaneous act of generous forgiveness and forbearance was surprisingly invigorating. Somehow they had managed to open a space for grace in their relationship, right there as I held a bag of frozen corn. And it was perfect. A space opened up inside me, too. It felt physical, as though my insides were expanding.
As you know, I’m normally robed and standing inside this splendid sanctuary of marble and mosaics when announcing grace and pardon. Lesson re-learned: any space, any place can have the honor of hosting a most holy occasion. In fact, that seems the essential wisdom of Advent, recognizing that the new thing God has in store isn’t relegated to spaces lined with pews. God is rushing in at us everywhere, all of the time, knocking on the doors of hearts and minds that we might be made larger, more capable of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God, as the ancient prophet framed it (Micah 6:8).
Do you remember learning how to read a dial clock? (I don’t know how this works for kids today given ubiquitous electronic versions.) You learned about the big hand, the little hand and the second hand. You learned what “o’clock” meant and also, “quarter past” and “half past” the hour, all based on the movements of the hands dissecting the circular clockface.
The season of Advent comes ‘round each year to announce what time it is. Writing to his friends in Rome, Paul said, “Now is the hour for you to wake from sleep.” Advent is wake-up time. Time to wake up to yourself, to see yourself with as much clarity as possible. To take it all in—the good, the bad and the ugly. No more dancing around the actual content of your life. No more cover-ups and pretense. No more hemming and hawing. No more rationalization, no more costuming and make-up. The day is long past for all of that. Way long past.
Of course, if you’re like I am many mornings you’d just as soon get five, ten minutes, maybe an hour more of sleep. But the alarm is relentless and the hour has come. It’s time. The sun is about to dawn and truth will have its day. That’s the promise and our calling. It’s every human’s calling, really. Time to wake up!
Now the truth can be harsh, to be sure. There will be birth pangs, no doubt about that. Still, time to wake up and to get up. Time to take in the world. Time to see what’s really there and what isn’t really there. The biblical writers intend their prophetic word as a positive announcement of God’s desire that we wake up. In the words of Isaiah we heard earlier, “that we walk in the light of the Lord.” That we consider what God might intend for us, even beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Imagine that!
When St. Augustine was in his late forties, he wrote about his conversion to Christ at the age of 33. He had lived a loose, undisciplined life up to that point. One day, he heard a child singing something about “pick up and read.” He had a copy of some of Paul’s letters beside him which he picked up and the book opened to today’s passage from Romans 13 and he read, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Let us live honorably as in the day, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Something clicked with Augustine. He put a marker at that text and shortly thereafter he was baptized. Augustine grew into a theologian of towering significance. Why? He heard that it was time to wake up. So he did.
My Stop and Shop adventure involved a wake up moment for mom and dad. I don’t know what prompted it. I hadn’t expected it. It came as a surprise. But there it was, a small moment of grace in which two people grabbed hold of a better way. And it convicted me, in other words, made me wonder about my own behavior patterns, in this case, my own capacity for sincere apology, forbearance and forgiveness. Witnessing it in them made me feel like it was actually quite possible. Just like that, right in the grocery store. Like I said, it made me feel bigger inside somehow. Makes me think that maybe—just maybe—at some time in the misty future, if enough folks wake up, swords can be beaten into plows and spears into pruning hooks.
Jesus says that we cannot predict the exact day or hour of our enlightenment. That it will come is a foregone conclusion, friends. One day we will finally take our wake-up call, whether we want to or not. It may come today or tomorrow, the day after that or not for several more decades. And it may come only as a result of air rasping from our lungs for the very last time. But one day, truth will have its way with us for good. When that day finally arrives I suspect many will wonder why they had waited so long. They had been pretending and posturing with life when all along they could have had the real thing.
I don’t know if the young mom and dad were church-goers, but I do know that for at least a moment they honored the God of life with their choosing the better way. And, of course, that option is available to all of us, all of the time.
So here’s something else that occurs to me. For those with the eyes to see, for those walking in the light of the Lord, there’s likely more Advent spirit evident while serving the homeless a hot meal or volunteering at our program for young mothers in Washington Heights than going through the prayers of a liturgy.
Don’t mishear me though: worship like this is important, an essential life component for the spiritually mature. It keeps us clear about who’s who and what’s what. I hope to see you next Sunday and the then the one after that. But at their best these hour-long occasions support and inspire the other 167 hours in the week in which we live and move and have our being; each of those hours an occasion for Advent enlightenment, for justice and mercy, for God’s grace to break in and shine forth making all things new.
Psalm 46; Luke 1:68-79Read MoreLess
Isaiah 65:17-25; Matthew 5:1-16
I know we’re very preoccupied by the events of this week, but before I say anything about that, I want to begin by telling you something about our emerging work in Washington Heights. To recap our current situation, several years ago this church made a visionary claim on the future by deciding to commit itself to partner with another city community to help alleviate suffering, promote the common good and advance the cause of the gospel of Christ. The big vision was informally stated as “breaking the back of poverty in a zip code.” On the one hand, a bit grandiose, I suppose; on the other, a goal worthy of the sustained commitment of a dynamic congregation over many years.
In the discovery process, we befriended a small Methodist congregation managing a massive deteriorating building on upper Broadway at 173rd Street. The community in which this church is embedded is largely Latino with many poor immigrants. Finding common cause our congregations agreed that the Washington Heights Church would merge into Christ Church which was formalized last year. We’re now a two campus operation.
We completed a small refurbishment that provided a nice space for our initial work with mothers with children 0-3 years of age—that got under way this past summer. So we have two sites in which we live our mission to love God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves.
Many of you and your friends have offered many volunteer hours, as well as generous material gifts supporting this effort, and we’re off to a great start. Monika Guzman-Estrada, who directs the program called El Nido, or The Nest, has been attracting young mothers at a fast rate. And our Reading Corner project fostering literacy has gathered a growing roster of participants. One day one mother asked if she could arrive early for the program so her baby could crawl in a safe and comfortable space and Monika realized that she had another potential program on her hands.
Here’s the stark truth: people in poverty live in very close quarters and infants have no clean and open space in which to simply crawl around and explore. Space is a great luxury in the city. So a new ancillary program has begun: a time for mothers to come with their babies to play and crawl in a safe and warm environment, finding personal and spiritual support and encouragement.
The opportunity to accomplish good ends there is truly extraordinary. The remnant congregation partners with us in this new effort and ultimately we seek to reignite a dynamic faith community in Washington Heights born from the same missional genetics of loving God and neighbor that we have here.
And let me also remind you that our reach has extended to South America where we established a partnership with the Methodist Church of Colombia seven years ago. We built their first wholly-owned church and community center outside Cartagena in a desperately poor neighborhood populated by people displaced by the devastation of war and weather. This congregation’s sweat and financial equity made that possible along with a successful micro-finance program.
We’re involved in service in many other ways, not least is keeping this space open as safe spiritual sanctuary 10 hours a day for any and all who would come to sit and pray. There’s steady traffic. I’m thinking it was busier than usual this week. We feed the homeless on Sundays, host one of the largest and oldest continuing meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous in the city dating from the early 1940’s. And of course, we nurture a remarkably diverse collection of children and adults like all of you in worship and growth opportunities.
Our life together matches our stated commitment to love God and neighbor. We have placed our time, talent and resources at God’s disposal. And friends, as it has in the past, this is my anchor in our current political moment. Many, probably most of you, are confounded and disoriented by the election shock, and I suspect that’s true for voters on all sides, winners and losers alike.
What does this mean? What shall be done? We will have weeks and months to digest and discern. The followers after the way of Jesus stay anchored to their core mission: loving God and loving their neighbors as themselves—all of their neighbors, especially the most vulnerable; the poor, the immigrant, the bullied and abused, those who lack opportunity, the different, the dreaded “other,” those that are afraid because of the hateful rhetoric that’s been thrown around in this bizarre election season.
We stand with all these because that’s where Jesus stood. We’ll retain a clear focus on how this works out morally and ethically in our commitments and behaviors, and as citizens of a great nation. We know who we are and whose we are, and how faith, hope and love continue to abide.
In our first reading this morning the prophet has a vision of new heavens and a new earth, painting a vivid picture of what this might look like: there are houses to live in, vineyards to plant, fruit to eat. There are infants who thrive, and old persons who live healthy lives; wolves and lambs, serpents and humans, all living together peacefully. This new earth would be anybody’s dream world.
The people hearing this message have been brought back from exile to enjoy the land once more. But they are divided and cynical about their prospects. Their lives are difficult. All that happens to them matters to God—that’s clear. It’s also clear that the way they conduct their lives and business now matters too. God wants this people to thrive, but their thriving requires their participation. They’re called to align themselves with God’s good purposes; God intends to weave something wonderful from human chaos and confusion.
Jesus began his ministry by citing this same prophet. In his first sermon in his hometown synagogue here’s what he read:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because 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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
To be a follower after the way of Jesus means we join that program, because that program aligns with God’s good purposes for the world. You heard Jesus call his friends to be salt and light in a world that often lives in ignorance and darkness.
Is it a great irony or surprising serendipity that today has been designated as the day we receive pledges of support from our members and friends under the banner, Hope and a Future Sunday? Here’s what occurred to me this week: this provides an excellent opportunity for each of us to stake a claim on the future and our commitment to the values that we seek to advance in our community. It inspires tangible action, something to do, a time and a place to affirm what’s best about us, and our church and nation, especially at this contentious moment.
A sacrament of hope—that’s what we can make of this. Hearing the call of our better angels, we can rise from our seats, and in a spirit of peace we can join sisters and brothers in a common bond of faith and hope as we present our pledge before God and one another. It’s good we can do this in person, especially this year, when we can see each other, affirming our many diversities while united in common cause.
Let’s do this with a prayerful heart for those with whom we disagree, for our nation, our president and president-elect, and all who wear the mantel of governmental authority. Let’s commit to holding ourselves, and them, accountable to the standards of love and justice that Jesus advances. Let’s be the change we say we want putting our lives on the line, giving more than we had intended after the manner of Jesus who gave everything for our sake and the sake of the world.
Revelation 7:9-17; Luke 6:20-31
I don’t want to say this too glibly, but friends, whatever happens on Tuesday, the sun will once again shine on Wednesday, and the world will continue on its course whirling through space; you will get up and go to work, and do whatever you need to do to fulfill normal obligations. And then Thursday will dawn, and Friday and so on. You may be more happy or sad, relieved or fretful, encouraged or despondent, but whatever you will feel you have felt before and will feel again and life will move into its next phase.
That’s not to say our nation doesn’t have real challenges ahead, or that our political culture isn’t broken, or that social ills inspired by race, gender, and religious identity haven’t been exposed and exploited. That’s all true. And it’s also true we all have a role to play in how we find national healing in days ahead. And I want to assert that you are not powerless in this regard.
It seems to me one excellent way forward requires reaching out to others in compassionate regard. Did you happen to see the current most emailed Times article by the Dalia Lama and Arthur C. Brooks? A Buddhist and Christian co-wrote the piece entitled, “Behind our Anxiety, the Fear of Being Unneeded,(1)”in which they describe the encroaching malaise within the first world. “In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness. Why?
“A small hint comes from interesting research about how people thrive. In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed.”
They state that “being ‘needed’ does not entail selfish pride or unhealthy attachment to the worldly esteem of others. Rather, it consists of a natural human hunger to serve our fellow men and women... Virtually all the world’s major religions teach that diligent work in the service of others is our highest nature and thus lies at the center of a happy life. Scientific surveys and studies confirm shared tenets of our faiths. Americans who prioritize doing good for others are almost twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives.”
It seems the Times editors situated this article propitiously: just after All Saints Day on November 1st, and just prior to the most contentious presidential election in modern history. I take it as a small offering pointing the way forward for us. And it got me thinking about the saints, so-called, living and dead, who we remember and celebrate with affectionate regard. Given that Jesus’ great commandment to love God and neighbor is the focus of any thoughtfully engaged Christian, stands to reason the saints will reflect this commitment. And I imagine that if you gave this a thought, those you remember as among God’s saints would reflect this in at least a small, but meaningful measure. They touched your life, or the lives of others.
I let my mind wander over my history. Among those no longer with us my mother came to mind. And from Christ Church I count Betty Baker among their number. Betty was a quiet but dynamic presence here for several decades. She supported my young family and me in important ways in our early days in the city.
This predates most of you, but during the summer months she turned our courtyard into a neighborhood happening by collecting and selling used books, a kind of Strand bookstore knockoff on Park Avenue. It grew into a neighborhood book swap with many repeat customers and it also gave Betty an opportunity to advertise her church home. Her quick wit and personal warmth were quietly magnetic. Early on I realized Betty was a natural at building community, even among the more cynical elements of the Park Avenue crowd, the same Avenue on which she lived.
With help from friends, she sponsored a dinner for the homeless who slept in our courtyard, which, in those days, was a veritable wall-to-wall cardboard hotel during the winter months—she had befriended most of them. A smart, accomplished and worldly woman, Betty never met anyone who couldn’t be her friend. She embodied our value of dynamic hospitality. She was my teacher in this way.
Now nearly ten years ago, when Betty was well into her 90s and her powers had been greatly diminished, I joined her at the bedside of her best friend, Flora, who was near death. Betty’s mental abilities had retreated, but her robust spirit still shown through. We sat next to one another and she took my hand as I prayed. But after I finished my words, the real prayer began as Betty released my hand and took hold of Flora’s and began to lovingly stroke it. She said, “Flora, I love you very much. And you know that God loves you. Soon you will be with God who you know loves you very much. And soon I will be joining God, too. And God loves me very much. Everything’s going to be all right. Remember, I love you Flora and God loves you. And everything will be all right.”
I remember this day very clearly. It was hard to describe the spirit that filled the room then. It was as though in her diminished state, imbued with innocence, Betty spoke with astonishing confidence of what was true from a very deep place. She simply spoke what she knew. There were others in the room that day, and they felt a profound assurance settle among us that was deeply comforting, satisfying and holy. Afterwards, we all marveled at this shared experience.
It brought to mind the night I received a call from Betty some years earlier during her husband’s last hours of life. I went over to her apartment and together with her daughter Elaine we kept vigil until Bob released his last breath. Betty felt so profoundly grateful at that time—I was struck by her overwhelming gratitude—and though there was sadness, I was also aware of joy leaking around the edges of the night. That same sense of joy was present in the room with her friend Flora. This might seem counter-intuitive given the circumstances, but it was the joy that attaches to authentic love—the deepest variety—and the things that matter most of all.
The church has a long history of telling the stories of its saints. And by saints let’s be clear that we’re speaking of anyone who has thrown in with the party of Jesus. That includes most of us. We tend to distance ourselves from that designation because saint would seem to denote some holier-than-thou type personality, when, in fact, it includes everyone who resembles us—sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, children and friends together, with all their warts and foibles, making their way in this world loving God and neighbor for better and worse.
I think it’s important to see ourselves in this light. When you try it on you sense right away that it dignifies your existence, and the existence of the others who share your pew. You can actually feel it. Look to the person to your right and to your left and attach the word “saint”. Get over the sentimental mythologizing and recognize the real-time truth of the matter. There are no saints worthier than us. There is no one else to do the work of love than us. No one else. Just us. We’re the ones God loves beyond our wildest imaginings. We’re the ones that are called to share this grace with the world.
This grace has a wild and wooly dimension as in Jesus instructing his friends to, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you…” and, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Tell me that doesn’t sound like a radical intervention in our current cultural moment. Loving God and neighbors. All of them. The work of the saints…
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10
Imagine a man in his late fifties sitting in my office 20 years ago reporting a lifetime series of failed relationships with his several wives, children and business partners. He had lived life to the fullest, he said, made a whole mountain of money, and though he should probably feel more guilt than he did, he wasn’t entirely displeased with what he had experienced. Interesting experience after all, is what gave zest to his life. He loved the freedom to do whatever he pleased, whenever he pleased. He was a kind of modern libertine.
I asked what brought him to my door, then. With that he fell silent, eventually offering that a growing, gnawing emptiness had crept up on him over the last months. Among other emerging desires, he realized he wanted a relationship with his children who basically despised him. Of course, he’d been absent for much of their lives. While he had many other sorts of relationships, he realized none of them really mattered at the end of the day, and though his money provided every sort of diversion, he felt adrift.
Maybe it was a kind of late mid-life crisis, he offered, but of an opposite variety from what we normally heard about. He said that generally when describing a midlife crisis we identified an otherwise grown-up man or woman acting out, stepping out of a perceived boring or imprisoning rut in some big-time way. With a kind of half-hearted laugh he added that he had been acting out his whole life.
What brought him to me was a kind of awakening, or, well, he was hard-pressed to say just what exactly had whomped him on the side of the head. A couple of weeks ago he awoke with a start from a fitful night’s sleep with two words lingering in his mind as though they had been just spoken: “Come home.” They still felt as fresh today as they did that morning. He didn’t remember anything else he had dreamt—just those two words echoing in his head.
Often walking by this church he stepped through the doors and sat down. He hadn’t consciously connected any dots to cause this short step from the sidewalk to sanctuary—just a spontaneous decision. But here’s where it got a little silly, he added.
He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to a church. Long ago he’d thrown off any sort of interest in religion or spirituality. Thought it was mostly a lot of baloney and anyway, would likely interfere with the sort of life he wanted. And like he said, it wasn’t that he was feeling especially guilty, just empty. Really empty.
And teary. Now that really shocked him. When he sat down in here and looked up into the golden mosaics his eyes welled up with tears. Something like that had never happened before. He rarely cried. Couldn’t remember the last time. Tears weren’t part of his normal experience. But somehow they linked up with that short phrase, “come home,” which now resonated loudly, nearly clobbering him with a headache.
For the next several mornings he stepped into this space and then on the following Sunday made, what was for him, a completely counter-intuitive decision to go to church. Imagine his surprise when the message that morning was all about our existential and spiritual experience of finding our true home. He said that in the sermon I even mentioned that many people who stuck around this place, despite where they were from, reported how they felt at home here when first crossing the threshold. That’s the track that brought him to my office.
When someone describes a serendipity like this I am humbled and made alert to the fact that I’m at my best when I recognize God is already three steps ahead of where I might think I ought to be. I can fall into the trap that the spiritual quest is all about my effort and forget that, but for God’s gracious and dynamic presence, all my effort would mean nothing. I need always to remember to keep my hands, heart, and head open, clear about who’s who and what’s what.
Here’s another confession. I wasn’t sure I liked this man very much. I can tell you this because I confessed this to my new friend at some point in the course of our developing relationship. Something he said at one point led to me say, “Well, you know when you first walked into my office I wasn’t that certain I was going to wind up liking you.” Something like that. I had a visceral negative feeling.
Of course, I was also intrigued by his story, which seemed completely guileless. In fact, that was the real disjunction—I sensed he was normally full of guile, well, he said as much, really. But his recent experience had disarmed him. He would not have come to speak with me, an anonymous minister, if this disarmament hadn’t taken place.
Now I’ve learned over the years that when this sort of disarmament happens I must disarm as well. I have to let go of my preconceived judgments and biases. As the cliché puts it, I have to let go and let God.
But now it’s hard to say what makes persons open up to a truth that’s larger than them. What cracks them open? One of the first things that’s acknowledged is that there is a truth that’s larger than they are. Perhaps it’s an especially 21st century bias that there is no truly larger, even sacred, perspective than one’s own. Or maybe that has always been the situation, and we post-moderns have a narrower and sharper arrogance believing we invented this self-authenticating perspective. I don’t know.
But I do know by both personal and communal experience, and through reasoning my way through our tradition and scriptures, that there is a Truth larger than my own, that this Truth should be spelled with a capital “T”, and that the best language we have for this Truth is what we refer to as religious, or spiritual/mystical language—language that reaches beyond material experience. Further, our scriptures remain relentlessly valuable in helping us unlock the meanings of our lives even in the 21st century.
Take the famous story of Zaccheus Violet read for us. We heard about a certain rich man, a chief tax collector. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and Zaccheus wanted to catch a glimpse of him. In Roman times, tax collecting was rented out to the highest bidder who then could extort whatever he could from the general populace. As a Roman lackey and a greedy profiteer, Zaccheus was a much despised man as well as too short to see over the crowds gathered to see Jesus enter Jericho (1).
He likely would have been pelted with stones had he tried to approach the crowd accompanying Jesus. No one would have believed him if he had begun to make restitution of his own accord. The irony of it was that Zaccheus expressed no desire to escape from his social ostracism. He just climbed the tree so he could have a better vantage point to see Jesus as he passed by. Was he becoming vaguely conscious of the deep loneliness his profession had created? Did he have even the faintest beginnings of a guilty conscience? Or perhaps a gnawing emptiness? Did he simply feel really empty though he was very rich? During a restless, sweaty sleep the night before, could he have awakened with two words in mind: “Come home?”
He was oddly guileless. Yet this was a man who was normally full of guile; somewhere from the day before to his tree climbing to see Jesus he had been disarmed. I’m thinking he wouldn’t have welcomed Jesus into his home if this disarmament hadn’t taken place.
Jesus saw a man waiting to be redeemed. In this sense, he is everyman, everywoman. Although he risked being ostracized himself, Jesus sought him out. Once again breaking all the barriers of social custom, Jesus invited himself to the man’s house for a meal. Interesting, isn’t it, how the idea of home comes into play here. In effect, Jesus made a home with this man that everyone else reviled. No word about whether or not he liked Zaccheus. But he surely loved Zaccheus. Radical scriptural principle number one: No one is beyond the reach of divine love.
The experience changed Zaccheus into a grace-filled man. In the excitement of what had happened to him, he promised to be more than generous, giving half his goods to the poor, and repay many times over whatever he had taken by fraud. Generosity was a mark of his redemption.
And Jesus praised him as a son of Abraham, the Jewish ideal of a faithful servant of God. In other words, Zaccheus came home, as it were, and his life took on a very different character. In today’s lingo we might say he had a reverse mid-life crisis.
I’ll leave it to you to discern how this might touch your own life. And since we’re in our season of inviting you to fund our exciting vision for the years ahead, I will let you consider how, or if, generosity defines your life. Putting this message together this week I was reminded how counter-cultural our life together can seem, and yet, how profoundly relevant and necessary. How inspiring it is. And elevating, especially in a political season that is the opposite. Coming home here means coming home to what’s best about our humanity, what’s possible; coming home to hope and gratitude and love.
Let’s end this way. Suppose as you went home today Jesus invited himself over for brunch. Play out that little vignette as a kind of homework. Imagine him saying, “Today salvation has come to your house…
(1) Note John Shearman’s paraphrase at: http://seemslikegod.org/lectionary/archives/twenty-third-sunday-after-pentecost-october-31-2010.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14Read MoreLess
Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
Over the years we’ve had a variety of ways of managing prayer requests from congregants and passersby. They come to us from the connection cards in your bulletin or pew and also from the prayer box in the entryway to the sanctuary.You’re likely aware that our doors are open seven days a week and there’s quite a bit of traffic from people who come to sit and meditate, perhaps light a candle, and sometimes drop a card in the box. It’s a pretty common occurrence.
When we began this practice some years ago, we offered an early Morning Prayer service on Wednesdays when these cards were dispersed among the participants who then prayed them in the company of their peers. At one point a writer for a national magazine holding an assignment on prayer stopped by on a Wednesday morning and spoke with several participants. A month or two later, here’s how he began his article: “With the winter chill of 5 degrees bearing down outside the church door, Methodists in Manhattan gather in a sanctuary to summon the Almighty on behalf of bruised, hurting humanity.
“For a week, passersby have scrawled desperate prayer requests on cards and placed them in the church’s prayer box, and now the [participants read] them aloud, 50 or more of them, hoping to unleash fresh spiritual well-being into the world.
“’Dear God,’ reads one card, ‘I’m getting more and more depressed—please help me.’
“’I pray for my friend Sean, who has been ill and needs God’s support,’ says another card. Other messages look disturbing or illegible; but it doesn’t matter.
“[These] prayer partners at Christ Church lift up all the requests for God’s blessings every Wednesday morning, regardless of weather.
“’We believe our prayer is an important communication,’ says [a member of Christ Church named Matt]. It would be presumptuous to look for a specific outcome, but we hope for God’s intervention as God sees fit. Whenever a group of people gather to come before God, it’s a holy moment. It deepens your faith that God is there and hears and answers.’
Concluding the article the author returns to his Christ Church experience and writes, “Matt ponders the weekly work of delivering others’ written prayers to the King of the Universe. He’s been doing it three years, and it has changed him.
“’We might be on Park Avenue, but the whole world passes by here, and you are aware of desperation,’ he says. ‘Some people are terribly troubled. It’s an act of faithfulness on their part just to write a prayer down.
“’The work of this prayer group has large implications,’ he continues. ‘It’s an act of faith to take on prayers for the world and be willing to participate in a solution. I know my view of prayer has changed. It has deepened my prayer life. Before, the area of my prayers was small. Now it’s larger, deeper and more spontaneous. It’s shifted my relationship with God and church to the center of my life.’(1)”
Eventually this service gave way to other methods for praying, with the addition of the connection cards from Sunday. Now all of these requests are gathered up by Leslie and Chad, our Connections Director, and dispersed to the pastoral team and other prayer partners.
By the way, if you’re interested, you might consider making this part of your own spiritual practice. It’s a small thing, I suppose, but it does open the wider world into one’s faith experience. It provides clarifying perspective on the people who walk into this space day in and day out. They have specific names and specific concerns and joys, just like you and me. Just let Chad know of your interest.
It’s a surprisingly meaningful way of participating in the life of the city. As Matt said, this prayer is an act of faith for certain, a tangible act of faith. And it changes you.
Why is it an act of faith? Well, because it’s directed towards God, and because the only reason to do such a seemingly impotent thing is because of faith. And while the ostensible purpose in praying for another is for the sake of the other, the simple fact is that since prayer is an act of faith on the part of the pray-er, one’s own faith gets a workout, like going to the spiritual gym.
Our gospel lesson began this way: “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.(2)”He spoke of a widow pleading her case before a corrupt judge who ultimately relented and offered her justice only because of her persistence.
In first century Palestine, “widow” was a code word for the most vulnerable and defenseless in society. She had no position, no leverage, no clout. She had nothing but her dogged perseverance to gain her justice. Jesus concluded, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”
I suppose we could say we pray because of Jesus’ instruction and his own prayer life. But even then, to do it sincerely is always an act of faith, sometimes if only because of a tiny bit of hopeful yearning in an otherwise desperate situation.
Even atheists are known to offer up a prayer in a crisis. What’s the old cliché? “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Afterwards they might chide themselves for their knee-jerk childishness. But the instinct for a relationship with a Divine Ally, with Someone who cares about our race in its conflicts and defeats, persists (3).
Writer and Professor C.S. Lewis, the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” among many other things, wrote eloquently and honestly about his feeling abandoned and left alone by God after the death of his wife:
In the midst of his misery he asked, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms [of spiritual illness]. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing [God], so happy that you are tempted to feel [God’s] claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once… What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (4)”
Yet, despite feeling abandoned by the Holy One, somehow Lewis persisted in praying and believing, trusting and relying on God. Eventually, he came to be at peace with God and with the loss of his wife – not pleased, but at peace.
And eventually he could say this about prayer: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God—it changes me.”
St. Augustine, the towering 4th century theologian/philosopher came to understand that “patience is the companion of wisdom.” Whoever knocks persistently, ends by entering. Jesus told a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart.
For many years cards were dropped in our prayer box each week for a trio named Priscilla, Kyle and Raney. We have no idea who these three are, but consider that every week for well over a decade these three persons have been on the heart and mind of someone who enters this space to pray, perhaps on the way to work, lifting them before God. Thirteen, fourteen years of prayer for Priscilla, Kyle and Raney.
Does this seem an impotent bit of wasted effort? After a while one becomes bemused by the relentlessly recurring names. But not so very much more time passes when a different attitude sets in, an attitude forged by the patient persistence of the earnest sentiment of the one who writes the names on a card week after week after week. God bless Priscilla, Kyle and Raney. And I think to myself: how lucky are they? Would that someone prayed for me that relentlessly…
Some cards are written by those who have obvious psychological issues; some are written by the homeless—those that have no power, no position, no clout in our society, and often, no justice, like the widow in the parable. Their prayers are instructive. You cannot pray with them and not be changed.
Some cards are written in languages most can’t read, some in the characters of Korean and Chinese, some in Cyrillic, some in Arabic, others not as identifiable. It doesn’t matter. In this small gesture of hospitality we’ve accumulated the universal human longing for connection with that Divine Ally, packaged in highly individualized containers, each container important, cherished.
And friends, that includes all of you...
When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
(2) Luke 18:1
(3) Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith, The Abingdon Press, New York, 1917.
(4) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, HarperCollins, 1989 (1961), p, 2, 3.
Jeremiah 271, 4-7; 2nd Timothy 2:8-15; Luke 17:11-19
When I was researching my dissertation concerning the role of forgiveness in effective leadership—a la Nelson Mandela for instance—I learned that the last several decades had seen a great flourishing of hard scientific research in fields of study that were long considered beyond the range of scientific inquiry. Forgiveness was a prime example. Prior to about 1990, there was little interest from either physical or humanistic scientists in researching something that was deemed softly religious, something beneath the dignity of “real” scientists to mess with. Early researchers who plunged in nevertheless, had to endure a disdainful condescension from their peers.
Since that time, however, forgiveness has garnered an explosion of interest across numerous fields of study including psychology, anthropology, sociology, political theory, and many physical and behavioral sciences. My bit of research was an attempt at furthering this conversation in leadership studies.
Forgiveness proved to be the tip of the iceberg as other formerly out-of-bounds topics gained the scrutiny of science when it became clear those boundaries actually impeded a much fuller and richer understanding of human nature and its flourishing.
Gratitude is another prime example that has recently gained scientific traction. So, for instance, in 2011 under the auspices of their Greater Good Science Center, the University of California, Berkeley, launched a multiyear project studying the science and practice of gratitude (1). Still midstream in their work, they’re finding that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits: stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotions; more joy, optimism, and happiness; acting with more generosity and compassion; and feeling less lonely and isolated.
So gratitude has reflexive benefits to the one for whom it’s second nature. That’s one of the things the emerging science reveals. Or another way to say it is that gratitude generates greater health, vitality and satisfaction.
Of course, we spiritually committed types would have claimed that any way, that gratitude offered the one unassailable antidote to a life of morbidity, meanness, and loneliness, as well as providing an essential component of healthy family and community, and every effort at building up the common good. It’s just that we couldn’t prove it. We took it as a matter of faith.
...Which highlights the meaning in the gospel story concerning Jesus healing ten lepers. Honestly, the lesson is as relevant today as it was in the first century. What we reference as leprosy here likely included a number of skin diseases. But to be so identified meant that you were separated from regular human community. Fear of contagion was a principle reason, but victims were also often blamed for their condition as a result of God’s disfavor. They were unclean. If an observant Jew came in contact with a leper, he would need to go through a purification ritual.
So be clear, these ten were in a miserable state as they approached Jesus on his way to Jerusalem: disfigured by disease and ostracized by their communities. Still, it seems they’ve heard about him, and as the story is told, all of them are healed of their physical infirmity. Only one returns in profound gratitude and it is to that one that Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”
And I would quickly point out that a natural question arises: If faith made this one well, what made the others well? You see my point, right? All of them were healed, but only one is told it had anything to do with his faith.
That suggests that healing here has multiple layers and the release from the physical illness was the least of it. And Luke is as always on the ready to point out that the one Jesus praises is the double outcast, the dreaded Samaritan, the one who was objectionable not only for his leprosy, but also for his heresy. Samaritans were reviled by pious Jews, thought to be perverters of the Jewish tradition and to be avoided at all costs. If you’ve attended worship here over the course of this year this matter has cropped up on a number of occasions in our readings.
So when Jesus applauds this man’s faith, just what exactly is he applauding, since the ritual content of his faith was considered faulty at best, and an abomination at worst? Here’s what we’re left with: gratitude is the essential component of faith. If one has authentic gratitude, that is, if one recognizes that he had nothing whatsoever to do with his good fortune, he already had the appropriate orientation to God, and by default, to life.
If you were here last week you heard me address the disciples’ plea to Jesus, “Lord increase our faith!” Well, interestingly, this story follows right after. And what it suggests is that gratitude is the great faith amplifier. I said last week that their request made a really good mantra prayer for us to adopt, as in, “Lord, increase my faith.”And now here’s a corollary—if we do, in fact, want more faith—Lord, increase my gratitude!
Here’s the thing. Even if after hearing a lesson like this you were to leave with the idea that you were going to seek to be more grateful, I suspect the honest person would discover that it’s not as easy as it might seem. The reasons are manifold, but chief among them is that we seethe with all sorts of resentments. We either consciously or unconsciously believe we are more often the victims of unfairness than the recipients of astonishing blessings, and the last we thing we want to be told is that we should all just be more grateful.
Also, we are far more naturally oriented to believe that we merit good things to come our way than not. That we deserve the good things we have. How else to explain the nine cleansed lepers who do not return to Jesus. They’re indifferent to the providential nature of their healing.
Just as most of us, much of the time, are indifferent to the providential nature of the miracle of our very existence—that we live and breathe in the first place, and that we can exercise all sorts of physical, mental and emotional capacities. Gratitude is a fundamental orientation to our existence, regardless of life circumstance, just as faith is. That explains why gratitude and faith are so closely related. Gratitude comes when we step off the pedestal of our own admiring.
When this happens we find the most complete healing there is; traditionally we’ve called this salvation in the Christian tradition. That’s what Jesus says to the heretic Samaritan. In this way we might confess that a sincerely and humbly grateful Muslim is far closer to the truth than a self-righteous, self-absorbed so-called Christian. I don’t think we can arrive at any other conclusion with a reading like this. Authentic gratitude is a mark of spiritual maturity regardless of one’s religious practice.
What are the marks of authentic gratitude? Well, as I began today, our science suggests the truly grateful person will be obviously and spontaneously generous. They will be less self-absorbed, express greater compassionate regard and higher levels of positive emotions; more joy, optimism, and happiness; and feeling less lonely and isolated. Who knew this could be tracked scientifically?
And by the way, gratitude can also become a value of community life. Surely the healthiest church is a place that engenders gratitude as a very high virtue since it is so nearly synonymous to faith.
So how do we get it? Well, we pray about it. We practice it in real time even if we’re not feeling it. We give more money to just causes than we would normally. We stretch beyond our historic comfort zone. We fake it till we make it. We attempt to extend forgiveness to persons we resent. We offer sincere apology without any excuse to those we’ve hurt. We develop an intentional pattern of worship instead of scattershot here and there, since this is an essential aspect of remembering who’s who and what’s what, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. We practice saying words like, “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry,” at the work place, in our marriage, or in our parenting.
All these provide mini opportunities to build our gratitude muscles. I suspect the Samaritan who returned to Jesus in thanksgiving had already built up a catalogue of gratitude disciplines. His response was spontaneous and as Jesus remarked, indicative of his salvation. He was the one who understood the deep truth of his existence.
Some years ago I adopted a small spiritual discipline that my family and most of their friends have learned when sharing a meal in our home. A variation on the traditional grace, I invite everyone to take hands and I say with eyes wide open looking around the table: “Gratitude abounds. Thanks be to God!” I’ve discovered that this brief prayer hits a nerve for everyone, regardless of their religious perspective. Unsuspecting and irreligious adults inevitably shake their heads and affirm the sentiment. We seem to have a natural instinct for this. Without fanfare it sets a high bar for our engagement because we have acknowledged a fundamental truth; but for the grace of God, go all of us.
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2nd Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17: 5-10
Early in my ministry a bewildered man, I’ll identify as Roger, showed up at the church I was serving reeling from a devastating loss. Once the father of two sons, I learned that his youngest died of asphyxiation from a carrot lodged in his trachea that no maneuver, Heimlich or otherwise, could release. Worse, the tragedy occurred during a party with family and friends on his son’s fourth birthday. Overwhelmed in grief and guilt that was disintegrating their marriage, Roger and his wife sought out counseling.
Unfortunately, the counselor had inadequate professional boundaries, allowing the therapeutic transference to lead him into an affair with Roger’s wife. Convinced their love was genuine, she divorced Roger. He moved away and wound up in my town and my church pew one Sunday, humbled and emotionally exhausted, but functioning well enough to seek out a nurturing community. I quickly came to know a thoughtful, reflective man, wanting to rebuild his life with his older son, now a young teenager, for whom he had full custody.
A year or so went by when late one afternoon I received a frantic call from Roger. He was at the hospital emergency room. Riding a bicycle on a busy state highway, his teenaged son had been struck by a car. It was bad. Roger was choked with emotion. I hopped in my car and met him at the hospital and wound up spending the next ten hours or so sitting, sometimes pacing, with him around the hospital grounds.
I was a promising and earnest, but rather green, minister. Although, I was learning there’s not a lot to say in these kinds of circumstances. It was generally enough to be physically, emotionally and spiritually present. So we didn’t talk much for several hours, waiting for some news. I found the silence professionally safe. But after a particularly long stretch, Roger quietly said, “Steve, tell me about faith. What is it? How do you get it?” I sensed immediately that he was profoundly spiritually alert and available in this moment. His question, confusion, and desire were very palpable.
A deep, transparent, and unencumbered conversation transpired. He was calm, collected. I didn’t feel very smart or adequate to the moment, and I said so. He accepted that, actually Roger said he found some comfort in that, and so our hearts met in that mystical space created by our several inadequacies helping one another to receive the faith that only comes as a gift. Eventually, we got word that his son would live and likely thrive, even though he had a long recovery ahead.
Every once in a while I pull down an old tattered volume from my bookshelf entitled, The Meaning of Faith, written by Harry Emerson Fosdick in 1917. Fosdick was the favorite of John D. Rockefeller who built The Riverside Church for him about the same time Christ Church was planted on this corner. It was the day of the high profile learned preacher; the day when New York City papers published front-page articles on Monday summarizing the content of one of the big steeple stars from Sunday. Hard to imagine that now. A very different day indeed. Among these stars, Fosdick was something of a standout of thoughtful erudition effectively connected to real life.
Here’s how he begins: “A book on faith has been for years my hope and intention. And now it comes to final form during the most terrific war men ever waged, when faith is sorely tried and deeply needed. Direct discussion of the war has been purposely avoided; but many streams of thought within the book flow in channels that the war has worn. Since the conflict had to come, I am glad for this book’s sake that it was not written until it had Europe’s holocaust for a background.(1)”
Given the copyright, the war he’s referencing is the 1st World War, one that he will later call, “The Great War.” And the holocaust he mentions predates the devastation of the Jews, which came several decades later and captured forever the meaning of that word.
Now closing in on a century since Fosdick wrote his reflections, this week I considered all the wars that have been fought since, up to and including our present moment. Many terrible wars made the 20th century the bloodiest in human history. And we’re not doing so well in the 21st.
The First World War was Fosdick’s war of the moment, his present circumstance stirring him to consider the meaning of faith that, as he said, “is sorely tried and deeply needed.” Of course, he was speaking at a different time to a rather different audience, a very large national audience that would have shared many of the same religious and worldview perspectives. We’re a more diverse audience today, a lot more challenging in that sense, I think. But as for that, we still yearn for that robust connection to something larger than ourselves that reliably organizes and empowers our lives, something we still call faith.
That’s what Roger was wanting for certain. Not lost in the morass of seeking a magical solution to his life situation, he was longing for a sturdy sense that the world made sense, that life and love had meaning, purpose and directionality.
It’s long been said that human hardship is the universal context for forging faith. That was the case for Fosdick in 1917, as it is the case for us in 2016. If I were to write a new volume on the meaning of faith today, I would start from a different cultural standpoint, but human hardship would still figure prominently. How could it not? And even a brief engagement with the Bible reveals that human hardship and struggle frames it out, frames the human cycle of birth and death; it’s the anvil upon which faith is forged.
That was certainly true of Jesus’ experience. He lived in a time of competing worldviews, clashing religious perspectives and colliding politics. His own death tells the tale on that. He walked among real people struggling through real life problems and conundrums, yet through the fog of the gathering storm around him, he illuminated a bright and searing message about faith, trust, hope and love. He embodied a message about faith from within human experience. It wasn’t offered as observation from a far distance. It was rooted in our experience of life and death and everything that comes in between.
So it’s not surprising that Paul, writing from prison to Timothy, should mention that he remembers Timothy’s tears as he also fortifies Timothy’s faith. “Timothy, my beloved child…I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day recalling your tears…I am reminded of your sincere faith…rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love…(2)”
Sprung from the universal human condition, tears express the universal human need. Along with light and truth we need healing, hope, and courage to live in a way that fosters these same ennobling things. All of these are pieces of the larger whole we call faith. Reaching for this larger way of living is not easy. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ friends exclaim, “Lord, increase our faith!”
I’m thinking that it wouldn’t be a great insight to assume that most everyone here hungers for greater faith. Fosdick put it this way: Don’t we hunger for the confidence that Someone cares about our race in its conflicts and defeats? Don’t we hunger for an intimate Friend, a Divine Ally, who, in the midst of the world’s darkness and our own, assures us that life is not chance and chaos, but rooted in a Great Design and don’t we yearn for the gift to live our lives with confidence and joy no matter what, capable of true grace and real love?(3)
I have surely felt those needs vibrating my heart and soul my whole life. God, if you’re out there, or in here, increase my faith! Surely, most of you have shared this experience in some form. …So this is where you help me write this sermon. This is where you insert your own story, your bit of the larger human drama, the part that matters deeply and desperately to you. I’ll give you a moment to do that. Go ahead, bring it to consciousness, no one’s watching—they’ve got their eyes up here. Bring your story, your heartache, your struggle, your concern, your faltering steps at love and forgiveness and courage and integrity…bring that to mind.
Maybe you’ve never said these words out loud: “Lord, increase my faith!” It’s an important prayer. The disciples give us permission to say it insistently. It reflects the deep hunger that wells up from time to time. You may feel that hunger now, or perhaps you will on your way home, or when you wake up tomorrow morning, or the day after that. It’s an honest hunger. I say, let it come. Feel your stomach rumble for real food. Feel your need. Lord, increase my faith.
And Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.(4)” Ironically it would seem that by asking their question the disciples reveal they already have faith the size of a grain of mustard. They think that’s their problem—what they have is too small. Jesus says that the faith they have is already the faith they need. A tiny bit in the hands of God is the same thing as a whole lot.
Locked within the confines of an impossibly small and dead-looking thing lays the potential for abundant, triumphant life. Like a kind of cosmic spiritual genetics, embedded within the tiny speck of our embryonic faith, is the complete code of everything we might become as we nourish ourselves from God’s bounty.
And on this point it does not matter who we are. Age, life circumstance, gender, race, favorite sins—at this most basic level we are alike. The biblical drama could use all of us for its source material. We’re the last act currently being written. The biblical story continues to write us, as it were, as the latest testament to faith. Our tears could express the biblical lament, our bit of faith, our fledgling courage and faltering love could be the seeds that Jesus nurtures into transformed life. We’re now the stumbling, bumbling disciples who learn about the things that matter most the hard way, but learn we will, and we will thrive in love for love’s sake. (From us could come the gospel according to Don, the Letter of Marsha, the 1st and 2nd Letters of Jeff, the Book of Marty.)
That’s really the point of all this friends. That’s why we come here, isn’t it? Isn’t that why we come to this reunion table month after month, to feed our souls on rich food that will sate the deepest hunger? And imagine, it’s open to everyone who will come. Everyone.
This revelation comes by way of faith. We sense the deep truth, but considering the world’s record of wars and other human difficulties and hardships, we recognize that but for this mustard-sized germ of faith we would not know we are all alike and found acceptable, sprung from the same divine genetic stock, nurtured with relentless forgiveness and grace and meant to be gathered around the same family table. That each one of us has our place here counters the deadening effects of hopelessness in our individual experience and holds the promise of abundant life.
I tell you, friends, this is the flowering of faith. And there is no greater gift. For God’s sake, well, for your sake and the sake of the world, receive it with arms wide open.
(1) Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1917, vii.
(2) Skipping through 2 Timothy 1:3-7.
(3) Fosdick paraphrased, 64.
(4) Luke 17:6.