Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2016 || Proper 19C || Luke 15:1-10
The unsavory elements of society come to listen to Jesus, and he does not send them away. The scribes and Pharisees watch from a distance so as not to rub shoulders with such disreputable people, and at every turn Jesus’ behavior confirms their opinion of him. Either he does not understand the basic tenets of society, which force the unsavory elements to the margins where upstanding folks can ignore them. Or he does not care that he risks his own reputation by welcoming them into his presence. Either way, his behavior allows the scribes and Pharisees to write him off.
But there’s a third option that I doubt ever enters their tightly closed minds. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. Maybe he does care; maybe he cares about the people and not about his reputation. Perhaps the reason he welcomes those on the margins is that he has accepted his life’s mission, and he is living that mission to the fullest.Continue reading “Claiming our Mission”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 3, 2016 || Proper 9C || Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
Last week, we started a sermon series on being “born again.” We talked about this new life of Jesus Christ, this unreasonable life of love and service. And today, we are going to move on to the next part of the series – and I’ve added a couple things by the way – new hands, new feet, and new eyes. We’ll get to those in just a few minutes.
Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2016 || Easter 7C || Revelation 22
You probably didn’t realize it, but a few minutes ago _____ read the very last prayer in the Bible. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” These are the words of John of Patmos as he wakes from his vision, which we know as the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. A succinct prayer, to be sure, but powerful. It sounds to me like a breath prayer; that is, a prayer short enough to be said slowly in a single breath. <demonstrating>Come, Lord Jesus. Praying a breath prayer is a wonderful practice that helps us stay immersed in the healing waters of God’s presence. A breath prayer can be anything that you can say with one breath: Continue reading “Come, Lord Jesus”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.
And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.
Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.
The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.
And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.
Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.
I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)
I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.
One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.
That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.
When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
As many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.
We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.
As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:
Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.
Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.
There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.
The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.
There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.
Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.
In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.
All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.
Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.
But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.
To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.
And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.
First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.
Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.
That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.
I first posted this reflection on Psalm 8 (the Psalm from Trinity Sunday) on the website Day1.org, a site on which I am a “key voices” blogger. If it sounds more academic than my normal writing, it is because this piece began it’s life as a seminary paper. I promise it sounds way more academic in it’s original version.
* * *
Seen from aerial photographs, the oil spill looks like any old gasoline rainbow you might see on the pavement outside a gas station after a drizzle. Then you realize the picture is taken from a few thousand feet and the patch of oil is hundreds of square miles in area and the spill is growing because it’s not a leak, it’s a geyser. Such thoughts send the mind reeling. How could we be so bold, so cocky, so derelict in our duty to God to be stewards of this creation that we pump toxic liquids out of the ground without so much as even a sketch of a plan to deal with the consequences of our own fallibility?
With these thoughts on my mind (and, I must confess, I am safely ensconced on a different coast far from the poisonous ooze), I glance at the readings for Trinity Sunday and the words of Psalm 8 hit me hard upside the head.
1. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4. what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7. all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
With uncanny prescience, the psalmist speaks to our modern world about humanity’s role in creation, one based on the proper comprehension of humanity’s status as God’s subjects and therefore as servants of God’s creation. The second verse, which introduces the theme of dependence, seems out of place in the overarching language praising God for creation and humankind’s place in it. Of course, it’s always the verses that seem out of place that hold the most interpretive weight. By introducing the idea of dependence, the psalmist directs the audience to reflect on the necessity of human humility in regards to humanity’s relationship with God, especially concerning the dominion over creation.
At first glance verse 2 stands in contrast to the rest of the psalm since it concerns itself with enemies that are not mentioned again; further, verses 1 and 3 flow together nicely, with the thought of heaven connecting the two verses. But instead of mentally removing verse 2 so that the psalm flows smoothly, the reader must dwell on the second to come to the subtler and deeper orientation that the psalmist attempts to reach. The psalmist praises God for founding a “bulwark” (or strength, stronghold) against enemies “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” For those reading the psalms in order, this is the first time infants are mentioned in the entire Book of Psalms; indeed, the image of the babe is a fresh idea. A prevalent mental association made with infants is their dependency on their parents. The psalmist makes this association explicit by using not only the word for child, but also the word for “nursing infant,” The nursing infant truly is dependent on his or her mother in a way to which no other relationship quite compares. And it is out of the mouths of the utterly dependent that God achieves God’s plan — in this case beating back the foes, which scholar J. Clinton McCann deems “the chaotic forces that God conquered and ordered in the sovereign act of creation.”
With the interpretive key of dependence planted firmly in our minds, we can turn to the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 names God with the divine name and then follows with a title for God. The divine name automatically engenders feelings of obedience, but the addition of a title of “sovereign” serves as a further reminder that God is in charge. Because God exercises complete sovereignty, humans are as completely dependent on God as nursing infants are on their mothers.
Moving to verses 3-5, the psalmist looks up to the night sky and is walloped with a feeling of insignificance. And why not? In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams unwittingly offers an explanation of verse 3: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Scholar Peter Craigie points out that the psalmist drives home the point of humankind’s insignificance by saying that God establishes this mindbogglingly big thing with God’s fingers. This awareness of humanity’s smallness in the grand scheme could reduce us to apathetic movement through life because nothing we do would seem to matter. The psalmist nearly slips into this dangerous mode of thinking in v. 4; indeed, the hymn of praise could become a psalm lament at this point. But in the words “mortals that you care for them,” the reader recalls verse 2 and remembers that we are in a dependent relationship with God, who is our sovereign. Verse 5 continues this recollection by adding “yet you have made them (a little lower than God).” By reading verses 3-5 in light of verse 2, the faith that God made us and cares for us outweighs any feelings of insignificance that the night sky may provoke.
Verses 6-8 shift the focus from humankind’s dependence on God and humanity’s misplaced feelings of insignificance to the role God has ordained for humankind on earth. These verses recall the vocation God gives humanity on the sixth day of creation. While the word “dominion” in verse 6 is different than “dominion” in Genesis 1:26, the parallels with Genesis 1 are unmistakable. The language of largeness and smallness remains in these verses, which continues the theme of significance/insignificance seen in the previous three verses. God gives humankind dominion over small sheep, birds, and fish, and also large oxen, beasts, and “whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (the Leviathan which God “has made for the sport of it,” perhaps? (Psalm 104)). Humankind is given charge over great and small creatures; as the psalmist says, “you have put all things under their feet.” However, the psalm does not end with humanity’s dominion. In an inclusive bookend with verse 1, the psalmist reiterates the sovereignty of God over all things. This reprise recalls once again the dependence that humanity has on the LORD, who is their Lord.
What does this discussion offer the modern audience? We live in a global society hell-bent on destroying itself. We clear-cut forests, remove mountaintops, and pump toxic levels of Carbon Dioxide into the air. We do not share the bounty of the land, thus pushing others to burn rainforests and oases for farmland. We live under the delusion that we can develop “safe” oil rigs. We refuse to believe that our actions are slowly turning our world, a piece of God’s creation, into a planetary rubbish bin, fit only for storing the waste we accumulate.
Psalm 8 is a wakeup call, the An Inconvenient Truth of the Bible. To put it simply, the world today has forgotten the truth, which Psalm 8 espouses — that we are dependent on God even though (or more appropriately, especially because) we exercise dominion over the earth. We miss the all-important message that God has given us dominion: we do not intrinsically have it. We properly receive this gift only when we recognize our relationship with God is one of total dependence. Scholar James Mays puts it this way: Psalm 8’s “vision of the royal office of the human race is completely theocentric, but humanity in its career has performed the office in an anthropocentric mode. Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.”
In the end, the problem is the oldest problem in the book — human self-aggrandizement destroys the purpose that God originally conceived for humanity. Misplaced delusions of grandeur unravel humanity’s proper relationship with God. Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.” Psalm 8 calls us back to the correct relationship with God concerning creation. We are utterly dependent on God, we are significant in the realm of creation, but we are not the source or the beginning (though we may very well be the end). In Psalm 8, the psalmist reclaims our primal orientation as dependent subjects on God who has been given us the gift of caring for creation. When we recover this proper relationship, we can take steps to retrieve creation from its slow decline, so that we can once again see the “majesty of God’s name in all the earth.”
Last post, I began with an illustration from The Princess Bride, and it seems once you get me going, I have trouble stopping. Here’s another one. At the beginning of the film, Buttercup commands the farm boy, Westley, to do several menial tasks – polish her horse’s saddle, fill buckets with water, fetch a pitcher. Each time, he responds, “As you wish.” In time, Buttercup realizes that “As you wish” is Westley’s way of saying “I love you.” This discovery, of course, leads to a sunset kiss, a leave-taking to seek fortune across the sea, a supposed death, and (eventually) a harrowing reunion, a second separation, another supposed death, a rescue, and (finally) an escape together from the homicidal schemes of the evil prince.
“As you wish,” says Westley before doing Buttercup’s bidding. Too remove any mystery from where this post is going, let me put it bluntly: his actions display his love. He serves Buttercup, and the love that prompts this service stirs in her, as well, though the words “I love you” are never uttered.
You see, saying “I love you” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. I could say, “I’m going to eat eighty-seven hotdogs in twenty minutes,” but (unless I conveniently morph into a hundred pound Japanese man) there’s no way I mean it. But you could drive one of those Wide-Load trailers with half a mobile home on it through the gap between what we say and what we mean.
Too often, the abused wife returns to her husband because “he says he loves me.” Too often, the college freshman wakes up crying the next morning, after being duped by “I love you.” Too often, “I love you” hurts more than it heals. The abusive husband and the manipulative scumbag weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences and their own dormant culpability.
This is where action comes in. This is where service separates truth from manipulation. You may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. (If this were the case, there would still be myriad jousting tournaments throughout Christendom.*) Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love, and one that often removes the necessity of speaking the words aloud.
Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not in poetic protestations, but in holding the beloved’s hair back when she’s bent over the toilet with stomach flu. Love waits all night in the hospital room, visits the prisoner, builds affordable housing, donates mac & cheese. Love gets its uniform dirty.**
The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal playbook for turning love into action. One of the promises echoes Jesus’ great commandment: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
Will you serve? I will, with God’s help. How will you serve?
Will you love? I will, with God’s help. What will your love impel you to do?
God has given gifts to each of us so that we might enrich the lives of those around us. The ability to love is one such gift. The desire to serve is another. Paired with these gifts are those sets of talents unique to each one of us. When we combine our unique giftedness into that sacred body of which Christ is the head, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.
On Sunday morning, God nourishes us when we share the body and blood of Christ. Then God orients us toward the door at the back of the church and the world waiting beyond. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we can, with God’s help, respond, “As you wish.”
* I’m sure we could come up with some modern analogs. However, I beg you to concede the point.
** Have you ever noticed that there are certain baseball players who, no matter what, end the game with grass and dirt stains all over their uniforms?
(I wrote the following piece in the Spring of 2008, and happened upon it when I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. Some of the temporal language is now dated, but I left the piece as is to preserve its integrity.)
Theologian Sallie McFague identifies the earth as “the new poor.”* The planet, once bursting with bounty and hiding secrets in great swaths of unexplored terrain, now groans under the weight of post-industrial consumption and post-common sense insatiability. The earth has become poor (and a victim of exploitation, rape, and mutilation) in much the same way people become poor: the rich deny access to resources and opportunities. The sense of entitlement over the earth’s riches has grown over the last several hundred years (along with our gluttonous appetites). The Western Christian view of the earth—which, during the medieval period, was full of awe, respect, and fear—has morphed into one of utility, ambition, and domination. We have made the earth poor because we see it simply as an object, argues McFague.
There is another way. Rather than objectifying the earth, rather than possessing the earth as a thing to be used, abused, and discarded, McFague pleads with us to see the world as we see our loved ones—as subjects. Seeing the earth as another subject just as we ourselves are subjects gives us the opportunity to enter into mutual, sustainable relationships with the earth based on love and respect. McFague calls this model “the loving eye.”
Last autumn, I changed the route I take when I drive to church and discovered what she means by this loving eye. A left at the Belle Haven Golf Course sends me a Par Five’s distance down a residential street toward the George Washington Parkway, where I turn right and follow the Potomac River for about five minutes until I reach my parish. Sun-polished leaves of every green hue dance on the branches of trees, which arch toward one another above the parkway, making a dappled, living tunnel. On my left, the river peek-a-boos every now and again when the trees thin, and groves of white masts, rooted in anchored sailboats, mingle with the tree trunks. I sit up a little straighter in my seat. My eyes drift to the trees and the river beyond. And then, for the briefest of moments, I see my spot.
A small inlet in the river reaches to the road. The water tiptoes in and out of the little cove, treading softly around the three or four dead trunks that still stand in the shallows. On cloudless mornings, dawn gilds the somersaulting waves with new light, and the overhanging trees reflect swaying twins in the water. These deep green reflections merge with the morning light, mixing the color of sparkling possibility. All the energy of the dawn and the river and the swaying trees infuses me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such potent imagination. That is spring.
In winter, the water still treads lightly in and out of the cove, but, on certain January Sundays, ice reaches out from the bank, halting the tumbling waves. The dead trunks hide behind a low fog, which crawls along the surface of the water. When the cold sun penetrates the clouds, it shines through the winter scaffolding and silhouettes the bare trunks and branches. All the deliberateness of the ice and the fog and the sleeping branches deepens me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such quiet solemnity.
In autumn, the trees shed their uniformity. The water exults to mirror the new apparel in swirling reflections of amber and crimson. Dropping leaves spiral down, catching the morning light. They float on the water and cluster at the bases of the dead trunks. Dawn ignites the trees, making their leaves shimmer and blaze. The wind ruffles the surface of the water—no tiptoeing this time, only cartwheels. The light glances off each wave’s crest and each yellow leaf, doubling the morning’s fervent brightness. All the elation of the wind and the light and the flaming leaves elevates me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such riotous innovation.
I have never driven past my spot in the summer, but I imagine the inlet displaying a worn, comfortable version of the sparkling possibility of spring. Soon, I will no longer be driving that way on Sundays. At times, I have contemplated pulling my car over to snap a picture of the spot. But each time I travel down the living tunnel, I decide to keep driving by. Deep down, I discover that I have no desire to capture the image of that blessed spot. How can I hope to tell the story of such a place in a photograph? Capturing its image truly would be a confinement. I would preserve one instant of two-dimensional facsimile when the original has such light and movement and possibility. The depth of reflection would flatten. The waves would no longer tumble. The wind would disappear. If I took that picture, I would cease to remember that spot in my imagination. I would lose what I had sought to preserve. In a sense, I would take the life from a place that has infused my life with such energy, such ardent joy.
So I leave my camera at home. I prefer to keep the ever-changing image of that spot in my heart. It continues to kindle within me the spontaneous thanks of a creature for all the potent imagination, quiet solemnity, and riotous innovation with which the Creator has blessed creation.
The spot brings out McFague’s loving eye in me, and I find myself asking the water and wind and trees for forgiveness—for myself and for our entire post-common sense establishment. During the same lecture in which we discussed McFague’s work, my seminary theology professor reached back to the medieval era and borrowed the idea of Haecceitas from thinker Duns Scotus. He was not content to know a forest or a species of tree or flower. He wanted to know each particular white oak, each individual daffodil. And in so knowing, rejoice that God also knows those trees and flowers for God created them. And in so rejoicing, praise God for the craft, detail, and unsurpassed beauty seen in the particularity of creation. I pray for these Haecceitas eyes. I pray that soon we will all see the earth as a subject, a poor subject in need of enriching relationships. And I pray that the inlet remains in my heart, urging me to look with love on God’s creation.
So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).
With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?
I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.
Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).
A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:
Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.
So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”
The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”
This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.
Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”
Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”
The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?
I’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in preparation for a class I will be teaching at my church. The book is a series of letters from one of Hell’s executive level devils sent to a junior tempter who is tasked with corrupting the soul of a new convert to Christianity. In Letter #14, Screwtape is alarmed that Wormwood’s “patient” is showing signs of becoming humble.
This is not as dire as it may seem, says Screwtape, because the true meaning of humility is easy to conceal. He counsels Wormwood: “Let [your patient] think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.”
You can see just how handy this kind of self-deception could be for those who work against God (who Screwtape calls “the Enemy”). If people are deluding themselves in such a way as to take less than full advantage of their gifts, then Screwtape and his boss are winning. And here’s the main point: thinking yourself less talented than you are does not lead to humility, but to dereliction of duty.
God pours out on each one of us a collection of gifts and talents. If we don’t use them due to a case of misplaced modesty, then we are not fully living the lives that God’s abundance makes possible. We’d be like those FEMA trucks held back from the hurricane zone, full of uneaten food and unused supplies. Humility has nothing to do with a low opinion of your talents. Humility has everything to do with the proper attribution of and thanksgiving for those talents to God, the provider of all good gifts. And the best way to give thanks to God for your talents is to use them in the service of others—giving of yourself out of the things God has given you. Indeed, the only way to thank God properly for your gifts is to use them and use them fully, with no hindrance from a false understanding of humility.
So, come to the Lord in prayer and ask God what are those gifts and talents God has poured out on you. Be humble by acknowledging that those gifts and talents have a source, and you aren’t it. But do not sell yourself short. God gives gifts so they can be used to glorify God. Any cropping of your talents for the sake of that false understanding of humility lessens your ability to reflect the glory of God out into the world. Give thanks to God for all the opportunities God has given you to reflect that glory and serve God with that life of yours, so full of gift, talent, and promise.