Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2017 || Epiphany 4A || Matthew 5:1-12

I thought I hit record this week, but I didn’t, and with only one service because of St. Mark’s Annual Meeting, I failed to capture the audio for this sermon. Apologies.

Three weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us and each person we meet as God’s Beloved. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Next we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own. Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so. We claim our giftedness, which helps us be blessings in the world.

With this word – “blessing” – we return for a fourth time to God’s point of view. God sees, names, and celebrates us as blessed. There are two parts to blessing: sustenance and mission, and neither is particularly well understood. Continue reading “Blessed (God’s Point of View, part 4 of 8)”

A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer

Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6:22-27

On this day the Western World calls “New Year’s” and the church calls the “Feast of the Holy Name,” I can think of nothing more appropriate than to have read God’s blessing delivered through Moses in the book of Numbers. Moses then gave it to his brother Aaron the priest, who spoke these words as a special priestly blessing:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

These are familiar words, so familiar in fact that we probably don’t even realize they come from the Bible. In the Episcopal tradition, we hear them when we gather around a grave and bid our loved ones farewell. We hear these words in the context of death and resurrection; they are a promise and a hope for new life in closer communion with God beyond the gate of death.

But this morning, on the feast of the Holy Name and New Year’s Day, we hear them in a different context. These words are not just for those who have died; they are for us, as well. So this morning, I’d like to continue the sermon as a meditation on this priestly blessing. Continue reading “A Meditation on the Priestly Prayer”

The Raw Material of Blessing

Sermon for Sunday, October 5, 2014 || Proper 22A || *

rawmaterialofblessingBecause of my peculiar and very frustrating allergy, there’s one aisle of the grocery store I never travel down – the bread aisle. If you read the nutrition information on each and every plastic-wrapped and twist-tied loaf, you’ll find it contains soy flour, which means I can’t eat it. But there’s a happy byproduct of this limitation. Because I can’t eat the store bought loaves, Leah makes our bread from scratch. And, boy, is it good. I’ve watched her make it on several occasions. She starts by activating the yeast in warm water. She mixes the ingredients in the Kitchen Aid, counting the cups of flour aloud so she doesn’t put in too much. She let’s the dough hook work its kneading magic. She waits for the dough to rise, first in the mixer, and then, after forming the loaves, in the pans before putting them in the oven. The whole process takes the better part of a morning.

A group of dedicated women follows a similar process each week to make the bread we use for Holy Communion. What fascinates me about the process is how many steps there are between setting the ingredients on the counter and pulling the bread fresh from the oven. (And this doesn’t even take into account the number of steps needed to make the ingredients in the first place, such as milling the flour from grain or picking the grain from the field.)

When we celebrate Holy Communion, the gifts, which we offer to God and then share with one another, derive from a combination of God’s bounty and human industry. The bread and wine both have their roots in…well…roots. Seeds planted in the ground send roots down and stalks up as the soil, sun, and rain nourish their growth. The grain grows tall and full. The grape grows fat and juicy. Up to this point, their growth has been in God’s hands, as the overarching gift of nature’s cycles, which God wove into creation, promotes their cultivation.

But then a farmhand (or, in today’s less romanticized world of big agribusiness, a mammoth combine) comes along and picks the grain. A vineyard worker picks the grape. And human ingenuity, creativity, and wisdom begin shaping this raw material, this God-given bounty into the bread and wine we share each week.

Do you see what’s happening here? When we offer the bread and wine to God in thanksgiving, we give back to God what was always God’s in the first place, but which changed shape as humans interacted with the raw material of God’s blessing. There are two vital ideas embedded in this thought. First, whenever we give to God, we are really giving back to God. And second, God invites us to partner with God – to use our own unique constellations of gifts – in order to turn the raw material of blessing into nourishment, into justice, into peace, into hope.

Thinking of our giving as giving back keeps us in right relationship with God. When we acknowledge that God is the source of our blessings, we are less likely to attribute the bestowal of a particular blessing to the blessing itself. This erroneous attribution is how idols are made. Idols happen whenever we worship the gift instead of the giver. This way ultimately leads to disappointment because the idol will never give more than itself. And you will find yourself serving it, and you will notice more and more of your life being taken up by trying to make the idol greater than it is. And in the end, you will live a very small life, confined to the goal of making the idol into something worthy of your worship.

You might notice this happening when our relationship with money starts becoming idolatrous. Instead of thinking of money as some of the raw material of God’s blessing, we mistakenly see money as the source of our blessing. Instead of seeing it as a resource, we mistakenly see the amassing of money as the goal. It’s easy to do. Money allows us to live comfortably, after all, and to afford the things we desire. But the more we bend our lives around the accumulation of money, the less time we have to enjoy the benefits it offers. You end up spending too much time in the office, and before you know it, you’ve missed four of your daughter’s soccer games in a row. Call it the Ebenezer Scrooge problem. He lived his life bent on increasing his wealth and by the time the three ghosts are done with him he realizes he never actually lived his life. That’s what idols do. They contort our lives around the wrong goals and reduce us to very small versions of ourselves.

But when we have a proper relationship with money, a non-idolatrous one, we see our financial resources as some of the raw material of God’s blessing. Remember, through human interaction, the grain of God’s bounty become bread. The grape of God’s bounty becomes wine. The same thing happens with our money. The dollar becomes half a dozen notebooks for a classroom at St. Luc’s school in Haiti. The check becomes a hundred juice boxes for WARM’s summer lunch program. The financial pledge becomes fuel for God’s mission happening here at St. Mark’s.

If you’re anything like me, you sometimes have trouble putting money in the same category as all the other gifts God has given us. I’ve always had trouble doing this because money has this ephemeral, transitory nature. We turn it into other resources and these are what we think of as our blessings instead. But when we have a right relationship with money, it goes in the same bucket as all of blessing’s other raw materials.

To symbolize this reality here at St. Mark’s, I’m going to start doing something that I should have been doing all along; indeed, something that most Episcopal churches have always done. During the offertory, the bread and wine come forward and a few minutes later, the money comes forward in the collection plates. Because there’s a delay between these two processions, we might not connect the two. But they are connected. We give the bread and wine back to God in thanksgiving for our interaction with the raw material of blessing. In the same way, we give our financial resources back to God in thanksgiving for and in support of God’s mission here in our midst.

So from now on, I plan to leave the collection plates on the altar as we celebrate Holy Communion in recognition that we give thanks for all the blessings of our lives. When you see me place them to the side of the other gifts we are giving back to God, I hope you will remember that God has given us all that we have and made us all that we are. And God delights in seeing all the unique ways we use the raw material of blessing to further God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.

We give back to God out of the myriad gifts God has showered upon us for two reasons. First, by giving back we stay in right relationship with God. We worship the giver instead of the gift. We live full lives enriched by multitudes of blessings instead of tiny lives in service to lifeless idols. And second, giving back offers us the opportunity to partner with God and use our unique constellations of gifts to turn the raw material of blessing into new and abundant life for all.

*It’s very strange for me not to reference any of the assigned readings for the day in the sermon itself. They were all there swirling around in my head as I wrote, but every time I tried to add them in, I felt like I was shoehorning them in. Perhaps this means I wrote the wrong sermon! Or perhaps it means the readings can influence the preaching without being directly quoted.

Inadequacy

(Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2010 || Proper 16, Year C, RCL || Jeremiah 1:4-10)

These geeks feel inadequate most of the time (NBC's shortlived, but brilliant "Freaks and Geeks")

Human nature urges us to shy away from thing we aren’t too good at. Boys at the middle-school dance tend to add their support to the structural integrity of the gymnasium rather than venturing out onto the dance floor. Folks who don’t have the best singing voices often lament the fact that they are “tone-deaf,” which, statistically speaking, is unlikely. I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so I keep to the shallows, or more often, the shore. We all nurse feelings of inadequacy – whether in dancing, singing, swimming, or whatever might be your particular constellation of shortcomings.

These inadequacies define as just as much as our strengths do. But while strengths define us positively, like an artist drawing shapes on a canvas, inadequacies fill up the negative space around those shapes. Our discomforts, our shortcomings, our inadequacies press in from outside of us, telling us that, no matter our strengths, we are failures. We are failures before we even try because we know we’ll never be any good, and therefore, we never try new things, we never step out of comfort zones. And when we never step out of comfort zones, they never have the chance to expand. As such, the feeling of inadequacy greatly impedes growth of all sorts: physical, emotional, spiritual.

But God, I think, sees our inadequacies from a different perspective than we do. To us, our inadequacy is an impediment. To God, our inadequacy is an opportunity for God to display God’s glory. This morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture demonstrates this perspective.

Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy prompt him to attempt to dissuade God from calling him to be a prophet. But God has no inclination to heed Jeremiah’s argument. Rather, God seems to call Jeremiah specifically because of the boy’s feelings of inadequacy, not in spite of them. Notice how God answers Jeremiah’s single piece of dialogue in the passage. After God informs Jeremiah that God has appointed him to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

God hears these words and keys in on the second half. “Do no say, “I am only a boy,” God says. Your youth doesn’t matter because I am with you to deliver you. You can’t help being your age. If I wanted someone older I’d call someone else. But no similar assurance addresses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking. God never tries to assure Jeremiah by saying, “Do not say, ‘I do not know how to speak.’” Rather, God uses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking as an opportunity to put God’s own words in Jeremiah’s mouth. God sees room for growth in Jeremiah, and God fills that room with God’s own words.

For his part, Jeremiah knows he is an inadequate speaker. But when he points this out to God, his argument backfires. What Jeremiah doesn’t realize is that God picks him precisely because of his inadequacy. This is a pattern throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Moses has a speech impediment, but God still calls him to stand up before Pharaoh. David wears no armor and carries only a sling and stones when he challenges Goliath, the Philistine champion. Gideon drastically reduces the numbers of his army – from 22,000 to three hundred – when he contends with the Midianites. In each of these cases, the human vessel called to work God’s purpose is laughably inadequate to the task at hand. And every time, God’s purpose succeeds.

God works through human inadequacy to display God’s own glory. In a sense, God is showing off. But this is not vanity, because God shows off for our sakes. I’ve mentioned before in sermons that we humans are a pretty thick lot. We often have trouble attributing our giftedness to God, which allows the sin of pride to creep in at ground level and start rotting out our appreciation for God’s blessing. This trouble magnifies greatly for gifts that we perceive we’ve always had. The constancy of our strengths makes us less apt to remember to thank God for them.

But we have a much easier time thanking God for abilities we’ve had to work hard to obtain. God cultivates growth in us by targeting our inadequacies. We remember what the inadequacy felt like when we didn’t have certain abilities, and so we thank God for helping us to step outside of our comfort zones and try new things. This is my experience with learning how to sing, and I’m willing to bet each of you can think of a similar example in your own lives.

God knows our trouble at offering thanks for our strengths, and so God insists on working through our inadequacies to remind us that God is the giver of all gifts. Rather than viewing inadequacy as an impediment, we can see it as God sees it. Our inadequacies are opportunities for us to invite God to work through us in new ways.

Think about your own most recent shortcoming. How can you invite God to work through this inadequacy? Perhaps God might say something like this:

“Do not worry that you don’t know how to speak. I do. I’ve been speaking creation into existence since time began. Borrow my speech and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t turn down a fight. I did. My son went to the cross in order to show that violence does not have to beget violence. Borrow my courage and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t sustain a relationship. I can. I have been the husband and the parent of my people for as long as anyone can remember, and I have never broken my promise to them. Borrow my love and soon it will become yours.”

Whatever our shortcomings, whatever our inadequacies, God can work through them to display God’s glory. God uses the inadequacy of Jeremiah to put God’s words in his mouth. God uses the inadequacies of Moses, David, and Gideon. And not just them: Jacob was a cheat. Joseph was a prima donna. Jonah hightailed it in the opposite direction. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a stranger in a strange land. Rachel had trouble conceiving a child. Paul was a persecutor. Ehud was left-handed. Aaron built an idol five minutes after he heard the commandment not to. And not to mention, the disciples fled.

So why not us? Thousands of years may have passed, but our shortcomings, our inadequacies are the same. (Well, being left-handed isn’t so bad anymore.) Our strengths are opportunities for us to thank God for how God has always worked through us. But we thick humans have never been so great at that. And so God works through our inadequacies, granting us the ability to grow in God’s grace and praise God for all of God’s good gifts.

This week, I invite you to ask God to work in you, to work through your deficiencies. Pray to God for the courage to take a step outside of your comfort zone. Pray for the hospitality to welcome a stranger into your midst. Pray for the trust to give up some of your resources toward the work of God in the world. Pray for the peace necessary to stop in the midst of this swirling world and find God in the middle of your day. Pray to God to work through your inadequacy, and soon you will discover new strengths, which you can use to serve God in your lives.

Mountaintop removal

The following post appeared Monday, May 3rd on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

I recently moved to one of the top ten most beautiful spots in the world. I live a three-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean. I can see a lighthouse from my living room window. I bought a new car. I started working at a new church, which is as beautiful as the town surrounding it. The people at church are wonderful. The trees and flowers are exploding with spring colors. And to top it all off: it’s Easter, the happiest and most celebratory season in the church year. I know I am blessed, radically blessed.

So, why am I having trouble finding something to write about? Why am I having difficulty elucidating God’s presence in my life, at this, one of my life’s most idyllic moments? You’re probably thinking: “Adam, go back and read your first paragraph and quit complaining.” Fair point. But my difficulty is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual malady, which (strangely enough) a simple recitation of my blessings actually exacerbates. I’m sure this malady affects more Christians than just me, so let’s do a little diagnosing.

Our walks with God are topographically interesting. For the most part, we walk the straight path, which Isaiah and John the Baptizer proclaim is the way of the Lord. But sometimes, we meander through desolate valleys, in which simply finding the tiniest token of God’s presence is drink for our arid souls. Other times, we climb mountains, atop which we touch the very face of God and can never imagine a time when our spiritual energy will need recharging. The valleys and peaks, the lows and highs, are the times we remember.

We remember the smile the stranger gave us in the frozen food aisle when we’d forgotten that God was still around. We remember hearing the choir singing choral evensong and how our hearts soared into the very heart of God during the first chords of the Magnificat. We remember the smell of disinfected despair when we sat overnight in the hospital room. We remember standing on a literal mountaintop and breathing in the wind of the Spirit and seeing the patchwork creation spread out below us.

These valleys and mountains shape our lives as Christians. Some folks have Grand Canyons and Himalayas. Others have dry streambeds and foothills. But the slope of our lows and highs matters little. For this discussion, let’s agree that our walks with God have valleys and peaks. The spiritual malady I mentioned a moment ago severely limits our ability to process the peak category.

By removing the mountaintop receptors, the malady keeps our souls from gathering spiritual nourishment from the peak times in our lives. Our minds know that God must be moving in our lives for life to be so full of blessing. But our souls have trouble metabolizing that blessing into the nutrients that sustain us while we search for God’s presence. Without that sustenance, we cease our active awareness of God until there is a noticeable change from “good” to “bad” times. When the paradigm shifts from “good” to “bad” – that is, from mountain to valley – we enter spiritual survival mode and begin frantically looking for God, only to have the walls of the depression limit our sight.

The disciple Peter is patient zero for this spiritual malady. When Jesus calls him out of the boat, Peter walks on the water as if he’s ambling down a garden path. Walking on the water is a spiritual mountaintop, but the paradigm shifts quickly. Peter notices the waves around him, and he starts to sink. Only when he is floundering in the surf does Peter reach up his hand for Jesus to rescue him. Peter could have taken Jesus’ hand while walking atop the water, but he waits until his valley moment.

Like Peter, I forget to seek God when things are going well. When I’m on a mountaintop, I rarely open my eyes to take in the glorious view. Through an intellectual exercise, I know that I am blessed, but this blessing fails to filter into my soul. Only when the jaggedness of grief or deprivation assaults me do I begin my tardy search for God anew.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with the spiritual malady of mountaintop removal. If you suffer from it, then know that there are steps to address it. Take a few moments to look at your life. Orient yourself on the topographical map of your walk with God. Where are you in relation to your most recent valley? If you know that you are no longer in the valley, force yourself to do more than think about your blessings. Rather than an amorphous abstraction you call “blessing,” separate each small blessing into individual shimmering lights of grace. Write each one down. Then thank God for the blessings individually, and be creative. Thank God with action, not thought. If your blessing is having enough food, go feed someone who is starving. If your blessing is living near the ocean, go stomp around in the shallows. If your blessing is being a member of a loving family, go tell them how much they mean to you. If your blessing is the song in your heart, go sing.

Once you’ve acted out your thanks to God, don’t stop. Actively seek out ways to thank God for God’s blessing in your life. Every morning when you draw your first breath, decide to look for God’s presence that day. Then over time, you may see the ground beneath your feet rise into a mountain. And you will notice just how close is the face of God.