Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

The Whispered Power of God

Sermon for Sunday, December 13, 2015 || Advent 3C || Luke 3:7-18

whisperedpowerofgodI think the Gospel lesson I just read sounds harsher than it really is. Notice the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” Either this means that the “good news” came in these other exhortations spoken off camera, or everything that John says is to be considered “good news.” I think it’s the latter. Of course, good news doesn’t usually begin by calling people a “brood of vipers.” John the Baptist is not exactly a people person; after all, he’s spent a lot of time by himself in the wilderness. He’s definitely a loner, unlike his cousin Jesus who comes on stage in a few verses and who surrounds himself pretty quickly with a group of friends. But even though John’s social skills may have suffered from his solitude, he’s astute enough to know the crowds expect a spectacle. And he gives them one right off the bat by calling them a “brood of vipers.”

In Matthew’s account of this story the name “brood of vipers” specifically targets the Jewish leadership, but here in Luke’s account, John broadens this designation to include everyone in the crowds (which includes us, by the way). My favorite modern translation of the Bible renders this verse with a little less fervor and a little more silliness: instead of “You brood of vipers” it’s “You children of snakes!” Not quite as punchy.

But I don’t think John is naming the crowds “children of snakes” simply to give them the spectacle they desire. Rather, he’s pre-empting an argument they might make after he instructs them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” This pre-empting continues when he says, “Do not even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’ ” In other words, your heritage does not make you bear good fruit nor give you a free pass. The crowds may be “children of Abraham,” but they are also children of snakes. And be assured that everyone in the crowd would hear a hissing of the memory of Adam and Eve’s temptation in the garden when John names them a snake’s descendants and talks about the fruit of the tree.

Thus, in just these opening lines of John’s exhortations, he sets up the duality inherent in all of us. We are none of us entirely good or entirely bad. We are children of Abraham (that is, children of God’s promise) and we are children of snakes (that is, children schooled by separation, temptation, and distrust). I bet each of you has had, at one time or another, these two natures war within you. In real life this war is much less comical than the angels and devils sitting on the shoulders of old Looney Toons characters.

Most often, the war plays out between what is right and what is easy. You can have a reasonable discussion in the wake of a disagreement or you can punch below the belt with slurs and hurtful epithets. You can stand up for those in need or you can ignore their plight. You can tell the truth or you can lie. Everyday, we face choices like these. And everyday, the whispered power of God contends with the hiss of the snake. Every time we listen to the snake, we end up just a bit more alone and isolated than we were before, which makes us so much easier to pick off. Every time we listen to God, we resonate with the song of love and faith and freedom – we sing and dance and exult and fall down weeping in gratitude for God’s gift of grace.

But if that’s the case, if the whispered power of God is so attractive, then why do we give into temptation as often as we do? The simple answer is this. Giving into temptation involves doing absolutely nothing because doing absolutely nothing leads to complacency, and complacency is the root of so much of the world’s despair. That’s why John warns the crowds not to get too comfortable in their heritage as Abraham’s descendants. And that’s why he gives them something to do: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Food and clothing: if these were dispersed fairly throughout the world, a lot of problems would be solved. It was true in John’s day. It remains true in ours. The world has enough, but this “enough” is divided poorly. And we don’t work to change this reality because the one thing the world has too much of is complacency.

If you’ve ever wondered why we confess “things done and things left undone,” now you know. Things left undone make us slip into complacency and from complacency into despair. The whispered power of God invites us to get up like the paralyzed man at the pool, take our mats, and walk; to say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”; to leave our nets like the fishermen and follow Jesus. But too often the hiss of the snake lulls us back to sleep. Every time we hit the snooze button on life, the duality of nature skews further toward the snake, towards complacency.

So why does John call people a “brood of vipers?” Why does he dunk them under the cold water of the River Jordan? To shake them out of their complacency. To remind them that God is and always will be moving in their lives, urging them to serve and love with active passion and fervor. It’s no wonder then that we prayed what we did in today’s collect. Did you notice the power you invoked a few minutes ago? “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.”

Are you ready for this? I’m not sure I am. There’s still way too much child of snake in me to desire the wind of the Holy Spirit to stir me up and push me to God knows where. But it’s too late now. The prayer has been prayed. And now it’s up to us to partner with God to see how God’s power will be revealed. Perhaps, you will find this power in new courage to face a difficult circumstance or in new patience amidst uncertainty. Perhaps you will find this power in advocating sensible gun control on this third anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. Or in welcoming a stranger to our community, maybe a refugee family fleeing terror.

However the whispered power of God manifests in your life, know that it is and always will be stronger than the hiss of the snake. The inertial force of complacency is powerful too, but it is no match for the Creator-of-All-that-Is. Remember, it might seem like we’re just sitting still, but in reality we’re spinning at about 800 miles per hour around the earth’s axis. And if that’s not fast enough for you, we’re also moving at about 67,000 miles per hour around the sun. And that’s not even thinking about what our galaxy is doing in space. Talk about being stirred up.

The power we invoked during our collect this morning keeps this universe moving. And it keeps us moving, always ready to harness our birthright as children of the promise and to participate in God’s mission here on earth. During Advent, we don’t wait for the Lord in complacency. No. During Advent, we don’t wait. We prepare.

Art: Detail from “Baptism of the People” by Andrea Del Sarto (1515)

The Sheepfold

(Sermon for Sunday, May 15, 2011 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10; find it also on Day1.org as part of the series “Young Leaders of the Church” series.)

Having the flu changed my life. The day was Thursday, March 13th, 2008, and I was sitting on my futon with my computer on my lap. Quite suddenly, I realized how clammy and hot I felt. Half an hour before, I had felt just fine, but in just thirty minutes my insides decided that they needed desperately to become my outsides. I put my computer on the floor, leapt up, and staggered into the bathroom. I was ill for five days, and during that time all I did was sleep and watch my recently acquired complete series of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD. For those five days, I did not open the lid of my laptop. I did not press the power button. And I did not log in to the computer game that had dominated my life for nearly two years.

The following Tuesday, when I felt that I could walk around without gripping the furniture for support, I stumbled over to the computer and deleted World of Warcraft from the hard drive. I tossed the game discs in the trash. And in the three years, two months, and two days since contracting the flu bug, I have never logged back into the game. The flu acted as the catalyst for the breaking of my addiction to the computer game. The illness put me on the disabled list for a week right before Easter, but no matter how awful the flu made me feel, I thank God every day for the not-so-gentle push away from the stagnant life I was living. I thank God every day for yanking me out of the comfortable sheepfold that I had built up around me. I thank God every day for pulling me kicking and screaming through the gate, away from my dormant life and toward a life full of God.

This not-so-gentle shove out of the sheepfold happens in today’s Gospel reading, although I doubt you noticed any mention of being kicked through the gate in Jesus’ words. We’ll get back to this shove in a moment. First, notice that in John chapter 10, Jesus employs the imagery of first century shepherding practice in an attempt to reveal his own identity and his relationship to us. Now, the most experience I’ve ever had with sheep was in southern England, where I spent one windy afternoon dodging the sheep’s ubiquitous droppings while trying to appreciate the mystery of Avebury’s standing stones. If you’re anything like me, you have no clue about shepherding practice of any sort, ancient or modern. Therefore, in order to access what John calls a “figure of speech,” we first acknowledge our lack of personal contact with Jesus’ choice of image, and second we embrace the opportunity to use our imaginations.

So imagine with me a rolling plain, dotted with humps and hillocks. Dusk descends, and the shepherd leads his flock into the sheepfold. One of the hillocks has been hollowed out, and the sheep huddle inside next to the sheep of several other shepherds who share this particular fold. A pair of piled rock walls extends out a few feet from the sides of the hill. The shepherd lies down in the space between the low walls, effectively sealing the enclosure. Thieves and bandits and wolves will have a difficult time getting in with the shepherds on guard. The sheep are safe in the sheepfold.

When the shepherd arises the next morning, Jesus explains, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” The sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheepfold may be comfortable and safe, but the sheep must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.

Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English hides the special word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.

Now, perhaps those dimwitted, wooly animals trod placidly from the fold every morning at the beckoning of the shepherd. But Jesus is, of course, not talking about real sheep. He’s talking about us, about you and me. He’s talking about calling out to us, about speaking the word that will bring us forth from our own sheepfolds, from those places of comfort and safety that we have built up around us. The seductive force that pulls us into these personal sheepfolds tells us that everything will be okay as long as we keep quiet and stay put. Play another hour. Have another drink. Watch another show. I don’t know about you, but I need to be pushed, pulled, thrown, yanked, and driven out of that place of stagnation and dormancy every time I start settling into my comfortable enclosure.

For two years, my sheepfold was the virtual world created in the computer game World of Warcraft. I lived there more than I did in the real world. I played every day. Often I ate all three meals in front of my computer. But during those stagnant months that stretched into years, I didn’t live. I existed. I simply settled myself in my sheepfold. My mind numbed. My heart hibernated. My spirit deflated. But I didn’t notice because I was safe and I was comfortable. Then the flu hit, and I was too weak to resist the pulling and yanking that God had been doing for who knows how long. God drove me out of my sheepfold. And my life began anew.

This is the message of the Resurrection: life cannot be conquered – not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens – fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus tells us this morning: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds – whatever they may be – we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.

Jesus throws me out

The following post appeared Friday, August 13th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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When he played for the Sox, Johnny Damon had the Jesus thing going, though he wasn't terribly effective at throwing people out.

On a certain Saturday in late July of 2006, I found myself sitting in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, waiting for a ten-year-old boy to die. I had sat with his mother by his bedside earlier in the day. We had cried the Rosary together. We had held hands and gazed upon the face of the little boy. When his mother asked for some private time with her son, I returned to the office and waited for the pager to ring. And as I waited, I jotted down the first verse of a song that took me the next three years to write. The words of John 10 echoed in my mind as I wrote the lyrics because for weeks I had been telling the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd with children on my floor of the hospital.

Almost four years to the day, I sit at my computer. None of the urgency or the heartbreak of that day remains, and I am aware of the complacency that has crept in over the years. And once again, the words of John 10 return to my mind: Jesus is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by voice. They hear their names and he leads them out of the sheepfold. But a closer look shows that Jesus doesn’t necessarily lead them out (as many English translations say). Rather, he throws them out of the sheepfold. Here’s what I mean.

Jesus begins his discussion with something as close to a parable as the Gospel according to John gets. In the other accounts of the Gospel, Jesus often speaks in parables, but not in John. Instead, Jesus himself is the parable of God — the way God is made known in the world (John 1:18). Here in chapter 10, Jesus speaks in a “figure of speech” about shepherding and sheep and wolves and bandits. Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and “leads them out” (NRSV). The word for “lead out” is one of my favorite Greek words: ekballo. This is a fairly prevalent verb in the Gospel according to John and in the other accounts, as well. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus casts out demons, he ekballo-s them. In John 2, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, he ekballo-s them. The man born blind is ekballo-ed from the synagogue at the end of chapter 9. And finally, in chapter 12, Jesus mentions that the “ruler of this world” will be ekballo-ed from it.

In each of these cases, the connotation of ekballo is to drive out or cast out or throw out. But in John 10, according to, say, the NRSV, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and “leads them out.” While Greek words definitely have ranges of meaning, I suggest that we should translate the instance of the word ekballo in chapter 10 not as “lead out,” but as “throw out.” Here’s why.

The first character Jesus introduces in chapter 10 is a thief and a bandit. This person climbs into the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate. The thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.” Furthermore, outside the sheepfold there are wolves waiting to snatch up the sheep and scatter them. Hired hands are no help because they run away when they see the wolves coming. With thieves, bandits, and wolves roaming outside the sheepfold, leaving the fold can be frightening and dangerous.

In contrast, the sheepfold is safe and secure — shepherds bring their flocks to these enclosures at night for safety. But the sheep can’t live their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and secure they may feel. They must go out into the world beyond the gate to graze for food (which, as far as I can tell, is all sheep do). So the shepherd ekballo-s them. The shepherd throws the sheep out of the fold so they can eat and drink and run.

The sheepfold is a safe place, but everything outside the sheepfold is dangerous. Who would not want to stay in the fold? Being led out into the world can feel like being thrown out. What is my fold? What do I use to shelter myself from the world? Where do I feel comfortable to the point of intransigence? The answer to these questions is the thing from which Jesus throws me out.

Contemporary sheepfolds come in all shapes, sizes, and disguises. Perhaps my family is my sheepfold, or my work, or, yes, even my church. For me, my complacency is the fold from which Jesus constantly throws me. The fold of complacency is slippery and amorphous because it has no walls, no group of people with whom to identify, no action of its own. And complacency leads to complicity with all the bad things in the world. I am so entrenched in my complacency that Jesus has to throw me out of it. It is the demon in me that Jesus casts out, the ruler of my world that Jesus drives out.

And he throws me out of this fold with one simple word: my name. Jesus calls me by name and I hear his voice and I know that I have been in the fold too long. By calling my name, Jesus brings me into an intimate relationship with him. (Remember in middle school when you found out your crush actually knew your name? It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?) By calling my name, Jesus tells me he knows me, knows that I struggle with complacency, knows that I need a swift kick in the trousers (a new translation of ekballo, perhaps?) to prompt me to act in the world on his behalf.

When I listen for Jesus calling my name, I feel his hands continually throwing me out of the fold of complacency. When I hear Jesus calling my name, I know that he has given me life and given it abundantly. This abundance of life is made possible by the intimate relationship Jesus has founded with me by knowing my name. When I venture out of my sheepfold into the frightening, dangerous world, I know that Jesus, my shepherd, is guiding me with his voice. And I know that he will continue to throw me out of the comfortable folds I find myself in so I can, with his help, continue to do God’s work in the world.

The paralysis of familiarity

Tonight I have the opportunity to preach at an ecumenical evening service outdoors in the park. It’s going to be really hot, so I’m not planning to talk for too long. What follows is the outline of my talk. Before you go any further, click this link and read John 5:1-17 so you’ll be familiar with the passage from the Gospel.

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The question isn’t designed to be a stumper: “Do you want to be made well?” So says Jesus to the man, who has been sitting by the pool of Bethzatha for 38 years. 38 years! The locals probably stop seeing him after six months. After a year, he probably melts into the architecture.  After ten, the stones behind his back probably retain their original color, while the rest fade in the sunlight. 20 years. Each day is the same, and he never makes it into the pool. 30 years. Each day is the same, but he no longer even attempts to crawl to the water. 38 years. Each day is the same, and his excuse as to why he is still sitting here is his response to anything anybody says to him.

“Do you want to be made well?” The obvious answer is “YES! Of course, I want to be made well.” But, perhaps the question might stump the man more easily than I originally thought. If he’s made well, he’ll have to stand up and leave the pool and find something new to do. He’ll have to negotiate a place that has no doubt changed in the last 38 years. He’ll have to begin a new life full of new possibilities and chances and hopes and dangers. If he’s made well, his paralysis will be healed, but the paralyzing familiarity of the routine will also need a cure.

No wonder he fails to answer Jesus’ question: “Do you want to be made well?” Yes is the correct answer, but this paralyzing familiarity makes No look more and more attractive. The man answers neither Yes nor No. Instead, he replies with what sounds like a well-rehearsed speech: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” If you read the previous chapter of John, you’d notice that Jesus doesn’t need a bucket to offer living water. So, he sure doesn’t need a pool now. Jesus is the gift of God, and the man at the pool of Bethzatha has encountered so much more than he bargained for.

Jesus asks the question, and the man deflects it. Jesus doesn’t ask it again. Nor does he say anything like: “You are healed!” or “Be healed!” or “You have been made well!” No. Jesus is not interested simply in giving health to the man. Now, giving him health seems like a pretty good reason to me. Jesus knows better. Saying “You are healed” leaves the man the opportunity to remain paralyzed by familiarity, to stay seated with his back to the bright stones and melted into the architecture. But Jesus doesn’t give the man this option.

Instead, Jesus commands the man to act: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Somewhere between this command and the man obeying it, Jesus heals him. But the healing is secondary to Jesus’ desire to change the man’s situation. Jesus, the gift of God, gives him new life by denying him the option to remain in his current condition. By saying, “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus confronts the man with the terrifying new possibility: Believe what I am saying to you, obey my commands, and you will discover abilities that 38 years of monotony have made inaccessible to you. I am the gift of God, and I am here to bestow upon you the gifts of movement and change and renewal. I have healed you, but you won’t notice it until you get up.

While I am not physically disabled like the man at the pool of Bethzatha, I suffer all too often from the paralysis of familiarity. All too often, I mistake routine for life. All too often, I recite instead of pray. I mumble instead of proclaim. I talk instead of listen, afraid that if I were to listen, Christ might confront me and tell me to stand and take and walk. When did I become so complacent, I wonder? When did I melt into the architecture of my life, content to sit with the stones warming my back?

Every time I discover that I have fallen back into this complacency, this paralysis of familiarity, I wonder when I will be healed, when the waters will be stirred up and I can tip myself into the pool. Then I hear Christ calling out to me: Forget the pool. I healed you already. You’ll realize it if you stand up, take your mat and walk.