Gifted (God’s Point of View, part 3 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, January 22, 2017 || Epiphany 3A ||Matthew 4:12-23

Two 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 as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is also the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Last week 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, often befriending the unlikeliest of people, many of whom are those who have received little love.

Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we return to God’s point of view because we wonder how we possibly could contribute anything meaningful to such a vast enterprise as God’s mission. We imagine our way into God’s eyes again. We discover that God sees, names, and celebrates us as gifted. Continue reading “Gifted (God’s Point of View, part 3 of 8)”

Stone Symphonies

(Sermon for March 28, 2010 || Palm Sunday, Year C, RCL || Luke 19:28-40)

“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones themselves would cry out.” So says Jesus to some Pharisees, who want him to corral his exuberant disciples. If we lived anywhere else, I would be tempted to take these words of Jesus merely as metaphor, as a turn of phrase intended to illustrate the remarkable nature of the event taking place. But in the month that I’ve been in Cohasset, I’ve walked on the beach several times, and I’ve heard a certain, special noise that has made these words come alive.

As you know, small stones populate the beaches here, stones that were once boulders and are not yet sand, stones made round and smooth by the ebb and flow of the tide, stones good for skipping on the ocean. Waves break over these stones and cover them with foamy surf. As the tidal forces suck the waves back out to sea, the water runs through air pockets between the round edges of the stones. And as the water vibrates the stones, they cry out. The stones sing with a quavering voice, a thousand violins playing the same note but each with unique rhythm and tempo. As the waves flow out, the stone symphony plays the chords of creation, joining the great company of all the myriad instruments in God’s terrestrial orchestra.

If we attune our ears and eyes and hearts, we can hear these chords and we can witness all of Creation praising God. This praise happens when God’s creatures fulfill the purposes for which God made them. The sun praises God by shining, the moon by reflecting the sun’s light. The thunder praises God by crashing, the rain by watering the earth. The gazelle praises God by running, the wolf by hunting, the rose by blooming, the bee by pollinating. Each member of the great symphony of Creation praises God in an unique way, and all work in concert to glorify the Creator.

Well, all except for one glaring exception. We humans are a thick lot. On our best days, we ignore the symphony, and on our worst days, we spend our time devising ways to silence Creation’s praise. Down through history, we have slowly but surely forgotten how to read Creation’s score, forgotten that we too have parts to fulfill in God’s orchestra.

We are able to join in praise to God when we remember that God created us to display one fundamental attribute: goodness. God created everything that is, Genesis tells us, and at the end of each creative session, God pronounced the new creation Good (and on the last day, not just Good, but Very Good). So, at the fundamental level of our human nature is goodness, which is a reflection of God’s delight in Creation. The manifestation of that goodness is our praise to God. We embody this praise when we sing and dance, when we laugh and pray, when we love, and most importantly, when we serve.

The trouble appears when we forget that goodness remains at the core of our human nature. Instead, we see all the malignant attributes that attack our goodness and mistake this tumorous growth for what defines us as humans. How often have you heard the following statements explained away by attributing the behavior to human nature:

“He’s just jealous because I won the office pool.” “Well, jealousy is just a part of human nature.”

“She’s so petty: who cares if we wore the same dress today.” “Well, pettiness is just a part of human nature.”

“I can’t believe he lied about where he was last night.” “Well, dishonesty is just a part of human nature.”

We make the worst mistake of our lives when we attribute these negative actions to human nature. Our fundamental nature is Good, and anything else is a perversion of the goodness by which God brought us into being. These perversions of our goodness (also known as “sin”) distort our relationship with God. We start playing our instruments out of tune, thus ruining the symphony of Creation.

But when Jesus rides that donkey’s colt down the Mount of Olives, he takes a step in the process of subverting all our tumorous perversions of human nature. On his way to the cross, which is the epicenter of the perversion the Good, he begins showing that goodness (and all of goodness’s positive emanations) still exist, despite the malignancy eroding the nature of humanity.

First, he tackles the perversion of power. Notice that his parade is rather incongruous. Anyone would expect a king to enter the city on an armored warhorse with weapons-laden legions flanking him. But Jesus rides in humility, on the back of a lowly farm animal. He displays that humility (which is one manifestation of goodness) has more majesty than any imperial power could ever muster.

While Jesus subverts the perversion of power, his disciples tackle the perversion of terror. While fear is sometimes a helpful emotion, terror is not simply “really big fear.” Terror is an extension of power meant to control. But at this moment in the Gospel, the disciples walk directly into the most dangerous situation in their lives unabashedly praising God with joyful voices. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” They display courage, another manifestation of goodness, and their courage subverts any attempt by the perversion of terror to control.

The rest of the Gospel plays out in much the same way. Jesus subverts the perversion of greed when he overturns the tables of the moneylenders in the temple. He subverts the perversion of fame when he tells his disciples that he is among them as one who serves. He subverts the perversion of revenge when he stops the retaliation during his arrest and heals the slave’s ear. And in his greatest display of goodness, Jesus defeats the perversion of domination by willingly giving up his life. Jesus brought all our perversions of human nature to the cross and died with them. And in his resurrection, he shows us that these perversions of our good nature have no ultimate power over us.

Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have the ability to access the goodness at the core of our human nature. We have the humility and courage necessary to let God excise all the malignancy that perverts our relationships with one another and with the rest of Creation. We have ears to hear the symphony of praise playing all around us, and we have the music within us to add our own harmonies to the orchestra of Creation.

And when we fail, when we once again forget our goodness, we can be silent, we can be still, and we can listen. And then we will hear the stones themselves crying out on our behalf, crying out their praise to God.

Notes

For the Internet versions of my sermons, I usually remove the specifics of place, but for this sermon, I really needed to preserve them for the imagery. If you ever make it up to the Massachusetts coast, listen for the sound I’m talking about.

Sally has six tangerines

(Sermon for August 3, 2008 || Proper 13, Year A RCL || Matthew 14:13-21)

“We have nothing here.”

This is the disciples response to Jesus’ preposterous notion that they might possibly find enough food to feed all these people—five thousand men plus countless women and children. They followed Jesus here to this desert to be near him, to feel his compassion and his healing touch. They followed Jesus here and now the evening has come and the crowd is restless, hungry, pressing in. The place is deserted: there’s no vendor anywhere. The hour is late: there’s no time to search. The crowd is massive: there’s no food anyway, not even for the disciples.

“We have nothing here.”

The disciples rummage in empty rucksacks, hoping that a further perfunctory exploration of their food stores will mollify Jesus. “They need not go away,” he had said. “You give them something to eat,” he had said. But they aren’t expecting us to feed them; we’re under no obligation. Furthermore, we can’t give what we don’t have! And…

“We have nothing here!”

To punctuate their point, they turn over the last rucksack and shake it… “Oh, except for a few loaves and a couple fish.” They count them: five squashed loaves, two dry fish. They trace figures in the air—so that’s one loaf per thousand men and two-fifths of a fish. They raise doubtful eyebrows when Jesus asks them to bring him these pitiful scrapings from the bottom of that last rucksack. They start chuckling, but their laughter dies when they look at Jesus’ face. They’ve seen that look before. They know what it means. They bring him the loaves. They bring him the fish. And they wait, incredulous but expectant.

“We have nothing here.” The world suffocates us with this lie so often that we forget we ever knew how to breathe. You will have no friends until you wear this catalogue. You will have no transportation until you drive this luxury car. You will have no romance until you purchase this diamond. You will have no beauty until after your gastric bypass.

“We have nothing here.” Suffocation leads to apathy and apathy leads to hopelessness. And hopelessness drives away from us any thought that we can participate in changing the world.

“We have nothing here.” These are hopeless words, empty words, words incapable of carrying promise or releasing imagination. These words stifle creativity and leave no space for the deep breath of blessing.

But Jesus invites us to take this deep breath with him when he says: “Bring them here to me.” The disciples take him the measly offering: five loaves and two fish. With no thought about how comically small an amount of food this meal is, Jesus looks up to heaven and blesses the offering. Then he breaks the bread and cuts up the fish. He hands the blessed food to his disciples, and they give it the crowds. And they keep giving away the food and giving it away and giving it away. All the people have their fill, and the disciples gather up quite a bit more than they began with.

This is, of course, not how math usually works. Math usually works like this: Sally has six tangerines. She gives Joe two of her tangerines. How many tangerines does Sally have? Four. Right. But the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ blessing learned a different kind of math. Sally has six blessings. She gives Joe six of her blessings. How many blessings do Joe and Sally have? 12? 36? I’m unsure of the exact equation, but the mathematics of Jesus’ blessing always add and multiply; they never subtract or divide.

When Jesus offers blessing, say, in the form of bread broken and shared, Jesus offers himself. When we take him in, Jesus nourishes us with his blessing so we can bring that blessing to others. When we sing, we can lift our voices in one great song. When we tear down our walls, we can share our lives with one another. When we serve God in the world, we can demonstrate that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. And blessing will spread and grow and multiply. When we share Jesus’ blessing in the form of our gifts and talents, we participate in Jesus’ divine math and discover that Jesus never exhausts his blessing.

The disciples fail this math lesson when they say, “We have nothing here,” because they do, in fact, have something! They have five loaves and two fish, which is seven more than nothing. In Jesus’ day, seven was a number of perfection, a number that signaled completion. So, the disciples miss another math class: 5+ 2 = Completion. They had the exact amount they needed, once Jesus’ blessing got hold of the food. But the disciples were too busy worrying about the nothing they thought they had to notice the something they had.

We have something here.

We have five loaves and two fish. Sure, they are a bit squashed and bit a dry. But we have them. Jesus, what can you do with them? You can bless them and break them and share them, and your nourishing sustenance can overflow through this deserted place.

We have something here.

We have a group of people who have come together to praise your name, O LORD, and to share in your blessing. They are fewer than, perhaps than there has been in years past, but they are here. Jesus, what can you do with them? Your blessing flows into and out of our hearts. Your gifts inspire us and your love moves us to serve in your name. And your nourishing sustenance overflows through this gathering.

We have something here.

We have all the good gifts Christ has given us. We have the grace and the energy to use those gifts to serve God in this world, this world that tries to suffocate us with the lie that we have nothing. But this lie vanishes when we take that deep breath of blessing, which comes from the Spirit of Christ. Christ blesses us in the breaking of the bread, and when we share that blessing it spreads and grows and multiplies. Thanks be to the God who blesses us to be blessings in the world.

We have something here.