Finishing the Race

Sermon for Sunday, October 23, 2016 || Proper 25C || 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Jeremy is my best friend from college. We co-hosted a radio show together that had exactly zero listeners. (This was quite liberating, by the way.) We spent hours in the quad just tossing a Frisbee back and forth. He’s a great guy, who now has a beautiful wife and daughter. Now he’s an endocrinologist in Georgia, but when we were at Sewanee together, mostly I sang in the choir and he ran. He was a member of the cross country team, so he ran a lot. Like everyday.

I’ve never understood the appeal of running as an end in itself; for me, running has always been a necessary evil, a part of training for soccer. But Jeremy loved it. He was always a good runner, but never truly elite. When he ran marathons, he never started in the front of the pack with the elite runners. He just wanted to finish the race in a time that he set for himself, a personal goal. Continue reading “Finishing the Race”

Naaman Syndrome

Sermon for Sunday, October 9, 2016 || Proper 23C || 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

*Plays the opening riff to the Beatles’ “Blackbird”*

Does anyone know what this song is? (Hopefully someone will.) That’s right. “Blackbird” by the Beatles. I’m having something of a Beatles kick in my sermons recently. Not only is it “Blackbird” by the Beatles; it is also the very first song I ever tried to learn on the guitar.

It was the day after Christmas my senior year of high school. I had used my Christmas gift money to buy an incredibly cheap acoustic guitar from the local shop. My friends in musical theatre class all knew how to play guitar, and it seemed like a really good way to impress girls.

So I thought to myself, “What was in impressive song I could learn on the guitar?” And, of course, “Blackbird” came to mind. The trouble is, “Blackbird” is not an easy song to play. Your left hand has to move away from the precious comfort zone near the neck of the guitar where most chords are played and venture into the hazardous territory closer to the body of the instrument. Your right hand has to pluck the correct strings at the correct times, in concert with the movement of your left hand hand. Continue reading “Naaman Syndrome”

Acts of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2016 || Proper 22C || Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Read literally, this passage could have saved the church several thousand dollars this summer. It’s true! After all, we had to have several trees removed from our property, and getting that done safely and expertly was expensive. But Jesus seems to say that a faithful person could just tell a tree to be uprooted and hurled into the Mystic River. I must confess to the members of the vestry and finance committee in attendance that I didn’t try this tactic before we engaged the tree-removal service. I apologize.

Then again, I would not have been my own first choice within this parish as the person of faith to go talking the trees out of the ground. I don’t have nearly as much faith as some sitting in this room.

And right there, with that thought, I fall into the same trap that catches the apostles at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. I fall into the trap of thinking faith has something to do with quantity. “Increase our faith,” they say. “Increase our faith.” Give us more. We don’t have enough yet. Continue reading “Acts of Faith”

The Recipe for Doubt

Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31

recipefordoubtBoth my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”

And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.

Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.

We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.

Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.

Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.

When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.

And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.

So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”

We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.

But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.

Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”

When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).

Transfigured Eyes

Sermon for Sunday, February 7, 2016 || Last Epiphany C || Luke 9:28-36

transfiguredeyesEvery year on the Sunday before Lent begins, we read this Gospel lesson. We call it the story of the Transfiguration, which is a fancy way of saying “something turning into something else, usually a more beautiful something else.” And if we stopped there with the label we apply to the story, we would get something out of it to strengthen our faith. We would see some evidence that Jesus was really whom he said he was, since his face changed and his clothes dazzled and two famous dead prophets came round for a chat. But I don’t think this evidence is really what Luke means for us to get out of this story. I don’t even think the term “Transfiguration” applies to Jesus. Rather, since the whole story is told from the disciples’ perspective, I think they are the ones who are “transfigured.” I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first I’d like to tell you about my fifth grade science fare project.

While many of my friends were slapping papier-mâché over chicken wire frames to make baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, I was enamored by the properties of light. So for my project, I procured a small triangular prism, glued it inside a shoebox, and positioned a penlight to shine at the prism. Then I cut a slit in the box so the judges could see the subtle rainbow made when the white light broke apart into every child’s mnemonic friend, ROY G. BIV. (That’s Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet for those of you who never met Roy in school.) I remember feeling so proud of that science project, like I had done magic by shining light through a prism. My mother hung prisms in the most sun-drenched windows of our house, so we always had rainbows dancing on the walls, and now I had captured one in a shoebox!

In the end, however, the explosive grandeur of the baking soda and vinegar volcanoes ruled the day, and I did not take home a blue ribbon. But because of my research I did find a way to rationalize my loss. “That blue ribbon is no better than my yellow ‘honorable mention’ ribbon,” I told myself. “It only appears blue because it reflects a certain wavelength of the visible spectrum.” See, I learned something!

I also learned that we humans see because light breaks open in predictable ways. Objects absorb, reflect, and refract light in particular patterns, which allow our brains to catalog them. The first Genesis creation story begins with God saying, “Fiat Lux!” (God speaks in Latin, didn’t you know?) “Let there be light!” Why? Well, because from the human perspective, we need light to give everything else definition and vibrancy. And yet, the light we see is a teeny, tiny part of the spectrum – just a 300 nanometer band, in fact.

Of course, we often labor under the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists, despite all evidence to the contrary. We listen to the radio. We microwave leftovers. We sunburn. All these things happen due to parts of the (electromagnetic) spectrum that we can’t see. But they are just as real as our friend, ROY G. BIV.

Now, the jump from science to theology is a short one here. When he takes the three disciples up the mountain, Jesus also negates the presumptuous notion that only what we see exists. “And while he was praying,” Luke tells us, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The appearance of his face changed. Peter, James, and John see Jesus in a different and more glorious way than they had seen him before. In this moment on the mountaintop, Jesus gives his friends the gift of seeing him with transfigured eyes. They are used to seeing a dusty traveler with ruddy skin weathered by so many nights out of doors. But now they see him as God sees him: a luminous being shimmering in the light of God’s glory and favor. Their transfigured eyes see him for once unfettered by any notion of the usual expectation of humanity. Their transfigured eyes see into their collective memory, see connection to the prophets of old. And their transfigured senses continue to expand when their ears hear a voice that commands them to listen to Jesus.

I’m sure the experience overwhelmed Peter, James, and John. It certainly left them speechless. Just imagine if suddenly you could see the rest of the spectrum: the gamma and x-rays speeding by, the ultraviolet and infrared light expanding your vision, all the other waves crowding your visual cortex. I think I might last about half a second before my brain just stopped working, overloaded by the torrent of stimulation. If the disciples felt anything like that when they saw the true and radiant reality of Jesus on the mountaintop, then it’s no wonder Peter just started rambling incoherently.

The point of this whole thought exercise is to focus us on the following questions. As we approach Lent, a season of rededication to spiritual practice and realignment of skewed priorities, what encompasses the limited spectrum through which each of us views our possibilities? What blinders have we affixed to our eyes that keep us from seeing all the possibilities that God’s grace illuminates around us? And how can we receive the same gift Jesus gave his friends, the gift of transfigured eyes?

Too often we shackle ourselves to the tyranny of the currently possible. The spectrum we see is the one we were taught or the one we are used to or the one we are comfortable with. But there is so much more than the currently possible. Who could have predicted a hundred years ago the technology we have today? And who can predict where your faith might lead you tomorrow if you decide to take a risk today, to trust God today, to say “yes” to something today?

Too often we affix blinders to our eyes so that we see only one path. It’s just so much easier to keep our heads down and trudge along. But the truth of the matter is that our path is not a single road, but a person. When Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he never meant for us to separate the three. Our path is a dynamic one, full of choices and consequences, and it takes a lifetime, but we never walk the path alone.

Too often we see only what we expect to see. And so we pray for transfigured eyes so we might catch glimpses of how God sees. This Lent, I invite you to join me in praying for such eyes. Each day for practice, make a point to notice something you’ve never, ever seen before. Today’s something might be bird in flight at sunset. Tomorrow’s might be the shape of your child’s face, so different now than it was a year ago. The next day’s might be the lettering on the cardboard sign of a silent and bundled figure at the traffic light. Whatever you see, engage it with appreciation or concern or thanksgiving. Practice noticing. Train your eyes to see past the surface to God’s dazzling reality underneath. That’s what transfigured eyes are for: to discover God’s glorious presence at the heart of all things, and to be thankful.

Listen for Truth

Sermon for Sunday, November 22, 2015 || Christ the King Year B || John 18:33-37

listenfortruthI find it ironic that the framers of our lectionary chose the Gospel lesson I just read as the one for today. Today is the feast we call “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ.” And yet, for the entire length of his conversation with Pontius Pilate, Jesus specifically dodges Pilate’s questions about his kingship. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? “So you are a king?” You say I am a king. But if Jesus is king of anything, if Jesus claims to reign over anything in this passage, his kingdom would not include land or crops or livestock or resources. His reign would be over “the truth.” For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

A truth kingdom. I like the sound of that. Would that we lived in one of those. But for anyone who’s ever heard a joke about politicians, you know the punch line always involves untruthfulness of some sort. We might give them the benefit of the doubt and say they don’t out and out lie most of the time, but they are masters of prevarication, obfuscation, and equivocation, that’s for sure. We’re used to this behavior from our political leaders; so used to it, in fact, that when a politician stumbles into a genuine moment, we’re amazed and we start asking if it were staged.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus seems to be engaging in just such an impressive display of political obfuscation. Perhaps he’s trying to meet Pilate where Pilate is. Perhaps Jesus is using Pilate’s own tactics to get through to him. Or perhaps Jesus is simply telling the truth, but we’re so used to prevarication that even the truth sounds false. If that’s the case, I’d like to try something this morning. I’d like to try to rehabilitate the truth simply by speaking Jesus’ truth to you. Truth has a special ring to it, and I hope you hear its crystal clarity this morning. There will be no prevarication or obfuscation. But there will be mystery; after all, the truth is too big for us to understand completely. Jesus says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So close your eyes now and listen for Jesus’ invitation to you to enter his kingdom. Listen for Jesus’ truth.

Are you hungry for more? Not for more stuff, more possessions, more things to clutter your house. Not for prosperity at the sake of others’ poverty. Not for more empty calories, the white starch of idolatry and self-deceit. There are so many idols out there scheming to fill you up, but you’ll only be left craving. There’s so much fear to gorge on, but fear will just leave you hollow. Are you hungry for more? For more meaning? For deeper connection? For sustenance that truly sustains? Then listen to Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

But I still have dry times, Lord. I believe, but I still feel empty more often than I’d like. How can I trust your words when I feel like this?

I know how you feel, says Jesus. I felt desolate in the garden of Gethsemane. I felt abandoned on the cross. I know it can be so hard to hear my invitation when you feel lost in the desert. But I’ve been lost there, too. I’m lost there with you right now, so that you may be found. Listen again to my invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The desert I can handle, Lord. At least it’s bright there. But sometimes I look out at the world and all I see is darkness. There’s so much darkness, and I’m afraid there’s a shadow growing over my soul, too.

One time, says Jesus, I was looking out over the city of Jerusalem, and the tears just started flowing. Another time, my beloved friend died, and all I could do was weep. I know what it means to be a light shining in the darkness: a flickering flame that might snuff out at any moment. But have you ever seen a ray of darkness? There’s no such thing. Have you ever seen the darkness of a hallway flood into a bright room when the door opens? No. The light wins every time. The light will always win. As for the shadow growing over your soul, make sure it listens to my words: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

The light of life, Lord? How could I ever be worthy of such a prize? I spend too much time in darkness to deserve the light of life.

Nonsense, says Jesus. Do you think anyone has ever been worthy of the gifts God gives them? Do you remember that story I told about the son who takes his inheritance and squanders it? He came home penniless and ashamed, and what did his father do? His father ran out to him! His father could not wait another second to rekindle their relationship even though the son didn’t deserve it. Don’t be paralyzed by unworthiness. My love makes you worthy of my love. So listen to my truth, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But it can’t be all about me, Lord, can it? You helped so many people in your life, but up to now I’ve just been concerned with myself? There’s got to be more.

Oh, there is more, says Jesus. So much more. When you realize I am with you, you’ll also realize I’m with everyone else. And with that realization will come the desire to serve others as you serve me, especially those who are poor and lost, those who are my special project. You’ll find joy in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. You’ll find joy in welcoming the stranger. You’ll find joy in clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. Do you want to know the truth? Listen to this: “Just as you [served] one of the least of these who are members of my family, you [served] me” (Matthew 25:40).

Okay, Lord, so I live my life serving others, being a light in the darkness, and finding refreshment in your arms. But I’m still going to die someday. And I’m afraid.

I understand, says Jesus. I was, too. I even prayed to be spared, to let the cup pass from me. I can’t promise you a life free of pain. I can’t promise you a death free of pain, either. But I can promise to be with you in the pain of life and death. If you love others as I love you, then pain is inevitable. But so is joy. In the end, there is nothing but love and joy. Or should I say the new beginning? Listen to my truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)

Yes, Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.

A truer prayer has never been uttered, says Jesus. “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” So listen for my word in your life. Listen for my truth. Live my truth: For “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

Giving in Five Directions

Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31

givinginfivedirectionsJesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”

“What? What is it?” pleads the man.

“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”

Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.

Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.

First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.

And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.

So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.

This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.

So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”

Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)

So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.

Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.

This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.

Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.

The Rock and the River

Sermon for Sunday, August 23, 2015 || Proper 16B || John 6:56-69; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

rockandtheriverToday we complete our long, five-week march through the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John. We read every last word, some of them multiple times. Jesus fed the crowds – five thousand strong – with one person’s groceries. He walked on water to meet his companions across the sea. He spoke to the crowds at length, hoping to move them past their rumbling tummies to the deeper craving for the “bread of life”; that is, the sustenance of abiding relationship with him. But the people don’t get it. They aren’t ready to hear what he has to say. And yet, Jesus keeps pushing. He keeps extending the metaphor, making it more explicit, until he’s talking about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood.

To this many of his disciples respond, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And they stopped following Jesus that day. They “turned back and no longer went about with him,” John narrates. I bet – in that moment as they were wandering away back to their old lives – Jesus could feel the power to compel them to stay surge up within him. I bet he knew that if only he willed it, they would turn around and come back, like dogs on leashes. But Jesus knew better. He knew that every person had to be free to choose to leave, or else it wouldn’t ever be worth staying.

After they leave, he turns to his twelve most faithful companions, his inner circle, and asks them a question. I always hear a thick sadness in his voice when I read these words: “Do you also wish to go away?” In that moment teetering on despair, Peter gives Jesus a gift: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

In John’s Gospel, belief is synonymous with relationship. So when Peter says these words, he affirms his relationship with Jesus, despite any perplexity Jesus’ words about flesh and blood might have caused him. This is the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus three times on the terrifying night of Jesus’ arrest and trial. And this is the same Peter who even later has this denial healed when Jesus asks three times if Peter loves him. Peter’s real name is Simon. Jesus nicknames him Peter, which means “Rock.” You may recall in another account of the Gospel Jesus making a pun: I call you Peter/Rock, and on this Rock I will build my church.

When you call someone a rock, you mean she is steadfast to the end. “Patty was a rock the whole time her daughter was in the hospital.” That may seem true from the outsider’s perspective, but the real story probably looks more variable – like Peter’s. Maybe Patty held it together whenever she and her daughter had visitors. After all, in an odd but predictable reversal of roles, it often falls on the people involved in a tragedy to comfort those coming to visit. Of course, she was a rock when visitors came around. But how many times did Patty break down sobbing in the middle of the night by her daughter’s bedside, alone but for the steady beeping of the machines? How many times did despair creep in? How many times did she rage at God (a totally appropriate reaction to her situation, mind you)?

I seriously doubt that anyone who’s ever been called a “rock” ever felt like one themselves. In our example, Patty might even feel some misplaced shame for her lack of stability if people label her “rock,” no matter how well meaning they are. Throughout the Gospel and the book of Acts, we can see Peter trying to live up to his nickname, only to fail on multiple occasions. One of these failures actually leads to a huge expansion of the early church, when the Rock realizes he is wrong and changes his mind.

All this to say that the life of faith is much more variable than many of us desire or are comfortable with. None of us is on a perfectly straight road like the Interstates out in the mid-West. Rather our lives of faith run more like rivers or streams – twisting around boulders, bubbling through rapids, tumbling down waterfalls, flowing swiftly, flowing lazily, sometimes stagnating, sometimes surging.

And it has always been this way. In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, Joshua puts a choice before the Israelites: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Will it be the lifeless and false gods of the peoples of the land or will it be the Lord. Joshua answers for himself first: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” All the people answer the same way: “We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” But it doesn’t take long for this promise to fade into obscurity. In fact, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures narrate the story of the people of Israel oscillating between following God and throwing their lot in with some other convenient deity of the month.

So why is the life of faith so much more variable than many of desire or are comfortable with? Well, because we don’t have two lives – a normal life and a life of faith. We just have life. And life is all about change. If we labored under the delusion that our faith could not and should not have some variability, then that faith would never line up authentically with the rest of our lives. It would be as disconnected from us as a Midwestern Interstate is from a stream meandering down a mountain.

I urge you, therefore, not to beat yourself up when you don’t feel as faithful as you did last week or last year. There are periods of time when each of us – including me – are lost in the desert. But the good news is this: in the end, our faith or lack thereof is only a part of the story, and a small part of the story at that. God’s steadfastness matters much more than ours. The story of the Hebrew Scriptures is not just the one about people turning away from God; it’s also the one about God continually calling them back. Remember, God was there in the desert, too.

This interplay between God and God’s people finds expression in a curious grammatical ambiguity that crops up in many of St. Paul’s letters. In several places Paul is either talking about “faith in Jesus Christ” (that is, our faith) or “faith of Jesus Christ” (that is, Jesus’ own faith). It could mean either, and Paul probably wants it to mean both. The steadfast faith of Jesus Christ, who is the true Rock (no matter Simon Peter’s nickname), holds our faith for us when we are too angry or too sad or too distracted or too apathetic to access it ourselves. In this, the faith of Jesus Christ is like our regent, ruling in the place of us, the infant kings and queens, until we are ready to take up the mantle.

I like to think that some of those folks who walked away from Jesus came back another day because they realized they were still hungry and only his words of truth could fill them. I like to think they once again took up the mantle of faith. The same goes for us. The invitations that Jesus Christ offers to us to join him in his work of healing and reconciliation will never stop arriving at our doorsteps. His faith in us activates our faith in him. Our meandering streams can each day meet his surging river. Why not today?

Four Faiths

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Proper 7B || Mark 4:35-41

fourfaithsTwelve years ago today, I preached my very first sermon. Delivering a sermon was a requirement of my internship at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, Texas. So when the other four interns and I received the readings we’d all be preaching on, we dove right in, determined to preach the best sermons the great state of Texas had ever heard. That didn’t happen. But we each managed to say something coherent about Jesus calming the storm, and none of us fainted in the pulpit, so I call that a win. I have a muffled recording of the sermon I preached. I made the mistake of listening to it earlier this week. Wow, it’s really bad. There was something about complacency and faith and God shaking us up and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, but I didn’t real say anything to take home with you.

The thing is, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good attempt at preaching. I felt pretty good when I sat down. So why do I shake my head when I listen to it now? Well, my understanding of faith has changed quite a lot in the last twelve years, so what I hear in the sermon rings a bit hollow. But I expect my understanding of faith to change quite a lot in the next twelve years, too.

The question is this: if I’m no longer where I was faith-wise twelve years ago, does that make my earlier faith false? The answer to this question must be a resounding, “No!” Surely God is able to work through the most tentative faith or the most hardened faith or even the most erroneous faith. God makes use of any raw materials we bring to the table, however clumsy they happen to be.

I’d hazard to guess that your understanding of faith has changed quite a lot over the course of your lifetimes, as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, if your faith has changed over time, you’ve probably been wrestling with it, questioning it, wondering how it impacts your life. A faith that does not undergo some kind of change over time is more than likely an unexamined faith or just a cosmetic one.

I’d like to share with you four understandings of faith that I have gone through since I preached that sermon twelve years ago. I don’t claim that any of these are wrong; rather, where I am now in faith happens to be the most helpful understanding for the current stage of my following Jesus. As you listen to these four descriptions, see if you can locate how you experience faith. Is another description beckoning you? Or is there a completely different understanding of faith that I know nothing about? This exercise is important because an unexamined faith often becomes a stagnant one.

First up: my understanding of faith during that sermon in Dallas. At that time, faith was a quantity. It was something I could measure. This makes sense: after all, in today’s Gospel reading, after Jesus calms the storm, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If they have zero faith, then presumably they could also have a little faith or some faith or much faith.

The challenge to this understanding comes when something happens to tip the scales: a tragedy that takes a loved one’s life, an unexpected diagnosis, a relationship in tatters. You might beat yourself up, saying, “If only I had a little more faith, I could get through this.” When tragedy strikes, we forget the blessing that comes with this understanding of faith as a quantity. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed (that is, the smallest amount possible) is enough to weather the storm.*

When I was in seminary, my understanding of “faith as a quantity” morphed into something else. For a long time, I swapped “faith” with a word that’s almost a synonym. That word was “trust.” For some reason, I couldn’t find the active component of faith that seemed to be missing from the “quantity” definition, so I replaced it with something I felt I could do. I could trust God. When Jesus calms the storm, he might as well have said, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me?”

The most common expression of this understanding is the proverbial “leap of faith.” The shadowy unknown spreads out in front of you, and yet you walk on, trusting that God will guide you. Your faith is like the headlights on your car, which only illuminate the patch of road in front of you but still somehow manage to get you home.**

Over the first few years of ordained ministry, this view of “faith as trust” broadened. The act of trusting was not big enough to contain all that faith was. This is when “faith” became a verb for me. Faith was the active component of my relationship with God, the thing that spurred me to love God and serve God’s people. While Jesus might say the disciples have no faith, they still woke him up, thinking he could do something about the storm. As I said in a sermon for you all last year, this understanding of faith “borrows the best parts of trust, confidence, humility, and zeal and molds them into our response to God’s presence in our lives.”

The word “presence” carries over from this understanding of faith to the one that is alive for me today. And that is faith as direction or orientation. Faith is the mysterious something inside us that always and forever points to God’s presence, like a compass needle pointing due north. But we are not always facing the right way, and so the compass of faith prompts us to turn around. The technical word for this turning is “repenting,” which can lead to a renewal of our relationships with God.

Sometimes we have blinders on our eyes that make us look straight ahead through a narrow field of vision.*** God might be calling us to unimagined possibilities dancing just out of sight. Our faith invites us to widen those blinders until we can once again see what’s pointing to God. When we are overwhelmed by tragedy or grief or doubt, the blinders can snap tight again. But faith beckons us to open wide so we can find our true orientation towards God’s presence. Do you think Jesus halting the storm with a word was even close to a possibility on the disciples’ minds when they woke him? No. And yet what little faith they had still pointed to him as their refuge.

This is where my understanding of faith currently stands. I learned it from my father and from talking with many of you as you’ve sat on the couch in my office and spoken of your secret hopes and deepest fears and gnawing doubts and strangling griefs. I don’t know what my understanding of faith will be twelve years from now, but for today, this is it. Faith is the internal compass needle pointing to God’s presence. And since God’s presence happens to be everywhere, the blinders on my eyes serve no purpose at all.

I hope you will take some time this week to take stock of how your faith expresses itself. If faith is a quantity, how much do you need for it to guide your life? If faith is trust, into what unknown is God calling you to leap? If faith is a verb, the active component of your relationship with God, what are you and God doing together this afternoon, this week, this year? And if faith is your orientation towards to God’s presence, where and to whom is it pointing? What possibilities are dancing just out of sight?

*Actually, it’s enough to uproot the mulberry tree and have it throw itself in the sea, but I’m working with the storm metaphor here.
 **I first heard this metaphor during a seminary class, but I have no idea where it originated.
***Thanks to my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, for this image.

Precipice

Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2015 || Easter 6B || Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98

precipice“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Today’s psalm begins with these glorious words, and for me it begins with a question. Why does the song we sing have to be a new one? Why can’t the song be an old song, one that has stood the test of time? “Amazing Grace,” perhaps? Or how about “In the Garden?” While these songs are beautiful and wonderful and should never, ever be lost to the ages, I think the psalmist feels the urge to sing a new song because he or she has discovered a fundamental truth about God’s movement in God’s universe. God is always doing something new.

God’s ceaselessly creative hand did not stop molding and shaping the universe at the end of the sixth day of creation. God continues to breath new life into this ever-expanding cosmos: at the grand scale of galactic expansion and at the small scale of simple, daily interaction. In the playroom next door, the twins do something new seemingly every day. Amelia loves to eat real food. Charlie has started climbing. We have several parishioners who have recently moved from their homes into assisted living facilities or whose recent medical interventions have led to new lifestyle choices. They are faced with newness of a less joyful kind, but we still fervently hope that their new situations will lead to much better outcomes than they could have expected before.

The simple fact that spring has sprung reminds us that God is always doing something new. In my life. In your lives. In the life of the church. The world. Creation. We believe that God’s reign is constantly and continually reshaping existence, bringing all things into closer connection with God, as creation was always intended to be.

The newness that trumpets God’s closeness is borne on the wind of the Holy Spirit. Not all new things are of God, but the Holy Spirit helps us discern when and where God is birthing those new things that do lead to closer connection for all people. When we allow ourselves to be open to the newness dancing along in the Holy Spirit’s wake, we become people who are less afraid to try new things, to risk, perhaps to fail, but to know that in the attempt a new shoot of possibility has sprung up from the ground. When we do succeed in living into God’s reconciling newness, the result is deeper connection with God and a more expansive understanding of God’s love and God’s generosity.

One climactic example of this success happens in our tiny first reading today. It is the most extraordinary event in the history of the early days of the church. You might think it would be a dramatic conversion or a miraculous healing or a mystical vision or a memorable speech, but while each of these happens in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, none is the event I have in mind. No. The most extraordinary moment of reconciling newness in the early days of the church happens when one person simply realizes he is wrong and then changes his mind.

That person is Peter. And we might expect Peter to be a hardliner, sticking to all of his positions and presuppositions just because he had been with Jesus from the beginning. After all, Jesus did give Peter the figurative keys to the kingdom. What could be more human of a reaction than for Peter to lock out anything new that threatened the integrity of the in-crowd? As I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time, Peter could have stuck his head in the sand, ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and resisted any opportunity for growth, for reconciliation, or for new possibilities.

But that’s not what happens. So here’s the story, beginning with just a bit of background. The society in which Peter grew up was divided between Jews and Gentiles. There wasn’t necessarily animosity between them, but there was indifference and a lack of connection. Society was just built in this divisive way, so no one really questioned the structure.

That is, until one day when Peter is hungry. While a meal is being prepared, Peter receives a vision from God. All of the animals that observant Jews aren’t supposed to eat appear before Peter, and a voice directs him to kill and eat. Peter balks at the command: “I’ve never eaten anything that’s profane or unclean.” But the voice counters: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times until the vision has finally sunk into Peter’s bones.

When the vision ends, Peter meets a trio of Gentiles who invite him to meet a Roman named Cornelius, who has also had a vision from God concerning Peter. Never fearing that he might be walking into a trap, Peter goes with them and meets Cornelius and his whole household. And then Peter preaches a fabulous sermon that proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ.

This is where our passage for this morning picks up the tale. While Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit encounters all who hear him. Peter’s companions, who are Jewish believers in Jesus Christ, are astounded that the Holy Spirit of God would deign to manifest itself through unclean Gentiles. “But what about our in crowd,” they seem to protest. “We thought we were the special ones. We thought we were the ones that had the Holy Spirit.”

Then Peter remembers his vision of the now clean animals. And he finds himself standing at the precipice of a decision, at the precipice of something new trying to break into reality. His society, his upbringing, and everything he has ever known pulls him to reconfirm that Jews and Gentiles can never be united, that the good news of Jesus Christ is for Peter’s people alone. But that same Holy Spirit, which is even now dancing around Cornelius and his Gentile family, pulls Peter in a new direction toward unity and acceptance and radical welcome of the estranged other. And this time Peter doesn’t balk. He baptizes all the Gentiles present and charts a new course of acceptance in this new and nascent religion soon to be called Christianity.

This particular type of newness – welcome of the other, whatever makes that person other – keeps encountering the church again and again. Over the centuries, Christians have failed to be swept up by the wind of the Holy Spirit’s newness too many times to count, but every once in a while, we trim the sail just right and succeed in ushering in God’s reconciling newness. Just in our lifetimes, we have expanded opportunities in our church to many groups who had been shut out before – allowing women to be priests, for example; or blessing loving relationships of any orientation with the sacrament of marriage.

When you are trying to discern how and when to lean into the newness shimmering on the horizon of your life, how do you feel? Terrified? Excited? Saddened by what is fading away? Joyful for what is breaking in? All of the above, probably. In any case, like spring blooming in a riot of color every year, newness is just a part of life. In our own lives and in the life of the church or our nation or the world, the newness that comes from God will always lead to deeper connection, greater reconciliation, more hope – maybe not today or tomorrow. But the path will lead there someday.

The next time you are at the precipice of a decision like Peter, stop for a moment and pray. Take a deep breath and feel which way the wind of the Holy Spirit is pushing you. Ask God what new thing God is trying to birth through you with this decision. How will it lead you closer to God or another person? God is forever speaking words of reconciliation and renewal into this creation. Each day, we have the opportunity to hear them anew and to choose the course towards closer connection and to leap off the precipice and to soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit.