Opposable Thumbs

Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

Until recently, my children have been pretty good at sharing with each other. Being twins, they’ve always had the other there, so they’ve never experienced a time when all the toys in the playroom were “mine.” But since they turned three, a switch has gone off in their brains and they have started claiming territory at an alarming rate. They have realized that “if you’re playing with a toy then I am not playing with the toy, and that’s bad.” The top of our refrigerator has become something of a demilitarized zone, where toys go when the twins won’t share.

I remember one moment a few weeks ago. It was almost comical in its illustrative power. One of the kids (I won’t say which) didn’t want the other interfering with the blocks. So the child gathered all the blocks together and held them, just held them, for fear of losing the toy to the other. But with both hands and both arms full of blocks, the child couldn’t play with them. There were plenty of blocks to share between the two, but since one was intent on hoarding that particular toy and the other fixated on getting in on the action, neither had any fun. And the blocks ended up on the fridge’s DMZ. Continue reading “Opposable Thumbs”

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.

Giving to God

Sermon for Sunday, October 19, 2014 || Proper 24A || Matthew 22:15-22

givingtogod“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Give to God the things that are God’s. Two weeks ago in the sermon and last week at the forum hour between services, we talked quite a bit about giving to God. We said that all giving to God is really and truly giving back to God. We said that good stewardship comprehends the intentional awareness that what we have isn’t really ours; therefore we cultivate an attitude in which all that we are and all that we have is a gift given back and forth between us and God.

But I was struck this week when reading Jesus’ words in our Gospel lesson that we never talked about what giving to God really looks like. If you think for even more than a few seconds about the idea, you realize that this act of giving is, in the end, metaphorical. Or perhaps a better word is ephemeral. We just don’t have the opportunity to hand something physically to God, as I might hand you a birthday present. The trouble is we use the language of “giving” so often when we speak of our interaction with God that I’m afraid we now tend to skip past the real world impact of this necessarily ephemeral action. So I’d like to spend the next several minutes exploring with you this real world impact and at least make a start at answering the following question. What do we really mean when we say we are giving something to God?

Notice first how often we use this “giving” language. Let us give thanks to the Lord God. It is right to give God thanks and praise. Give that burden on your heart to God in prayer. All things come from thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee. These three common phrases illustrate the three biggest categories of our use of the term “giving to God.” We give our thanks. We give our burdens. And we give our material possessions, our stuff.

With each of these categories, let’s start with what they look like when two humans engage in them. Say Tom and Brad go out for ice cream. When they arrive at the cash register, they both reach for their wallets, but then Brad says, “I’ve got this,” and motions for Tom to put his wallet away. Tom then says, “Thank you” to Brad for the ice cream. What is happening in this exchange? Brad gives Tom something, a gift Tom wasn’t expecting. Tom says, “Thanks” in acknowledgement of the gift.

Thus, in regards to giving thanks to God, the act of giving thanks is the acknowledgement of the gifts God has given us. The act of giving thanks is our response to the giver. Therefore, giving thanks keeps us in right relationship with God because by it we practice again and again living into the reality that we are not the prime movers of our own lives. We are simply the respondents.

Our fallen world often causes us to drift toward isolation and disengagement. But the act of giving thanks reminds us that we are not, in fact, unmoored. We are tethered to the God who continually calls us into being. Our lives have a source. And they have a culmination. Both the source and culmination are the eternity of God’s love. In between, we stay anchored to God when we respond to God’s gifts with our thankfulness.

This is one of the reasons we share Holy Communion each week. We begin the Eucharistic prayer by stating how proper it is for us to thank God for everything. In the words of the various prayers, we catalog what we are thankful for. And then we stretch out our hands and receive the Body of Christ, a response to God’s love, which nourishes us to continue to respond.

So giving thanks anchors us to the prime mover in our lives. What about giving our burdens? Let’s return to Tom and Brad. Tom comes to Brad with a heavy heart. He said something that hurt another friend’s feelings. He tried to apologize but the damage had been done and the friend isn’t talking to him anymore. He’s afraid he has irreparably damaged their relationship. He needed someone to talk to and is so glad Brad is willing to talk. By offering an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, Brad helps bear Tom’s burden.

So how does this conversation change when it happens not between two friends but in the context of prayer to God? We don’t necessarily hear audible words of comfort or feel the warmth of a physical embrace. But something important happens nonetheless. Our burdens often make us feel small. They threaten to crush us under their weight if we spend all our time trying to hold onto them. In a way, our burdens function similarly to the idols we talked about two weeks ago. They can warp our lives around the need to carry them and end up taking all our energy.

But giving a burden up to God releases us from this functional idolatry. Rather than the burden being between us and God as a barrier, the burden is shared between us and God as a bridge. The burden becomes another way we connect to God, since we are both carrying it, as do two people trying to lug a couch up the stairs. So just as giving thanks anchors us to God as responders, giving our burdens tethers us to God in the sharing of the weight between us.

These two categories of giving link us to God, and so does the third, but we have to look more closely as we now move from the ephemeral to the concrete and turn to giving our “stuff.” Quickly, back to Tom and Brad. Tom needs a trench coat to finish his Halloween costume. Turns out Brad grew out of his old one, so he gives it to Tom to keep. The important thing to note in this exchange is the physical handing over of the item, wherein perhaps they shake hands or high five or express some form of camaraderie.

When we give God our stuff, we obviously don’t give it directly to God. God can’t use a trench coat, after all. Instead, we give our stuff to other people, either directly like when we purchase, cook, and serve food to those in need at the WARM shelter or indirectly like when we pledge money to God’s work at St. Mark’s. Our other two categories of giving tether us to God in one way or another, and so does this third category, but we have to look more intentionally for the link.

Thankfully, Jesus makes this link for us just a few chapters after our Gospel reading this morning. He tells us that whenever we give food to the hungry or drink to the thirsty or clothes to the naked, we are actually giving to him. Therefore, whenever we give to God some possession of ours, God grants us the opportunity to seek Christ’s presence in the person receiving the gift in God’s stead. By intentionally recognizing God at the heart of the receiver we connect more deeply with that person and with God who makes all connection possible.

This theme of connection animates all of our thanksgiving. We give God our thanks. We give God our burdens. We give God our stuff. In each instance, our giving anchors us, tethers us, connects us more deeply to God and to each other. This is what we mean when we say we are giving something to God; this is what happens: We respond to God with thanks, we partner with God in sharing our burdens, and we meet Christ whenever we give of ourselves to help another.