Don’t Wait for Death

Sunday, May 28, 2017 || Easter 7A || John 17:1-11

One Sunday last October, I made a strategic error in my preaching. I held my guitar the whole time, but never played more than the opening riff of “Blackbird” at the beginning. For the rest of the sermon, many of you expected me to, you know, actually play a song. But I didn’t. I just held the instrument. I’d like to correct that today, so I’m telling you right now: I plan to end this homily with a song.

The song I’m going to offer you is one I wrote many years ago during my last semester of seminary. I wrote it in response to the Gospel lesson I just read, a passage which takes places right before Jesus is arrested and brought to trial. The passage is the beginning of a long and complicated prayer, which Jesus offers on behalf of his friends, most of whom are about to deny and abandon him. The prayer is long because the Jesus of John’s Gospel is always verbose. And the prayer is complicated because Jesus seems to be praying it from the future. Continue reading “Don’t Wait for Death”

Come (May 31, 2013)

…Opening To…

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light (Ancient Irish Hymn)

…Listening In…

Come, let us sing to the LORD; let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation. (Psalm 95:1; context)

…Filling Up…

Today is the final day of the Guitar Case series and the last day of Devo180 before the summer hiatus. Appropriately, we are finishing it with a verse of praise. (Also, as a bonus, you can click here to see a picture of the guitar case in question. You’ll notice that I never finished the project and now I don’t really use this guitar much anymore. So I guess it is finished!)

Today’s verse begins one of the numerous psalms of praise found in the book of Psalms. We’ve talked a lot about the psalms of lament, so much so that you might have forgotten that those aren’t the only ones in the book. But there are – and psalms of praise are another sizable group.

Psalm 95 is a psalm of invitation, and that’s what makes it so special. Notice that it doesn’t start with “Sing to the LORD about such-and-such” as other psalms do. Rather, it begins with a wonderful word: “Come.” This is a special word in the lives of the people who knew Jesus well; he invited many of them with a similar statement: “Come and see.” He says, “Come unto me, all you who bear heavy burdens.” And this is a special word in our lives:

“Why don’t you come and hang out with us?”

“Is Mommy coming home soon?”

“Come on, (fill in local sports team here)!”

The word “come” is so special because it signals an invitation, a welcome, an opening to hospitality and new relationship. No wonder then, that this psalm is one of praise! “Let us sing to the LORD,” it continues. “Let us shout for joy to the Rock of our salvation.” I can think of no better invitation to offer than one that brings new people into the joy of singing to the LORD.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the rock of my salvation and the joy of my song. Help me to open myself up to new relationships and accept invitations from those who invite me into their lives. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, but I take with me your word, which settles deep in my soul and speaks life into my being.

There is One (May 30, 2013)

…Opening To…

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light (Ancient Irish Hymn)

…Listening In…

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6; context)

…Filling Up…

It’s the second to last day of our Guitar Case series, and, as luck would have it we have two more verses. Today’s verse comes from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but I encountered it originally in the Episcopal service of baptism. Indeed, these are some of the first words you hear when you attend a baptism in an Episcopal Church.

Baptism, which comes from the Greek word that means “to wash,” is the outward sign (getting wet) of the inward grace of claiming the identity of a member of God’s family. Therefore, it’s pretty wonderful to say these words from Ephesians before we get to the watery part. These words are all about One-ness. We may each be individual units with brains and appendages and many layers of skin, which separate us one from another. But this surface-level autonomy masks a greater truth, which Paul uncovers with these words. We are not discreet units. We are not autonomous individuals. We are pieces of a vast network of interconnections (The Internet? No, but close.)

The spiritual truth that underlies all reality is that we are connected through the love of God, which is a connection that cannot be severed or disrupted by anything in all Creation. We are part of the one body. The one Spirit connects us. We subscribe to the one hope, which is fulfilled by the one Lord. We share the faith, we proclaim our sharing with baptism. And the One God is the presence that binds all this one-ness together. So rejoice that you aren’t alone. You may feel like an autonomous, isolated unit. By you’re not. None of us is. We’re one. (Hey, I think U2 said that in the early 1990s…I guess there are worse folks to crib from!)

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of all unity in this world. Help me to recognize my connection to other people and live into the responsibility that such a connection entails. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, but I take with me your word, which settles deep in my soul and speaks life into my being.

Surpassing Value (May 29, 2013)

…Opening To…

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light (Ancient Irish Hymn)

…Listening In…

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:7-8a; context)

…Filling Up…

Immediately before the verse above, Paul sounds like he is bragging. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” he says, “I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Here Paul gives his listeners his résumé. If he were writing today, perhaps he would say: “Graduated summa cum lauda from Harvard, interned for a supreme court justice, partner by age thirty – oh, and I own a yacht.” Perhaps Paul is boasting a bit, but in the end, he gives us his résumé for exactly one reason: to toss it in the dumpster.

All those things that seemed so important before Paul got literally knocked to the ground seem utterly insignificant after he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus. He finds a new priority, and every other priority pales in comparison.

Does this make everything besides “the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord” completely unimportant? Of course not. Rather, one piece of the value of knowing Christ is the clarity that our relationship with Jesus brings to our other priorities. When we put our relationship with Christ first, when that is our primary priority, we develop a foundation upon which to organize the rest of our priorities. And we find that not all of things we once valued should be pursued. And perhaps, we will find new things to value, things that Christ himself prioritized.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your relationship with me is beyond value. Help me to order my life with you at its center. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, but I take with me your word, which settles deep in my soul and speaks life into my being.

Pray Without Ceasing (May 28, 2013)

…Opening To…

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light (Ancient Irish Hymn)

…Listening In…

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; context)

…Filling Up…

There are four days left in our survey of verses that found there way onto my old guitar case during my college years of 2001-2005. Today’s passage from the last chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is one that has stuck with me for quite a long time. When I was a sophomore I read a short story by Wendell Berry that I think was entitled “Pray Without Ceasing.” (It was either called that or that was the theme.) And I discovered those words came from Paul.

A few years later, when I was in seminary, I discovered that the first letter to the Thessalonians is probably the oldest piece of Christian writing that still exists, so the words from these verses became even more special. Before anything else that we still have was written, Paul urged people to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing. If people took him seriously, that means that while the rest of the New Testament was being written, there were people praying ceaselessly during its composition. What a cool thought!

It wasn’t until a few years after that realization that I discovered one last thing about these verses. I had always thought “praying without ceasing” was really hyperbole – Paul stressing the importance of prayer by telling people to do it all the time. I didn’t realize that it was actually possible. Then I read a description of prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The BCP says this: “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.”

This sentence completely changed how I think about prayer. If prayer is not just talking to God about stuff, but instead is anything we do to respond to God, then it is possible to “pray without ceasing.” To do so is to cultivate a constant awareness of how each of our actions is done as some kind of response to God’s action in our lives. Each action we take or thought we think puts us in either greater or lesser resonance with God’s movement. By cultivating this constant awareness, we are praying without ceasing.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you encounter me in the words of the scripture and these encounters continue throughout my life. Help me to be sensitive to your movement throughout all facets of my life so that I can better respond to your call. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, but I take with me your word, which settles deep in my soul and speaks life into my being.

Sacrifice of Thanksgiving (May 27, 2013)

…Opening To…

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping thy presence my light (Ancient Irish Hymn)

…Listening In…

Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and make good your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50:14; context)

…Filling Up…

There are fourteen verses written on my old guitar case, which means we have five to go. Today’s verse is one of the verses that we use in the Episcopal Church for something called the “Offertory Sentence” (which is what we read right before bringing up the bread and the wine to be blessed). One day during college, I finally heard this verse in the midst of its natural habitat – the rest of Psalm 50 – and hearing it there completely changed my understanding of it.

Psalm 50 is about God indicting the people of Israel for simply going through the motions of worship and the practice of the law, but not letting those motions and practices invade their hearts and change them into better followers of God. By the last third of the psalm, God gives evidence of all the ways the people have strayed, which proves how empty their animal sacrifices have been.

I don’t want those animal sacrifices, God says. I don’t need to be fed. Those animals are mine anyway. What I want is the sacrifice of your thanksgiving. These are the key words of the psalm. At first glance, they don’t make much sense really. How is giving thanks a sacrifice? Or perhaps a better question is this: what are we sacrificing when we give thanks? I’m glad you asked!

Every time we thank God for something – an ability, an event, another person, ourselves – we are acknowledging that God is the shaper of that gift. God is the force behind and beneath and within that gift. This acknowledgement is the first step in removing from ourselves the delusion that we are somehow responsible for our own gifts and relocating them to their proper source, which is God. So, in the end, we are sacrificing our pride, which is the presumption that our gifts and abilities come from ourselves rather than God.

When all is said and done, the act of giving thanks is part of the practice of humility. And humility involves the sacrifice of all the delusions and presumptions that stoke our self-importance, our vanity, and our pride. When we give thanks, we properly attribute our giftedness to God’s movement, and then we find that movement swelling up from deep within us, propelling us to serve.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you invite me to locate my gifts in you. Help me to let go of my pride and find your presence within me that animates all my gifts. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, but I take with me your word, which settles deep in my soul and speaks life into my being.

Into Your Hands (May 24, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit; for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (Psalm 31:5: context)

…Filling Up…

A verse from Psalm 31 comes next on my guitar case. It might be classified as one of those psalms of lament that I keep talking about on devotiONEighty. But Psalm 31 varies from classic lament psalms in one specific way: rather than moving from sorrow to timid statement of faith to the desire but not the ability to praise (which is the standard format), Psalm 31 is more of a roller coaster ride. It begins with a statement of faith: “In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge…” Then the middle of the psalm sinks into lament: “Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am in trouble; my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.” Then it rises once again, finally concluding with these words: “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD.”

I’m so glad that the psalmist put such a roller coaster ride into words. The poetry of this psalm speaks deeply to those who grieve, giving them both the permission to feel sorrow and the expectation to find comfort. And while it falls just five verses into the twenty-four verse poem, the verse above forms the centerpiece of the psalm. Notice the way the verb tenses work across the sentence. In the first half of the verse, we find a present tense action verb, rendered above as “commend.” In the second half, we find a present perfect action verb, rendered above as “have redeemed.” In English, this means that God accomplished the redemption at some unspecified time before the writer commends his or her spirit to God. I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I’m pretty sure the verbs work in a similar way in the original language.

While studying verb tenses might not get your blood flowing, the progression this verse evokes is incredibly important for our faith in God. I would be utterly incapable of commending my spirit to God if God had not already initiated some sort of relationship with me (in this case, in the form of redemption). This commendation of spirit is the very action that fuels the rest of the roller coaster psalm: there are ups and downs, but the entire varied experience of the psalmist exists within the palm of God’s hand. And in that, I find comfort.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are holding me in the palm of your hand. Help me to feel the support of that hand, a solid and holy ground for my feet. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.

Not Even Death (May 23, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39; context)

…Filling Up…

I find hope and peace in the words that make up the next verses from my old guitar case. They also happen to be one of the selections suggested for funeral services. These are Paul’s soaring words about the love of God that show the infinite and eternal lengths to which God goes to remain in relationship with us.

Nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Think about that statement for just a minute. We might survive because we metabolize nutrients and breath air and replenish our water supplies. But we live because of the love of God. The love of God is the foundation of existence; it is the thing from which we cannot and will not be separated. Not even dying will separate us from that love because life happens with so much grander scope than death could ever hope for.

This is the truth that we discover in Christ’s resurrection. This is the truth that lives in our guts and ripples along with tremors of grief when a loved one dies. This is the truth that is the salt in our tears. This is the truth that mingles with our sadness and leavens it with a hidden hope that God’s love will enfold the grieving as that has already enfolded the deceased. That’s why we read these verses at funerals. They speak of true reality. And they speak good news.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are in the midst of all life, both our dim life on earth and our bright life in heaven. Help me to open a space for grief to reside and then allow you to fill it with your presence. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.

Clothed me with Joy (May 22, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:12; context)

…Filling Up…

This seventh verse from my old guitar case has long been my favorite verse in the entire Psalter (that’s the fancy word for the book of Psalms). I have no idea how it came to my attention, but I’m glad it did because every once in a while it pops into my head and I sing it to myself for hours.

I just love how the psalmist uses the language to show the 180-degree turn that has happened because God showed up (or more likely because the psalmist realized that God was there all along). Earlier in the psalm, the writer says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” This nightlong weeping turns into dancing when the psalmist notices what God is doing in his or her life.

Likewise, the psalmist lets God remove the sackcloth – that is, the garment of mourning – and figuratively clothe the writer with joy. Think about that. What does it mean to be “clothed with joy?” We wear clothes on the outside of our bodies. They are often the first things people notice about us. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the first thing others saw when they look at us is joy. What a first impression. This is the gift that God promises the psalmist in Psalm 30—that even though there is cause to weep, there is also cause to find great joy. And not only to find joy, but to wear it on your skin for all to see.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you are the source of my joy and the grace behind my dance. Help me to wear that joy outwardly so that others can see and feel it and find joy themselves. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.

Love is not an Emotion (May 21, 2013)

…Opening To…

We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind,
To notions of our day and place, crude, partial, and confined;
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred;
The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word. (George Rawson)

…Listening In…

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13; context)

…Filling Up…

Moving down my old guitar case, we come to the sixth verse, which is wedged in diagonally right where the body of the case starts getting wider. I imagine that I taped this verse to the guitar case sometime around Easter one year during college. Jesus speaks these words to his disciples (whom immediately after this he calls “friends”) during his long speech right before he is betrayed, accused, convicted, and killed. So the words here are immediate. Jesus is telling his disciples just how much he loves them (and us) – enough to sacrifice himself in order that they (and we) might have access to that same love.

But beyond the immediate context of Jesus’ final meal with his friends, the words speed through the centuries and lodge themselves into our hearts. Notice that he commands his disciples to love one another. Jesus doesn’t command them to do very many things, but this is one thing he commands them to do on multiple occasions. Does it seem strange to you that he would command one to love another? It might, especially if you think of love primarily as an emotion. “I can’t help loving who I love and not loving who I don’t,” we might protest.

But love is not primarily an emotion. Love is a state of being. Love is the word we use for the voluntary conviction that propels us to step outside of our selfish selves and to discover the riches of building up one another, of finding mutuality, of respecting difference, of speaking out against intolerance and hate. If you’ve read the Harry Potter series, you know that Albus Dumbledore tells Harry on multiple occasions that Harry’s greatest gift is his ability to love. This gift compels Harry into many difficult circumstances, but it also strengthens him to face the challenges before him. If this love were a simple emotion, Harry would never have sustained it for so long, even to the point of his own sacrifice. J.K. Rowling knows that love is not just an emotion.

And so does Jesus. When he commands us to love, he gives us the opportunity to find the state of being that allows us to see a glimpse into God’s own being.

…Praying For…

Dear God, your Son commanded us to love as he loves. Help me to find the conviction to live a life where love is at the center of all my actions. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, grateful for the opportunity to reflect on your word and looking forward to discovering its impact on my life.