Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.
Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death.Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”→
Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2016 || Easter 6C || John 5:1-9
At the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins leads a comfortable, if unexciting life in his home at Bag End in the town of Hobbiton in the idyllic land called the Shire. Bilbo had never left the Shire, nor had any but a few hobbits, whom the rest of hobbit society thought a bit addled in the head. Bilbo contented himself with a leisurely life of eating, walking about town, relaxing with a good pipe, and eating some more.
Even if you’ve never read The Hobbit, you know it’s an adventure story, so obviously something needs to happen to Bilbo, something known in the study of literature as “the inciting incident.” JR.R. Tolkien has a whole world to show Bilbo, a world that starts at his doorstep and leads to a solitary mountain where Bilbo bandies words with a terrifying dragon.
Well, such an inciting incident happens when Bilbo hears a knock on his round front door. The wizard Gandalf has come to invite Bilbo on an adventure with a dozen dwarves. Their tale of the dragon seizing and laying waste to their homeland sends Bilbo’s imagination soaring off to distant places. But when dinner is over and the dwarves have finished their hauntingly beautiful song, Bilbo’s good sense reasserts itself. He thanks them for their offer but politely declines. Tolkien has presented his protagonist with the perfect inciting incident, but for the moment, Bilbo doesn’t bite.
The next day Bilbo begins going about his day as usual, but something has changed within him. He has awoken to the wider world beyond his door, and suddenly he realizes he simply cannot miss this chance. He dashes out of his house in such a rush that he leaves his pocket-handkerchief. He catches up with the dwarves and the adventure sweeps him away. The inciting incident has happened, and Bilbo’s life is forever changed.
Every story, both fiction and nonfiction, has an inciting incident. Sometimes the character has no choice in the matter; events conspire in such a way to make the path inevitable. Sometimes, as in The Hobbit, the character does have a choice as to whether he or she wants to remain in the relative security of the normal or risk the adventure of the unknown. Harry Potter chooses to step with Hagrid into the wizarding world. Katniss Everdeen chooses to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Like Bilbo and Harry and Katniss, you and I have a choice. An inciting incident presents itself to us this morning. We can choose to stay home. Or we can dash off without our pocket-handkerchiefs.
This inciting incident comes in the form of Jesus walking up to you and me and asking us the same question he asks the man by the pool of Beth-zatha: “Do you want to be made well?” It seems like a question with such an obvious answer, doesn’t it? “Do you want to be made well?” Yes! is the answer you’d expect, right? But that’s not what the man says. Rather, he gives a resigned speech about why he’s never made it into the legendary healing waters of the pool. It’s been 38 years, and by now, he seems resigned to his lot in life as the one who never makes it to the water on time.
In response to the man’s resignation, Jesus skips the preliminaries and goes straight for the command: “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” Perhaps the man thinks Jesus is having a bit of fun at his expense. But the tone is all wrong. This was an invitation, not a joke. The inciting incident is here, and the man has a choice. He can stay put and not realized he has been given the gift of healing. Or he can get up: he can make the choice that will change his life for the better. And still, the choice is not as obvious as we might first think. Change for the better is still change. And change is scary, no matter if it’s for good or for ill.
The man by the pool chooses to engage his inciting incident. He chooses to stand up. When he does, he realizes Jesus healed him, and his life takes a sharp turn from the paralytic monotony of the last 38 years. In light of this, my questions for you this morning are these: when have you responded to an inciting incident in your life? How did your life change when you took the risk to venture into the unknown? How was God present to you as you walked from security into uncertainty? As you ponder how you’ve responded to inciting incidents in the past, pray with this one final question from Jesus himself: “Do you want to be made well?”
Perhaps you’re in a toxic work environment, and the personalities you work with have made you dread stepping through the doors of the office. Your physical and emotional health have both declined precipitously because of the stress your workday puts on you, but you need a paycheck. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you boils down to how much your own health is worth to you.
Perhaps your family has a history of diabetes, and you’ve started noticing lately that you get pretty sluggish when you eat sugar. It makes you feel awful, but you crave it just the same. When you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well,” you realize the choice before you pits immediate gratification against long-term health.
Perhaps a close friend has confided in you a concern that you drink more than you should. At first, you ignore the concern, then you get defensive about it, then angry, and suddenly you start to wonder why you’re upset. It’s because you really do have a problem, you realize. And that’s when you hear Jesus say, “Do you want to be made well?”
Jesus’ question exposes the fact that we all have choices to make that will lead to better health. The status quo may be comfortable, if unexciting, but in the end it leaves us paralyzed by the pool. Jesus’ question is a new inciting incident in each of our lives. Each of us can make a choice to lead a life that promotes wellness, for ourselves and those around us.
For me personally, the inciting incident began when I went to the CREDO conference a few weeks ago. I was introduced to a concept called “margin.” Margin is the space in our lives between the loads we carry and the limit to our carrying capacity. I realized I spend too much of my life with my load and my limit being equal, which means collapse is a real possibility whenever my load increases. At the conference, I heard Jesus ask me his inciting question. My response was “Yes!” followed by the obvious question: “But how?” A simple answer came to me: “You are not alone.”
We’re all in this together, and Christ is here, both calling us to greater health and giving us the gifts to achieve the changes we need to make in our lives. In whatever way Jesus calls you to a life of better wellness, know that you are not alone. You have us to support you when you respond to that inciting incident; when you dash off without your pocket-handkerchief; when you hear Jesus ask, “Do you want to be made well,” and you answer, “Yes!”
Sermon for Sunday, April 17, 2016 || Easter 4C || Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17
Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we read Psalm 23. We affectionately call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since we always pair the shepherd of the beloved psalm with the Good Shepherd, which Jesus describes in the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel. And yet I doubt it has escaped your notice that we read Psalm 23 more often than once a year. We read it yesterday, in fact; and two weeks before that at the funerals of Ed Carlson and Barbara Noonan. We’re not quite a third of the way through 2016, and we’ve already had six funerals this year. Sometimes the grave seems too close. Sometimes the bitter taste of loss overwhelms all the other sensations we could be feeling. Sometimes the promise of the resurrection seems to lose its luster in comparison to the stark reality of death.
And still we believe that death is an end, but not the end. We believe that the new and superlative life of the resurrection treats death as a threshold through which we walk, not as a tomb at which we stop. A cynic might say that we believe in this way just to make ourselves feel better when a loved one dies. But what the cynic doesn’t understand is that our belief does not make death hurt any less. Our belief enwraps our grief in the warm folds of hope. And hope helps us spread our pain out over the long haul, so that it doesn’t strike us all at once, which would surely kill us. Instead, the pain nestles in our depths and mixes with faith, hope, and memory. And in time, one ingredient in the recipe of grief begins standing out above the rest. And that ingredient is love. So we respond to the cynic: our belief doesn’t make us hurt less, but it does help us love more. In fact, our belief helps us love forever, which is what the resurrection is all about.
Psalm 23 ends with the word “forever.” And in Hebrew it begins with the holiest of God’s names, the “I Am Who I Am” name, the eternal name, the forever name. In between these two mentions of eternity are several promises: promises about sustenance, peace, revival, guidance, companionship, protection, abundance, goodness. We tend to read Psalm 23 at funerals because, in the first days of ragged grief, we need to be reminded of these promises, since we more than likely are having trouble finding ourselves at home in them.
The promises of God continue in our second lesson this morning, from the book of Revelation. Most of this final book of the Bible is strange and scary and sorely misunderstood, but every few chapters, the clouds break and we see the Son shining through. During Easter season, we are reading these shining moments of promise from Revelation. Today, we listen to a promise concerning ones who have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The elder says to John,
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sounds a lot like Psalm 23, right? The promises are the same because the promises of God are eternal. They existed in the early days, when people were first waking up to the presence of God, were first writing down their experiences, some like King David, poetically. The promises continued to exist hundreds of years later when John of Patmos wrote his prophecy in the book of Revelation. And we know these promises still operate now, for we live our lives in their sway.
And yet, it would be folly to think that our lives as followers of the Good Shepherd are complete when we accept these promises for ourselves. No. Stopping there leads to self-centeredness and isolation. Believing God’s promises about sustenance, peace, guidance, abundance, and all the rest compels us to live outside ourselves, to accept our piece of God’s great mission of healing and reconciliation. There are people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And God calls us to them.
Reading this week the promise from Revelation that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” reminded me of a young boy I met when I was a hospital chaplain at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas ten summers ago. I was assigned to the tenth floor, which housed the neurological and plastic surgery units. Many of my patients were in for cleft palette procedures, some for brain cancers, and every once in a while a crash victim. Derrick* was one such case. His entire family had been involved in a horrible motor vehicle collision, which killed one of his siblings, sent two others to my hospital, and his parents to neighboring ones.
I don’t remember exactly which bones or vertebrae Derrick had broken in the crash, but when I walked into his room the first time, he couldn’t move his head to see who was at the door. His head and neck were braced in what they call a “halo.” He sat motionless because he literally was unable to move. I babbled out my nervousness for a few ineffectual minutes until the weight of Derrick’s loss pummeled me into silence. My usual chaplain’s patter was not going to work in this case. (And I would discover later that patter of any kind never works.)
I visited him everyday while he was on my floor. Some days we talked a bit – stilted conversation punctuated by long silences. Mere words could not reach the depths of his loss or his loneliness. So we watched TV – the types of shows eleven-year-olds like. The World Cup was that summer, so we watched soccer too. I think Derrick found a teeny tiny morsel of comfort in my visits, but it was utterly apparent that I was a poor substitute for what he really needed, which was his family, who were all still hospitalized themselves. Grandparents came and did what they could. The nurses arranged for his sister, who wasn’t injured as badly, to visit him from her floor occasionally. But his parents could not come.
One morning, I visited him first thing. His eyes flicked over and tracked me as I came around and sat down by his bedside. And that’s when I noticed them: Three perfectly straight lines of salt running from his eye down his dark cheek. Now Derrick couldn’t move because of the halo. This meant that during the night, his bed had been raised and lowered to three different positions, and he had cried at each one. And no one was there to wipe away his tears.
That was the day I finally understood what God was calling me to do. To be. I had been in the process to become a priest for years, but didn’t really know why until I saw those three perfect lines of salt on this broken and devastated child. I couldn’t replace his parents. I couldn’t make him feel better. I couldn’t bring his brother back to life. But I could be there. Just be there…to wipe away his tears.
When you look out over this broken world full of broken promises, I hope you will not let this brokenness overcome you. We who believe God’s promises have a mission to help extend those promises to people who have never met a promise that wasn’t broken. And in this mission, we are not alone. We have a Good Shepherd guiding us to those people, and then guiding us together with them to the springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2016 || Lent 4C || 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
We live in a broken world: broken homes, broken promises, broken government, broken ecosystems. We’re used to brokenness. We learn to live with it. We hear about another mass shooting or another intractable political standoff or another couple dissolving their marriage, and we might shake our heads for a minute and sigh and say, “Boy, I don’t know.” And then we go back to whatever we were doing. And yet, even in the midst of this listless response to brokenness, something niggles and naggles at us, unsettles us; something deep within reminds us that “broken” is not the way things are supposed to be. We believe that God created everything and called Creation “good” and never made a thing called “brokenness.” And yet, brokenness crept into Creation. Separation and division soon followed. Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better.
And in that seeing, in that knowing, God invites us to participate in God’s mission to repair this brokenness. In today’s lesson from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” He continues, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”
Did you hear that? We are ambassadors for Christ – representatives of Jesus bringing his message of reconciliation to this broken world. Reconciliation is the healing of brokenness. When Jesus welcomes and eats with “tax collectors and sinners” in this morning’s Gospel, he models the ministry of reconciliation. The scribes and Pharisees like their society just fine the way it is. They’ve learned to live with the brokenness, profit from it even. And so they grumble when Jesus upsets the status quo and shows them what wholeness can look like. Jesus tells them a story about a family, a family marred by brokenness, a family in need of reconciliation.
The younger of two sons basically says to his father, “I wish you were dead so I could have my inheritance.” His father acquiesces, and the younger son takes his portion and travels to a distant country where he squanders his fortune in what the King James Version calls “riotous living.” At first glance, the younger son’s sin sure seems to be his debauchery, given his status as a decadent wastrel. But I don’t think his prodigality takes the top seed.
Instead, his major sin is the rift caused by his separation from his family. Jesus makes a point to say that the father divides his household to fulfill his son’s wish. And then the son doesn’t settle nearby, but in a “distant” country. With the division and separation complete, all that’s needed is a famine for the younger son to notice his folly. When he comes to himself sitting in the filth among the pigs, he realizes the brokenness his departure caused. He no longer feels worthy to be called a son, so he prepares himself to live with the brokenness and to be considered a hired hand rather than a member of the family.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees nodding their heads in approval. The younger son defiled himself. He is unclean after touching all those pigs. Of course, he mustn’t be welcomed home. But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
The younger son travels back to his father’s house, prepared for the sad reality that it will never be home again. But when he is still a vaguely human shape on the twilit horizon, his father sees him and runs out to meet him and embraces him and kisses him. The young man begins his prepared speech: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But his father will not tolerate the separation, the brokenness any longer. “This son of mine,” he says, “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This son of mine. With these words, the father repairs the broken relationship, and the two are reconciled.
At this point in the parable, I imagine the scribes and Pharisees raising incredulous eyebrows. Now the father is unclean, as well, because he touched the younger son before he purified himself with the appropriate rituals. What kind of family is this? But Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
When the elder brother hears the revelry coming from the house, he learns of his brother’s return, and he will not enter the house or join the party. The elder son echoes his brother’s sin by separating himself from the celebration. When the father comes out to plead with him, the elder son shows his own division from the family. He calls his brother “this son of yours,” thus ignoring the fraternal relationship. And rather than working like a son, he says, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you.” Like a slave. Like the hired hand the younger son was prepared to be.
But the father continues to repair the brokenness in his family. “Son,” he calls his eldest. There is no division between us because “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Then the father attempts to heal the fraternal separation by emphasizing the sons’ relationship to one another: “This brother of yours was…lost and has been found.”
I imagine the scribes and Pharisees noticing that they themselves look an awful lot like the elder brother. I bet their own irritation with Jesus deafens them to the reconciling nature of the father in the parable. But while the parable ends, Jesus still isn’t finished telling the story yet.
Both sons separate themselves from the family, but their father goes out and meets both sons in their brokenness. He runs up to the younger when his son is still far off. He leaves the party to be with the elder. Jesus continues his ministry by mirroring the action of the father in the parable. He doesn’t just wait for people to come to him. He seeks people out where they are, eating with tax collectors and sinners, healing the sick, touching the unclean, standing with the marginalized, dying with the criminals in the refuse dump on the outskirts of the city.
That’s our savior, the one who will never let any barrier or rift or division – not even death – separate us from his love. Our savior leaves the 99 sheep to search for the one that is lost. Our savior seeks out and finds the man born blind after he’s thrown out of the synagogue. Our savior reconciles Peter to him after Peter’s triple denial of ever knowing him. Our savior left his home in order to bring us to it. And we are his ambassadors.
Today, we see a broken world, and we know that it could be, that it should be – better. We know in that deep place within that the world is not supposed to be broken. Participating in God’s mission of reconciliation begins when we listen to this deep place within, the voice of Christ our Savior telling us that we can make a difference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness not with listlessness, not with apathy, not with indifference. We can make a difference when we react to brokenness with compassion, with the desire to be like the father in the parable and go out and meet our broken world head on.
It may seem like a fool’s errand, participating in God’s mission of reconciliation when the brokenness of the world is so great. It may seem insurmountable. But remember, Jesus isn’t finished telling the story yet.
*There’s a stealthy nod to The West Wing in this sermon. First person to figure it out gets five points.
Art: Detail from “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt.
Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52
Imagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.
I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.
I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.
Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”
The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.
A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.
“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.
I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.
But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.
And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.
Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”
Sermon for Sunday, July 5, 2015 || Proper 9B || 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The first weekend of June, I was doing some yard work with my father-in-law outside the rectory. While carrying some brush down the stone front steps, I slipped and fell backwards. I caught myself, but my lower back hit the edge of the step with enough force for me to feel it, go inside, and start icing. The ice helped, and I felt much better the next day. The day after that, I played soccer. I didn’t hurt my back during the soccer game, but running around for two hours at my age didn’t do me any favors. (Yes, yes, I know I’m young, but there’s a reason most professional athletes retire in their early thirties.) Put the soccer and slipping on the steps together with sleeping in a soft bed and picking up two babies for ten months, and Wednesday morning I could barely move. I spent the day lying on the floor, in a sizable amount of pain.
The next morning, I arrived at church to prepare for the 7 a.m. service. The pain was less than the day before but still considerable. I did my best to hide it during the first half of the service, but my acting job was unconvincing. After the peace, folks asked what happened, and I told them the story I just told you. When we came together around the altar for communion, I was about to start the prayer when Barbara Barrett asked: “Adam, can we lay our hands on you and say a healing prayer for your back?”
I looked around at the people circling the altar. They seemed eager to assist Barbara in her request. I had never considered asking for such a gift, but when it was presented, there was only one possible answer, a very thankful, “Yes, of course!”
The fifteen or so people present clustered around me and touched my back and arms and shoulders. Barbara prayed aloud. When she was finished, I exhaled and inhaled. As I breathed, I felt my insides expand and the stiffness in my back stretch out just a little bit. The pain remained, but it was lessened because fifteen people were now bearing it with me.
As I reflect back on that morning, two questions spring up for me. First, why had I never considered asking for the laying on of hands? And second, why did I feel it necessary to hide my obvious pain? I could answer each of these questions at length, but in the end, the answer to both questions boils down to a single word: weakness.
Something inside me convinced me not to show my weakness. That something might have been the myth of the tough guy: “Walk it off. Gut it out. No pain, no gain.” Or perhaps the myth of perfection: “You’ll only be loved if you always get straight A’s or fit in those jeans or never strike out.” Or perhaps the myth of individualism: “I can get on very well by myself, thank you. I don’t need help from anyone.”
Whatever it was that convinced me not to show my weakness, it worked; that is, until Barbara spoke up. Her invitation to healing silenced the myths, and in that silence, the words of Paul we heard today bubbled to the surface: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn], that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. There are many countercultural things embedded in the Christian faith, and this is a prime example. In effect, God says, “Don’t look for power where the world looks for power: in the bank account, on the TV screen, at the point of a gun. No, my grace is enough for you to find fulfillment, if you allow my grace to infuse your weakness.”
In his own trials and tribulations, Paul has uncovered something that I personally (and I bet many of you) need to hear over and over again. The power of Christ dwells in us, and it dwells most effectively in the parts of us that the myths tell us to hide. These are the parts of us that need the most help, the parts we don’t want to show other people because we think this or that facet of ourselves is deficient or shameful. The grace of God and the power of Christ enliven our whole selves, but like an antibody targeting a disease, God’s grace heads straight for our weaknesses.
And since God’s grace meets us where we are weakest, we learn to rely on that grace to help us overcome our presumed deficiencies. God uses our weakness to gain a foothold within us. God trains us to rely on God when we think we need to (that is, our weaknesses) in order that we might just start relying on God when we think we don’t need to (that is, our strengths). In that way, we eventually rely on God all the time. If God tried to gain the foothold the other way around, I don’t think we’d ever let God in because our strength, our power, would be telling us we are okay on our own.
When Barbara spoke up about healing prayer, she reminded me that I’m really not okay on my own. I need God. And I need you. Priests can fall into the trap of serving their flock with such single-mindedness that they forget sometimes they need to accept service too. Being unwilling to accept the service of another is a debilitating weakness. I suffer from it. Maybe you do too. Too often I forget what a gift mutuality is. I forget that Christ washed his disciples feet and allowed certain women to wash his. On that Thursday morning, the power of Christ worked through my weakness, and, God met me in the hands of fifteen parishioners, who gave me the gift of healing and helped me bear a burden. My weakness kept me from asking for healing, but perhaps it was that weakness (and not my back), which found healing that day.
My grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness. I’ve experienced this truth. So did the Apostle Paul. So did the disciples when Jesus sent them out two by two with only a staff in their hands, but with the power of Christ dwelling in their hearts. So my questions for you are these: what weakness of yours might God’s grace be trying to shine forth from? What part of yourself are you hiding because of some myth or other? Pray these questions. Ask God to help you face that weakness, to live into it, to find grace in it, to use it to connect with someone else feeling the same weakness. After all, strength and power are not a universal human constant. But we are all weak in some way, somehow. We’ve all been in pain. We’ve all failed at something. So did Jesus. What else but a weak, painful failure was the cross in those few days before the resurrection?
But the good news is this: the power of God’s grace redeemed the cross when Jesus rose from the dead. And the power of God’s grace redeems our weaknesses when we don’t hide them, but instead use them to connect to each other. Thank you Barbara and the rest of the Thursday morning group for your gift to me: the gift of reminding me its okay to be weak because y’all are there to help bear my burdens and because God’s grace is not just sufficient – God’s grace is abundant, extravagant, more than we could ever ask for or imagine.
Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43
Imagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.
I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.
And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.
Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the
indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”
The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.
I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.
I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”
I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”
Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.
But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.
We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”
A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”
I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.
The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?
Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.
“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”
“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.
Sermon for Sunday, May 24, 2015 || Pentecost B || Romans 8:22-27
Today, on this day of Pentecost, I’d like to tell you a story about the Holy Spirit. It’s going to sound like a story about me, but if I tell it right, you’ll see that the Holy Spirit is the main protagonist of this little tale. The story takes place a stretch down River Road about three miles from the Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.
The summer before my senior year of college saw me driving down this stretch of River Road toward Peterkin Camp and Conference Center, and my job as counselor. The first day of camp, about a hundred high schoolers descended on the camp, and strangely enough, their enthusiasm and laughter and hugs of reunion were unhindered by the lack of a cell phone tower within 50 miles. Right away I could see their love for the place in their wide expectant eyes as they queued up to turn in medications and decorate nametags. They loved Peterkin because they got to be themselves around other kids who also got to be themselves. Places where teenagers are unafraid of coming out of their shells are few and sacred. Peterkin was one of them.
We shared Eucharist every day of camp, and with each day the volume of our singing increased as the more reticent campers started joining in. By Friday, the passing of the Peace had reached epic proportions because everyone tried to hug everyone else. The service that day included special prayers for healing, and I volunteered to assist with the laying on of hands because I’d never done it before. After communion, I walked to the back of the chapel with the priest Zach and a pair of sisters, Kenan and Leigh. We circled a metal folding chair, and Zach beckoned the first camper towards us. I remember looking down at my hands, seeing the dirty fingernails and calluses cut by guitar strings, and wondering: “What are these supposed to do?”
The boy sat down, and Zach leaned in close. “My parents are divorced and I keep thinking it’s all my fault and I feel sad all the time.” The truth of the boy’s words startled me out of my self-centered musings about my hands. Here was someone hurting profoundly, with his whole world crumbling around him and misplaced shame eating him away. And yet he trusted the four of us to place our hands on him, to whisper words of healing, which would never make everything all better again, but maybe just maybe might allow him to breath with a bit more space and by God’s grace start letting himself off the hook.
As Zach dabbed oil on the boy’s head, I touched his shoulder, lightly, like I was testing a bruise. Doubt gnawed at the back of my mind: how am I qualified even to be standing here, let alone be expected to participate in healing? The self-centered feeling of inadequacy threatened to wash over me again, but then a prayer blossomed in my mind and in my heart, a prayer that I had no hand in writing. I exhaled slowly, and the Holy Spirit carried her words on my breath: “Lord, make him whole, make him holy, make him wholly new.”
This became my breath prayer. As the campers kept coming and coming, the Holy Spirit kept speaking these words through me and I prayed with a fervor I didn’t know I possessed: “Holy Spirit, fill me and flow out of me, down my arms, into my hands, and into these broken, beautiful boys and girls. Make me your conduit. Make me your vessel.”
Their need for healing was so great, these young people in so much pain: depression, suicidal thoughts, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, eating disorders, the urge to cut themselves, feelings of abandonment, grief, loss… Lord, make her whole, make her holy, make her wholly new.
I kept asking the Holy Spirit to fill me to overflowing so she could spill out my fingertips and the campers could know the healing presence of God. When the service was over, the campers filed toward the dining hall, but we who had manned the three healing stations gathered around the altar and said a final prayer. As I backed away from the altar, I felt a tear moisten my cheek, then another and another. Suddenly, I was crying. I sat down in the second pew and just as suddenly, I was no longer crying. I was weeping. For twenty minutes, my chest heaved and fell, and I knew nothing but my ragged breaths and fat tears…and the truth.
God granted me exactly what the Holy Spirit had prompted me to I asked for – an abundance of that same Spirit, an excess, a proportion so much bigger than was meant for me alone. The tears puddling at my feet were the Holy Spirit spilling out of me. When the tears stopped, I noticed a hand on my back. Leigh, one of the sisters I had partnered with, had stayed behind and sat with me in silence. She had said nothing. She had not tried to hand me a tissue. She had let me weep, alone and yet not alone, laying her hand on me as we had done for the campers. Remembering that act of kindness still brings tears to my eyes.
I tell you this story because it taught me about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not come at our beck and call. We come at hers. We would be unable to ask for the Spirit’s help if she were not already helping us in the asking. Paul speaks this truth to the church in Rome: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
At Peterkin, the Holy Spirit made her presence known in my life, and I fervently hope in the lives of the campers as well. That experience was so overwhelming, I expect, because the Spirit knows me well enough to appreciate that I need to be whacked upside the head in order not to misunderstand my role in all of this. But even when the experience doesn’t leave us pooling tears on the chapel floor, the Spirit is still ever present, interceding for us, helping us in our weakness.
Remember when you stood on the beach at dawn, and the first rays of sun turned the ocean to liquid gold, and gratitude unbidden caused you to raise your arms to the heavens? Your prayer of thanks rose from the Holy Spirit prompting you to notice – to see with more than your eyes – God’s glory in creation.
Remember when you had to take your daughter to the emergency room because her stomach flu just wasn’t getting any better? The unimagined patience you showed in the hours of waiting rose from the Holy Spirit speaking peace into your panicked heart.
Remember when your mother died and you never thought you’d take another breath? And then you did. The breath that came when tragedy squeezed all the air from your lungs rose from the Holy Spirit leavening your agonized grief with a dash of hope.
Remember when the Holy Spirit showed you the person in need? Remember when the Holy Spirit stirred you to help? Remember? If you don’t remember something like this in your own life, I challenge you to look again. Ask the Spirit for help in the looking. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to a lucky few or just to the people who ask for her intercession by name. The Holy Spirit has always been moving through your life like the wind through the trees. And she still is. I wonder what your next memory of the Holy Spirit will be.
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.
We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.
(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)
The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.
But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.
Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).
If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.
And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.
All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.
Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2015 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Last Sunday, we started our six-part sermon series about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. And we began with the word “Affirmation.” God affirmed in the earliest moment of creation the fundamental goodness of that creation. And God affirmed Jesus – and by extension we who are also God’s children – as the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. The love and goodness of God form the core of our identity. They are not something we earn. They are not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we embrace this fundamental truth, we are ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives.
That’s the second word: Invitation. As we move on, you’ll see how closely linked our two words are, and you’ll see why we had to start with affirmation in the first place.
Invitations offer specific, time-sensitive choices about how you are going to spend your time and resources. A friend may invite you to her birthday party. A head hunter may invite you to apply for a new job. A coach may invite you to join a club soccer team. Or God may invite you. Let me rephrase – God does invite you, me, each of us to join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.
We’ll get to that mission next week since “mission” is our third word. For now, let’s stay with “invitation” – God’s invitation. When God invites us to partner with God in mission, we always have a choice and the mission is always specific. Individual invitations may be time-sensitive due to the exigencies of what a particular mission is, but God’s invitations never expire. God renews them day by day, hour by hour. God is always inviting us into deeper relationship, into closer partnership, into greater service.
In our story this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls to the boy Samuel four times. No three strikes and you’re out here. On the fourth time, Samuel responds to God’s invitation, but I imagine God would have kept calling until Samuel and Eli figured out what was happening.
Sadly, unlike Samuel, we often turn away from the invitations God sends us. We ignore them or decline them because of where or why God delivers them. This is because, most often, God’s invitation intersects with our inadequacies, our pain, our brokenness. Each of us is broken in one way or another, or in many ways. Brokenness is part of the human condition because perfection is far from us and sin is near. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.
But when we allow God to move in our lives, we discover God redeeming this brokenness by offering us invitations to go to the center of our pain. Because only at the center of our pain can healing begin. And because only at the center of our pain will we find solidarity with others feeling the same pain as we. God’s desire to extend holy invitations is not the reason we are broken; rather, accepting a holy invitation is the best way to make our brokenness mean something for ourselves and to others.
I’d like to share with you a deeply personal story about my own brokenness to illustrate this point. I share this not to garner sympathy, but to demonstrate from my own experience God’s astonishing ability to redeem brokenness and refashion old pain into new possibility.
When I was eleven years old, the church broke me. My father was three years into his rectorship at his first church when everything started to fall apart. His misplaced enthusiasm and zealous naïveté collided with an intransigent establishment that said it wanted change and growth, but was not ready to face the consequences of such things. My father was the proverbial unstoppable force, and the establishment the immovable object. And my mother, sister, and I were caught in the middle.
I do not remember much about the conflict. But I do remember one Sunday morning. It is a fixed point in my life. I was acolyting at the 8 o’clock service. My father stood up to preach, but a few minutes into his sermon, a man in the congregation also stood up, a man who had been a friend to our family when we first moved. He spoke out sharply, telling my father to “sit down and shut up.” I had never heard anyone speak to my dad that way, let alone during a church service. I started to cry. My father came over and calmly asked if I’d like to go home. I nodded, and he hugged me and helped me back to the sacristy. Later that week, several parishioners accused my father of planning and then staging my tearful departure from the church.*
A few months after that, we moved to Alabama and were met by the most gracious and loving congregation a clergy family could ask for. But I didn’t trust them. I always wondered when the betrayal would happen. I was broken.
Where is God’s holy invitation in this story? How is God redeeming this brokenness? Let me tell you. The church that broke my family was also called St. Mark’s. It was here in New England, about sixty miles from this spot. It was my father’s first call as rector. We lived next door in the rectory. Our family had two young children, a boy and a girl. You might see a pattern here.
Somehow, by accepting God’s holy invitations throughout my life, my family has arrived at a place close to the center of my childhood pain. And I feel God redeeming that pain every day as I collaborate in ministry with the wonderful people at this St. Mark’s; and as I walk with people who have also been broken by the church.
Each of us is or has been broken in one way or another. But through God’s invitations, our brokenness can mean something. Perhaps alcohol ruined your life years ago, but you’re a dozen years sober, and now you sponsor new members of AA who are trying to turn their lives around. Perhaps the scourge of gun violence cruelly took the life of a loved one, and now you rally support to end such senseless killing. Perhaps you were in the closet in high school and know the pain of one living a lie, and now whenever you meet a gay teen you do all in your power to bring hope to that person’s life. “It gets better,” you say, and you mean it. These are God’s invitations, delivered to the heart of our own pain and brokenness.
And this is where affirmation re-enters our discussion. Since so many of God’s holy invitations originate in our brokenness, our pain can trick us into thinking the invitation is meant for someone else. But we err when we think that God can only use the whole parts of us, as there aren’t many of those anyway. That’s why we must remember that before anything else, God affirmed us as God’s good and beloved children. No amount of brokenness can keep God from inviting us into deeper relationship, closer partnership, and greater service.
We’ll pick up this greater service next week when we reach the third word: “Mission.” But for now, I’d like to share one last story of finding God’s invitation in our brokenness. It comes from Leo McGarry, the chief-of-staff on the fabulous TV show, The West Wing, and a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Leo tells the struggling Josh Lyman this parable:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ ”
*I shared with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, the few paragraphs concerning my experience as an eleven-year-old, and he asked me to share with you what happened after I left the church from his perspective. He writes: “This is a powerful part of your story. You should and must tell it. I would, however, ask you to consider adding what happened after you left the sanctuary (interesting word: not a place of safety for you at that time!). I resumed my sermon, the text was on the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and the whining that accompanies unrealistic expectations: no wonder I was challenged. The most odd and graceful thing for me occurred as we shared holy communion. Everyone came to the altar rail, including my antagonist. The blessing (and irony) of offering him and the other antagonists the grace found within the sacrament still prompts a sense of wonder and joy when the hugeness of God’s love is made evident.
Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20
Two weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.
In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.
When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.
For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?
When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.
This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.
And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.
Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.
Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.
Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*
The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.
As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.
A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.
*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.
Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.
I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.
Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.
To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.
A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *
With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.
Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.
That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.
When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
*Hear Cornel West’s keynote address here. (Scan to 1:00:28 for the speech.)
(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service,
and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)
Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39
Next week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.
And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.
This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.
We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.
Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.
Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.
Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.
When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.
For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).
Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
We’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.
“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.
And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.
We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.
Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.
When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.
And everything begins again.
We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.
With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.
That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.
Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014 || Lent 4A || John 9:1-41
“Let me see some I.D.”
I have had this exchange a handful of times with police officers and one very friendly Texas state trooper. They, of course, want my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance so they can go back to their cars and run me through their databases looking for past infractions while I’m sweating through my palms and my stomach feels like I just swallowed several gallons of quick-dry cement and my mind is racing in compound-complex run-on sentences such as this one. A warning. Yes, officer. Yessir, no more rolling stops. Yessir. Thank you. You too.
But the words they use are telling: “Let me see some I.D.” Some identification. Really, they just want my name and some corroboration that the picture next to the name matches my appearance. They ask for my identity, and all I give them is a plastic card with my name on it. Date of birth. Address. Sex. Height. Eye color. The fact that I’m an organ donor.
But there’s so much more to my identity than the information listed on that plastic card. I’m a husband and a son and a brother and a priest and a writer and a guitarist and a board game enthusiast. And I’m a follower of Jesus. In fact, my identification card has no room for the most important pieces of my identity. The relationships we hold dear, the values we live by, the priorities that shape us – these are the markers of our true identities.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the story of a man who discovers and proclaims his true identity. Jesus heals this man, but the miraculous granting of sight is only part of the story. The truly extraordinary aspect of his healing is his ownership of an identity he always had, but which was hidden within him.
Jesus sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash, and this man, who was blind from birth, comes back able to see. Do you remember what happens next? His neighbors don’t recognize him! Now, he hasn’t put on weight or grown a big bushy beard or dyed his hair. Nothing cosmetic has changed about him. And yet these people, who have presumably lived near him his entire life, can’t decide if he’s the guy they always saw on the street corner begging. All they ever saw was his blindness; they never looked deeper to see the identity of the man beneath his physical challenge. And since others’ impressions of us tend to shape our identity, I bet the man himself had stopped looking deep within himself, too.
That is, until Jesus heals him. He returns home, and when his neighbors ask him if he’s the blind street corner beggar, he says, “I am.” Now, we’d be hard-pressed to find two more important and impactful words in the entire Gospel according to John. Jesus says these two little words all the time: I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. I am the light of the world. I am; don’t be afraid. I am. I am. I am.
These are magic words in the Gospel. Mystical words. These two little words, “I am,” transport us all the way back to Mount Horeb, to a man exiled from his home in Egypt, to a bush ablaze with flame, to an encounter with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Near the end of their conversation, Moses asks God what God’s name is. “I AM WHO I AM,” responds God. “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
When Jesus echoes God’s “I am” in the Gospel according to John, he reveals his divine identity in small pieces, pieces small enough for us to digest over the course of a lifetime. Jesus’ echoes God’s “I am.” And the man who was formerly blind echoes Jesus’ “I am.” Thus, the man reveals his discovery of Jesus’ identity within himself. Jesus heals him in order that he might take on this identity that he always had buried deep inside, but which had never come to light.
After discovering Jesus’ identity within himself, he can’t help but proclaim it. Even as the religious officials hound him about the details of his story, he sticks to the truth and proclaims Jesus’ healing presence in his life. No threat, no argument, no earthly authority can take away this new identity he has discovered within himself, this new identity as a follower of Christ.
But what of us? What of our identities? We may have never washed in the special pool of Siloam, but we have washed. We have washed in the waters of baptism. We may never have had mud spread on our eyes, but we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism into Christ’s body reveals an identity we’ve always had, an ability to echo Jesus’ “I am” with one of our own. The act of baptism marks and celebrates our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
Each of us has this identity within us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But if you’re anything like me, the times when this piece of my identity rises to the surface are few and far between. Other pieces of my identity take charge, and “follower of Jesus” sinks down the list. But if I’m honest with myself, if I listen for the whispered invitation of Christ in my depths, I hear him beckoning me, I see his radiance shining within. And God’s promise resonates in my bones: seek God first, own your identity as Christ’s follower, and each other piece of your identity will find a snug fit, properly ordered so that you can experience the abundance of life, so that your default nature is one of service and love, so that you may invite others into the brilliance of the Light of World each day of your life.
Promoting “Follower of Jesus” up the list of pieces of our identities takes commitment. “Husband” wouldn’t be high on my list if I weren’t whole-heartedly committed to my marriage. “Writer” wouldn’t be high up there if I didn’t write every single day. “Follower of Jesus” trends upwards when we commit to praying daily, serving the least of those around us, dwelling deeply in God’s word, and cultivating an awareness of God’s presence in our lives. As this season of Lent marches toward Easter, dedicate yourselves to owning your identity as followers of Jesus. Like the man born blind, hear Jesus’ divine identity echo within you. Look yourself in the mirror and say aloud: “I am. I am a beloved child of God. I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
This is and always will be the primary piece of our identities, whether or not we put it at the top of the list. God created us to be God’s beloved, and following Jesus Christ leads us to embrace God as our beloved. This is our true identity. This is what the card we hand to the police officer should say. To begin to own this identity, I invite you to sit down and write out a list of all the pieces of your identity. Order those pieces from most to least important. Be honest where you slot in “Follower of Jesus.” Does it make the Top 10? Top 5? When you’re done, recommit yourself to partnering with God to move “Follower of Jesus” up just one slot. Just one. Baby steps here. Over time and with God’s help, move it up the list. Notice how your life changes. Notice how you change the lives of those around you. Own your true identity and shine with the Light of the World.
*Art: Detail from “Christ Healing the Blind Man” by El Greco (1560)