A Most Ingenious Paradox

(Sermon for Sunday, December 2, 2012 || Advent 1C || Jeremiah 33:14-16)

I’ve never been good at staying up until midnight on New Year’s Eve. I always seem to nod off at about 11:35, or in recent years, much earlier. There was one year back in my wild college days when I managed to keep my eyes open for Dick Clark’s countdown, but now that he’s gone, I won’t ever have that pleasure again. So maybe some of you can fill me in on last night’s frivolities. Who took Dick Clark’s place? It was Ryan Seacrest, wasn’t it? Show of hands – how many of you stayed up until midnight last night to watch the ball drop in Times Square?

No one?

Did I print the wrong sermon?

No, I didn’t. The world at large won’t celebrate the New Year for another month. And the world at large is already celebrating Christmas, or to be more precise, perpetual Christmas Eve, with all the hustle and bustle of shopping and the butchered covers of  “O Holy Night” playing in the mall, and the newspaper circulars I could weight train with. The world at large, as it so often does, has everything backward.

For us followers of Jesus Christ, today is New Year’s Day, and Christmas doesn’t happen until we tick the next four Sundays off the calendar. Today begins a period of deep-breathing, of collective Lamaze, if you will, while we wait and watch with the Virgin Mary as she comes to full term. This is the kind of breathing that the world at large can’t participate in, because the world at large never stops to catch its breath. So what is today, this New Year’s Day, this Day of Deep Breath? Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church year. Over the next three and a half weeks, we have the wonderful opportunity to breathe into the quiet spaces within ourselves and allow God to fill those cavities with the perpetual hope that marks this pre-Christmas season.

That’s what this sermon is about, by the way: hope. Advent is about anticipation, expectancy, keeping our eyes open, and hope fuels these things. But hope has always been a tricky concept to convey, so we’ll try to tease out its meaning a bit in the next few minutes as we talk about what this wonderful season of Advent, this season of deep breathing, has in store for us.

piratesWhen discussing hope, we first must acknowledge the fundamental paradox of our lives as followers of Christ. This is, as the Pirates of Penzance sing, a “most ingenious paradox.” [“A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. Haha haha…”] The pirates’ response to the paradox is to laugh, which isn’t a bad place for us to start either because laughter keeps things light, and this sermon could easily get very, very heavy.

So what is this most ingenious paradox of the Advent season and of our lives as followers of Christ? Well, rather than tell you straight out, I think I’ll illustrate by using the most beloved of Advent songs, which we won’t actually be singing until next week. “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here until the Son of God appear…”

The name “Emmanuel” is a special one. First appearing in Isaiah’s prophecy, the angel who comes to Joseph in a dream gives this name to the unborn child in Mary’s womb. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Do you see the paradox yet?

O come, O come, Emmanuel. O come, O come, God with us. O come, O come, One who is already here, One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. O come, O come. This is the paradox – we wait for and anticipate the One who is already and forever with us. My father has often said, “The best way to prepare for the coming of Christ is never to forget the presence of Christ.” This is the paradox that we live into as followers of Jesus and celebrate especially in this Advent season.

And this paradox shows us why hope is such a difficult concept for us to get our heads around. You see, hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is the willing expectation that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive. The trouble is that the times when we most need to be hopeful, the times when hope really is the only thing that can sustain us, are often the same times that faith is in short supply or when those boundaries of possibility feel impossibly narrow.

Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes during one of those narrow times. Things are looking bleak for the people of God because they haven’t been acting like the people of God for some time. By coincidence, I actually just finished reading the entirety of Jeremiah last week, and man, is it a depressing book. One tragedy after another befalls the people of Jerusalem: siege, famine, betrayal, assassination, murder, all culminating in the worst tragedy of all – being carted off en masse to Bablyon and the desolation of exile from their homeland.

But in the midst of this darkest of dark periods in the history of God’s people, the Word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah and says, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David…In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”

In the midst of the darkest of dark days, through Jeremiah God affirms God’s promise. There isn’t much hope in the book of Jeremiah, but here, in these few verses in the middle, we get a tiny whiff of hope.

But even a tiny whiff of hope is still hope. Hope of any size or strength is still hope – full, effective hope. Here again, is our paradox. Hope sustains us with the promises of God fulfilled at some future time that we cannot see in the midst of desolation. But at the same time, God is the One catalyzing the hope within us, the tiny whiff of hope, which is all we can manage right now. And so we pray, “O come, O come, God with us. You are here, O God, but come just the same because this tiny whiff of hope is wavering. O Come, O come, Emmanuel.”

How many of us have found ourselves in this situation, in this dark day of desolation? Perhaps yours happened on the day your mother died and you realized that you would never again hear her voice on the telephone? Perhaps yours happened when your son was diagnosed with severe autism and the life you had mapped out for your family took a sharp turn? Perhaps yours happened when you lost your job, or when you didn’t get accepted to the college you had your heart set on, or when you had sunk so low into depression that your bed became an island in a vast sea of nothing. Perhaps today, New Year’s Day for the Church, you are in the midst of your dark day, your time of exile.

Whether you are or whether you are remembering when you were or whether you are dreading when you will be again in that dark day, I invite you on this First Sunday of Advent, to take a deep, cleansing breath. Let that breath fill the quiet spaces within you. Feel God breathing into you that tiny whiff of hope, an embryonic hope, as small as those cells coalescing in Mary’s womb. The hope growing in Mary’s womb will be with us soon, in three and a half short weeks. But, as our most ingenious paradox goes, Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, is forever with us, and he’s breathing hope into our desolation, he’s breathing vastness into our narrowness, he’s breathing promise into our faith. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel comes. Rejoice. Rejoice. God-with-us is here.

First Words

(Sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2011 || Proper 24A || 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 )

Any spherical object! (that's me at age 2)

Did your parents ever tell you about the first word you ever spoke? More than likely, your first word was “Da,” which is short for, “Daddy, go get Mommy so I can have lunch.” Perhaps, your first word was “Ma,” though this is unlikely, considering the “M” sound is much more difficult to make than the “D” sound. Perhaps, your first word was “No,” which you probably heard your parents say many, many times when they asked each other if the other had slept last night. My first word was “ball.”  And thus began a lifetime of me kicking, catching, and throwing any spherical object I could get my hands on.

Christianity has some first words, as well; at least, they’re the first words that we still have a record of today. They aren’t as hesitant or half-formed as are the first words of infants. Rather, they spring from the pages of the New Testament with remarkable (even uncanny) clarity, vitality, and comprehensiveness. We heard these words a few minutes ago when we listened to the first ten verses of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians.

Now, before we get to some of Christianity’s first words, we need to clear up one spot of potential confusion and talk for just a minute about the similarities between Thessalonica in 50 AD and the United States in 2011. First, the potential confusion.

If you pull up the Bible on your smartphone, you will notice two things: number 1, the New Testament begins with the Gospel according to Matthew; and number 2, Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is actually eighth on Paul’s depth chart, not first. So how could these ten verses from First Thessalonians possibly be the oldest recorded words in Christian history?

For starters, the folks who put together the New Testament put the four accounts of the Gospel up front because the rest of the pieces didn’t make a lot of sense without first hearing the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But the people who wrote the Gospel didn’t start doing so until probably 15 to 20 years after Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. As for Paul’s depth chart (and this is a little strange) – his letters are actually in order by length, from longest to shortest, and First Thessalonians is one of the shorter letters. But if the New Testament were ordered chronologically by when the texts were written, our reading from Paul today would be on Page 1. Okay, confusion averted? Great. Let’s keep going.

Our modern moment shares several things in common with mid-first century Thessalonica, the community to which Paul writes the first words of Christianity. Like the modern United States, Thessalonica was a diverse, cosmopolitan place, with a plurality of religions and cultures all rubbing shoulders. As the capital of the region of Macedonia, there were plenty of things to do, not unlike the glut of stimulation that assaults us at every turn. And the Thessalonians had not received the good news of Jesus Christ before Paul arrived, just as people in modern America have lost contact with this great story of the Gospel.

To these people in Thessalonica and to us here on the Interwebs, Paul sends these first words. He, of course, had no idea we would consider them the first words of Christianity, which lends a special kind of authenticity to his message. These are words written to people who hadn’t read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. These are words written to people who lived in a society that knew very little about this faith that Paul brought with him. As such, these are words that can serve us as we practice sharing our faith, as the Thessalonians did, with people outside the walls of this church.

In these first ten verses of the first text of Christianity, there are six words in particular that shimmer for me: grace, peace, faith, love, hope, and joy. Notice how Paul uses each of these special words: “Grace to you and peace,” he writes. “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ…You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.”

These words are special because each has a meaning outside the church and a greater meaning inside the church. The secular understanding of these words can give followers of Christ like you and me a place to establish common ground as we share with others how God is present in our lives.

Let’s quickly look at each of these words to see how we can expand the secular definition to fit into the greater reality of following Jesus Christ.

“Grace” is a perfectly lovely word. We use this word to describe ballet dancers because they move with poise and precision. They throw their bodies into the air trusting that they will land on their feet, and if they don’t they get back up quickly and keep dancing. How easily can we take this understanding of grace and elevate the grace of the dancer to the Grace of God, this grace that picks us up when we fall and teaches us to find beauty in everything.*

We hear the word “peace” when conflict ends and “peacekeepers” enter the recently warring region to monitor the new situation. We use this word to describe a calm ocean after a storm or an infant who has finally dropped off to sleep. We can expand this to the Peace of God, which takes situations of conflict and infuses them with possibilities for unity, justice, and new beginnings.

“Faith” is the trickiest word on this list because all human attempts at “faithfulness” fall short. We put our trust in banks, in governments, in products, in each other, and sooner or later we are always let down. But when we expand the definition of faith to include the Faith of God, we find the one example in all of creation that will never fail. How wonderful to tell someone about this kind of faith!

“Love” is tricky, too, because we use the word in so many different circumstances, from our shoes to our spouses. But when we find that most authentic use of the word, when the word “love” springs unbidden from our lips and doesn’t describe an emotion but a state of being, a state that we entered unwittingly and never want to leave – then we begin to see the edge of the extraordinary Love of God. And we can celebrate that love with each other.

“Hope” is about the future. All people have used this word to talk about what they dream for the days and years ahead. I hope to have children and to teach them to play soccer. These human hopes are safe hopes, the kind that we can see in our mind’s eye five or ten years down the road. This understanding of hope elevates to the Hope of God when God releases us from the boundaries of the merely possible and shows us the realms of glory that exist far beyond our sight. And then we have a greater hope in which our everyday hopes can dwell.

Finally, we talk about “joy” most often when we have “enjoyed” a dinner party or a new film or a ballgame. We mean that we had a good time and might want to come over again. What we don’t realize is that this “joy” we feel is more than happiness. The Joy of God is a feeling of wholeness, of completion that comes when we discover that we are exactly the people who God created us to be.

Each of these words, these first words that Paul used when he wrote to the Thessalonians makes sense outside the context of the Christian faith. But within the greater reality of following Jesus Christ, these words shimmer with new facets of meaning.

I invite you this week to take these first words of Paul and try them out for yourself. Pray with this question in your heart: how has God encountered you when you have had an experience of grace, peace, faith, love, hope, or joy? Then find someone from within your own faith community and try out these words. Practice sharing with one another before you go out and share your Christian life with those outside your church.

Like the first words of an infant, our first attempts in sharing the first words of our faith will be halting. They will be hesitant. They will be half-formed. But they will be ours. And God will take them, shape them, and elevate them into God’s own words.

Note

*I wrote “Grace…teaches us to find beauty in everything” and then realized that I stole those words from U2. Thanks, fellas.

The Dragon’s Skin

(Sermon for August 28, 2011 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15)

Eustace Scrubb had read only the wrong books. The books he had read had “a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but,” says C.S. Lewis, “they were weak on dragons.” And so when Eustace accidentally accompanies his cousins Edmund and Lucy on a voyage aboard the ship Dawn Treader, you might imagine that he is, shall we say, out of his element. The further the ship sails from Narnia, the more ghastly becomes Eustace’s behavior. He is truly a horrible boy – lazy, selfish, dishonest, self-centered, and his attitude only goes from bad to worse.

So you won’t be surprised to hear that, when the ship finally comes ashore after a brutal storm, Eustace slips off by himself to avoid a day of hard work. And because he’s read only the wrong books, you also won’t be surprised to hear that, when he stumbles into a cave full of treasure, he has no idea that he has trespassed into a dragon’s lair. He has no idea that falling asleep on a dragon’s hoard turns one into a dragon. And he has no idea that he has become a dragon until he realizes that he’s running on all fours and that the reflection in the pool is his own. Now that he has become a dragon, “an appalling loneliness” comes over him, and he begins to see in himself the monster that his cousins and the crew of the Dawn Treader had tolerated for the entire voyage. How could Eustace possibly undo the enchantment? How could he shed the dragon’s skin?

Consider that your cliffhanger until later in the sermon. Before we return to Eustace the dragon, let’s turn our attention to this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture. Moses grazes the flock of his father-in-law far afield. At Mount Horeb, he sees a bush blazing merrily, but the bush isn’t turning to coals and ash. Intrigued, Moses turns aside to look more closely. And God encounters him there. “Come no closer,” God calls to Moses. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Remove the sandals from your feet. On the surface, this command reminds Moses that he and God don’t share the same position. Moses is a supplicant, and he comes into God’s presence unshod to show the vast disparity between the two. Okay, show of hands – which of you took off your shoes when you settled into your pew this morning? Yeah, neither did I. From a cultural point-of-view, removing our footwear signals informality rather than respect. So, we need to look at God’s command here from a different perspective.

On a deeper level than the simple removal of a garment, God’s command to Moses to take off his sandals presents a challenge to each of us who hears this story. This challenge begins with a question. What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter into God’s presence?

Our answers to this question build the wardrobe of costumes we wear all the time without realizing that we are dressed up. We wear these invisible costumes and affix invisible masks to our faces in order to set up buffers between ourselves and other people. If other people get too close, then they might impel us to change, to see the world differently than we desire, to remove ourselves from the centers of our existence. Our costumes are our first line of defense to remain the people we’ve always told ourselves we want to be. The trouble is that the costumes also disguise us from ourselves.

And so we stumble into God’s presence wearing carefully crafted costumes and masks that create barriers between us and everything that is not us. And just as God commands Moses to remove his shoes, God tells us to take off the costume.

What is God commanding you and me to remove from ourselves when we enter God’s presence? What makes up our costumes? Here I can only speak for myself, so listen for where your experience connects with mine. After praying with the question, I decide that the first piece of my costume to remove is Fear. This is the fear that forestalls any type of change. This is the fear that keeps me from entering into any kind of relationship because the other will cause some sort of transformation in me. This is the fear that keeps me from diving into a pool, not because I’m afraid of diving, but because I don’t want to get wet.

The second piece of the costume is Ignorance. When fear keeps relationships from beginning, ignorance is the necessary byproduct. I am blind to the situations of those I don’t take the time and energy to know. Again, this is part of the buffer. If I actively keep myself from developing an understanding of another’s plight, I won’t be putting myself in the position to have to decide whether or not to help, to relate, to get my hands dirty.

The third piece of the costume is Apathy. When ignorance fails, and I do find myself in the position to make a choice – to be in relationship or not – apathy sings the siren’s song. Apathy is the inertial force that keeps me complicit and complacent to the woes of others because I just can’t quite dig up enough empathy to care.

There are many more pieces of the costume, too many to talk about in this sermon, but there’s still the mask. My mask is Pride. When fear and ignorance and apathy all fail to keep me from being in an authentic relationship with another, there’s always pride to keep me living a disguised life. This is the pride that takes all the credit for my giftedness and assumes that I can get along quite well on my own because I seem to have done so thus far.

And this is where we return to Eustace, the horrible boy of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. After he becomes human again, Eustace relates to his cousin Edmund how he left the dragon behind. A lion had come to him in the night and bade him undress. Since he had no clothes, he began shedding his skin like a snake. He scraped off his scales and stepped out of the skin. But then he looked down and saw another layer was there. He peeled this off as well. And “exactly the same thing happened again,” said Eustace.

And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? …So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said… ‘You will have to let me undress you.’

The desperate Eustace lay down and

The very first tear [the lion] made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart… Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was, lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been.

When we stumble into God’s presence, God invites us to remove our costumes. Like Eustace, we might be able to slough off some pieces ourselves, but the real costume only comes off when God intervenes and pulls the invisible garments away. When we pray, “I will, with God’s help,” we acknowledge that we cannot take off our disguises until we stand before the God who is the only one who truly knows what we look like. We cannot remove our costumes until we ask God to take them away, to leave them lying next to us, thick and dark and knobbly-looking.

And when we participate with God in this removal, there is just so much room to fill. Hope takes the place of Fear. Awareness fills in the gap left by of Ignorance. Engagement replaces Apathy. And Humility settles in where Pride once kept the disguise wrapped around us so tight. Shedding the costume is hard work that takes a lifetime. But we are not alone. We are in God’s presence, and God is forever helping us shed the dragon’s skin.

Breathing on Statues

(Sermon for Sunday, May 1, 2011 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31)

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is in Rome near the end of his life, talking to a friend about the day when Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples in the locked house.

"Aslan Breathes" by Melissa Carter. Click the picture to see more of her paintings.

I wish I could tell you that seeing the empty tomb was enough. I went inside the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face folded up in a corner. Thinking back now, surely grave robbers would not have folded his ceremonial burial garments while stealing his body! But in the semi-darkness of that early morning, I wasn’t thinking rationally. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was numb on the outside, immune to the sliver of hope that the empty tomb brought.

I was numb on the outside, but on the inside, I was at war. I always thought of myself as his most faithful disciple, but at the time of his greatest need, I abandoned him, I lied about knowing him to save my own skin. In the garden, I had been ready to fight to the death for Jesus. But the moment he took away my sword, I crumbled. I wasn’t strong enough to remain by his side without a weapon in my hand. I wasn’t strong enough to trust him, to trust that his plan included death without fighting. I was at war within myself, and I could not access a single crumb of the peace that Jesus had always radiated.

I saw the empty tomb, but the conflict within kept me blind to what the emptiness might mean. The war inside of me – with fresh reinforcements of guilt – was still raging when I returned to the house we had used a few nights before, on the night when I didn’t want Jesus to wash me feet. Nine of the others were there; they had been locked in the room since the mob had formed three days before. As I was shutting the door, Mary Magdalene rushed up and squeezed her way into the room. “I have seen the Lord,” she shouted.

She was breathing hard. I had left her standing outside the tomb, so she must have raced all the way to the house to catch up with me. I looked at Mary: her face glistened with sweat, her eyes were bright. If the conflict within had not been blinding me, I might have identified the brightness in her eyes as “joy,” but how could there ever be joy again after what had happened? The other disciples barely looked up when she burst in shouting. She looked around the room, then back at me. “He has risen from the dead,” she said, defiantly.

I took a step toward her. “Just because the tomb was empty,” I began, but my voice trailed off. She backed away, and now her voice was very small, small and wounded. “But I did see him,” she said. And I shut the door with Mary on the other side.

Sliding the bolt home, I slumped against the door and slid to the ground. Oblivious to Mary’s pounding on the door, I looked around the room. Judas was gone, of course, but everyone else was there, I was sure. We had escaped the mob and the authorities. Would they be content with the death of our leader or would they be coming after us, too? I counted the others. Nine, and I made ten. Someone else was missing. “Where’s Thomas,” I called out.

Philip looked up for a moment and managed a one-word response. “Gone,” he said, and he put his head back into his hands. I sat with my back to the locked door. Eventually Mary gave up her pounding. I could hear her sobbing, her breath coming in great heaves. She was, no doubt, sitting against the other side of the door. Three inches of wood separated us: three inches of wood and my disbelief and the war raging within me.

Inside the room, we might have been statues. I couldn’t even hear the others breathing. Hours passed and no one noticed. No one spoke. No one ate or drank. We were entombed in the locked house, alive but acting like dead men. And all the while the war raged on while numbness froze my body against the bolted door.

The ten of us were still frozen in place when evening fell. I had been staring at nothing in particular when I began unconsciously counting the others again. “Eight. Nine. Ten.” I counted aloud, and then I put my finger to my own chest. “Eleven.” I counted again. Eleven again. I leapt up and stared at the man in the center of the room. He was slowly spinning in a circle, studying each statue in turn. I looked where he was looking: at the hollow eyes, at the sunken cheeks, at the dried up streams of tears that had washed clean lines on dirty faces.

As far as I could tell, I was the only one who had noticed his presence. Since my rational mind was still turned off, I didn’t even wonder how someone else had entered the room while I was sitting against the locked door. I just stared at him, uncomprehending, but the sliver of hope that lay dormant in me since the tomb was beginning to glow. Then he said, “Peace be with you.”

They were the first words spoken since Philip’s one-word response to my question hours earlier. The words rang out, and the others began to stir. They raised their heads. Some stood up. The man walked over to me, gripped my arm in a firm grasp, and I noticed fresh wounds that cut through both of his wrists. He went around the room clasping the others’ shoulders and lifting their chins with his fingers. “He can’t be,” I said, as the war of guilt and pain and loss continued to rage within me, stronger now that the faint glow of hope was illuminating the battlefield.

The man heard me and turned to face my direction. “Peace be with you,” he said again. We were all standing now. The room, so empty a moment before, seemed full now, but not full enough for him. He gestured to me. I turned, unbolted the lock, and opened the door. Mary, still slumped against the other side, fell into the room. I helped her to her feet. “Is he?” I whispered to her. She looked from the man to me, and she beamed at me through brimming eyes.

“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” he continued. With these words, we, who had been as still as statues mere minutes before, all leaned in, like trees bending toward the sunlight. And he exhaled a deep, cleansing breath, then another and another. As he breathed out, I breathed in. I breathed in his breath, the wind of his life. I breathed in the words he had spoken twice since his arrival, the very peace that he proclaimed, that he radiated. This was Jesus, and he was alive, and he was breathing life back into us, into the ones who had entombed ourselves in that locked house.

As we leaned closer, Jesus said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And his breath washed over me, into me, through me. His Spirit brought peace to the war raging within. His breath blew across the faint glow of hope, turning the glow into a spark, and the spark into a flame, and the flame into a fire. And the fire set my heart alight with all the fervor of rekindled belief in this Jesus, this risen Lord, this one who would not abandon me to the grave even after I had abandoned him to die.

I tell you, friend, that in the years since that day, my daydreams have often brought me back to that moment when Jesus breathed his Spirit into me. When I am in distress, when I am in grief, when I forget that I believe that I am with God, I can take a breath. And I will remember that I am breathing in the peace that our Lord has given to each of us, the peace that passes all my ability to understand and lodges where I need that peace the most – in the secret places within where the war still rages from time to time. You see, every time I take a breath, and, for that matter, every time you take a breath, we are not only filling up our lungs with air. We are filling up our souls with the Holy Spirit of God, who continues to breathe into us the new life of the Risen Christ.

Esperanza

(Sermon for Sunday, October 17, 2010 || Proper 24 Year C RCL || Luke 18:1-8)

On August 25, 2010, a crucifix traveled 2,300 feet down into the earth. The Apostles’ Creed tells us that Jesus, after he suffered and died on the cross, “descended to the dead.” This crucifix, this representation of the cross supporting the weight of the crucified Lord, descended to the living. Twenty days had passed since the mine collapsed, trapping 33 miners nearly half a mile beneath the soil of the Atacama region of Chili and nearly ten weeks from rescue.

(image from mirror.co.uk)

Backing up to August 5th, the day of the collapse, a single thought began to spread from the miners’ families to the community to the city to the country to the world: Oremos por nuestros hermanos, “Pray for our brothers.” On August 22, a note scrawled in red marker came to the surface: “We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us.” The message was a glimmer of hope. And over the next several weeks, the glimmer turned into a beacon of hope shining in the depths of the earth.

That crucifix, that image of the suffering Christ, which descended to the living, was a physical representation of the hope that was already present in that shelter half a mile down. The persistent, unceasing prayers of the world – from the pregnant wife of miner Ariel Ticona to the bus driver coming off a double shift in Boston – sustained the hope of the miners. And so, in a fit of divine synchronicity, the Gospel reading for the Sunday following the miners’ rescue would, of course, begin like this: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Rarely, if ever, in the Gospel does the writer tip his hand while introducing a parable. Every once in a while, the writer will explain a parable once the story is over. But most often, parables stand alone, with neither introductory material nor closing explanation to help the reader. Indeed, Jesus seems to enjoy speaking in parables for the simple fact that parables make his audience dig deep into his words and find meaning for their lives by searching for meaning in his stories. So, when Luke prefaces Jesus’ parable today with the story’s apparent meaning, we’d be justified in being a bit indignant toward our Gospel writer. Luke doesn’t give us the chance to figure this parable out for ourselves. He tells us the meaning of the parable like a teacher going over the answers to a test before passing out the exam.

But while our indignation toward Luke might be justified, I think we should let him slide just this once. He has our best interest in mind, after all. Luke doesn’t want us to miss the meaning of this story because living out this parable makes our lives fundamentally better. Living out this parable helps us live lives full of God. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” To pray always and not to lose heart. In other words, the story is about praying always and never giving up, or to put the meaning in positive terms, to have the stamina and fortitude to pray persistently and to hope all the time.

We’ve seen over the last seven weeks in Chili that prayer and hope are linked together. In the midst of disaster, prayer and hope rose to the surface and sustained the people affected by the mine’s collapse. Now, let’s be clear. We use the word “hope” for simple, everyday situations such as “I hope the train is on time” or “I hope this week’s episode of Glee is better than the rest of the season, which has been pretty dreadful.” This everyday use of “hope” is of a different magnitude than the hope we are talking about here.

Hope (you might call it capital “H” hope) is the active component of not losing heart. In a world that excels at distracting us from following Jesus Christ and seducing us with the ease of apathy, hope keeps us relying on God to direct us down the right paths. Hope in God allows us to take the long view of our own futures, trusting that God, like a master chess player, has already seen twenty moves ahead. Hope in God opens us to possibilities for our lives that the urgent need of now simply dismisses offhand. Hope in God tells us that God will never lose heart in us, and therefore, we should never lose heart in God.

Hope is the active component of the heart’s steadfastness, and prayer is the active component of hope. Prayer nurtures hope by reminding us that, despite the world’s distraction and seduction, God is present. The Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer says this about prayer: “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deed, with or without words.” Notice how this definition adds much needed depth to the popular understanding of prayer. The popular understanding simply makes God the recipient of our prayers: if I pray for my cat to stop scratching me, and the next day she does anyway, I am liable to think that God is not present. But the Catechism’s definition goes back a step in the process of prayer. Prayer is “responding to God.” Therefore, each and every time we pray, we are participating in the life-changing act of acknowledging that God is present in our lives. God calls prayer forth from us. We respond by praying. Each time we enter this exchange of call and response, God fuels our hope with God’s steadfast and eternal presence.

This is why Jesus tells the disciples a parable not just about the need to pray, but the need to pray always. A continuous life of prayer, of response to God, offers us continual awareness of God’s presence. This awareness leads to hope, which, in turn, enables us to live lives open to all of God’s possibilities and to trust in God’s directing creativity.

The widow in the today’s parable exemplifies this need for continuous perseverance and dedication. She keeps coming to the judge, and, in the end, her persistence pays off. Her unwavering commitment to obtaining justice moves the judge, who grants her request simply to get her out of his hair. If she had gone to court once, been dismissed, and never returned, the judge wouldn’t have given her a second thought. But her persistence changes her situation.

This persistence, this dedication to a life of prayer changes our situations, too. Like the persistent widow, our commitment to prayer signals our commitment to respond to God in every situation. The more we commit to prayer, the more apt we are to invite God into our lives and our decision-making. And opening ourselves to God’s presence allows us to soak up the hope that radiates from God’s movement in our lives. Seen from this angle, prayer works very much like food. If your mom or your husband calls you downstairs for meatloaf, you don’t call back, “No thanks. I ate last month.” Prayer leads to openness and trust and hope in God only when we integrate prayer into our daily lives.

The miners surviving 2,300 feet below the surface fed off of the hope generated by God’s presence, a presence proclaimed by the vast multitude of prayers descending on Chili from around the world. Upon his rescue, miner Mario Sepulveda spoke haltingly about his own persistence and hope: “I was with God and I was with the devil, but God won. I held onto God’s hand, the best hand, and at no point in time, how do I explain this, at no point in time, did I doubt that God would get me out of there.”

Sepulveda’s persistent awareness of God’s presence allowed him to survive for 69 days beneath the earth. The parable of the persistent widow teaches us that a life of prayer leads to hope, and hope leads to renewed lives lived in the fullness of God. I invite you to enter into a life of prayer, to find the hope that proceeds from that life, and finally to share the joy of our hope in God with everyone you meet. This happened in Chili: Elizabeth Segovia, wife of trapped miner Ariel Ticona, did not lose heart that her husband would be rescued. She joined her prayer with the prayers of millions. And halfway through the seven-week ordeal, she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. And she named her “Esperanza,” which means “Hope.”

Note

Quotations and dates for the mine rescue from CNN.com.

Make believe

(Sermon for November 15, 2009 ||Proper 28, Year B, RCL || 1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-25)

Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.

inigoandwestley“No one of consequence,” replies the Man in Black.

“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.

“Get used to disappointment.”

The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And the Man in Black sprints off to track down the title character of The Princess Bride.

Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.

Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage your kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.

I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just underneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park. (I don’t mean to rag on my mother – she always cultivated her children’s imaginations as long as we left her flowers alone.)

But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. Only a few people make it to the major leagues or become astronauts or famous singers. But children always start out dreaming about these things. Do you know anyone at age six who wanted to be a CPA?

As we get used to disappointment, our ability to imagine new worlds wanes. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.

In this morning’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, Hannah has gotten used to disappointment. She has no children, and her husband’s other, very fertile wife, provokes her on this account. Every year, when the family goes up to the house of the Lord to sacrifice, Hannah weeps and does not eat because of her situation, which is made all the more humiliating by Penninah’s taunting.

But Hannah does not let her disappointment snuff out the hope she has in the Lord. Hannah goes to the temple and asks God to remember her. She pours out her soul before the Lord. She prays so fervently that Eli, the priest, supposes she’s drunk. But no: Hannah is only anxious and vexed. She still believes that God continues to be present in her life, despite the worthlessness, which the world tells her she should be feeling. Hannah combats her own disappointment with the hope that she still has in God to act in her life. Soon God remembers Hannah. She bears a son named Samuel, and he grows up to be the prophet of the Lord.

Hannah’s devotion and perseverance serve as a model for the words of the Letter to the Hebrews. Hannah approaches God “with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” And she “hold[s] fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” for she knows that “he who has promised is faithful.”

We, too, hold fast to the confession of our hope because he who has promised is faithful. Too often, we think that our faith in God needs to sustain us. We think that if we had been just a bit more faith, everything would turn out the way we want and there’d be no more disappointment. But our faith is a wavering, sporadic thing. If we had to feed on our faith alone, we would have starved long ago.

But Hebrews urges us to reorient our understanding of faith. Our wavering, sporadic faith in God pales in comparison with the ultimate reality that God is the faithful One. God keeps God’s promises. God is the rock upon which our disappointments shatter. We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered, and God invites us to step into the reality where our faith is as constant as God’s. The confession of our hope proclaims that this reality exists and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.

We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, but it doesn’t have to be. While we may never find the lost city of Atlantis or see a unicorn, concrete disappointments, which may be better termed “crises,” abound in our world.

But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. We must only provide the will. We must only get over our own disappointments and harness the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.

When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. We are able because God’s own faithfulness makes us believe.

Hope near the fourth jumbotron

We arrived on the Mall in the predawn chill after a two hour power walk from 24th and M. During the walk, we passed pairs of camouflaged soldiers at each cross street, a siren-blaring police car from the DC public library (?), and hundreds of vendors hawking T-shirts, hats, keychains, and copies of the Washington Post. Since we were ticketless, my friend and I walked west along Independence Avenue looking for a numbered street with access to the Mall. At 12th Street, we turned right. A block later, we spilled out onto the Mall with 1.8 million of our closest friends. Over the next hour, we threaded our way through the ever-growing crowd and staked our claim on a few square feet of dirt four jumbotrons back.themall

As dawn turned to frozen morning, the sun rose from behind the Capitol dome and shone on the sandstone tower of the Smithsonian Castle off to our right. As the morning wore on, we sang and danced to the recorded concert playing on the big screens, ate granola bars, contemplated trying to make it to the porta-johns and back again, listened to the conversations around us, and wondered just how many mobile phones were vying for the closest tower’s signal. 9:00am. 10:00am. We were cold, muscle-cramped, footsore, buffeted by the crowd. But we were there, and none of our discomfort mattered.

The Marine Corps band (whose brass players I’m sure had the coldest mouths in Washington) played march after march as important people trickled onto the Capitol steps. As their importance grew, so did the crowd’s excitement. My friend and I played a game of name-that-politician (we weren’t very good). Flag-wavers practiced their craft with Jimmy Carter and the Clintons. A few ungenerous souls in the crowd booed as the soon-to-be-former president made his way on stage. Most applauded, but out of respect or relief, I couldn’t tell.

As the moment of the Obamas’ arrival neared, the Mall fell nearly silent, as if all 1.8 million of us held our breath at the same time. They appeared, and the Mall erupted with cheering, whooping, weeping, and the outpouring of all the emotion of decades and centuries of indefatigable expectancy.

In that moment and the moments to follow, I discovered an untapped well of hope inside myself. Hope, Paul tells us, along with faith and love, abides. Hope catalyzes the imagination. Hope furnishes a future for faith and love. Hope is the expectation that the boundaries of possibility are always far wider than we can perceive. On Tuesday at 12:05pm, I felt those boundaries expanding, closed my eyes, and thanked God.

President Obama spoke of a “less measurable but no less profound” indicator of the crises we face: “A sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.” As a member of that next generation, I’ve felt that nagging fear, I’ve sighed and shaken my head too many times, I’ve disengaged. Sure, I’ve done “my part” — recycled, used CFLs, donated food and clothing. But those acts always felt insignificant, tokenistic, like I was trying to take down an aircraft carrier with a .22 caliber pistol. I did “my part” not with hope, but with the memory of what hope once felt like.

After Tuesday, however, I feel like “my part” has transformed and grown and coalesced into “our part.” “On this day,” said President Obama, “we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.” Hope and unity. How fundamental to the fabric of our lives as God’s children are these things. God reveals the power of unity to us in the perfect, rhythmic dance of three person’s in one God. Jesus reveals the power of hope to us in the resurrection, by which he overcame the sting of fear and death.

After my friend and I escaped the mad press of people leaving the Mall, we circled back to 24th and M by way of the frozen Potomac River. I was still cold, muscle-cramped, and footsore. But that untapped well of hope was warming me, flooding me with renewed purpose and energy. I had forgotten how good it feels to hope, forgotten that there was a time before I was beset by that nagging suspicion of our deterioration. As we tramped up the last block from L to M, I remembered the closing moments of The Shawshank Redemption. Andy Dufresne, recently escaped after 19 years of incarceration in a Maine prison for a crime he did not commit, writes to his friend: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”