Imperfect Vessels

Sermon for Sunday, March 31, 2019 || Lent 4C || LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32

Today I’d like to talk about humility. And we’ll start at the low point of the story I just read. The younger son has squandered all his resources, and a famine has driven him to hire himself out in such a way that simply perpetuates his destitution. In the parable, Jesus places the son there in the mud among the pigs, longing to eat their slop. And in this moment of distress and clarity, Jesus tells us, the younger son “came to himself.” In other words, there in the mud, the son received the gift of humility, which allowed him to view his situation with new eyes and new possibilities.

Continue reading “Imperfect Vessels”

Everyone’s heart

(Sermon for May 24, 2009 || Easter 7, Year B, RCL || Acts 1:15-17, 21-26)

Their starting lineup is down a man. While football and soccer teams play with eleven on a side, the apostles need an even twelve. No prime numbers for those apostles. Maybe they need twelve to break into four teams of three for Friday night Cranium.* Or, more plausibly, they need twelve to parallel the tribes of the people of Israel and several other biblical allusions. Whatever the reason, they have an open slot. Peter culls down the candidate pool by limiting applicants to those “who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” Taking this criterion into account, the selection committee proposes two names: Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias.

Then the eleven pray to God for guidance, beginning with “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” Lord, you know everyone’s heart. What a profound statement of faith – five words that speak to the apostles’ trust in God. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. This one, brief sentence guides their decision-making process in three substantial ways. They acknowledge God’s presence in their endeavor. They understand that making choices involves more than purely mental exercise. And they show humility in the face of a life-altering decision.

Now, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we routinely ignore God’s presence because God is always present. We forget that God is in charge of not just the miraculous, but also the mundane. Our failure to recognize God’s presence is understandable. How many of us note the sound of the engine in the car until there’s an ominous sputtering? How many of us note the reliable glow of the bedside lamp until the transformer blows outside? We adapt to routine. We organize our lives into predictable patterns. But God’s movement in our lives is the very framework upon which our patterns hang, so that movement is often difficult to perceive. On the other hand, like the electricity, we’d notice if God weren’t there.

The apostles combat the tendency to ignore God’s foundational presence by invoking God’s knowledge of their hearts as they make a decision. Lord, you know everyone’s heart is shorthand for, “Lord, you are present in all that we do, and your presence sustains the world we live in and the life we live.” With these words, the apostles invite God into their decision-making process. This invitation may seem superfluous if you believe the assertion that God is ever-present. Indeed, God doesn’t need an invitation to be present in our lives. But we often need to invite God in to remind ourselves to be present to God. Our invitation functions, strangely enough, as an RSVP, as a response to God’s presence. The apostles know this. They know that the Lord is already present, but the invitation prepares their hearts to respond to God’s movement.

Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they pray. The apostles know that making a life-altering decision involves more than mental exercise. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old adage: “Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgment.” To put this cliché in more expressive terms: “Don’t let your wild, unrefined feelings derail your completely rational higher brain functions.” This advice is, of course, flawed from the start. You may be able to solve an algebra problem using your mind alone, but the rest of human experience is up for grabs.

Every decision we make has both mental and emotional components, and we ignore the emotional at our peril. When the apostles pray, Lord, you know everyone’s heart, they combine the mental verb “know” with the feeling word “heart.” They understand that God made separating heart from head so difficult precisely because our decision-making process should not attempt the separation. God gave us minds to temper our emotions and hearts to provide our minds with the fuel of hope and imagination. God infused our biology with such checks and balances, so we tragically limit ourselves when we shelve our feelings in favor of our thoughts. Only by mingling the two can we make faithful decisions.

The apostles know they are in God’s presence. They employ both their hearts and their minds as they make their choice. And they show humility in the midst of a life-altering decision. This humility is key to the whole decision-making enterprise. Every one of my choices affects more than just me, and those effects ripple into the future in permutations that my brain is unequipped to process. I don’t know how my decisions will affect others, let alone myself. Furthermore, I don’t even know myself well enough to make good decisions. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. If God knows what’s in my heart, then that makes one of us.

Humility comes in when we acknowledge our limited awareness of ourselves and the world around us. If our interior lives are clouded in mystery, how much less can we understand the trajectory of our decisions in the wider world? Inviting God into the decision-making process opens us up to the One who truly knows us. The humble prayer begins, “Lord you know my heart, and you know it much better than I do.” Confessing our shallow understanding of our own inner selves sets us on the path to faithful decisions.

The apostles pray, “Lord you know everyone’s heart.” They invite God into their decision, thus gaining attentiveness of God’s presence in their lives. They do not let their heads dominate, but mingle their hearts and minds in order to use all their faculties to choose. And they humbly acknowledge that they do not alone have the depth of awareness necessary to make a faithful decision.

The apostles choose Matthias to fill out their number. With a full complement of apostles, the Holy Spirit descends on them and they create the Church. Then they begin to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. I invite you to imitate the apostles’ prayer when you are faced with a decision. Invite God into your dilemma. Allow your heart and mind to cooperate. And be humble in the midst of the unknown, trusting that God’s knowledge of your hearts far surpasses your own. Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Thanks be to God.

Footnotes

* Instead of Cranium, I said, “three tables for Thursday morning Bridge” at the early service.

Not FEMA trucks

I’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters in preparation for a class I will be teaching at my church. The book is a series of letters from one of Hell’s executive level devils sent to a junior tempter who is tasked with corrupting the soul of a new convert to Christianity. In Letter #14, Screwtape is alarmed that Wormwood’s “patient” is showing signs of becoming humble.

This is not as dire as it may seem, says Screwtape, because the true meaning of humility is easy to conceal. He counsels Wormwood: “Let [your patient] think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character…. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools.”

You can see just how handy this kind of self-deception could be for those who work against God (who Screwtape calls “the Enemy”). If people are deluding themselves in such a way as to take less than full advantage of their gifts, then Screwtape and his boss are winning. And here’s the main point: thinking yourself less talented than you are does not lead to humility, but to dereliction of duty.

God pours out on each one of us a collection of gifts and talents. If we don’t use them due to a case of misplaced modesty, then we are not fully living the lives that God’s abundance makes possible. We’d be like those FEMA trucks held back from the hurricane zone, full of uneaten food and unused supplies. Humility has nothing to do with a low opinion of your talents. Humility has everything to do with the proper attribution of and thanksgiving for those talents to God, the provider of all good gifts. And the best way to give thanks to God for your talents is to use them in the service of others—giving of yourself out of the things God has given you. Indeed, the only way to thank God properly for your gifts is to use them and use them fully, with no hindrance from a false understanding of humility.

So, come to the Lord in prayer and ask God what are those gifts and talents God has poured out on you. Be humble by acknowledging that those gifts and talents have a source, and you aren’t it. But do not sell yourself short. God gives gifts so they can be used to glorify God. Any cropping of your talents for the sake of that false understanding of humility lessens your ability to reflect the glory of God out into the world. Give thanks to God for all the opportunities God has given you to reflect that glory and serve God with that life of yours, so full of gift, talent, and promise.

Expect to be surprised (Bible study #4)

I wasn’t planning to write about this particular aspect of Bible study for a while yet, but a few days ago I broke the very direction I’m about to relate to you. Before I tell you what this direction is, I must say that failing to observe my own guidelines is an odd and humbling experience. You might say, “Adam, you made them up; you can get rid of them just as easily.” Well, I’ve never liked when presidents dump their own executive orders when they get inconvenient. So I better stick to my guidelines and remember that God’s greatest gift to me is slapping me upside the head with humility.

Incidentally, I wonder if police officers experience any humility or remorse when they speed by with nary a siren or light turned on. I doubt it. Anyways, back to the Bible. So, I was beginning my sermon prep and reading through this Sunday’s lessons in a book that has all three of them conveniently grouped together. I finished the short passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and my eyes wandered down to the Gospel reading. “Matthew 16:13-20” said the bold headline. Right, I thought, that’s Peter’s confession of Jesus being the Messiah, keys to the kingdom and all that. Then I closed the book.

Yep, I closed the book. I closed the book WITHOUT READING THE GOSPEL LESSON. Take 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid before continuing to read this post………..right, let’s press on.

The next morning in the shower (I do all my best thinking in the shower), I was thinking about my sermon and realized I couldn’t remember what the Gospel text was for Sunday. I could, however, remember shutting the book after reading Romans. I took 30 seconds to mull over all the ways that’s just stupid. When I got to church, I pulled out my Bible, opened up to Matthew 16, and read it. And read it again. And read it again.

And I surprised myself so much that I threw my head back and laughed a manly laugh of triumph. Actually, I had an uncontrollable fit of giggles, but if Cameron Crowe ever makes my biopic, I hope he inaccurately portrays me so I seem less like a 12-year-old girl.

I giggled because I noticed something in the text I’ve never noticed before. I’ve read Matthew 16 a few dozen times over the years, but until Tuesday morning, I never saw that Jesus asks his disciples two different questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” I always saw the “those people/you disciples” distinction, but never the “Son of Man is/I am” one. My sermon is still percolating somewhere in the region of my belly, so I don’t know if this distinction will influence what I say on Sunday. But, the important thing is this: the text surprised me–this text that I thought I knew so well that I didn’t even need to read it to write a sermon about it surprised me with something new and exciting.

The title of this post is a bit of an oxymoron. If you’re expecting to be surprised, then will there really be a surprise? With birthday parties, No. With reading the Bible and living your life in God’s grace, Yes. God can and surely does surprise us when we are least expecting it. But we can also foster the faithful expectation that God’s sleeves are full of never-ending pocket handkerchiefs and affixed to God’s lapel is one of those flowers that squirts water and in God’s loving embrace await ever deeper and more beautiful surprises.*

When you read the Bible, practice expecting to be surprised, especially when you are studying the most familiar passages. And I do mean practice. Every reading will not yield some surprising event, but every expectant reading will cultivate an openness to the Holy Spirit, whose whole game plan is about surprising us with God’s grace and joy.

Here’s one exercise I find helpful. Read the passage twice, with a few minutes of silence in between. The first time, read as critically as you can, with all your past experience and knowledge of the historical context and history of tradition and understanding of ancient biblical languages and your kitchen sink. The second time, let all the baggage recede into your mind’s Green Room and read with the lightness of a holy naivete. Finally, have a conversation with yourself about how your two readings compared. What was the same/different? What was confusing/clear? What sprung from the page? As your intellect, curiosity, and hunger mingle with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you will find something new and exciting. And you might just giggle like a 12-year-old girl.

Footnotes

*After the first comment on this post, I think I’ll qualify my clown imagery. I was going for the surprising things clowns do. If you’ve ever met me, you know clowns really freak me out, but it’s the painted smiles, not the gags. The clown therapy people who frequented the hospital at which I worked one summer wore white lab coats like doctors. It was weird.