Unfinished (God’s Point of View, part 6 of 8)

Sermon for Sunday, February 12, 2017 || Epiphany 6A || Matthew 5:21-37

Over a month ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?

God sees, names, and celebrates us as beloved, befriended, gifted, blessed, and enlightened. Last week, we had a deviation from the series, but we still mentioned what I would have said if I had written the series’ sermon: We bring the light of love with us out into the world, especially in times of great fear and turmoil.

And every time we go out into world to participate in God’s mission by using our gifts, by being blessings, by shining God’s light, we inevitably realize that we are never going to fulfill our mission perfectly. We will never be perfect partners with God. We will never love or befriend or bless or shine to the fullest of our capacity. And that’s because we are unfinished. Continue reading “Unfinished (God’s Point of View, part 6 of 8)”

God’s Dazzling Truth

Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2016 || Epiphany 1C || Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Godsdazzlingtruth“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whenever I read this beautiful verse of Scripture, my lungs expand with more air than normal. I take a deep, cleansing breath, and I remember the truth of these words, and I lament how easy it is to forget them.

“You are my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God’s truth embedded in this verse expands out from Jesus and touches each precious life. Jesus did not hoard God’s love and pleasure; no, he gave himself freely so that we might share God’s love and pleasure.

“You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Can you feel power and the promise in these words? Drink them in now. Close your eyes and whisper them to yourselves. Feel the weight of their truth. Feel the freedom they bring. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

As you let these words sink in, I guarantee you will start to feel a conflict forming inside yourself. The conflict pits God’s dazzling truth against our natural wariness to believe anything that seems to have no strings attached, that seems too good to be true. Our suspicion arms itself with several arguments, so let’s take them in turn.

The first argument coming to the plate is swinging the bat of literalism: “God was talking to Jesus. Of course, God would say all that about the person who is literally God’s own Son. Let’s not get delusions of grandeur now. We’re taking too great a leap to include ourselves in the conversation.”

Well, we are taking a great leap: a leap of faith. We have faith that Paul’s words written to the church in Rome are true: “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). We are children of God. Thus, God’s words, spoken from heaven as the dove descends, are for us, too.

“But wait,” says our suspicion, which now comes to bat with a little more nuance: “Maybe the first bit is for everyone because you are God’s children, but the second half has got to be for Jesus alone. Of course God would be well pleased in him. He’s Jesus. Look at everything he did!”

Well, that is true. And if this beautiful verse were spoken at the end of the Gospel rather than at the beginning, I might be swayed by that argument. But within Luke’s narrative, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t said anything yet. He has completed no healings, spoken no parables, gathered no disciples, performed no miracles. All he has done is take a swim with his cousin John in the River Jordan. Therefore, God’s love and pleasure are not predicated on what Jesus does, but on who he is. And he is God’s child, just like us.

But now the heavy hitters are coming to the plate, the guys who swing for the fences. “What’s so beautiful about these words about being God’s children? Your own parents never lived up to your expectations. What makes you think God will?”

Yes, this is the sticking point. How could we believe God’s promise of love and pleasure when promises around us are routinely broken? (And not usually with malicious intent, but because things just fall apart sometimes.) There’s a whole other sermon waiting right here, so I’ll try not to get too diverted. Basically, one of the biggest challenges in our life of faith is resisting the urge to remake God in our own image. We are made in the image and likeness of God, not the other way around. The moment we start comparing God to our own parents or our own meager ability to be parents, we are no longer talking about God. God is the One who keeps promises, who tells the truth, whose steadfast love lasts forever. If our natural urge to compare God to ourselves or our parents ever waters down these fundamental stanchions of God’s own self, then we are no longer contemplated God for who God truly is.

The trouble is, it’s really hard to contemplate perfection using our own imperfect hardware. But the closer we get to believing that God really is who God claims to be, then the beauty of God’s words to Jesus at the River Jordan gain even more dazzling vibrancy. “You are my child, the Beloved; in you I am well pleased.”

But now the cleanup hitter comes up to bat, and our suspicion hits the ball right into our guts: “What have you ever done to deserve such love?”

You might think we covered this one when I mentioned that fact that Jesus’ ministry hadn’t even started yet. But no, our pernicious feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness will not let us off the hook that easily. Perhaps you lived in fear of your parents finding out you made a “C” on your report card. Perhaps you grew up with an alcoholic father and everything had to be just so, or else. Perhaps you have convinced yourself that you’d be more popular or more successful if you just had…something…more.

Whatever the case, it’s all a lie, a smokescreen. We have never, ever done anything to deserve such love. And we never will. The love of God is a pure gift. No strings attached. It’s too be good to be true, and yet it is true.

And so the conflict rages within us, our natural wariness pitted against God’s dazzling truth. Our arguments scream and howl and stamp and claw, but God only whispers again and again the same words, because the truth needs no bluster. Close your eyes again and listen for God whispering these words in the depths of your being. You are my child. I love you. You are my joy, my delight. In all my acts of creating, over billions of years, across countless galaxies, I had never created you until now, and I am well pleased.

Now open your eyes again and look around. God speaks this same truth not just to you alone, not just to us sitting here this morning, not just to people who look like us or think like us or believe like us, not just to people in the same type of family unit or the same income bracket. Everyone you meet and everyone you avoid meeting has this same truth stitched on their hearts. Treat them as beloved children of God, with no arguments or reservations. Treat all people as beloved children of God, and we will change the world.

A Resounding Yes

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15

 

aresoundingyesI’ll tell you all the truth: I’ve been struggling lately. The day the twins were born, about a month ago now, life took a dramatic turn. I knew this tectonic shift in life was going to happen, but I sure wasn’t prepared for it. At times over the past month, I have felt helpless. I have felt frantic. I have felt desperately inadequate. The learning curve for new parenthood is steep, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations about how fast I catch on. I’ve always been a quick study, but in this particular case, there’s no substitute for the exhausting daily grind of caring for the twins. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I knew it was going to be hard, but my definition of “hard” has never reached the superlative level of caring for multiple newborns.

Of course, there is joy, too. And love – so much love that it leaks from my tear ducts when I gaze upon their sleeping faces. But both joy and love often get buried under the weight of bone-wearying exhaustion, and at the end of the day or at the end of the night – and with newborns they are pretty much the same thing – all you can say is, “We survived.” And you’re too tired most of the time to appreciate that survival, in itself, is a pretty astounding gift.

In light of the last month, I read our passage from the Hebrew Scriptures this week with new eyes. I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush hundreds of times, but this time around new words shimmered for me. My feeling of desperate inadequacy led me to see the same feeling in Moses. Today’s story takes place on Mount Horeb, but let’s back up and see how Moses got there.

After growing up the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was caught between two worlds, the life of privilege of the king’s house and the life of slavery of Moses’s family of origin. One day Moses visits the work camps and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. While the book of Exodus skips Moses’s upbringing, we can easily conjure a scenario where he had no firsthand knowledge of the plight of his people before this. Sure he heard rumors, but they were easily dismissed by his Egyptian family. Then he sees for himself the rumors are true, and his sense of betrayal mingles with his sense of justice. Moses secretly kills the offending Egyptian. But such an act cannot stay secret for long, and when Pharaoh finds out, Moses flees.

Settling in the land of Midian, Moses meets his wife at a well (which is where everyone meets his spouse in the Hebrew Scriptures). Zipporah brings Moses home to her father, who takes him in and teaches him to be a shepherd. A long time passes, and Moses finds himself with the flock beyond the wilderness on the mountain. God calls to him from the burning bush and gives Moses the task of delivering God’s people from the hands of the Egyptians. And this is where Moses’s feeling of desperate inadequacy rises to the surface. He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

You can see where Moses is coming from. He’s been gone so long. Who would remember him? He wasn’t even raised among his own people. Who would accept him? Later, he mentions he’s not a very persuasive talker. Who would listen to him? All of these worries and fears boil under the surface of Moses’s question. But God stops Moses in his tracks.

And here we must pause for a moment for an aside. Whenever you read the Bible, I want you to pay especially close attention to how questions are answered. More often than not questions are not answered directly in scripture. When God in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in the Gospel answer questions, they often answer the one they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that was asked. So – Bible study tip – pay special attention to how questions are answered.

So let’s turn this special attention to Moses’s question. Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” His feeling of deep inadequacy weighs the question down. But God lifts him back up with the answer. “I will be with you.”

This doesn’t answer the question Moses asked. “Who am I?” he pleads. And the response. “I will be with you.” The question God answered, the question God wished Moses had asked, was: “Will you be with me?” And the answer: a resounding “Yes.”

God’s answer to this question reverberates throughout the Bible. God shows Abraham the way through the desert to a new home. God comes to Elijah not in the storm but in the sound of sheer silence. God descends into the den of lions with Daniel. God gives Jesus a second name, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

And so when I read the story of Moses and the burning bush in the light of my own desperate inadequacy this past month, I realize I have been asking the wrong question. Like Moses, I have been asking, “Who am I? Who am I that I should be able to accomplish the task of helping to care for these two precious lives?” But that’s not the question God is answering right now.

Instead, God has prompted me to ask the question God yearned for me to ask all along: not “Who am I” but “Will you be with me?” And God has answered that question with the same resounding “Yes” which God promised Moses. Yes, I am with you in the helping hands and loving hearts of the friends and family who have given countless hours of their time. Yes, I am with you when you breathe deeply in moments of serenity and when your patience stretches passed the breaking point when the crying won’t stop. Yes, I am with you in the peace that comes from a few hours of treasured sleep. Yes, I am with…always.

The feeling of desperate inadequacy can paralyze us. Perhaps a challenge seems too big for us to even begin to grasp. Perhaps we’ve been down a certain road before and failed. Perhaps we’re facing something new and the fear of the unknown cripples us. Whatever the case, we can begin to move passed our inadequacy or whatever else is holding us back by changing the question we ask of God. Rather than asking, “Who am I to take care of my aging parents”; or “Who am I to be able to find friends at my new school”; or “Who am I to make the slightest difference in a world full of pain”; rather than asking, “Who am I” ask the question God yearns for you to ask.

Ask, “Will you be with me?” And believe in the deepest core of your being that the answer to that question is always and will always be, “Yes.” When you hear that “Yes” resound in your core, you will begin to see with new eyes and reach out with less burdened arms and discover all the ways God is already using you to shine God’s light in this darkened world, no matter the inadequacy you feel.

I still feel inadequate when the twins start crying. I’m still exhausted most of the time. But we’re doing it. One day becomes the next, and that in itself is a gift, as is God prompting me to change the question I was asking, so that God could answer with a resounding “Yes.”

Inadequacy

(Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2010 || Proper 16, Year C, RCL || Jeremiah 1:4-10)

These geeks feel inadequate most of the time (NBC's shortlived, but brilliant "Freaks and Geeks")

Human nature urges us to shy away from thing we aren’t too good at. Boys at the middle-school dance tend to add their support to the structural integrity of the gymnasium rather than venturing out onto the dance floor. Folks who don’t have the best singing voices often lament the fact that they are “tone-deaf,” which, statistically speaking, is unlikely. I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so I keep to the shallows, or more often, the shore. We all nurse feelings of inadequacy – whether in dancing, singing, swimming, or whatever might be your particular constellation of shortcomings.

These inadequacies define as just as much as our strengths do. But while strengths define us positively, like an artist drawing shapes on a canvas, inadequacies fill up the negative space around those shapes. Our discomforts, our shortcomings, our inadequacies press in from outside of us, telling us that, no matter our strengths, we are failures. We are failures before we even try because we know we’ll never be any good, and therefore, we never try new things, we never step out of comfort zones. And when we never step out of comfort zones, they never have the chance to expand. As such, the feeling of inadequacy greatly impedes growth of all sorts: physical, emotional, spiritual.

But God, I think, sees our inadequacies from a different perspective than we do. To us, our inadequacy is an impediment. To God, our inadequacy is an opportunity for God to display God’s glory. This morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture demonstrates this perspective.

Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy prompt him to attempt to dissuade God from calling him to be a prophet. But God has no inclination to heed Jeremiah’s argument. Rather, God seems to call Jeremiah specifically because of the boy’s feelings of inadequacy, not in spite of them. Notice how God answers Jeremiah’s single piece of dialogue in the passage. After God informs Jeremiah that God has appointed him to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

God hears these words and keys in on the second half. “Do no say, “I am only a boy,” God says. Your youth doesn’t matter because I am with you to deliver you. You can’t help being your age. If I wanted someone older I’d call someone else. But no similar assurance addresses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking. God never tries to assure Jeremiah by saying, “Do not say, ‘I do not know how to speak.’” Rather, God uses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking as an opportunity to put God’s own words in Jeremiah’s mouth. God sees room for growth in Jeremiah, and God fills that room with God’s own words.

For his part, Jeremiah knows he is an inadequate speaker. But when he points this out to God, his argument backfires. What Jeremiah doesn’t realize is that God picks him precisely because of his inadequacy. This is a pattern throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Moses has a speech impediment, but God still calls him to stand up before Pharaoh. David wears no armor and carries only a sling and stones when he challenges Goliath, the Philistine champion. Gideon drastically reduces the numbers of his army – from 22,000 to three hundred – when he contends with the Midianites. In each of these cases, the human vessel called to work God’s purpose is laughably inadequate to the task at hand. And every time, God’s purpose succeeds.

God works through human inadequacy to display God’s own glory. In a sense, God is showing off. But this is not vanity, because God shows off for our sakes. I’ve mentioned before in sermons that we humans are a pretty thick lot. We often have trouble attributing our giftedness to God, which allows the sin of pride to creep in at ground level and start rotting out our appreciation for God’s blessing. This trouble magnifies greatly for gifts that we perceive we’ve always had. The constancy of our strengths makes us less apt to remember to thank God for them.

But we have a much easier time thanking God for abilities we’ve had to work hard to obtain. God cultivates growth in us by targeting our inadequacies. We remember what the inadequacy felt like when we didn’t have certain abilities, and so we thank God for helping us to step outside of our comfort zones and try new things. This is my experience with learning how to sing, and I’m willing to bet each of you can think of a similar example in your own lives.

God knows our trouble at offering thanks for our strengths, and so God insists on working through our inadequacies to remind us that God is the giver of all gifts. Rather than viewing inadequacy as an impediment, we can see it as God sees it. Our inadequacies are opportunities for us to invite God to work through us in new ways.

Think about your own most recent shortcoming. How can you invite God to work through this inadequacy? Perhaps God might say something like this:

“Do not worry that you don’t know how to speak. I do. I’ve been speaking creation into existence since time began. Borrow my speech and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t turn down a fight. I did. My son went to the cross in order to show that violence does not have to beget violence. Borrow my courage and soon it will become yours.”

“Do not worry that you can’t sustain a relationship. I can. I have been the husband and the parent of my people for as long as anyone can remember, and I have never broken my promise to them. Borrow my love and soon it will become yours.”

Whatever our shortcomings, whatever our inadequacies, God can work through them to display God’s glory. God uses the inadequacy of Jeremiah to put God’s words in his mouth. God uses the inadequacies of Moses, David, and Gideon. And not just them: Jacob was a cheat. Joseph was a prima donna. Jonah hightailed it in the opposite direction. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a stranger in a strange land. Rachel had trouble conceiving a child. Paul was a persecutor. Ehud was left-handed. Aaron built an idol five minutes after he heard the commandment not to. And not to mention, the disciples fled.

So why not us? Thousands of years may have passed, but our shortcomings, our inadequacies are the same. (Well, being left-handed isn’t so bad anymore.) Our strengths are opportunities for us to thank God for how God has always worked through us. But we thick humans have never been so great at that. And so God works through our inadequacies, granting us the ability to grow in God’s grace and praise God for all of God’s good gifts.

This week, I invite you to ask God to work in you, to work through your deficiencies. Pray to God for the courage to take a step outside of your comfort zone. Pray for the hospitality to welcome a stranger into your midst. Pray for the trust to give up some of your resources toward the work of God in the world. Pray for the peace necessary to stop in the midst of this swirling world and find God in the middle of your day. Pray to God to work through your inadequacy, and soon you will discover new strengths, which you can use to serve God in your lives.