Offering Ourselves (September 3, 2012)

…Opening To…

Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on the condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness. (Mother Theresa)

…Listening In…

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created. (James 1:17-18; context)

…Filling Up…

Welcome back for the third season of devotiONEighty. It’s been a good run so far, and with God’s help, we’ll make it another school year. If you have a moment, tell a friend to head over the and subscribe so he or she can start getting devo180 everyday too. Then you’ll have something else to talk about once Jersey Shore finishes its run.

This week we are going to talk about giving ourselves to God. We’ll start big and then go progressively smaller because I think, in some ways, it’s way easier for us to give our entire selves to God than it is to give each moment to God. So we’ll start big. In the quotation above from the letter of James, the writer says that we are “like the first crop from the harvest of everything [God] created.” James takes this image of the first fruits that the ancient Israelites gave to God and says that we (you and me) are that first crop. The offering of first fruits was an exercise in devotion and trust because, when you gave your first bit of crops to God, you had no idea if anything else was going to grow.

So it is with us followers of Jesus, who give ourselves to him. To be a first fruit means to give ourselves to God before we give ourselves to anything else. This is pretty hard because chances are we have already given ourselves to other, lesser things: the desire for money or security, the drive to be popular or successful, the pursuit of stuff.

The good news is that God is always ready to accept our offering of ourselves, whether we are first fruits or ninth fruits. God doesn’t seem to mind how late to the game we come, just so long as we want to play. But in the grand scheme of things, I think it’s rather easy to give ourselves to God. What’s hard is living as if we have done so. But that’s a topic for tomorrow.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for accepting my offering, no matter when in my journey I have given it to you. Help me to continue to offer myself to you, not just one time, but everyday of my life. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, hopeful that I will have the desire and grace to give myself to you.

Wake Up, Jerusalem

An interview with Peter, James, and John about the Transfiguration, performed March 6, 2011 as the homily.

The morning news show in Jerusalem is interviewing the disciples Peter, James, and John about Jesus’ Transfiguration. Since the news show didn’t pay much attention to Jesus until his trial and death (they never reported his Resurrection, considering it hearsay from biased sources), this interview is happening after Jesus rose from the dead. The disciples could not have talked about it beforehand without breaking Jesus’ command, after all. The interviewer is Benjamin Bar-Reuben of Bethlehem.

Benjamin: (talking to the camera) Welcome back to Wake Up, Jerusalem. I’m your host Benjamin Bar-Reuben of Bethlehem. It’s three weeks after a very eventful Passover here in Jerusalem, and today I’m joined by three special guests who you’ve met before on the show, (gestures to the others) Simon Peter and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. These three fishermen from Galilee were all followers of the late Jesus of Nazareth. (turning to the trio, and voice full of concern) Before I go any further, let me express my condolences for the loss of your teacher. He was by all accounts a great man.

James: Thank you for your kind words, Benjamin. But while we grieved his loss for a few days, something miraculous happened…(Benjamin cuts in)

Benjamin: Now, now…let’s not get into that again. The last time you were on the show, we had to cut the interview short because you three started talking about impossible things. People can’t come back from the dead. Everyone knows that.

James: Don’t be so sure.

Benjamin: I want to talk about something else today. I’ve brought you back on the show to clear up some confusing reports of something that happened several weeks ago before the story got buried by the events of Passover. There were some strange localized weather distortions on the top of the mountain – thunder and strange lights, like lightning – but there was no storm that night. Our viewers want to know what happened on that mountain, and you three seem to be the only ones alive that know the real story.

Peter: If we tell you the real story, you’re likely to cut this interview short as well, Benjamin.

John: That’s true.

Benjamin: Just stick with the facts and we should be all right. (grimaces towards the camera) Okay, so why were you on the mountain in the first place?

James: Jesus asked us to accompany him when he went off to pray. He often did that, but usually he would go off a little ways by himself and we would wait for him.

John: But not on that mountaintop!

Peter: It all happened less than a week from the time I told him that I thought he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Benjamin: But surely that can’t be true now. The Messiah doesn’t die on a cross. He drives out the Romans with great armies at his back.

Peter: That’s what I thought, too, when Jesus told us he was going to die. I know better now.

John: We all know better now.

Benjamin: Leaving that for the time being, tell me what made the mountaintop different. Why the changes in weather? Our viewers want to know!

James: It may have seemed like strange weather from below. But I assure you, what we saw was stranger still. When I close my eyes, I still see the brightness of the light that your viewers thought was lightning.

Benjamin: What was it then?

Peter: It was Jesus. (Benjamin tries to cut in, but Peter continues) You wanted to know and we’re telling you. This is the truth, no matter how strange it sounds. Jesus looked like I had never seen him before. He was dazzling. He was as bright as a signal fire used to keep ships from running aground.

John: It was like the sun had fallen out of the sky and lodged inside him.

Benjamin: Wait a minute. How can that be? How can a man be filled with light?

James: If Jesus taught me one thing, Benjamin, it’s that we’re all filled with light. We just hide it most of the time.

John: That night, we saw Jesus shining with all the light that God blesses each of us with. He didn’t hide any of it. Never has anyone been able to shine like that. But Jesus did!

Peter: That’s why he’s the Messiah, the Son of God, because he shines with God’s light – unbounded, undiminished, like the lights of a city on a hill. He has no thought to cover up the light.

John: And for years, he’s been teaching us to uncover ours.

Benjamin: You mean, I might have this light inside of me, too?

John: Of course you do. Everyone does. From the smallest child in the street to the Emperor of Rome!

Peter: People have always had God’s light in. Some have let it shine brighter than others. We saw two of them with Jesus when his light was shining!

James: Moses and Elijah were there, standing with him.

Benjamin: You could see Moses and Elijah?

Peter: I know it sounds out of this world, but they were there. You know what? I think they have always been there, near us, surrounding us…

John: …But it has always been too dark to see them…

James: …Until Jesus was shining on the mountain.

Peter: Moses and Elijah – and everyone who God loves – their lights never went out. The light just changed. It spread out, filling the space between things, filling the world!

Benjamin: Fascinating! But tell me, what about the thunder!?

John: That wasn’t thunder. We heard – well, it was so loud that we didn’t really hear it – we felt it in our bones. It was the voice of God.

James: God confirmed that Jesus is God’s son.

Peter: And God told us to listen to Jesus.

Benjamin: This all sounds so strange…strange and amazing…amazing and true…I don’t know why, but I believe you.

John: Maybe you are seeing us shine with some of Jesus’ light.

James: When we listen to what Jesus teaches us, we can begin to uncover the light that we spent so much time hiding.

Peter: And we can shine it all over the world.

Benjamin: How can I find the light in me?

Peter: Start be being quiet…

James: …being still…

John: …and listening.

Nets and new creations

(Sermon for January 25, 2009 || Epiphany 3, Year B, RCL || Mark 1:14-20)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is out for a stroll along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. As he walks along, he notices the fishing boats tacking for deeper waters and trawling the shallows. He sees Simon and Andrew casting a net into the water. He sees James and John mending their nets in their boat. He calls out to them, “Follow me.” “And immediately,” says Mark, “they left their nets and followed him.” Immediately, they left their nets and followed him.

Now, I tend not to read the Bible metaphorically. Adding layers of interpretation to the words on the page usually serves to obfuscate rather than enlighten. This morning, however, I pray you indulge me one teeny-tiny metaphor. The four disciples Jesus calls in the Gospel leave their nets to follow him. They were fishermen, so working with nets came naturally to them. But, in landlocked West Virginia, we have little cause to handle fishing nets. So, I ask you, what are the “nets” to which we cling that prevent us from following Jesus? Put another way, what would be different about our lives if we left our nets and followed Jesus?

We could go into all the normal “nets” that ensnare us: grubbing for more stuff, distracting ourselves with the superficial glamour of the world, entering the wrong relationships. These certainly are nets, and they do trap us. But there is another, more insidious net that excels at holding us back from following Jesus.

This insidious net keeps us from practicing discipleship. The net entangles us when we confuse following Jesus with following the “idea of Jesus.” This is a strange turn of phrase, so let me unpack it. The “idea of Jesus” infiltrates our consciences when we forget that the events of the Gospel continue to play out today. The “idea of Jesus” disguises the person of the living Christ beneath layers of doctrine, history, and popular misconception, until he becomes a farcical shadow of himself, more akin to the Easter Bunny than the one true God. The “idea of Jesus” is so much easier to follow than the real Jesus because the “idea” makes far fewer demands on our lives and never asks us to become disciples. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Discipleship is commitment to Christ. Because Christ exists, he must be followed. An idea about Christ, a doctrinal system, a general religious recognition of grace or forgiveness of sins does not require discipleship.”*

Think of it this way: A good portion of Americans love the “idea of soccer.”**  They love that there is a sport that the world plays together. They love seeing small foreign children running after a ball in the dust on TV. They love the big leg muscles and celebrity status of David Beckham. But very few Americans ever actually want to play soccer. There’s way too much running and way too little scoring for most of us.

In the same way, we often find ourselves taken with the “idea of Jesus.” There was once this cool guy who said some great stuff about love and acceptance. He collected a lot of enemies because he made friends with outsiders. He kept the wine flowing at this wild party. This “idea of Jesus” looks great on paper. But, like paper, the “idea” is flimsy and two-dimensional. The real Jesus, the living Christ, springs from the page, full of three-dimensional vigor, and he calls us to a life of true discipleship.

This is where the net comes in. If we are deluding ourselves into thinking we are following Jesus while we go about our lives as if nothing has or will change, then we are following the “idea of Jesus” instead. Following the Jesus who calls his disciples away from their nets necessitates change. Again, Bonhoeffer says, “Following Christ means taking certain steps. The first step, which responds to the call, separates the followers from their previous existence. A call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation. Staying in the old situation and following Christ mutually exclude each other.”**

We run back to our nets because this newness frightens us. When I moved to Alabama at age 12, no one could understand my thick Rhode Island accent, I called the water fountain a “bubbler,” a dusting of snow was a blizzard, the Red Sox weren’t on TV, and I didn’t know that saying “sir” and “ma’am” was integral to my survival. My life was different and uncomfortable and humid. I just wanted to go home. But, in the slow march of years, Alabama became home.

When we leave our nets and follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of the illusory homes we have built for ourselves. We step out of our comfort zones, and hopefully we never get too comfortable ever again. As we strive to follow Jesus, we may wonder why we never reach a new normal, why that initial feeling of discomfort persists. Then we realize that following Christ means continual renewal, constant reshaping. Paul says that if “anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). As new creations, we are not new a single, solitary time, but every hour of every day. This newness keeps us from becoming complacent, keeps us from sitting in our boats as Jesus passes by. The discomfort propels us forward like dissonance in a Beethoven sonata. Indeed, a piece of music comprised of pleasing, consonant chords would be exceedingly boring. Likewise, following Jesus means dragging our comfort zones along behind us as we constantly step out of them.

Following Jesus is necessarily a nomadic existence. Our home is not a place, you see. Our home is a person. When we follow Jesus, we give up the trappings of our illusory homes for a true home by his side.

The flimsy “idea of Jesus” can only provide us a home built on the sand, which collapses whenever the winds and rains come. The “idea of Jesus” may bring us to church one day a week, but it will not instill in us the desire to seek Christ the other six. It will not demand that we encounter Christ in every person we meet. It will not motivate us to interrupt our net-mending to serve the poor or pray for guidance or praise God for the simple fact that we are marvelously made.

Because it makes no demands on us, the “idea of Jesus” causes us to mistake self-satisfaction for discipleship and comfort for salvation. But the real Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. He calls us to be free and invites us to use our freedom to choose a life of service in his name. If we do not actively seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, if we do not take seriously our role as disciples, then we will be complicit in allowing our Lord and Savior to drift into the obscurity of legend or tall tale. As Søren Kierkegaard puts it, “Discipleship…really provides the guarantee that Christianity does not become poetry, mythology, and abstract idea.”****  Following Jesus means offering ourselves as conduits for turning the abstract into the concrete. Put another way, as the Letter of James says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas. 2:15-16)

Jesus, the true Jesus, calls to us. He is not an idea or a design on a T-shirt or a cool guy who said some nice stuff once. Jesus, the living Christ, walks up to each one of us and invites us to a new life of hope and love and tears and pain and joy and freedom. He looks each one of us in the eye, says, “Follow me,” and radiates the abundant grace that allows us to do so. Join me in praying that each one of us will meet his gaze, leave our nets, and follow him.


* Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2001. p 59. (Italics mine)

** I borrowed this idea from the hilarious blog Stuff White People Like.

*** Ibid. 61-62

**** Ibid. 59 (in footnote)