Here is the yearly iteration of my Christmas Day sermon/song. It is a musical rendition of parts of John 1 and Luke 1-2. I absolutely love singing it, and it is the highlight of my Christmas worship every year. This is the first time I have recorded the song since 2012.Continue reading “A Bard's Christmas Song”
Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31
Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”
Sermon for Sunday, January 15, 2017 || Epiphany 2A || John 1:29-42
A week 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?
Last week we began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Claiming belovedness is the best way to stoke our own reserves of compassion for those on the margins, who we’d rather ignore to make our own lives a little more pleasant. Being God’s Beloved does not allow for such a heartless option, for they are God’s Beloved, too.
Thus, imagining how God sees us is not an entirely pleasant exercise. Being beloved is at once comforting and conflicting. We rest in God’s love, and we feel the pinch in our souls that so many out there feel no love at all. And so we decide to do something about that. This decision leads us back to God’s point of view. God befriends us, calling us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people. Continue reading “Befriended (God’s Point of View, part 2 of 8)”
On the Effects of the Planet’s Axis on Religion
and a few words about the season of Advent
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)
As we move through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, the fact that Christianity is a religion begun in the northern hemisphere becomes incredibly obvious. Advent begins in the darkest days of the year when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The days are short and getting shorter. But a few days before Christmas, the shortest day of the year happens, and everything turns around. The BBC’s Dr. Who opines that we celebrate because, “We’re halfway out of the dark.” Continue reading “Halfway Out of the Dark”
Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015; John 1:1-14
Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a second…where are the baby and the manger and the shepherds and the angels? I know it’s late, but I don’t think I nodded off during the Gospel reading.” Now, I don’t know whether or not you nodded off, but I can assure you that I didn’t say anything about the baby or the manger or the shepherds or the angels. Tonight, I read a different version of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Allow me to explain in brief, and then we’ll get to what I really want to talk about on this most Holy Night, which is God making a home here.
But first: yes, we are used to the Christmas Pageant version of the story of the Nativity. Most of that story is found in the Gospel according to Luke. I say “most” because a few bits come from the Gospel of Matthew and a few others bits are made up entirely. Tonight we read another take on that same story, a take so vastly dissimilar that it seems to be a different story entirely. But it’s not. The story is just condensed. The story of the Nativity is distilled down to a single, yet powerful verse of scripture: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
That’s it. That’s the Gospel of John’s Nativity story. That one verse; half a verse really. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Pretty concise, right? But even in their brevity, these words pack in a whole lot of meaning. They are pregnant words, so to speak.
The Word that becomes flesh is the main character of this prologue to John’s account of the Gospel. In just eighteen verses, John explores some pretty weighty theological ideas, and he does so using poetry. Indeed, these verses are best understood as a poem: John uses special words and rhythm and imagery in an attempt to get to the very heart of God’s making of and presence in Creation. The weightiest of these special images is the word “Word.”
This is the Greek word logos. We get the English suffix “-ology” from it; you know, biology, zoology, paleontology. We also get the word “logic” from it. When something is “logical,” it is orderly, organized, it makes good sense. So when John claims that Creation “came into being through [the Word],” he’s stating that God was organized about the act of creating, that God had a plan for the universe and wasn’t just creating all willy-nilly. You can see how John’s poem goes all the way back to before anything existed, all the way back to when there was only God. John needs this cosmic perspective in order to demonstrate the extraordinary specialness of what happens next.
This organizing principle, this logic behind Creation, this giver of all life, this Word became flesh. This Word took on the very meat and bones and skin and breath and soul that had evolved over untold millennia within the Word’s own orderly Creation. This Word became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a man of seemingly humble origin who had a knack for helping people live better, fuller, and more authentic lives, serving one another in love. This Word became flesh, which means he got dirty and tired; he grieved and wept and sought comfort; he ate and drank and laughed with his friends. He was homeless at times; he was also a refugee. He was welcomed and excluded; he was loved and hated. He touched and healed so many people, but sometimes he needed to go off by himself to recharge. He took a first, newborn breath. He took a last dying breath. All this to say: he was one of us.
In fact, he was the best one of us. He was the best one of us because he was so much more than simply one of us. He was the Word. He was life as life is meant to be lived, as God dreams for life to be. As so many theologians have said, this Word became like us, so that we could become more like him.
And this thought brings us to the last important word in John’s brief Nativity story: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Lived among us. I don’t like this translation. It’s about as weak a translation of the original language as you can get. I prefer this: “And the Word became flesh and made his home among us.” Made his home among us. This gets much closer to the intent of John’s original poetry. The Word didn’t just live here for a time. The Word settled here. The Word made a home here.
I think this second translation impacts me so much because I have lived quite a nomadic existence. In my nearly thirty-three years on this planet, I’ve lived in ten different states. The longest I lived anywhere was six years in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The second longest was four years at college. I’ve lived a lot of places. But I never, ever felt like I was making my home anywhere. Until now. I live in a real house with my wife and two children. We brought the twins home to that house. In their short lives, they have never lived anywhere else. That is their home. We have made a home.
The Word became flesh and made his home among us. God made a home here. The Nativity we celebrate this night marks not a brief dalliance with Creation, not simply a passing through, but a commitment to be present, to be active, to be here. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, this commitment continues long ages past the Word’s earthly walk. The home God made is no longer just in Bethlehem or Nazareth or Jerusalem. The home God makes is here, in each beating heart. And the home God makes is also out there, within the whole of Creation. As the Godly Play stories so aptly put it: “All of God is in everyplace.” That’s God’s home. We are God’s home. And God is our home, now and into eternity.
So this night, we celebrate not only the first, newborn breath of the babe in the manger. We celebrate the deep reality that God made a home here in order that we might have a home in God.
Art: Detail from “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by William Blake, 1809.
A Compilation of Sermons from Epiphany 2015
Sermon for Sunday, January 11, 2015 || Epiphany 1B || Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
You may recall during a sermon last spring, I challenged you to choose six words to proclaim your faith. I remembered the “Six-Word Witness” challenge as I began to prepare for this new season after Epiphany, as there happen to be six Sundays between now and Lent. If you read my article in the recent issue of The Lion’s Tale, you got a sneak peak at a particular six-word witness, one that describes the trajectory of the next six weeks as we hear the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. My plan during this season after Epiphany is to connect this sermon with the next five to tell a much larger story of our lives as followers of Jesus Christ.
Yes, you heard that right. Today’s sermon is the beginning of a six-part series. That means if you have plans to go skiing in a couple of weeks, I’m afraid you’re going to have to cancel.
We begin today with the first word: Affirmation. And we begin today, appropriately, at the beginning. What we find when we enter the story as early as we possibly can is the affirmation of goodness. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.”
Right away, in the first verses of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, God has already affirmed something as good. This pattern continues throughout the rest of the creation story. Each day God creates, and that which God creates God affirms as good. Thus the fundamental goodness of creation is built into the very fabric of creation. From the sweeping array of celestial bodies to the lowliest tadpole dwelling in the muck to us troublesome and ungainly humans, God affirms everything God makes with the seal of goodness.
(As an aside, God calls us humans “very” good while the rest of creation is merely good, but I think that has more to do with the fact that we humans we were the ones who wrote it all down.)
The reality that goodness entered creation on the ground floor is of utmost importance for the rest of the ongoing story. There have been folks in the past, notably in the early centuries of Christianity, who taught that the physical creation God made — the matter, the flesh, the stuff we can see and touch — was, in fact, inherently evil. They taught that only the spiritual realm held any goodness, and so they sought to divorce themselves from the flesh entirely. Of course, to make this heretical mental leap, they had to ignore the bulk of the Biblical witness, which they did with no qualms at all. Their path led to disengagement from the world; the founding of secretive, insular societies; and what I imagine was quite a lot of struggle against instincts that are totally normal, but which they decided were base and evil. Thankfully, the majority of Christians were not led astray by this faulty understanding of creation. And so we still have the witness of Genesis reminding us of God’s affirmation of the fundamental goodness of creation.
But now comes our own mental leap. Or call it a leap of faith. We move from one beginning to another, from the beginning of creation to the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. At the outset of Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes up out of the water of the River Jordan during his own baptism. He sees the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And he hears a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Notice the placement of this piece of the Gospel. Before Jesus has a chance to do anything of consequence; before his ministry gets off the ground; before any miracles or teachings or healings or his death or resurrection, God showers upon Jesus God’s love and pleasure. Just like God affirms creation as good right from the start, God affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son before he has a chance to earn the right to such a name.
Now, you might be thinking: “Of course God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved Son — that’s who he is! What about me?!” Yes, what about the rest of us troublesome, ungainly, and yet “very” good humans? Well, to make our leap of faith, we need a little help from our friend the Apostle Paul. He writes to the church in Rome: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17).
If the writers of Genesis were presumptuous to call us “very” good, then Paul must be doubly so to claim that we are joint heirs with Christ. Or is he? Perhaps, instead, Paul has seen into the truth of the matter, seen Jesus’ plan all along, a plan to show us what we have always been and to reaffirm our inherent goodness, our lovableness.
And here’s where our own version of the heresy I spoke of earlier comes to into play. While those folks taught the matter of creation was inherently evil, there is an overriding voice in our modern American society telling us that we aren’t exactly evil, but we sure are deficient. I’m of course referring to my favorite homiletical punching bag, the ubiquitous marketing department. Marketing campaigns work like this: they tell us ways we are defective, and then they try to sell us products designed to improve those defects. Truck commercials tell men they aren’t manly unless their vehicles can haul a couple tons of dirt. Toy commercials tell kids they won’t be happy unless they receive the hot new toy for Christmas. And don’t get me started on commercials aimed at women. Judging by the ads, women in this country have hair that isn’t shiny enough; bodies that aren’t the right shape; the wrong handbags, clothes, shoes, and earrings; too many wrinkles; and not enough diamonds.
All this must be true, right? I mean, we’re bombarded with our supposed deficiencies everywhere we turn. Then we repeat them over and over again until they seem like truth. And pretty soon, it’s not just the marketers, but everyone getting in on the fun. And that’s when the boy feels deficient because he hasn’t played the video game all his friends are talking about. That’s when the girl feels defective because she doesn’t quite fit the clothes her friends have started to buy. That’s when the parents feel substandard because they can’t afford the tuition at the “best” college. That’s when we forget our inherent goodness, the goodness God affirmed in the first rushing breath of creation.
Here our leap of faith continues, because the marketing department has convinced us of our utter worthlessness. And so we might not want to believe that Jesus has invited us — yes, even you and me — to be joint heirs with him of the love and pleasure of God. Jesus received this affirmation of his belovedness before his ministry even started. Likewise, you and I who are joint-heirs with Christ have never done anything in our lives, nor will we do anything in our lives, to earn God’s love and pleasure. They are ours intrinsically. They are ours because we are God’s. And because we cannot earn God’s love and pleasure, we cannot do anything to lose them either. They are part of what makes us who we are – the best part of what makes us who we are. God’s love and pleasure are nestled at the very core of our beings, nestled right next to the affirmation of goodness, which God breathes into all creation.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed this up in one dazzling sentence. He once said, “God does not love us because we are lovable; we are lovable because God loves us.” This love is the core of our identity, not something we earn, not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we choose to believe this fundamental truth, we will be ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives. It is to these invitations we turn next week as our six-part series continues. But for today, feel this truth in your bones. Feel God say this to you: “You are my Son. You are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Sermon for Sunday, January 18, 2015 || Epiphany 2B || 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51
Last Sunday, we started our six-part sermon series about our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. And we began with the word “Affirmation.” God affirmed in the earliest moment of creation the fundamental goodness of that creation. And God affirmed Jesus – and by extension we who are also God’s children – as the beloved, in whom God is well pleased. The love and goodness of God form the core of our identity. They are not something we earn. They are not something that can be dislodged due to our own presumed deficiencies. When we embrace this fundamental truth, we are ready to listen — really listen — for God’s invitations in our lives.
That’s the second word: Invitation. As we move on, you’ll see how closely linked our two words are, and you’ll see why we had to start with affirmation in the first place.
Invitations offer specific, time-sensitive choices about how you are going to spend your time and resources. A friend may invite you to her birthday party. A head hunter may invite you to apply for a new job. A coach may invite you to join a club soccer team. Or God may invite you. Let me rephrase – God does invite you, me, each of us to join God in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this world.
We’ll get to that mission next week since “mission” is our third word. For now, let’s stay with “invitation” – God’s invitation. When God invites us to partner with God in mission, we always have a choice and the mission is always specific. Individual invitations may be time-sensitive due to the exigencies of what a particular mission is, but God’s invitations never expire. God renews them day by day, hour by hour. God is always inviting us into deeper relationship, into closer partnership, into greater service.
In our story this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures, God calls to the boy Samuel four times. No three strikes and you’re out here. On the fourth time, Samuel responds to God’s invitation, but I imagine God would have kept calling until Samuel and Eli figured out what was happening.
Sadly, unlike Samuel, we often turn away from the invitations God sends us. We ignore them or decline them because of where or why God delivers them. This is because, most often, God’s invitation intersects with our inadequacies, our pain, our brokenness. Each of us is broken in one way or another, or in many ways. Brokenness is part of the human condition because perfection is far from us and sin is near. We hurt each other. We hurt ourselves.
But when we allow God to move in our lives, we discover God redeeming this brokenness by offering us invitations to go to the center of our pain. Because only at the center of our pain can healing begin. And because only at the center of our pain will we find solidarity with others feeling the same pain as we. God’s desire to extend holy invitations is not the reason we are broken; rather, accepting a holy invitation is the best way to make our brokenness mean something for ourselves and to others.
I’d like to share with you a deeply personal story about my own brokenness to illustrate this point. I share this not to garner sympathy, but to demonstrate from my own experience God’s astonishing ability to redeem brokenness and refashion old pain into new possibility.
When I was eleven years old, the church broke me. My father was three years into his rectorship at his first church when everything started to fall apart. His misplaced enthusiasm and zealous naïveté collided with an intransigent establishment that said it wanted change and growth, but was not ready to face the consequences of such things. My father was the proverbial unstoppable force, and the establishment the immovable object. And my mother, sister, and I were caught in the middle.
I do not remember much about the conflict. But I do remember one Sunday morning. It is a fixed point in my life. I was acolyting at the 8 o’clock service. My father stood up to preach, but a few minutes into his sermon, a man in the congregation also stood up, a man who had been a friend to our family when we first moved. He spoke out sharply, telling my father to “sit down and shut up.” I had never heard anyone speak to my dad that way, let alone during a church service. I started to cry. My father came over and calmly asked if I’d like to go home. I nodded, and he hugged me and helped me back to the sacristy. Later that week, several parishioners accused my father of planning and then staging my tearful departure from the church.*
A few months after that, we moved to Alabama and were met by the most gracious and loving congregation a clergy family could ask for. But I didn’t trust them. I always wondered when the betrayal would happen. I was broken.
Where is God’s holy invitation in this story? How is God redeeming this brokenness? Let me tell you. The church that broke my family was also called St. Mark’s. It was here in New England, about sixty miles from this spot. It was my father’s first call as rector. We lived next door in the rectory. Our family had two young children, a boy and a girl. You might see a pattern here.
Somehow, by accepting God’s holy invitations throughout my life, my family has arrived at a place close to the center of my childhood pain. And I feel God redeeming that pain every day as I collaborate in ministry with the wonderful people at this St. Mark’s; and as I walk with people who have also been broken by the church.
Each of us is or has been broken in one way or another. But through God’s invitations, our brokenness can mean something. Perhaps alcohol ruined your life years ago, but you’re a dozen years sober, and now you sponsor new members of AA who are trying to turn their lives around. Perhaps the scourge of gun violence cruelly took the life of a loved one, and now you rally support to end such senseless killing. Perhaps you were in the closet in high school and know the pain of one living a lie, and now whenever you meet a gay teen you do all in your power to bring hope to that person’s life. “It gets better,” you say, and you mean it. These are God’s invitations, delivered to the heart of our own pain and brokenness.
And this is where affirmation re-enters our discussion. Since so many of God’s holy invitations originate in our brokenness, our pain can trick us into thinking the invitation is meant for someone else. But we err when we think that God can only use the whole parts of us, as there aren’t many of those anyway. That’s why we must remember that before anything else, God affirmed us as God’s good and beloved children. No amount of brokenness can keep God from inviting us into deeper relationship, closer partnership, and greater service.
We’ll pick up this greater service next week when we reach the third word: “Mission.” But for now, I’d like to share one last story of finding God’s invitation in our brokenness. It comes from Leo McGarry, the chief-of-staff on the fabulous TV show, The West Wing, and a recovering drug and alcohol addict. Leo tells the struggling Josh Lyman this parable:
“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ ”
*I shared with my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, the few paragraphs concerning my experience as an eleven-year-old, and he asked me to share with you what happened after I left the church from his perspective. He writes: “This is a powerful part of your story. You should and must tell it. I would, however, ask you to consider adding what happened after you left the sanctuary (interesting word: not a place of safety for you at that time!). I resumed my sermon, the text was on the golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and the whining that accompanies unrealistic expectations: no wonder I was challenged. The most odd and graceful thing for me occurred as we shared holy communion. Everyone came to the altar rail, including my antagonist. The blessing (and irony) of offering him and the other antagonists the grace found within the sacrament still prompts a sense of wonder and joy when the hugeness of God’s love is made evident.
Sermon for Sunday, January 25, 2015 || Epiphany 3B || Mark 1:14-20
Two weeks ago, we felt God affirm us as God’s good and beloved children. Last week, that affirmation allowed us to accept God’s holy invitations, which most often originate in our own brokenness. This week, we ask where those invitations lead us, and we find our third word in this six-part series. That third word is Mission.
In church lingo, the word “mission” is usually followed by the word “trip.” Perhaps you went on a mission trip as a teenager to a Native American reservation or spent a week painting a church in a town in El Salvador. When I was in seminary I went on a mission trip to New Orleans a few months after Hurricane Katrina. The group went down with Habitat for Humanity thinking we were going to be rebuilding homes. Turns out it was too soon to begin rebuilding, so we spent much of the week mucking putrid, knee-deep mud and silt out of water-logged homes on streets, whose road signs had been ripped off their poles by hundred mile an hour winds. We wore white coveralls, masks, and plastic gloves, which we duct-taped to our wrists. We spent the days bent over our shovels, thinking of nothing more than the next scoop of muck, because if you tried to think bigger thoughts, you became suddenly and irreversibly overwhelmed by the sodden despair clinging to every surface. Everywhere you looked, the five-month old disaster was still raw, still fresh.
When we returned to Virginia, it felt like coming home from a trip to Mars. I woke up the morning after we got back, and I wondered if it had all just been a bad dream. Then I rose and felt the bone-deep ache in my muscles and knew it was no dream. We had been there. We had helped. A little.
For that week in January 2006, bending over a shovel in a house on the outskirts of New Orleans was my mission from God. I have no doubt about that. I bring up this particular, weeklong excursion, however, to point out just how atypical it is. Most people never go on mission trips. If you do regularly, you’ll go probably a single week a year. I’ve only been on one other since New Orleans. Surely, there’s more to mission than just the trips?
When Jesus invites those four unsuspecting fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he doesn’t say, “Follow me for a week.” He just says, “Follow me.” And then he gives them their mission: “And I will make you fish for people.” What Jesus offers is not just a break from their nets, but a complete change in their lives as they know them. Simon, Andrew, James, and John do not sign up for a mission trip. They sign up for a mission life.
This is the opportunity Jesus offers us today. He offered it yesterday, too, and he will offer it again tomorrow. He doesn’t say, “Follow me for an hour and fifteen minutes on Sunday morning.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when you are around your church friends.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me only when it is convenient.” He just says, “Follow me.” The invitation embedded in those two words promises a life of meaning, of service, of sacrifice, and of joy; not an easy life, but a full life, a life of purpose.
And all Jesus wants in return is you. All of you. Everything that makes you, you: your gifts and talents, as well as your pain and brokenness; your hopes and dreams, as well as your fears and nightmares. Offering everything we are to Jesus helps God tailor our missions to our lives. God will only use the parts of us that we give back to God. So if we want our missions to be authentic outpourings of ourselves for God’s work in the world, then we have to be willing to give everything — and I mean everything — back to God. There may be a dark corner of your life that you don’t want anyone to see. But shining a light into that dark corner may be the exact mission God yearns for you to accomplish. It may be painful. It may lead you to places you never thought you’d go. But it will be your mission. And because you will be following Jesus, he will arrive there ahead of you.
Like the original disciples, when we sign up to follow Jesus, we sign up for mission lives. But before you cringe away from the level of commitment that Jesus calls forth from us, let’s consider those original disciples. For them, following Jesus was an immersive experience. They lived with him. They ate with him. They could tell us if he snored or which sandal he always put on first. And still they often misunderstood him, disbelieved his power, and even abandoned him in his own hour of need. And these were the fellows who knew him in person.
Living mission lives does not mean living perfect lives. Like I said, Jesus wants us – warts and all – to follow him. The brokenness the disciples exhibit in the Gospel is the same brokenness that leads us to God’s holy invitations and then on to our missions.
Jesus’ own mission led him to the cross, and it is the image of the cross that I’d like to dwell on for a moment. Think of the vertical plank of the cross as all the possible missions God could call you to, everything that leads to healing and reconciliation in this world. Now think of the horizontal plank as the entirety of yourself that you have to give to the one who invited you to follow him. The spot where the two planks meet is the center of your mission life. And it is also the spot where Christ gave up his life in order to give you yours.*
The center of the cross is not a pleasant place. Neither will be many of the places where we find ourselves engaged in our mission lives. But just as Jesus transformed the cross from a symbol of death and brokenness into a symbol of life and wholeness, Jesus has already gone ahead of us to our mission fields and prepared the way for us to participate in this same transformation. All we need do is leave our nets and follow him there.
As you contemplate the mission God is inviting you to accomplish with your life, remember these things: Because your authentic mission life resides at the center of the cross you have taken up, it will be something uniquely tailored for your gifts and passions. You will identify with it because it will recall something about you that is or was broken. And, though it might be the most difficult thing you have ever done, you will still feel the glow of rightness about it even when everything is going wrong.
A final story about my own awakening to a life of mission: about five months after the trip to New Orleans, I found myself in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas for a summer residency as a chaplain. There were eight of us, all young and zealous. We had just gotten our hospital badges, but surely there was a mistake. The badges said, “CHAPLAIN.” Not Chaplain Intern. Not Chaplain-in-Training. Just CHAPLAIN. You see, our advisors borrowed their teaching techniques from mother birds. On day one, they flung us out of the nest to see if we could fly. We had our mission: it was right there on the badge. We were chaplains, like it or not. But of course, we could not fly. Within a week, each of us had crash-landed. We had met children living with and dying from cancer. We had seen disease and trauma ravage these small bodies. I had witnessed my first death, a three-month-old baby boy. We brand-new chaplains had a mission: to care for and comfort these young patients and their families. But we could not fly. And so we plummeted. We hit rock bottom. And at rock bottom is where our mission truly began, where Jesus was calling us to follow him. Because when we hit rock bottom, we found our young patients and their families there.
*Thanks to the Rev. Tim Hodapp for reminding me of this image for mission at a recent meeting.
Sermon for Sunday, February 1, 2015 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28
Over the last month we have been considering our walks as followers of Jesus Christ. God affirms us as God’s good and beloved children. God invites us to the center of our own brokenness, where we seek the missions God yearns for us to pursue. We trudge with Jesus to the cross and find those missions where the two planks meet, at the intersection of the world’s need and our passions. So what happens when we engage those missions on a personal level? What happens when we join together to accomplish those missions on a larger scale? What happens when we partner with God to bring God’s healing and reconciliation to this world? The answer is our fourth word. The answer is Confrontation. The world fights back. Those who profit from the status quo fight back. The spiritual uncleanness that festers in the dank recesses of everyone’s heart fights back.
Here’s a recent example from a part of the world most of my generation participates in: video games. (Before you scoff it off as kids’ stuff, know that in the United States, the video game industry now pulls in more revenue than the film industry.) In the last six months, many brave women have started speaking out about the truly disgusting way women are sexualized (and sometimes brutalized) in video games, as well as about the utter lack of women working in the Tech industry in general. While there has been good positive reaction to this burgeoning discussion, the bulk of the reaction that has been grabbing headlines is negative. Grossly negative. Horribly negative. A subgroup of truly vicious male gamers has taken upon itself to lash out at these women in the most demeaning and degrading ways: death threats, rape threats, constant harassment, hounding on social media with language that makes me sick to my stomach, and even disclosure online of the women’s home addresses and telephone numbers to make them fear for their safety. These brave women, and their many male allies, have a mission: to alter an industry badly in need of change, to make it safer for men and women alike. And they are even now confronting a demonic piece of that industry, which seeks to terrorize them into submission.
I use the word “demonic” here on purpose. Whenever we engage in the missions God has invited us to pursue, demonic forces, both interior and exterior to ourselves, confront us and try to dissuade us by any means necessary from following through. Just look at the Gospel lesson for today. We aren’t even done with the first chapter of Mark, Jesus has barely begun his mission, and already he confronts an unclean spirit. This unclean spirit seeks to expose who Jesus is before Jesus is ready to do so for himself. But Jesus rebukes the spirit, silences it, and drags it kicking and screaming from its victim. This confrontation typifies Jesus’ ministry: in each encounter, Jesus confronts something that stands in the way of people being reconciled to God and to each other; and in each encounter, Jesus conquers, though not always in the ways we might expect.
Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to fantasy worlds populated by vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that we ourselves and the world at large are afflicted by spiritual uncleanness. We have voices inside us that coerce and cajole us away from the missions God sets before us – demonic voices like apathy, lethargy, fear, greed, dominance. Society has these same voices, and in society these voices are bankrolled.
To these many voices, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” Be silent, so we can hear the deeper, more constant voice of Christ propelling us away from these unclean voices. Heeding the voice of Christ amongst the clatter within prepares us to confront the same unclean voices in their entrenched forms in society.
A week and a half ago, I was blessed to listen to Dr. Cornel West’s keynote address to the Trinity Institute, which we webcast at St. Mark’s. Quoting the great W.E.B. DuBois, Dr. West offered four questions that always surface when good people confront the entrenched demons of society. Number one: “How shall integrity face oppression?” Number two: “What does honesty do in the face of deception?” Number three: “What does decency do in the face of insult?” And number four: “How does virtue meet brute force?” *
With these questions Cornel West outlines the confrontation that we people striving to follow Jesus Christ encounter. Being part of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation means choosing, as often as we can in our brokenness, the first option in each of these questions. How do we confront oppression? By exhibiting enough integrity to stand with the oppressed, especially when it is inconvenient or unpopular. How do we confront deception? By holding steadfastly to the truth, especially when it gets mangled by extremism. How do we confront insult? By nurturing the dignity of all people, especially when injustice has strangled any notion of decency from the equation. How do we confront brute force? By not submitting to it all that is good and virtuous about us; by not fighting fire with fire.
Remember the ultimate confrontation, in which our savior defeated each of these demonic forces. Jesus took all the oppression, deception, insult, and brute force the world could muster with him to the cross. And in his resurrection, he exposed them for what they are: a sham. Whenever we are seduced by the demonic voices within, we are falling victim to all that is counterfeit about our fallen world. Whenever we side with the entrenched injustice of society we perpetuate the fraudulent narrative the world loves to tell. Confronting this narrative with the true one that God continues to tell takes all the integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue we can muster – and more. Confronting this narrative takes embracing the love of God and letting it shine through us to bring to light everything that would prefer to stay in darkness.
That’s why we confess our sins every single week. We don’t do it because of our individual, personal sins, though those are subsumed into the act of confession. No. We confess every week as a sort of inoculation against the demonic voices that seduce us away from God’s mission. We confess every week to remember that God calls us to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We confess every week to announce to ourselves and to each other that we are willing (and with God’s help ready and able) to confront the entrenched sins of the world.
When we joined up with Jesus, this is what we signed on for. This was his mission, and he continues it through us. I don’t know about you, but oftentimes I think it’s too big. I quiver in fear. I find myself rigid with spiritual lethargy. I start to give in to the coercing and cajoling voices that seek to muzzle my witness. When this happens to you, remember that you are walking with Jesus. And hear his voice rise over the clatter and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
*Hear Cornel West’s keynote address here. (Scan to 1:00:28 for the speech.)
(No audio this week: I forgot at the early service,
and then I thought I pressed record at the later service, but didn’t. Sorry!)
Sermon for Sunday, February 8, 2015 || Epiphany 5B || Isaiah 40:20-31; Mark 1:29-39
Next week ends our Epiphany sermon series, which means today we have come to our fifth word. But let’s start with a recap. Our first word was Affirmation: Nothing can take away God’s affirmation of us as God’s good and beloved children. Our second word was Invitation: God’s holy invitations most often originate in the center of our brokenness. Our third word was Mission: When we pick up our crosses and follow Jesus, we find God’s missions for us where the plank of the world’s need intersects with the plank of our passions. Our fourth word was Confrontation: All the forces of this fallen world fight back when we embrace God’s mission of healing and reconciliation.
And this brings us to today, to our fifth word. And that word is Rejuvenation. When I was deciding on the six words to highlight during this series, today’s word was the most difficult to find. I read the Gospel lesson over and over again, but nothing stood out. The whole passage was just more confrontation. But then on the tenth or eleventh reading, I noticed a verse I had always skimmed over before. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
How wonderful is it that Mark, in all his hurry to move the narrative forward, would stop for a brief moment and give us this insight into Jesus’ character. Jesus must have been bone weary after the day he had. He spent most of the day at the Sabbath assembly, where we heard last week’s story of casting out the unclean spirit. Then he went to Simon and Andrew’s house, presumably for some respite. But he was needed there, too, as Simon’s mother-in-law was abed with fever. That evening, perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a good night’s sleep. But no. The people of Capernaum heard tell of his power, and “the whole city” (Mark tells us) gathered around the door clamoring for healing. Who knows how late into the night Jesus spent confronting demons and diseases. It seems no one, not even Jesus, can keep the pace he set that bone weary day in Capernaum.
And so we find Jesus in the wee hours of the morning escape to a deserted place. “And there he prayed.” And there he found his own Sabbath rest. And there he took a deep breath and reconnected with God his father. And there he reflected on the events of today so he’s better equipped for the events of tomorrow. And there he was rejuvenated.
This rejuvenation lasts only a single verse. In the next, Simon and his companions hunt for Jesus, find him, and he’s right back in the melee again, confronting all that separates his people from God. But for this one indefinite moment of time early in the morning in the deserted place, Jesus teaches us the value of rejuvenation: of Sabbath rest, prayerful reconnection, and spiritual reflection. Let’s take these three pieces of rejuvenation in turn.
We live out our missions from God throughout our daily lives and during special times of confrontation with the entrenched sins of the world. But what most of us fail to realize most of the time is that Sabbath rest is part of our missions. We have been suckered in by the myth of the full calendar. In recent years, school-aged children have started getting scheduled to within an inch of their lives. When I was a child and adolescent, I played a lot of sports, but I still remember spending plenty of time just hanging out with my friends, too. Those days seem to be long gone. And the over-scheduling we are subjecting our young ones to is now infecting us all.
Taking time to pause when this maelstrom of activity is swirling around you is totally countercultural. Over-scheduling is a form of the sin of gluttony, to which society is addicted in the extreme. But when we take Sabbath rest, we resist the false claim that doing more leads to greater happiness. You don’t need to take this rest on the actual day of the Sabbath, but I urge you to carve some white space out on your full calendar. Start with an hour of rejuvenation and try over time to stretch it to a full day.
Our time of rejuvenation begins with rest, which then deepens into prayerful reconnection with God. Engaging in our God-given missions, confronting the demons of the world, and – for that matter – just living our lives tend to untether us from our moorings. The currents of entrenched sin pull us out to sea. And the farther we drift from the source of all goodness, the more our priorities rearrange themselves. Greed and self-preservation rise up the list even as love and self-sacrifice fall. But returning to God regularly in prayer helps us examine those priorities and order them in the way God desires us to do. We come together each week to share Holy Communion because the Eucharist both physically reconnects us to the nourishment of God in Christ and reminds us of our true priorities: gratitude, community, love, and service.
Our rejuvenation begins with rest, continues with reconnection, and concludes with reflection. When we intentionally make available enough free space and time for reflection, then everything we do becomes more effective. I can hear my father’s voice in my head saying over and over again as I was growing up: “You don’t learn from experience. You learn from reflection on experience.” The most productive form of reflection couples self-examination with counsel from a coach, mentor, or friend. The best athletes in the world still have coaches to help them reflect on their games, learn from the mistakes, and get better at sports they are already the best at. The same holds true in our walks with Jesus Christ. Each of us can follow more nearly when others help us to reflect on our experiences to learn what holds us back.
When Jesus sneaks off by himself to be alone in prayer, he rests for a few precious moments, away from the demands of his ministry. He reconnects in prayer with the source of his strength. And I imagine that he reflects on an action packed day so that the days ahead can be more effective. And in so doing, God rejuvenates him to continue his mission. Likewise, God offers us this same opportunity to retreat strategically from our confrontations, engage a different piece of our mission, and rediscover ourselves moored to God’s goodness and love. When we accept the invitation to this opportunity, we find ourselves rejuvenated to continue our journeys towards the sixth and final word. That word is Revelation. But that will have to wait until next week.
For now, I urge you to carve that white space out on your calendar so that you have the space to hear one of God’s great and enduring promises, which the prophet Isaiah proclaims in today’s reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:30-31).
Sermon for Sunday, February 15, 2015 || Last Epiphany B || Mark 9:2-9
We’ve spent the last five weeks walking with Jesus during the first days of his ministry. We stood on the shore of the Jordan River as Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism. We also stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as Jesus called his first disciples and gave them their mission. We wandered into the Sabbath assembly and watched him confront an unclean spirit. And we escaped with him into the desert to rest, reconnect, and reflect with God. Today, in our last sermon in this series, we skip forward to the middle of the story, and we find ourselves following Jesus as he picks his way up the mountain path with Peter, James, and John. And at the top of the mountain, we find our sixth and final word: Revelation.
“Revelation” comes from the same root as the word “reveal.” A revelation is an unveiling, a pulling back of the curtain that separates the known from the unknown. You might say the difference between revelation and ordinary discovery is that we usually attribute revelation to an outside source, namely God, while discovery is the product of our own learning and experimentation. But I think this is a false dichotomy. Rather, God is always offering us the blessing of revelation; in fact, I believe God desires nothing more than for us to know God better. But we are not always in places that allow ready embracing of such revelation. Revelation is available to us, but we are not always available to revelation.
And this is where the process of ordinary discovery comes in. Think back to a time in school. You were in math class – say, geometry. And you had no idea what your teacher was talking about. You’d been taking math classes your whole life. You’d learned addition and subtraction and your multiplication tables. You’d struggled with long division, but got it in the end. Then came fractions. Yikes! But those too made sense in time. Algebra next – the slope of a line. Y=MX + B. No problem. But now you’re stuck. You see the formulas to find the areas of various shapes on the dry erase board, and the only sound in your brain is the dull buzz of incomprehension. But you like math, so you buckle down. You ask a friend who understands it to help you learn. You draw circle after circle, triangle after triangle, trying to figure out the material. Thankfully, your friend is patient with you, and one day in the library after school, you get it. You’ve put in the legwork. You’ve applied your elbow grease. And now you own that geometric discovery for yourself.
We can apply this same legwork and elbow grease when it comes to nurturing our faith. We call it discipleship. While revelation is always available to us, we make ourselves more and more available to revelation when we actively participate in our relationships with God, when we strive to follow Jesus with intention. In geometry class, we could have just let the material pass us by. We could have just limped along not really understanding the lesson. But that’s not what we signed up for. In the same way, when we make every effort to pair our drive for discovery with God’s desire to pull back the curtain, we find ourselves open to revelation. And we find ourselves on the mountaintop with the disciples.
Jesus stands before us in the darkness. But suddenly the light from within Jesus blazes forth, and the darkness flees. Or at least that’s what seems to happen. We perceive Jesus changing, and as Mark tells us, “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” But I think something else is going on here, and to see it, we have to reorient our perspective. In the evening, we say the sun sets beneath the horizon. But what really happens is that our little plot of earth rotates away from the sun. Likewise, I don’t think anything at all changes about Jesus during the mountaintop visit. Rather, I think God gives the disciples the gift of revelation. God gives them transfigured eyes – eyes that, for a moment, are able to see Jesus as God sees him, as a luminous being from whom the darkness can do nothing but flee.
When we stumble into a moment of revelation – and it almost always is a stumbling in – we discover new or deeper truths about God’s movement in our lives and God’s mission of healing and reconciliation in this broken world. In these moments of revelation, our perspective shifts, deepens, and we catch a clearer glimpse of what God is up to.
And everything begins again.
We look back at where our feet have taken us, and we know we’ve moved along the path following Jesus. And yet, we find ourselves back at our first word, Affirmation. And we hear once again God say to Jesus the same words God spoke six weeks ago. “This is my Son, the beloved.” Once again, God affirms Jesus as God’s beloved child, and by extension God affirms us – warts and all – as fundamentally good children beloved by God. But the affirmation is deeper now because of the journey we’ve taken. We’ve gone to the center of our brokenness; we’ve taken up our crosses; we’ve confronted the entrenched demons of society; we’ve collapsed exhausted for a time of Sabbath rest – and now we discover God revealing to us that God loves us even more than we thought possible.
With that deeper affirmation of goodness and love resonating in our hearts, we are ready for new Invitations, to go even closer to the center of our brokenness than we were willing to go before. We are ready to embrace with even more zeal the authentic Missions that Christ offers us when we pick up our crosses. We are ready to trust God with ever-expanding reserves of courage and faith when we Confront all that stands in the way of creation reconciling at last to God. We are ready to drink even more deeply from the waters of Rejuvenation. And each time we walk this path as it spirals upwards, we are ready to embrace greater Revelation, to see more often with those transfigured eyes.
That’s the goal, really: seeing more and more often with transfigured eyes, seeing this world as God sees it, as broken and beautiful at the same time. And in seeing as God would want us to see, we begin to notice with greater regularity those whom God yearns for us to love. We begin to serve with greater passion those whom God yearns for us to serve. And we begin to live with greater vitality the abundant life that Christ offers to all.
Sermon for Sunday, December 14, 2014 || Advent 3B || John 1:6-8, 19-28
Just before his death in 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that corrected a long held belief about our planet’s place in the heavens. Initial curiosity by the establishment, including some power brokers of the Church, unfortunately succumbed to the prevailing wisdom of the day that the sun revolved around the earth and not the other way around. When Galileo picked up Copernicus’s theories a few decades later (and we must mention with less diplomatic tact than Copernicus had shown), Galileo was convicted of heresy, compelled to recant, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest. The heads of the Church could not handle this new information that implied we humans weren’t quite as special as they thought. Despite the definitive nature of Galileo’s proofs and despite further corroboration by other reputable scientists, the establishment for many years shut its collective eyes, covered its collective ears, and said, “We’re not listening!”
Humans have always fallen victim to the particular notion that we each exist at the center of the universe. Just examine some common occurrences if you need evidence. When a young man of a certain disposition goes courting, an observer might say, “What does he think he is, God’s gift?” When doctors are accused of “playing God,” it’s often because their own egos have driven them to risky procedures. When the cult of celebrity that grips this country hails the triumphant return of a professional basketball player as the second coming or heeds the flawed advice of a low-wattage movie star concerning childhood vaccinations, then we’re all left to wonder why we don’t have such personal clout. And to top it off, how many of us have been told, when trying to insert ourselves into a friend’s troubles, “This isn’t about you!”
Thinking we are (or we should be) the center of the universe is just part of the human condition, but it’s a part of the human condition in continual need of rehabilitation. And in today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist gives us a lesson. Recall that one of my favorite things about the Gospel is the fact that people rarely answer questions the way you expect them to. The priests and Levites come to John when he is baptizing in the Jordan and ask him a simple question: “Who are you?” Note how John could have answered as expected: “I’m John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, from down yonder a bit. Favorite pastime: baptizing with water. Likes include locusts and wild honey…”
But that’s not what John says. “Who are you?” they ask. And what does John do? He tells them who he is not. “I’m not the Messiah.” His rejection of messiah-hood throws his questioners for a loop and they start grasping at straws: “Are you Elijah? A prophet? Tell us who you are!” If a cult of celebrity exists today, then a similar one, albeit less fed by the fawning media, existed in John’s day. False messiahs cropped up all the time, attracted followers, and then lost them just as quickly when they couldn’t deliver the goods. That’s why, at the beginning of the Gospel, the establishment doesn’t much worry about Jesus. They assume he’s going to fade into obscurity like everyone else. Indeed, John’s denial of messiah-hood was much more newsworthy than claiming it would have been.
With John refusing the identities that the priests and Levites try to pin on him, they decide to ask him point blank: “What do you say about yourself?” They need an answer to bring to their superiors, but John never gives them satisfaction. Even when asked specifically about himself, John doesn’t take the bait. He deflects the attention from himself and shines it on the one who is to come, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ”
John has no delusions of grandeur. He knows his place in the universe. He knows he is not the Messiah. And he also knows his relationship to the Messiah: “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” John embraces an identity based in Jesus’ messiah-hood. John is the herald, the special voice that captures people’s attention and turns their eyes to the coming king. “What do you say about yourself?” they ask. And John responds: “My identity is based on the identity of the true Messiah. I am the voice, the herald, the witness. I am the arrow that always points to the one who is coming after me.”
John continues to display this identity throughout his short time in the Gospel. When his disciples see Jesus the next day, John the Arrow points and says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He risks losing his own followers because he knows it is not his place to have followers. Later he repeats that he is not the Messiah, calling himself instead the “friend of the bridegroom.” John has now heard Jesus’ voice, so John proclaims: “My joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.”
How in touch with his sense of self must John have been fully to embrace his identity as the arrow pointing to Jesus. How many of us would have felt jealous when our turn in the spotlight was over? How many of us would have tried to extend our fifteen minutes of fame? But not John. John knows he has no light of his own. He is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
And so are we. The lesson we learn from John the Baptist today teaches us to delve within and discover our own true identities, the places in this universe where only you and I were made to fit. None of us was made to be the center of the universe, even if the human condition tries to trick us into believing that to be true. Our true identities are gifts from God; therefore, when you fully embrace your identity, when you try it on and it fits better than your favorite pair of jeans, then you will find yourself spontaneously pointing to the true center of the universe, the true light of the world.
Like John, we are arrows pointing to God. I invite you this week to list out all the different facets of your identity and pray about how each one connects back to the One who makes you who you are. Here’s a snippet of mine to get you started: I am a husband and a father. The love for my family that fuels these pieces of my identity comes directly from the love of God. I am a priest and a pastor. My service to God and others springs from the call Christ places on my heart. I am a singer and writer. My inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit’s creativity living within me.
As I continue to list out facets of my identity, I see this pattern continue: I am who I am because of God’s presence in my life. Claiming and proclaiming that presence makes me an arrow like John the Baptist. And not just me: each of us is an arrow pointing to God. Each of us is the moon reflecting the light of the sun.
Copernicus and Galileo knew the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. But they had no idea how far away from it we actually are in space. Recent modeling shows our own solar system is tucked in a corner of the Milky Way galaxy and the Milky Way galaxy is tucked in a corner of a supercluster of galaxies known as Laniakea, and Laniakea is just one piece of a web of superclusters that make up the known universe. We might not be at the center of this universe, but the Creator of it is at the center of ours.
Art: screenshot from this incredible Youtube video.
Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life. (John 1:3-4a; context)
For my birthday this year, my then fiancée bought me a LEGO kit of a police helicopter. It was great fun to put together, and when I was finished the helicopter looked exactly like the one on the box. And no wonder, considering that I had followed the directions exactly. Not one piece was out of place. It was the perfect realization of the set on the box.
Then over the summer I instituted a LEGO club at church, and one of the participants brought in a helicopter of his own. It didn’t quite have the sleek lines of the dedicated pieces that the one I made had, but I sure thought his was way better. His was better because he didn’t use instructions to build it. It didn’t come from a kit ready to assemble. He built his helicopter directly out of his imagination. Whereas I constructed mine, he created his.
In this post, we are going to talk about the link between God’s creation and our own creativity. This link is the imagination, the wonderful gift that God gives us that helps us access our creativity. As we move on, I want you to be thinking about how you personally express your own creativity. We’ll get to that later; for now, just thank God simply because God created you.
Before we go any further in our discussion about imagination and creativity, I have to rehash some stuff that I’ve said before so please bear with me.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God…everything came into being through the Word.” So says John the evangelist at the beginning of his account of the Gospel. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…God said, “Let there be light.” So says one of the writers of the book of Genesis at the beginning of the whole Bible.
The important words here for our discussion are “Word” and “said.” As these two writers articulate the miracle of God’s work in the beginning, God speaks creation into being. Now, we get into trouble when we decide that at the end of Day Six, God stopped speaking. God may have rested on Day Seven, but that Word, which God used to organize creation, continued and continues. God has never stopped speaking creation into being.
As parts of this creation, God continues to speak us into being, as well. None of us is finished being made yet. Not even close. God breathes life into us with each word God speaks, giving us the opportunity to grow, to change, to use our imaginations.
Creation is God’s imagination made real. When we access our imaginations, we tap into the kind of energy that God uses to create.
Our imaginations allow us to access our creative sides unrestrained by any thoughts of boundaries or rules. In the beginning of creation, there were no boundaries or rules; there was just God and God’s Word. So when we use our imaginations, we get as close as we can to the state God was in when God began to create. (Of course, we’re still really really really far from the actual state, but we are closer than we normally are.)
Our ability to imagine finds its roots in the reality that God made us in God’s image. You might think that this means, “in God’s physical appearance” because of our use of the word “image” in today’s parlance. But “image” here does not mean “superficial representation.” Rather, it is shorthand for “the deep and abiding spark of God’s Spirit that animates us.” It is that which is within us that allows us to imitate God, to reflect how God is, or to put it another way, to follow.
And it’s no coincidence that the words “image” and “imagination” come for the same root. When we tap into our imaginations, we find ourselves in a pure moment of creative energy. Children are so good at imagining because they don’t have as much baggage, which tends to pollute this pure moment. But even with baggage, we can soar into the heights of creativity. And in so doing, we enable the spark within us that is calling us to create in God’s image.
Talent Not Required
We’ve spent the first half of this post discussing the theological warrant for why we are able to engage our imaginations to aid in creative endeavors. Now let’s talk about one of the pitfalls that can accompany this discussion.
This pitfall centers around a word that is often linked to creativity, and that word is “talent.” Too often we ascribe the creative task only to those people we describe as “talented.” And while it is true that the vast majority of creative artifacts – paintings, musical scores, choreography, to name three – that survive the test of time come from talented people, this does not mean that so-called talented people have a monopoly on creativity. Rather, their works generate value beyond the initial act of creation because other people have decided on sets of factors that assign such value.
But the initial act of creation is much more important than any resultant value of a work. And anyone, no matter how much or how little talent he or she has, can and should create. Exercising our creativity, no matter what the outlet, allows us to reach deep inside and root around for the spark that God buried within us. In this searching for our creative spark, we concurrently probe for our strong, but often ignored, bond with God’s own constant creation. And this leads us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.
So don’t worry if you do not have what the marketplace has decided is “talent.” Don’t worry if the fruits of your creative endeavors sit in your basement once you’re done. Don’t worry if your creativity manifests itself in a way that leaves no material product, but rather leaves a mark on the life of someone else. Rather, create for creation’s sake. After all, that’s what God does.
A Poem for Creativity
As we close our discussion on creativity and imagination, I invite you to imagine with me how you might work with God to release your own creativity. Perhaps you will
Sing a song a way that’s not been heard before,
Or write a play and cast your little brother as the lead,
Or take a day to dig a garden in your yard
And sow some seeds that soon will be a living tapestry.
Or paint a picture with the watercolors in your bottom drawer,
Or stitch a many-colored quilt to lay across a pair of old, scarred knees,
Or take some pages from old magazines and roll them
Into beads for jewelry for your mother’s special day.
Or hum a tune you half-remember hearing at a pub, oh way back when,
Or write some epic verse about adventures Spot has when you are away,
Or take an afternoon to bake a latticed apple pie
And bring it for dessert to potluck night at church.
Or dance a dance that you are making up right then and there,
Or tell yourself the story of the star that shines before the others do,
Or take a piece of rusty clay and throw a pot
And glaze it with a dye you mixed yourself.
Or pick a bunch of daisies for the vase atop your sister’s chest of drawers,
Or weave a brand new romance with the threads of your two lives,
Or take some time to shape a handful of the deepest silence
Into a laugh
Or a cry
Or a long, contented sigh.
I leave this moment with you, God, imagining how you will move in my life tomorrow.
(Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2011 || Epiphany 2, Year A || John 1:29-42)
The hospital was a maze. Children’s Medical Center had several buildings, and they were all connected somehow, but getting from one part of this building to another part of that building always involved multiple corridors and elevators. During the summer of 2006 between my first and second years of seminary, I was learning how to be a chaplain at this sprawling medical complex. One of the first things I learned was the hospital policy of refraining from giving directions to visitors. The hospital was just too confusing. Instead, if little Jimmy’s grandmother asked me how to get to the oncology unit, the hospital policy directed me to take her there myself and to make sure she knew her way back to the parking garage (which happened to be two elevators, three corridors, a skywalk, and two Starbucks away). In effect, hospital employees said, “Come and see” to their visitors and then accompanied them all the way to their destinations. These words – “Come and see” – make up Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the entire Gospel according to John. We’ll get to them in due time. But right now, let’s talk about Jesus’ first line of dialogue.
His first five words would not have been out of place in the labyrinthine hospital: “What are you looking for?” You might hear this question at any hospital elevator as any lost visitor stares helplessly at the building schematics printed on the wall. What are you looking for? Jesus speaks these words to two of John the Baptizer’s disciples after he notices them following him. At this point in the Gospel, Jesus has no followers of his own. He is the new guy in town. John the Baptizer owns the market on charismatic fellows who say compelling, challenging things. But John knows who Jesus is, so John encourages his disciples to begin following Jesus. Right away, Andrew and an unnamed person – quite literally – begin following Jesus.
When Jesus turns around and challenges them with his question –“What are you looking for?” – his words speak on two levels. This dual-layered dialogue is a common occurrence in the Gospel according to John. The first layer speaks to superficial, surface meaning. This layer is easy for Jesus’ listeners to access, and so they become drawn in. Then the second, deeper layer of meaning presents itself. Many of Jesus’ listeners resist this deeper level. But those who do dive deeply find rich, life-giving substance in his words.
With Jesus’ first words in the Gospel, he challenges Andrew, the unnamed disciple, and us to dive deeply to this second level of meaning. At the first level, John’s two disciples probably interpret Jesus’ question as a straightforward query into their present intentions. Do they happen to be going his way by chance or are they following him purposefully? But at the second level, Jesus’ five words penetrate to the deepest places of the human heart. What are you looking for? His question beckons an answer from those same deep places within us. The trouble is there are so many potential answers to this question that digging through them to find the ones that exist in those deep places can become problematic to say the least. Here’s what I mean.
What are you looking for?
A mid-sized sedan with good gas mileage and a high safety rating.
A doctor who understands my symptoms and actually seems to care for my wellbeing.
An assisted living facility for my parent whose mind is rapidly deteriorating.
What are you looking for?
The right greeting card to express my feelings.
A college that’s not too big but still has my major.
A quick hit to forget the day.
What are you looking for?
A boyfriend I can bring home to mom.
A scrap of meaning in a dead end job.
My car keys.
What are you looking for? John’s two disciples seem to understand that the “car key” type of answers will not suffice because Jesus’ words penetrate right into their hearts. So instead of answering his question, they ask one of their own: “Teacher, where are you staying?” Now, Jesus apparently does not hold a monopoly on dialogue with dual layers. At the first level, they want to know just what the question appears to ask: “In what house are you going to rest your head tonight?” But on that deeper second level, their question seeks a much more profound answer. Where are you staying? In Greek, the word that is translated as “staying” means quite a bit more than the English equivalent. Rather than the connotation of “staying at a hotel” or “staying on a friend’s futon,” the Greek word means to “abide” or to “continue to be present.” Thus, at the deeper level, the disciples ask Jesus where he dwells, where he abides, where he is present.
Their question, then, is the best response to Jesus’ own question. What are you looking for? Lord Jesus, I’m looking for where you abide. I’m looking for where you are present in my life. I’m looking for where you dwell in this particular situation I’ve gotten myself into.
When we receive Jesus’ question at the deeper second level, we can feel his words penetrating our hearts. We can hear his voice whispering up from the very depths of our beings: What are you looking for? Paying attention to his words rising from those depths helps us locate our own responses, the ones that originate in the same deep places of our beings. The transient, daily, car key type answers to the question fall away when we search deep within.
The best way to begin this search is with the disciples’ question: “Where are you staying?” When we ask this question, we open ourselves to finding Jesus dwelling somewhere in every facet of our lives. We open ourselves to hearing his voice whispering his presence into and out from our souls. We open ourselves, and in doing so, we turn the depths of our beings outward. The hidden deep places, where our responses to Jesus’ question lie dormant, become the pieces of ourselves that we display to the world. These pieces of ourselves are our callings from God. They are our personal, individual discoveries of Jesus beckoning us to find him in everything we do, in everything we say, and in everyone we meet.
And this brings us back to Jesus’ second line of dialogue in the Gospel according to John: “Come and see.” What are you looking for? Teacher, where are you staying? Come and see. Jesus invites us to see where he abides, where he is present in our lives. He invites us to dwell with him, no matter the situations we find ourselves in. Finding his presence means we have found those deep places within ourselves. Abiding in his presence gives us the grace to be vulnerable and to show the world the deepest yearnings that God has put in our hearts, the callings that God has blessed us to follow.
And the good news is this: “Come and see” means that Jesus will be with us, to take us where we need to go, to show us what we need to see. Just like the hospital employees accompanying a lost visitor to her destination, Jesus remains with us throughout our journeys. He dwells in our hearts whispering his question: “What are you looking for?” And when we ask him in return where he is staying, where he is abiding in our lives, he walks one step before us, saying, “Come and see.”
* * *
When you listen to the Gospel, you might notice the trend that folks rarely answer questions directly. Instead, the responder either completely ignores the question or says something so profound that the question ceases to matter. Most things Jesus says in the Gospel fall into one of these two categories. Think about how often someone asks a question, and Jesus responds, “Well, let me tell you a story about that. Once there was a farmer…” Before Jesus enters the scene, however, John the Baptizer finds himself under interrogation, and he does just a good a job as Jesus in not answering questions with the expected answers. His unexpected responses to the folks interviewing him (as recorded in John 1) show John’s understanding of his identity, which helps us understand ours, as well.
The priests and Levites come to John and ask him a series of questions, the first being “Who are you?” This question seems to have an obvious answer: I’m John from over yonder, my parents are so-and-so. But that’s not what John says. Instead of saying who he is, he explicitly says who he is not. “I am not the Messiah.” And what’s more, he’s quite emphatic about it: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed…” By his answer, John seems to know what they are getting at, so he makes sure with his first response that any gossip about his messiah-ship is highly overrated.
So they try again: “What then? Are you Elijah?” He says, “I am not.” They try once more: “Are you the prophet?” “Nope.” John steadfastly refuses to play into any expectations these priests and Levites have about his identity.
I wonder to what degree our identities are based on the expectations of others? It’s not necessarily a bad thing for others to have expectations for us, of course. A community (family, church, team, circle of friends) plays a significant role in the development of our identities, and expectations are a natural part of that role. But if those expectations begin to suffocate us or make us begin to dislike the people we are becoming, then there is something wrong.
In the film Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry has a passion for acting. When he sees the flyer for auditions for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says, “For the first time in my life, I know what I want to do. And for the first time, I’m going to do it!” He throws himself into the role of Puck, and he’s good, he’s really good. But his father expects him to be a doctor and thinks this acting business is nothing more than a dangerous whim. Neil defies his father’s wishes and continues rehearsing for the play. After Mr. Perry discovers him at the theatre, he furiously tells Neil that he is not going to let Neil ruin his (Neil’s) life. Neil feels suffocated and trapped: he has found his calling as an actor, he has found himself. But Mr. Perry is stifling this identity with his expectations for Neil’s future. That night, Neil commits suicide.
Expectations like Mr. Perry’s can smother us. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because our worth and capability and adequacy fall outside the limits defined by those expectations. In their song “What a Good Boy,” the Barenaked Ladies lament:
When I was born, they looked at me and said,
‘What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy.’
When you were born, they looked at you and said,
‘What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.’
We’ve got these chains hanging round our necks,
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.
When we feel smothered, stifled, or strangled by expectations, troubling questions form in our minds. What if I’m not a smart girl? What if I’m not a strong boy? What if I don’t measure up? Then another question compounds these: Will they still like/love/accept/welcome me? These expectations that help shape our identities now morph into ultimatums. They signal the possible breaking of a relationship: This is who I am, and if you don’t like it then fine. And the door slams shut. In this scenario, we begin to define our identities by focusing negatively on the rebellion against expectations rather than by stating positively who we are.
Expectations themselves are neutral things. They surely can be used to spur us to excellence or to inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are. But they can also be used to deny our self-worth or sense of belonging. When John the Baptizer refuses to be defined by the expectations of the priests and Levites, he is holding onto the identity he has as the voice crying out in the wilderness.
The priests and Levites are unable to pin their expectation on John, but they can’t go back to their bosses empty-handed, so they press John asking: “What do you have to say about yourself?” The Baptizer answers with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ ” Even here, when they ask him deliberately about himself, he answers by pointing ahead of himself. Their concern is based on his seeming lack of authority to baptize, for he is not the Messiah or Elijah or the prophet. But such trifles don’t worry John. He states dismissively: “I baptize with water.” And then he points ahead of himself again: “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” Everything John says about himself, he is really saying about Jesus. He only speaks in terms of Jesus; he deflects questions about himself, preferring to point to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.”
Rather than playing into their expectations, John flourishes in his identity as an arrow pointing to Jesus. To change the metaphor, he shines because he lives fully into his own particular, God-given identity. Like the moon, he has no light of his own, but he reflects the light of Jesus who is coming after him. Even as we struggle with the expectations of others and with discovering our own identities as God’s children, I can think of no greater joy than to be a moon to Jesus’ sun, reflecting the light of Christ.