Sermon for Sunday, October 7, 2018 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16
When this set of readings came around three years ago, I focused my sermon on Jesus’ words about divorce. I’m choosing not to do that today, so if you are curious about my understanding of them, I’d invite you to head into the archives of my website. I’ll provide a link in the written version of this sermon online. Today, I’d like to look at the final scene in today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus’ disciples try to stop people from bringing their little children to Jesus to receive a blessing.Continue reading “I Had a Choice”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 3, 2016 || Proper 9C || Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
Last week, we started a sermon series on being “born again.” We talked about this new life of Jesus Christ, this unreasonable life of love and service. And today, we are going to move on to the next part of the series – and I’ve added a couple things by the way – new hands, new feet, and new eyes. We’ll get to those in just a few minutes.
(Sermon for Sunday August 11, 2013 || Proper 14C || Luke 12:32-40)
C. S. Lewis once said, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.” He said this in a radio talk on the BBC during World War II, and it was later collected in a little book known as Mere Christianity. Lewis’s words aren’t meant as a threat or a platitude, but simply as the truth behind how we orient our lives. “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither.”
I suspect Lewis had today’s Gospel reading in mind when he spoke these words; well, more precisely, today’s reading plus the ten verses before it, which the framers of our reading schedule oddly decided to skip. The ones we jumped over are fairly well known: Jesus speaks of the lilies of the field, how they grow; and about the birds of the air, how God provides for them. All of this distills down to one simple request by Jesus to his disciples: “Don’t worry!” He goes on to say that God knows what we need, so we shouldn’t spend all our time and energy chasing after such things. “Instead,” says Jesus, “desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.”
Or as C. S. Lewis paraphrases: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’” Of course, we’re talking about priorities again, as we did last week. Aiming at heaven, desiring God’s kingdom – this is the most important priority of our lives. All other priorities build from the sure foundation of desiring God’s kingdom, of being part of God’s dream of bringing all creation back to God. This is the foundation of our priorities because we would find it quite impossible to desire something greater or more eternal than this dream.
Think of it this way. When I was a child I dreamt of being a professional baseball player. (Well, a paleontologist baseball player who also got to drive the garbage truck, but let’s stick with baseball.) My big dream was catching the final out of the World Series while playing centerfield for the Boston Red Sox. My friends and I imagined that ninth inning of Game 7 every time we put on our gloves. Now, wouldn’t it have been a little odd if I dreamt of playing centerfield for Double-A Portland? Maybe more practical, but practicality holds no sway in dreaming. Much like our childhood aspirations, God invites us to dream big – to desire God’s kingdom above all else, to be part of the coming of that kingdom here on earth, and by doing so, to aim always for heaven.
Of course, the world about us entices and cajoles us to set our aims lower. “Heaven is too far away, too much hard work,” say the grumbling, demonic voices of this world. “It’s all pie in the sky, better to focus on the here and now,” they continue, louder and more confident. “You’re not good enough for God’s kingdom, anyway,” they finish with a flourish. These grumbling voices chorus with a multitude of reasons why we should set our aims lower than heaven, but we have limited time, so we’ll focus on these three common ones: laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness.
First: laziness. Ah, my old foe. Out of the three we’re looking at today, laziness has most often enticed me to aim at anything but heaven. I’ve tried to combat my lazy streak myriad ways. One is that a few years ago, I stopped describing myself as a Christian because the label didn’t cause me to act any different than I normally did. Instead, I started calling myself a “follower of Christ.” I chose to do this to remind myself that a follower does something: he follows. This has helped a little, but the old kneejerk laziness is still there. It’s just so easy, so seductively easy to drift through life without purpose or goal. It’s just so easy simply to shoot at the target rather than aim for the middle of the target.
But in today’s lesson, we followers of Jesus hear him tell us to “be dressed for action and have our lamps lit.” Be on the lookout for ways to shine the light of God’s kingdom in the darkness of this world. Be prepared to find God where you least expect it, but where God most needs to be proclaimed. This is the way to aim for heaven, and I assure you, despite the seductive ease of laziness, this is the way to live.
Second, worldliness – the secularist’s call to us spiritual types to get our heads out of the clouds, plant our feet on solid ground, and start using common sense. But what the secularist doesn’t understand is that engaging our uncommon senses fills our lives with joy and purpose. Still, worldly distractions make our aim wild. We worry too much about our security; not that security is bad, but we do tend to overcompensate. We stray too far to the “rich fool” end of the spectrum: he who in last week’s parable wanted to build even bigger barns to store all his stuff. The weight of this overcompensation pulls our aim lower.
But in today’s lesson, Jesus encourages his friends not to worry, but to sell their possessions and give to the poor. He reorients their aim and ours to heaven, where the treasure is unfailing. Your heart will be where your treasure is, he says, so desire to enshrine your heart in God’s eternal presence. The more our hearts soak up the radiance of God’s kingdom, the more generous we will be in the here and now, and the more we will spread that radiance ourselves.
Third, and most menacing: unworthiness. Aim at heaven, instructs C. S. Lewis. Desire God’s kingdom, says Jesus. And yet in a cold, dank corner of our minds, each of us has a small raspy voice endlessly intoning: “Not you…Jesus doesn’t mean you…you’re not good enough for heaven…you’re not worthy enough to spread God’s kingdom.” This feeling of unworthiness is so common and yet so far from God’s reality. It is a feeling that shackles us, that keeps us not just from aiming at heaven, but from aiming at all.
But in today’s lesson, Jesus intimates that worthiness has nothing to do with the equation. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Another translation says, “Your father delights in giving you the kingdom.” If God delights in this act of giving then God surely isn’t putting up barriers of worth that would keep God from showering the radiance of God’s kingdom on all people. The more we accept that God’s delight in us is what makes us worthy, the more we can participate in spreading the kingdom.
These three – laziness, worldliness, and unworthiness – can keep us from aiming at heaven. But Jesus Christ proclaims to us today that none of these has the power we think they do. The power lies with God, who delights in giving us God’s kingdom and hopes with all the radiance of heaven that we desire to receive the kingdom. When we do, we enter into the great, eternal dream that God has for all of God’s creation, and we join with God in making that dream a reality. So aim at heaven and you’ll get the earth thrown in.
Election day falls on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of every even-numbered year. That day happens to be today.* West Virginia has early voting and the polling place happens to be next door to my church, so I took advantage of that a few weeks ago. But I’ve been keeping on top of the political scene in the country: the campaign tactics, the exchanges, the (gotcha!) media, the blustering pundits and blundering surrogates. I’ve at times in the last weeks been both enthused and disgusted, hopeful and resigned. Every sign of progress I see shares the spotlight with the tired old prejudices of the past. I hope with all the fervor of my heart that, no matter the outcome of this election, the United States continues to strive for that “more perfect union,” to which our Constitution sets its lofty heights.
This hope stirs in me a refrain that has been playing in my head for days: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Abraham Lincoln spoke these words on March 4, 1861. The dust of 150 years has made these words no less relevant today. Chorus. Union. Bonds of affection. These are powerful words that tell of a truth, which these years of dust could never obscure: We can do great things when we come together, when we embrace the power of unity. This is Lincoln’s charge to us all. This is the truth which we entrust to our next president. And this is the prayer of Jesus for his disciples and for all of us: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:10-11)
Jesus lived this prayer for unity when he welcomed everyone to come to him, and all those who were thirsty to drink. He lived this prayer when he ignored the racial barriers between Jews and Samaritans. He lived this prayer when, dying on the cross, he created a new family for his mother and his beloved disciple.
But uniting is not enough. Uniting is only the exposition of the story. We must unite for something. We must come together to fulfill those tasks which the better angels of our nature invite us to accomplish. Too often, the ingrained talking points that showcase the worst of partisan bickering shout down these better angels. Just last week, I was sitting at Panera bread and overheard a conversation between two businessmen — the gist of their chat simply rehashed the tired old stereotype that all people on welfare just sit at home watching Oprah. Surely, these two suits would have more political acumen than to recite such a line of attack, I thought. But no. In election years, by some strange alchemical process, saying something enough times makes it true, no matter the veracity of the claim. In the absence of any real hope, any real truth, whoever steps up to the mic to fill the dead air is the ruler of that fifteen second soundbyte.
But our better angels fill in that dead air. When we turn our attention inward, we will find those angels speaking the words of the only Truth out there worth subscribing to, the words of life that God writes on our hearts. These words will never fit into a soundbyte. They will never succumb to the tired old prejudices. They will only urge us to join together to accomplish God’s work on earth. The mystic chords of our better angels’ chorus echo with Jesus’ words: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40)
We can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and shelter the homeless and nurse the sick. We can respond to that image of Christ in the faces of the least of Jesus’ family. Far be this from some misguided philanthropic diversion to the benefit of Oprah’s sweatpanted viewership. We are called, not just as Christians but as human beings, to help those who are suffering, to bring hope to those who are despairing. I ask you: how much better will we be, how much more unified, when today’s least of these are in the position to help tomorrow’s?
This is not the time for a bootstraps mentality. This is not the time to recline in the illusory comfort of self-interest. This is not the time to relapse into a tired old hoarding way. Be touched by the better angels of our nature. Know that this is the time to give. This is the time to tug on your neighbor’s bootstraps. This is the time to enter into the kinectic delight of unity and labor for the kingdom of God on earth.**
* Incidentally, figuring out when Election day falls is similar to figuring out the date for Easter: the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Fun times.
** Here is a list of links to help you get involved: