Living the Story

Sermon for Sunday, May 18, 2014 || Easter 5A || John 14:1-14

livingthestoryAttending seminary a few subway stops away from Washington D.C. provided some lovely distractions. The National Gallery of Art was my favorite. The Air and Space Museum was a close second. I visited most of the District’s tourist attractions during my three years there, and most lived up to their billing. One that did not was the D.C. zoo. The zoo is squashed into a tiny piece of the District, and the animals are squashed into tiny pieces of the zoo. The panda paddock was smaller than the backyard I mowed every week growing up. The elephants had no room to move. Everything was concrete and wrought iron. And the one time I went there, I couldn’t help but think what an inaccurate use of the word “zoo” I was witnessing.*

You see, the word “zoo” comes from a beautiful Greek word, which has also morphed into a popular girls’ name. The name is “Zoey”; the Greek word is ζωη (pronounced zo-AY). Zoe mean “life,” but the life reflected in the zoo’s tiny paddocks full of forlorn-looking animals is not the kind of life the word zoe comprehends.

You see, zoe means “life,” yes, but the connotation of the Greek doesn’t stop there. The word from which we get “zoo” means expansive life, life without bounds, the kind of life that the creature is meant to live. Jesus uses this word in today’s Gospel lesson when he answers Thomas’s question. The disciple asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I Am the Life. This life – this zoe – is the expansive, authentic life of the creature living as the Creator dreams for the creature to live. As we walk with Christ through our lives, he offers us his zoe, a life of purpose and meaning and fulfillment. A small piece of Christ’s life appears in what we call the Gospel; I’d like to spend the rest of this sermon telling you all a story – well, fragments of the story of Jesus’ life as told by John, our Gospel writer for today. The more we tell this story to each other, the more we will live it, and the more our lives will reflect Jesus’ zoe.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through this Word – all life, all zoe, in fact. This Word became flesh and made his home among us. He lived with us in order to teach us how to live, how to tune our lives so they resonate with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Everyone needs a name, and his earthly parents called this Word-made-flesh “Jesus.” Jesus lived in an obscure corner of an obscure corner of a mighty empire. But pretty soon the empire would sit up and take notice.

One day Jesus was out walking and two fellows, John and Andrew, came up to him and asked where he was staying. Now Jesus could have said, “Down the street to the left of the well just past the marketplace.” That would have been a fair answer to the question. Instead, Jesus says, “Come and see.” Jesus’ life is a life of inviting.

Three days later, Jesus went to a wedding celebration with his new friends and his mother. Now, weddings in those days went on for a whole week, but something at this wedding threatened to cut the festivities short. They ran out of wine. Jesus wasn’t going to get involved, but his mother had other plans. So Jesus had several large jars filled with water, but when the steward tasted it, the water had become wine. And moreover, this wine was even better than the wine that ran out. Presumably, the festivities continued in full swing. Jesus’ life is a life of celebrating.

Some time after that, Jesus met a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. The man often came to a certain pool, a pool renowned for curative properties. He was so focused on getting into the pool when Jesus came that he almost missed the opportunity in front of him. Jesus commanded the paralyzed man to get up. If anyone else had said this to the man, he would have thought it a cruel joke, but something in Jesus’ tone (or maybe it was the fire in his eyes) made the man obey. He stood up, and then I imagine he danced for joy. Jesus’ life is a life of healing.

Soon after, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, and a vast crowd followed him. Unwilling to send the crowd away, Jesus took a laughably small amount of food – barely enough for one family – thanked God for it, and distributed the five loaves and two fish to over five thousand people. After he fed the people with physical food, he also fed them spiritual food. Jesus’ life is a life of feeding.

Skipping forward quite a ways in the story, Jesus was getting ready to share another meal when first he took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, got down on his knees, and washed the dusty feet of his disciples. This act of service was so at odds with how they thought their teacher should act that Simon Peter told Jesus not to wash his feet. But Jesus saw the matter differently. To remove the dynamic of power – one over another – Jesus commanded his friends to wash each other’s feet, to serve each other. Jesus’ life is a life of serving.

The next day, Jesus met the empire – both the worldly empire of Rome, which occupied his homeland; and the otherworldly empire of evil, death, and division, which occupied the hearts and minds of those he wished to bring back to God. Jesus, condemned to death, dragged a cross to a hill outside the city. In the anguish that followed, he drew to himself each and everything that separates us from God, and their power died with him. Jesus’ life is a life of sacrificing.

Three days later, his tomb was empty. Jesus was alive again, though not again. Rather, Jesus was alive anew. In his death and resurrection, he brought creation back into right relationship with God. The Word made flesh, who made his home with us, gave us a new opportunity to make our home with God. This new relationship was the ultimate act of reconciliation. Jesus life is a life of reconciling.

Inviting. Celebrating. Healing. Feeding. Serving. Sacrificing. Reconciling. These are just seven pieces of Jesus’ life – his zoe – the expansive, authentic life which he offers to us all. Now, I have two questions for you. First, how do you or how can you participate in Jesus’ zoe by intentionally integrating these actions into your lives? Perhaps you’ll invite an acquaintance to church. Or celebrate someone else’s good news. Or be a healing presence for a person’s who’s sick. Or cook food to feed the hungry. Or serve God by using your unique constellation of gifts. Or practice sacrificial giving so that God’s work in the world, say at our partner school in Haiti, can shine even brighter. Or reconcile with a person from whom you are estranged. In each of these actions, know that you are embracing Jesus’ life and living as the Creator meant for you to live.

My second question: what other pieces of Jesus’ life can we add to this list and what stories point to them? Jesus’ life is a life of loving, of teaching, of truth-telling, of relationship-building, of prophetic-speaking and Spirit-breathing, and so much more. You and I each have the opportunity to tune our lives to the frequency of Jesus’ zoe. When we do, we become beacons of the light of Christ shining in this world. We become the flesh, in which the Word makes his home. So I encourage you this week, and this lifetime, to live the story of Jesus’ life in your own. Invite. Celebrate. Heal. Feed. Serve. Sacrifice. Reconcile. And be authentic expressions of the life, the zoe, which God dreams for creation.

* I was told after the service in which I delivered this sermon that the D.C. zoo has been much improved since I visited it some eight or nine years ago.
Art: detail from “Miracle at Cana” by Vladimir Makovsky (1887).

Life, in some superlative form

The following post appeared Tuesday, October 13th on, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to serve several people who were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been a priest for nearly a year and a half, but it was not until this summer that I officiated at a burial office or spent hours with families, stumbling together through the wilderness of loss. These recent months have again and again brought me to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John (which appears more than once in the burial service) and to my own first remembrance of the loss of a love one.

My grandmother died a few miles inland from this stunningly beautiful seascape.

In the months before she passed on, she began having difficulty remembering which of the people in the room were related to her. One time, she thought my father was her biological son, though he had married one of her four daughters thirty years before. The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to her bed in the nursing home, a sterile facility a few miles inland from the rock beaches of the northern Massachusetts coastline. In my memory, she was always a small woman, shrunken by age. But during that final visit, I was shocked by her deterioration: the sheets and blankets seemed to double her body mass. Her white hair, once so carefully curled, hung limply from her head. She spoke in a choked whisper, as if her words were too special to share with the rest of the world. And, in a way, they were.

We got the call one summer evening and immediately made plans to fly to New England. When we arrived, we joined the rest of the extended family and pooled our grief with theirs. Cousins and aunts and sisters shared long embraces and reassuring shoulder squeezes and tears. We conversed in muted tones, offering our favorite memories of Esther: the swing set adjacent to her apartment complex; her inability to cook pot roast; her glowing love for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As we remembered my grandmother, we started repeating certain phrases. “She lived a long life.” “She’s no longer in pain.” “She was ready to go.” “A part of her died twenty years ago with Jack; I’m so glad they are together again.” These sentiments comforted us as we shared them with each other. An outsider listening in on our conversations might have scoffed at such clichéd remarks, but for our family such well-worn comments gave us words to assuage our grief.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha leaves her home and goes out to meet him. Their conversation begins with similar phrases that emerge out of grief. I imagine that Martha and Mary had often said, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” in the four days since they had buried their brother. And now Martha addresses Jesus with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps, this is an accusation; perhaps, it is a statement of faith. More likely (as is so often the case), it is a combination of the two. She continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Indeed, such a statement had probably reached cliché status at that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ words in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

But Martha has not grasped Jesus’ full meaning. Far from offering the usual comforting words to a person in grief, Jesus eliminates the cliché by completely retooling the rules for resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

The writer of the Gospel throws the full weight of Jesus’ “I am” statements behind these words. By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death will occur, he says; after all, resurrection cannot take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death. The first verses of the Gospel link life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Just as darkness did not overcome light, death fails to conquer life because of the power of the resurrection.

Jesus’ words to Martha appear in our burial services to remind us of that power. But these words carry the weight of Jesus’ divine identity, and thus serve as so much more than a simple reminder. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life. By revealing resurrection as part of his identity, Jesus further divulges the lengths to which he goes to be in relationship with us. Death cannot stop this relationship, because Jesus is resurrection and life.

Martha understands that resurrection assures this continued relationship with Jesus. When he asks her if she believes his words, she replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers that she believes in him. Rather than her belief fulfilling a requirement for resurrection, her belief simply affirms her relationship with Jesus. She desires a relationship with him, and Jesus, in his unwillingness to end such a relationship, offers the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.

When my grandmother died, my family came together to celebrate her life in the midst of our grief. We spoke comforting words to each other, words that had the power of love behind them. And at the service where we laid Esther’s body to rest next to her beloved Jack, we heard Jesus’ words of life proclaiming Jesus’ desire to continue his relationship with us beyond death in the power of the resurrection.


* The names of my maternal grandparents have been changed (in order that you’ll have a harder pretending to be me while filling out bank forms).

Proclaiming the mystery: John’s first five

The following post appeared Saturday, August 22nd on, a website to which I am now a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

The mystery section was on the back wall of the small independent bookshop at which I worked my last few years of high school. When a customer entered the store, her eyes would glance past the smaller shelving units and fix on the placards proudly bearing the word “MYSTERY.” The shelves containing the mystery section were taller and broader than those holding the other books, and I was the only employee tall enough to dust the top ones without a stepladder. Let’s just say that the manager loved mysteries, so we had a disproportionate number of them. We had humorous mysteries and thrillers, beach reads and stay-up-till-one-in-the-morning nail biters. In those books, a mystery was set forth: say, how did the killer manage to murder someone in a room locked from the inside? The plot revolved around the detective attempting to solve the puzzle. In the end, the detective figured out that the bell rope used to call for the maid was replaced with a poisonous snake, which somehow slithered unnoticed out of the room in the ensuing hubbub of discovering the body. Mystery solved. No more mystery.

The Gospel according to John begins with a mystery, but it is a mystery that is wholly different from the Whodunnits? on the back wall of the bookshop. The mystery that begins the Gospel cannot be solved, cannot be explained away. It can only be unapologetically presented and then unabashedly proclaimed.

rainbowTake a look at the first five verses that John gives us:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (1:1-5; NRSV)

Here John presents the mystery: somehow the Word (who we find out a few verses later becomes enfleshed in Jesus Christ) is in the beginning with God and is also God. Remember in Algebra class when you had to show your work to get full credit? Well, John skips down to the bottom of the page. There is no balancing of equations or solving for “x.” He states the mystery simply: in the beginning, the Word was with God and was God. This is frustrating at first because I’m conditioned to think that mysteries are all supposed to be like the ones on the back wall of the bookshop. I want to know how it’s possible and I won’t be satisfied until I figure it out and if I can’t figure it out then it must not be true.

But I take a deep breath and look at the words again. I read them slowly and speak them aloud. I notice that the rational part of me is sitting in the corner sulking because “with” and “was” should be mutually exclusive. But I find that the creative part of me sees past such mundane things as mutual exclusivity and begins to roll around in the muck of ambiguity. I squelch my toes in the mud, relishing the notion that God lives in a reality where choosing between alternatives is not the only viable option. Of course the Word can be both with God and was God! The limits of my language do not limit God, only my understanding of God. I realize my language skills are not up to the challenge of describing God. And my rational side joins my creative side in the muck of ambiguity because my rationality has been given the license to imagine.

In a few short phrases, John presents the mystery. Then, he deepens the mystery by retelling the story of creation. It’s no coincidence that John uses the same phrase that opens the book of Genesis: “In the beginning.” All things came into being through the Word who was with God and was God. My creative side connects with these verses because they are about creation. Life is created through him, and because I have been given the gift of creativity, I can sense in my gut or in my bones that the Creator is continuing to create me.

This creative force is the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot comprehend or overcome or understand the light because the darkness has never been a part of creation. The darkness is just the absence of any created thing. It tries jealously to unmake created things but fails to triumph since God never stops creating or calling creation to God.*

In these first five verses, John locates us (“life,” “all people”) within the mystery of God and creation, and he presents the adversary of creation, namely darkness. We have the makings of an epic story here.** The seemingly out-of-place verses 6-8 help me realize my role in this story. The mystery has been presented, and now John the Baptizer steps onstage for a brief scene. He is a witness who testifies to the light. (The words “witness” and “testify” are from the same root in Greek; the English word “martyr” comes from it.) His proclamation points to the light, which is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. So too, my life, which has come into being through the Word, is meant to be a proclamation of the mystery of God and God’s movement in creation.

When I encounter these first few verses of the Fourth Gospel, I feel the enormity of the mystery of God surrounding me, and I rejoice that this mystery discloses itself in light and life and love. If I could explain the mystery, I would be in danger of explaining it away, of shelving it like the Whodunnits? on the back wall. The mystery transcends explanation. It is elusive, and at the same time intimate; it cannot be grasped, but it can be embraced. The intimacy and the embrace happen when the mystery touches the spark of creativity within me, spurring me to proclaim the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. Life has come into being through the Word. And my life expands to every pocket and corner of my being when I live to proclaim this good news.


* My apologies for hurling this paragraph at you with no further comment. If it confused you at all, blame Karl Barth.

** I am using the word “story” to convey something that is important enough to be told and retold down through the centuries, something that is about God and about us and is a tale that is never quite finished being woven. Please do not take my use of the word in the sense of “it’s only a story.”

The Japanese tattoo

You may be tempted to take away from the following story this advice: “Don’t get a word from a language you don’t speak tattooed onto you.” By all means, please do take this advice. But also keep reading because I don’t plan to make my non-tattoo specific point until later in the piece.

I had a friend in college – a tall, good-looking fellow, who probably could be cast as the Norse god Thor in a future Marvel Comic film adaptation if he grew his hair out. Over the course of four years of college, this friend got half a dozen tattoos. The ink was spread across his body, and there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to his choices. Like moles or scars, the tattoos appeared to be distributed randomly between his torso and various appendages. About once a semester, he would walk up to the lunch table, put down his tray, and grin until we realized he got a new tattoo.

This is my tattoo. Notice, it's not a foreign word. However, I don't think I'll ever fully understand its significance.
This is my tattoo. Notice, it's not a foreign word. However, I don't think I'll ever fully understand its significance.

On one such occasion, he rolled up his sleeve and showed us the fresh ink just below his left shoulder. Upon the skin, still red and raw from the thousand tiny stab wounds he suffered for this new art, a vertical line connected three horizontal ones. “It means ‘Life’ in Japanese,” he said through his grin. Thankfully, he was too enthralled with his own left arm to see my eyes go wide, like I had just realized I left the oven on. I looked down and started arranging the French fries on my plate into the same Japanese character, while my inner censor struggled to purge my speech of all the correctional thoughts racing through my mind.

Now, I took two years of Japanese in college, and that character was written in black Sharpie on my mental 3×5 cards. “It means ‘Life’ in Japanese,” he said, and my first wide-eyed thought was, “Well, sort of…” The character means, “to live” in the sense of “I live in West Virginia.” Literally, it means, “to inhabit.” Needless to say, I’m glad my inner censor won that day, because Thor could easily have pummeled me if I had educated him in the nuances of the Japanese language.

Ever since that tattoo-related event, I have distinguished living from inhabiting. Too often, I merely inhabit: I wake up, I take a shower, I microwave a bowl of oatmeal, I ignore Sportscenter until the Red Sox highlights come on, I make sure I have my keys before I lock the front door. I do everything…vaguely. I yawn my way through the bleary-eyed hours. I flip on the autopilot switch and read a magazine in the cockpit of my existence.

Surely, this “inhabiting” isn’t what Jesus meant when he used the word “life.” I am the way, the truth, and the life. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. When Jesus promises us abundant life, he is not talking about our existence. We do not “exist” abundantly. When we enter into Jesus’ life, we find this abundant living. But living doesn’t just happen. Living is deliberate. If we do not claim abundance, it will just sit there, like the pack of hot dogs that’s been in my fridge for six months.

The danger of “inhabiting” rather than living is (usually unbeknownst to us) lapsing into dronehood, into the drab cycle of shower/oatmeal/Sportscenter/keys. But God did not create us to be drones; indeed, God sent God’s only son to us because we had become drones – slaves to the poor imitations of life that we had cultivated to golden-calf-status.

Receiving the abundance that Jesus’ promised snaps us out of dronehood. When we choose to live rather than merely to inhabit, a new world of possibility opens up for us. The complete joy that is key to an abundant life paints our days with vibrancy and vitality. Even those things that established our routine get a new coat of joy.

I suspect Henry David Thoreau was struggling with dronehood when he decided to go Walden Pond in 1845. There he wrote these words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

It is my prayer that each one of us lives deep, that we live and not merely inhabit, that we suck out all the marrow of the abundant life that Jesus promises us.