In Christ

Sermon for Sunday, June 17, 2018 || Proper 6B || 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17

Having trouble uploading the video today, so I’ll get it up as soon as I can.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” These are today’s words from the Apostle Paul written to the people of Jesus’ Way found in the city of Corinth, Greece. Except that there’s a couple extra words inserted in the English translation. Paul doesn’t actually say, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” He’s far too excited to bother with appropriate sentence structure or correct usage of linking verbs. No, what Paul really says – and I have to read this with a lot of exuberance to get the right effect – what Paul really says is this: “So if anyone is in Christ – new creation!”

Paul cannot wait to tell us of this new life, this new way of being, this new creation that happens when we live “in Christ.” But my question is: what does that mean? What does it mean to live “in Christ?” Why is Paul so excited? Continue reading “In Christ”

As I Have Loved You

Sermon for Sunday, May 6, 2018 || Easter 6B || John 15:9-17

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus says these words to his disciples during their last meal together. The next day he will walk to the cross, to his death, and so his words in the upper room take on the urgency of someone knowing they will probably be his last words. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

At first we might take issue with Jesus’ words: how can you command someone to love? It’s not like a drill sergeant shouting at his recruits to “drop and give me twenty.” That command can be followed pretty easily. You drop to the ground and do twenty push-ups. But the command to love? The reason it feels weird to us, the reason we might take issue, lies in the fact that we often think of love in terms of an emotion. This is love as “affection.” This is what we mean when we say we are “falling in love.”

Continue reading “As I Have Loved You”

Heart Expansion

Sermon for Sunday, April 22, 2018 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24

I know it’s Easter season, but please permit me to begin this sermon quoting a piece of an epic poem about Christmas. Okay, here goes:

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

My kids are on a Dr. Seuss kick right now, so when I read this morning’s lessons, the famous character of the Grinch immediately jumped to mind. In the entire canon of English literature, the Grinch is the best example of an anti-hero that I can come up with. Most stories are about a good guy, a protagonist, who overcomes some obstacle to achieve a goal. But in the Dr. Seuss classic, the main character is the bad guy, the antagonist, who thankfully is redeemed, in the end, by the selfless witness of his victims. I hope I didn’t spoil anything there. (How the Grinch Stole Christmas was published 61 years ago, so I think I’m in the clear.) Continue reading “Heart Expansion”

The Illusion of Self-Sufficiency

Sermon for Thursday, March 29, 2018 || Maundy Thursday || John 13:1-17, 31b-35

I don’t normally ad-lib in sermons, but this one has quite a bit, so I would suggest watching the video instead of reading it.

(The Story)
Jesus’ hour has come. He knows he has come from God and is going to God, and he knows the Father has given all things into his hands. He is at table with his disciples, whom he will soon call friends. He gets up from the table, takes off his outer robe, and ties a towel around himself. Rather than setting himself over his disciples as his position of Lord and teacher dictates, he takes the place of a servant and washes their feet.

(The Flu)
Ten years ago this month was the last time I got the flu. It was the Thursday before Palm Sunday. It was late in the evening, and I was sitting on the futon in my dorm room at seminary. I was doing what I always did in my free time, which was playing World of Warcraft on my computer. But something was wrong. I felt feverish and sluggish. My reaction time in the game was super slow, and I thought I might throw up on my keyboard. I closed the laptop and went to bed. I slept fitfully and awoke Friday morning with the flu. A full blown case: even blinking hurt. Continue reading “The Illusion of Self-Sufficiency”

They Could Not Take Your Pride

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.

U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go. From 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the song bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and easily slots into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite U2 songs. It’s one of those songs that I never skip when those first rifts from The Edge’s guitar bloom on my radio.

I love this song because it is about a profoundly misunderstood concept, but which U2 understands profoundly in their lyrics. The song is about martyrdom* and the reason someone would die in witness to a cause. For U2, there is only one reason that could ever lead someone down the martyr’s path, and that is Love. Continue reading “They Could Not Take Your Pride”

The Breastplate of Faith and Love

Sermon for Sunday, November 19, 2017 || Proper 28A || 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Before my kids were born, I played a lot of video games. My favorite kind of games were set in medieval fantasy realms where you fight monsters and dragons, all the while collecting treasure and renown. And new armor. In the last game I played seriously, I finished it wearing armor made of dragon scales. That was pretty cool. The armor in these games often have pretty cool names, too: The Gauntlets of Might, The Helmet of Insight, The Boots of Running and Jumping. You get the the idea.

I’ve always wondered if the designers of these games originally took a page out of the Apostle Paul’s book, because as near as I can tell, he invented this naming convention. He says in today’s lesson from his First Letter to the Thessalonians, “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” And yet, while the Breastplate of Faith and Love has an awesome name, it’s not even made of metal, let alone dragon scales. It’s made of faith and love. How could it possibly turn aside the weapons of its bearer’s enemies? Perhaps this is armor of a fundamentally different type. Continue reading “The Breastplate of Faith and Love”

God is Love, and Love Wins

Sermon for Sunday, August 13, 2017 || In response to the Violence in Charlottesville, VA

You might be wondering why I didn’t shave today. I have enough grandmothers in this congregation that I assure you someone is wondering that. Well, at about quarter to six this morning, I scrapped my sermon. I had just finished revising it when I decided to check the news and learned what had happened yesterday in Charlottesville, Virginia. If you were tuned out yesterday like I was, here’s the short version. A large group of white supremacists gathered on and near the campus of the University of Virginia to, according to them, protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Counter-protesters also gathered. There were verbal and physical clashes, culminating in a car plowing into a the latter group, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Later in the day, a police helicopter crashed, killing both officers aboard (though foul play was not suspected). Continue reading “God is Love, and Love Wins”

Reaching Into Eternity

Sermon for Sunday, March 13, 2016 || Lent 5C ||  John 12:1-11

reachingintoeternity

Imagine with me a letter written by Lazarus, the friend whom Jesus brought back to life after four days in the tomb.

To my dear sisters, Martha and Mary, by the hand of a trusted friend:

I have written and re-written this letter in my mind, and still any words I hope to scratch here will pale in comparison to the anguish I have in my heart for you. I love you both. My spirit wilts to contemplate putting you through grief yet again. You already passed from grief to joy, as I passed from death to life. But I fear we will reverse this cycle again before long.

Indeed, if you are reading this letter, then I have died once again: not from illness this time, but from malice. I am writing this to help you understand what has happened, and I’m sorry if my thoughts seem like fragments. Fragments are all I have right now. After dinner tonight, Jesus confirmed the fear that has been growing in my mind. His words shattered the innocence I wrapped myself in since coming out of the tomb.

He drew me aside after his confrontation with Judas. I could smell the perfume you anointed him with, Mary. I will remember that scent for the rest of my days. I will remember, too, his eyes set on mine, full of love and agitation. “Beloved,” he said, “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t know what to say. What did he have to apologize to me for?

“I’m sorry for what may be coming soon. I’m sorry that you may suffer on my account. I’m sorry I drew you into all this.”

He looked to be on the verge of tears. “Into what, Lord?” I asked.

“I brought you back from death, only to make you a target for death again. There are powers in Jerusalem who seek my life, and now they seek your life as well. These crowds that come to hear me—they also come to see you, to see with their own eyes proof of the words I speak. And now those who seek to kill me have added you to their list.”

I had sensed this—in the roving eyes of some in the crowd, in the growing sense of foreboding in my gut—but hearing it from Jesus’ own mouth made it real. I hadn’t named the fear I was feeling. I had feigned innocence, hoping that ignoring reality would change it. But Jesus’ words set reality in front of my eyes, and I could not turn away.

Will I die tomorrow? Will I be stoned in a public square or dispatched by an assassin’s blade? Will there be blood? Will it hurt? My sisters, I know you are reading this after I’m gone, so these thoughts must seem wild and misplaced in such a letter. But I beg you: keep reading, for I have not said all.

He kept his eyes on me as I took in his words. I didn’t know whether to run away or to weep on his shoulder. I felt faint. I looked around for something solid to lean on. The walls and chairs looked flimsy somehow. So I reached out and steadied myself on his arm. Finally, words came. “Why did you restore my life if I’m just going to be murdered weeks later?”

“Lazarus,” he said, “I wish I could spare you the prying eyes that have hounded you since that day. I wish I could spare you the pain that may be ahead of you. I cannot. But I can tell you this…”

Dear sisters, coming from any other person, what he said next would have rung pitifully hollow, but the light in Jesus’ eyes held the promise that his words are truth. “I came that you may have life,” he said, “and have it in abundance. This life that I give, beloved, is more than just your ability to move or think or breathe. This life includes those things, just as it includes pain and grief. But ever so much more, this life includes those wonderful gifts from God that reach into eternity: love and joy and grace and justice and peace. You are mine, and I have taught you how to love others as I love you. You are mine, and I make your joy complete. You are mine, and I offer the grace to strive for justice and peace everyday, no matter how many days are left to you.”

I was captivated. I looked him in the eye, and again that light of truth danced behind brimming tears that now began to trace silent streams down his face. “I shed tears now,” he said, “knowing that you may suffer for my sake. But I shed them also for the joy of knowing that such suffering cannot diminish the life I give you. Yes, you will die again. Do not let that keep you from living. And yes, you will live again after you die. Do not let that keep you from living now, either.”

His words washed over me, like clear water from a living spring. I drank them in, and they filled me. The life that he gives is more than life. The life that he gives is more than death. It does not begin when I die, nor did it begin when he brought me from the tomb. His life endures, for I am his whether I live or whether I die.

Dear sisters, while I pray to be spared from pain and suffering, I am not afraid of death. I am afraid that I do not have the strength to live as one who has this abundant life that reaches into eternity. I am afraid that I will live as though I were dead again.

But Jesus chose his words well the day he brought me back to life. Yes, he knew my fears even before I did. Do you remember what he said that day? I do, and those words are imprinted on me like the smell of tonight’s perfume. “Lazarus, come out.” He never spoke a word of resuscitation, never said, “I raise you from the dead.” He just commanded me to leave the tomb. And the gift of life came back to me in order to obey this command.

So until the day I pass through the gate of death again – and I sense it will be soon – Jesus’ command to stay out of the tomb still rules my life. This life he has given me – given each of us – reaches into eternity, so whatever ways we show forth his love now are burnished with the sheen of heaven. Whatever ways we show forth his love now will last long after we are gone, will ripple out to touch more lives than we can possibly imagine.

Mary, Martha: if you are reading this, I have died again. But know that my death will not stop the abundant life that Jesus revealed to me when I was still with you. Do not wait for death to begin your abundant, eternal life. It is yours now. Laugh and dance and sing and serve and love. And rejoice that Jesus continues to give you—and me—the gift of himself, the gift of abundant life that reaches into eternity.

With all the love in my heart,

Your Brother,

Lazarus

A Still More Excellent Way

Sermon for Sunday, January 31, 2016 || Epiphany 4C || 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

AStillMoreExcellentWayWe’ve all heard those words from the Apostle Paul a hundred times. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” I read them at my sister’s wedding. Perhaps you had them read at your own. Statistically speaking, if you go to a wedding there’s a better than average chance you’ll hear First Corinthians 13. Now, it is true beautiful chapter can stand apart as an ancient ode to love. But when we sequester these verses to the marital service alone, we miss how Paul uses them in the greater context of his letter. We miss how love is the corrective for the issues facing the church in Corinth. We miss what love is for. So let’s put these famous words back in context, and with a little help from Harry Potter, we’ll remember a thing or two about love.

First, I’m glad we get to read these words outside the wedding. Of course, with the snow last week, not many of us got to hear Paul’s words leading up to this chapter. So here’s a quick recap: the Corinthians are having a problem welcoming all people into their community. Apparently they have been sorting people out into greater and lesser classes depending on their material wealth, social circumstance, and (this is the one that gets Paul really worked up) their spiritual giftedness. “We need all types of people and all sorts of gifts to make the Body of Christ function,” he argues. “We are all part of the one Body and don’t you ever dare say someone else doesn’t belong because that person doesn’t share your particular set of gifts or your elevated social status.”

Paul punctuates his point by asking a series of rhetorical questions at the end of Chapter 12. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.”

And next we have the verse that links the two chapters beautifully, which the framers of our reading schedule left out. “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” The still more excellent way is the way of love. Love is the antidote for the Corinthian disease, the symptoms of which include “welcoming only those who are like me” and “judging others solely by how they might be of use.” The first symptom limits our welcome to the least diverse group possible and siloes us off from any point of view that might expand our own. The second symptom discounts the value of persons who contribute to the community in ways that are not readily apparent. As the medicine for this Corinthian disease, Paul prescribes love.

But Paul isn’t sure the Corinthians have any idea what love is, so he instructs them. The still more excellent way begins with a recognition that love is the motivator of all God’s gifts. If I have all the spiritual gifts listed in the surrounding chapters – speaking in tongues, prophesying, understanding mysteries, possessing mountain-moving faith – but do not act in love, then it’s all worthless. Without love, I do everything for myself alone. I seek pleasure at the expense of others. I self-aggrandize. Eventually, I die deserted and embittered. But with love motivating action, our gifts do not enrich ourselves alone. With love, our gifts enrich everyone we encounter. Love is the powerful weaving force that stitches our actions into the tapestry of God’s story. Acting without love, we unravel the tapestry; we pull ourselves out until our individual threads are just wafting in the wind. A single piece of thread doesn’t tell a story until it’s woven together with other threads. The desire to be woven together is better known as love.

With this desire expressed, Paul moves on to what love does. Our translation messes this up. It should not read, “Love is patient; love is kind.” The original language involves much more action: “Love shows patience; love shows kindness.” The old song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” But how will this nameless “they” know our love? There is only one way, and it springs from the only piece of advice an aspiring writer ever really needs: Three little words: “Show, don’t tell.”

If we have to tell people, “No, seriously, we are a loving community,” you can bet dollars to donuts that we aren’t. But if love is the desire to woven together, then we show love when we start weaving: you learn someone’s name and remember it. You ask, “Want to have coffee on Tuesday?” You look past the red doors of this place and notice the threads of God’s movement running in all directions, towards all people. And you begin to realize that this church is not bounded by these walls and doors; this church is unbounded because the Body of Christ goes forth from this place to show love in every place. You bear witness to the love of Jesus in your homes, in your businesses, the ball field, the gym, the grocery store, the street corner, the Internet. (Especially the Internet! Please show the love of Jesus online. The digital world is in dire need of the healing power of love. Just look at YouTube comment sections.)

I know it may sound tired or quaint to be preaching about love. Indeed, when Albus Dumbledore tells Harry Potter that Harry’s greatest gift is love, Harry just rolls his eyes. He would much rather be gifted with more talent or better intellect or greater weapons to contend with the dark wizard Voldemort. But no. In the end, Harry is stripped of all the trappings of talent and privilege and pride. He has only the love for and of his friends and family – both living and dead – to give him the courage to face his foe. To die. And then to live. (Sounds like another story I’ve heard somewhere.)

For Harry (and for Jesus) love is the true motivator. Not pride or glory. Not fame or fortune. Love: the desire to be woven together. For an orphan like Harry, this desire first manifests in finding a loving home with the Weasleys. And it last appears when he sacrifices himself to save everyone he loves. To quote Jesus, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Jesus and Harry and, say, the heroic soldier who dives on a grenade literally laid down their lives. Perhaps we might be called to this someday, but it will only happen once. In the meantime, we can show great love by laying down our threads on the loom of God’s tapestry, side by side with each other and everyone else whom God loves.

The still more excellent way is the way of love, this weaving power that heals and reconciles creation. True love will never be tired. True love will never be quaint. True love will never end. Because God’s tapestry has no borders, only edges for more thread to be woven in.

Art: Screenshot from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2), when Harry meets Dumbledore at Kings Cross Station after being killed by Voldemort.

God’s Dazzling Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, we are taking a great leap: a leap of faith. We have faith that Paul’s words written to the church in Rome are true: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (8:14-17). We are children of God. Thus, God’s words, spoken from heaven as the dove descends, are for us, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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