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”

Peace Beyond Propaganda

Sermon for Sunday, August 14, 2016 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56

Whenever we have a baptism at St. Mark’s, we also have the opportunity to reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant. This covenant includes five promises that serve as a roadmap for a life as a follower of Jesus Christ.

The last of these promises asks: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

We answer each promise with the same refrain: “I will, with God’s help.” If you’re like me, however, you might be experiencing some cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise against Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. Continue reading “Peace Beyond Propaganda”

The Peace We Promise

(Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2013 || Proper 15C || Luke 12:49-56)

These are the promises we will reaffirm before our baptism in a few minutes:

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

We will answer each of these with, “I will, with God’s help.” This acknowledges that we can’t fulfill the promises without God. We will also answer them as a group, which acknowledges that we can’t fulfill them without each other. I wonder, however, if you are experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to reconcile that last promise with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading. I know I am. We promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” while Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

It probably didn’t escape your notice that Jesus is in a less friendly mood than he was in last week’s passage. When Jesus speaks from a place of stress or exhaustion, as he does in today’s reading, he often slides to the strident, confrontational end of the spectrum. Sounds particularly human, doesn’t it? Sounds like me if I’m having a low blood sugar day or if I’m about to board an airplane. We can use Jesus’ stress to explain away his difficult words (“He didn’t really mean that stuff about peace and division; he was just really stressed out”). Or we can acknowledge that in his stressed state, Jesus speaks some unvarnished truth, perhaps not as nuanced as he would have liked to speak it, but truth nonetheless.

RomanRoadTo get to this unvarnished truth, we first have to understand how people in Jesus’ time would have heard the word “peace.” One version of the word was a simple greeting: “Shalom.” Another use was for the cessation of upheaval: “Peace, be still.” But a third use was more sinister – peace as propaganda. You’ve heard of the “Pax Romana,” the “Peace of Rome.” This was the glorious gift of Rome to the peoples fortunate enough to come under the Roman banner and Roman “protection.” Well, that’s how the Romans would have sold it. The Pax Romana really spread by the edge of the sword, and conquered peoples lived in fear and distrust of their occupiers.

I think it is to this third kind of “peace” that Jesus is referring: “peace” as the absence of conflict, yes, but also the absence of justice, of freedom. The kind of peace the Pax Romana brought was really just a thin veneer spread over a roiling mass of suppressed cultures and traditions and hopes and dreams. The thin veneer of “peace” hid the brokenness, the divisions that lay beneath.

With his words in today’s lesson, Jesus seeks to rip the cover off this false kind of peace and to expose the brokenness of society beneath, and in exposing that brokenness begin to heal it. Jesus knows human nature all too well – without exposing the brokenness, the divisions in society, we are content just to go along with the status quo, willingly ignorant to the steep costs of so-called “peace.” Indeed, Jesus’ words today could have spilled from the lips of any leader of the Civil Rights movement. How many decades did this country live in so-called “peace” before Rosa Parks took her seat on the bus in 1955?

Jesus’ words also speak unvarnished truth when we move from the societal to the personal. Each of us has a individual Pax Romana within us — a set of assumptions about our security and wellbeing that promises peace at long last. Despite the lack of evidence, we believe these promises until we realize they come from the marketing department, whose goal is for us to consume, not to find peace. When Jesus rips the cover off this false kind of peace, we find our broken selves, which have fragmented because we let ourselves be seduced by so many things. With the false peace gone, we confront the broken, divided people we really are.

But we aren’t alone. Jesus may have come to expose the divisions hidden under the myriad Pax Romanas of society and of our souls. But this is only half the mission. He also came to put the pieces back together again. He came to show us what real peace is: peace accompanied by justice, mercy, and love; peace that nurtures the dignity of all peoples rather than suppressing it; peace that passes all understanding.

This is the kind of peace we strive for when we affirm our baptismal promises. We strive for the peace of the broken bone that grows back stronger than before. We strive for the peace of the generous heart that no longer fears scarcity as it once did. We strive for the peace of Christ that shatters the veneer of tranquility, exposes the divisions beneath, and weaves the disparate threads of division into peace that is true, deep, and abiding.

The peace we promise to strive for in our baptismal promises is this true, deep, and abiding peace of Christ. We participate in the hard work of accomplishing this peace when, with God’s help, we see past the thin veneer of so-called peace in society and in ourselves. When, with God’s help, we follow Jesus Christ to the brokenness beneath, the brokenness of the cross and the world. And when, with God’s help, we don’t stop there, but press on to the new wholeness of the empty tomb and the power of the resurrection.

Aim at Heaven

(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.”

Zelda shooting a light arrow.
Zelda shooting a light arrow.

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.

Sermon Reconstruction: Abundance and Generosity

For this past Sunday, I chose to deviate from my normal sermon preparation (sit in my chair writing and polishing until the full text is presentable) in favor of an extemporaneous style which I do once or twice a year. This less common style is the one I grew up listening to, as my father* (who was on the radio before becoming a priest) is very good at holding an entire sermon in his head and stringing his thoughts together with nary an “um” to be heard. While my father and I share a lot in common, preaching style is not one of them. I’m a writer through and through.

So it came time to preach on Sunday. I had a few notes written down. I preached. I recorded it through the church’s sound system. I was about to post the recording, and then noticed my digital recorder’s battery had run down. Long story less long — what follows is a short reconstruction of the thoughts in the sermon. It’s not exactly what I said, but here goes. (Check out Luke 12:13-21 before reading on.)

Jesus often talks about priorities, specifically about reorienting our priorities so they line up better with the order God yearns for us to adopt. For us today, the two priorities that need lining up are possessions and relationships. So, show of hands: who think Jesus would put our possessions above our relationships.

(No one raised his or her hand here. I went to sit down, saying that I guess I didn’t need to finish the sermon. A bit of laughter. Then I continued.)

Right. For Jesus, relationships always trump possessions. In today’s Gospel reading he says: “For your life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” But have you ever stopped to wonder why relationships are more important than possessions?

That's my guitar at a concert back in 2008.
That’s my guitar at a concert back in 2008.

The answer starts with how relationships and possessions differ. We possess our material goods. We own them. We paid for them or they were given to us. My most prized possession is my 2006 Taylor 410e Fall Limited Edition acoustic guitar, which was a present for my ordination to the priesthood from my home parish. It is a beautiful instrument and it makes a beautiful sound. It also makes me want to write songs as often as possible, which was not the case with my previous guitar.

So if for some reason I had to give up my guitar, would I be able to do it? If the answer is “no,” then I cease possessing my guitar and the instrument begins possessing me. The moment I can’t let it go is the moment I cede my sovereignty to the object. I become its vassal. It becomes my idol.

Our possessions have an uncanny ability to lead us down this life-denying path. Just think: when you were three years old, were you able to let the other kid play with your firetruck? I didn’t think so.

But possessions differ from relationships because other people cannot be possessed. The history of the United States is tarnished by the evil of trying to possess other people, and the legacy of slavery still reaches its cancerous tendrils into modern society. While one set of people thought of another as property, I can’t imagine that those subjected to the dehumanizing nature of slavery ever thought of themselves as possessions. People can’t be possessed, and when we try, evil is the result.

Since we cannot possess others in the same way we can possess objects, our relationships teach us how best to prioritize our material possessions. A relationship flourishes precisely when we aren’t trying to possess it; therefore, sustaining life-giving relationships helps us practice the kind of emotional letting go that we aren’t good at where our material goods are concerned.

Each of us is blessed with an abundance of possessions, but abundance becomes a blessing when we pair it with generosity. Generosity turns our possessions into the resources which fuel new relationships. As we give away the things that we might otherwise bow down to, we come into contact with the recipient of those things and discover the opportunity to form a new relationship.

Thus generosity catalyzes a virtuous cycle: generosity spurs new relationships. Generosity in relationship helps it flourish. This flourishing teaches us to be generous with our possessions and turn them into new relationships.

When we prioritize possessions over relationships, we become lonely misers like the foolish man in the parable. His foolishness is not that he’s wealthy. It’s that he desires to share his wealth with no one else. God blesses us with abundance, but God also blesses us with the ability to turn abundance into blessing when we pair it with generosity. So what does a life full of God consist of? Not the abundance of possessions, but the generosity of relationship.

* You can hear my father, The Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas preach at balconyperspective.com.

Facing Fear

(Sermon for August 8, 2010 || Proper 14, Year C, RCL || Luke 12:32-40)

The Bene Gesserit test Paul Atreides at the beginning of Dune. (1984)

Many years ago in a dusty volume, I read an old Bene Gesserit litany against fear, and this prayer has stuck with me every since. “I must not fear,” says the litany. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Now that dusty volume was Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best selling science-fiction novel of all time, but the words of the litany ring true nonetheless. “I must not fear… Fear is the little-death… I will face my fear.”

From the time we are young children, our parents echo these words and tell us to face our fears. Perhaps you were afraid of the dark. So you mother let you sleep with the lights on for a while. Then she turned the lights off and left the bedside lamp on. A few days later, she turned off the bedside lamp and plugged a nightlight into the wall near the door. Pretty soon, you didn’t even need the nightlight. Your mother helped you face your fear of the dark, and you overcame it.

Or perhaps you were afraid of the monsters under your bed. There they were: always lurking, rumbling, slurping, ready to pounce – until you summoned up enough courage to dangle your head over the side of the bed and chase the monsters away. You faced your fear, and you overcame it.

We look back on these childhood fears and chuckle at how intangible worries grew into monstrous fears. The shadow of your own feet under the covers cast a winged creature on the wall, and the creature moved the more you shook. Under your bed, a pair of shoes and a couple of tennis balls made the ears and eyes of a monster peering up through the floorboards. The fears were nothing really. Our imaginations ran away with us, that’s all.

At least, this is how we adults dismiss those childhood fears. We dismiss them as fanciful or as attention-seeking or as the fruits of overactive imaginations. But hidden within this easy dismissal is also a tacit dismissal of our parents’ advice. “Face your fear,” they said, and we did, and everything got better.

But those were our intangible, childhood fears. That advice couldn’t possibly work on our concrete, grown-up fears. Our fears are too immediate, too relentless, too real. Of course, we forget that this is exactly how our childhood fears felt, as well. Perhaps our parents’ advice, the same advice that I learned reading science fiction, really might work in our lives today. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to take our parents’ advice. He asks them to face their fears.

But before we get to that, we first need to address where fear comes from. The root of fear is deprivation. We fear when something has the potential to become scarce. We fear when we perceive that there is not enough of a certain something. Supply and demand economic theory is based squarely on this reality. The root of fear is deprivation. You can trace all fears to this specific cause, even though specific fears may appear quite differently. Fears manifest themselves one way or another depending on the nature of the deprivation. If you are afraid of the dark, you fear a scarcity of light. If you are afraid of contracting a terminal illness, you fear being deprived of a long, healthy life. If you are afraid of how you will live when you retire, you fear that you will not have enough income to sustain your manner of living.

You can trace all fears to specific deprivations, and by confronting the sources of scarcity, you can face your fears. Jesus identifies the disciples’ source of fear when he says to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Jesus assures them that their fears are baseless because their accumulation of stuff will not help them enter the kingdom of God. This assurance runs counter to the fashionable reasoning of the day, which stated that the more stuff you owned, the more blessed you were. “God obviously favors that person,” ran this line of thinking. “Just look at all the stuff he has.” Not too much different from today, I’m sad to say.

But Jesus changed the rules. Remember last week’s Gospel? Jesus told us the parable of the rich fool. His land produced more than his barns could hold, so he decided to tear down those barns and build larger ones. The more stuff the rich man had, the more secure and comfortable he would feel, he told himself. Surely, this man would have been considered blessed in his society. But he died the very night he planned to erect larger storehouses, and he surely couldn’t take his barn-loads of stuff with him. The rich man’s folly shows the misguided lengths to which people will go to ward off deprivation, the root cause of fear.

But Jesus shows his disciples another way to face their fear. Rather than accumulating stuff, give it away, he says. Face deprivation by depriving yourself of the things you think you can’t live without. And you’ll discover pretty quickly that you can, in fact, live without those things.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this interpretation before, perhaps so many times that you tune it out now. And if you’re like me, you really aren’t any closer to facing the root of fear than you were the last time you heard someone talk about this. I know for myself that I used to be able to fit all my possessions in a 1992 Mazda Protégé. When I moved to Massachusetts, I needed every square inch of a 14-foot U-Haul. With more stuff comes more fear of loss, more fear of that stuff not being enough.

And the more fear that we have, the more we deprive ourselves of fear’s antidote. That antidote is trust. When we were children, we faced our fears because we trusted our parents’ advice. We believed that they would not lead us astray, and they didn’t. The darkness did not frighten us to death. The monsters did not pounce.

So how come we have so much trouble trusting in God? How come fear tends to trump trust more often than not? I think the answer is this. Trust takes energy. While fear creeps along, keeping us from action, trust derives from the kind of sustained relationship, which establishes and nourishes fidelity. God always keeps God’s promises. God is always trustworthy. The trouble is we have to trust that God is trustworthy. We have to practice the faith that God has given us in order to maintain our ability to trust in God.

And fear constantly diverts this ability. But when we practice trust, when we believe that God’s keeps God’s promises, we can face our fears, we can keep at bay the gnawing dread of deprivation. Our grown-up fears may be concrete and relentless. But I am convinced that they are no match for the power of trusting in God.

This week, I ask you to take some time to be silent and to turn your thoughts inward. What do you fear? What kind of deprivation is at the root of that fear? And how will practicing trusting God help you face that fear? In your reflection, remember this good news. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is not just giving a command. He is giving a promise that when we face our fears, we will not be alone. When we face our fears, they will pass through us, and when they are gone, only God, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, will remain.