Opposable Thumbs

Sermon for Sunday, October 1, 2017 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

Until recently, my children have been pretty good at sharing with each other. Being twins, they’ve always had the other there, so they’ve never experienced a time when all the toys in the playroom were “mine.” But since they turned three, a switch has gone off in their brains and they have started claiming territory at an alarming rate. They have realized that “if you’re playing with a toy then I am not playing with the toy, and that’s bad.” The top of our refrigerator has become something of a demilitarized zone, where toys go when the twins won’t share.

I remember one moment a few weeks ago. It was almost comical in its illustrative power. One of the kids (I won’t say which) didn’t want the other interfering with the blocks. So the child gathered all the blocks together and held them, just held them, for fear of losing the toy to the other. But with both hands and both arms full of blocks, the child couldn’t play with them. There were plenty of blocks to share between the two, but since one was intent on hoarding that particular toy and the other fixated on getting in on the action, neither had any fun. And the blocks ended up on the fridge’s DMZ. Continue reading “Opposable Thumbs”

The Glow

Sermon for Sunday, September 28, 2014 || Proper 21A || Philippians 2:1-13

TheGlowI started writing this sermon at 5:30 in the morning last Wednesday. I was sitting on the floor in the living room with my eight-week old son sleeping fitfully on my lap. In the minutes preceding opening my laptop to write, I gave him a bottle in the stillness and darkness of the hour before dawn. Just enough light drifted in from the kitchen that I could see his face in the darkness. He was looking at me intently as he sucked down the bottle. I gazed back at him, and that’s when I felt it. I felt this impenetrable feeling of rightness, of completion. I felt “the glow.”

That’s what I call it, at least: “The Glow.” For going on a dozen years or so, this has been my dominant metaphor for my sense of connection – of resonance – with God’s movement in my life. The Glow is my name for what Paul describes in the final verse from our Philippians reading this morning. Paul says, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So today, I’d like to share a few stories about The Glow with you.

I had been at my previous church, St. Stephen’s, for a little over a year when I received a phone call from the rector of one of the biggest Episcopal churches in the country. He wanted me to interview for one of his associate’s positions, a position that promised much higher salary, more opportunity for advancement, and the prestige of working at a church the size of a small diocese. Believe me when I tell you, I was star struck. His invitation stoked my age-old enemy – my pride – and I started constructing a new narrative for myself, in which I basked in the glory of this vaunted position.

Leah and I went for a weekend visit and interview. We met with various groups of people, all friendly and energetic. We toured the buildings of the church, all massive and modern. For the first few days of the trip, I knew intellectually that, on paper, this was a great opportunity for us. And yet something was holding me back. On the day before we were scheduled to fly back to Massachusetts, I had lunch with the wardens and the treasurer. They asked me questions. I responded. And I just kept talking about St. Stephen’s – about the wonder of Godly Play, about the fact that the youth group was getting off the ground, about all the fantastic things we were doing and planning to do.

That’s when I felt it: The Glow. Whenever I mentioned St. Stephen’s during that lunch, I could feel this glowing ball of light expanding within me, radiating from my chest. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Needless to say, I removed myself from that search process the next day. At that lunch, God was at work in me, enabling me to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. The Glow, this sense of spiritual rightness, propelled me to stay at St. Stephen’s, and I’m ever so glad I had three more wonderful years of ministry there.

But the Glow is not always so readily instructive. I have wanted to marry two women in my life. One of them I did marry, thanks be to God, and she is radiance, far greater than glow. The other I met in college. We dated for a little less than two years starting at the beginning of my senior year. I remember distinctly during our first year together that I prayed for her every night, I thought about her all the time, and whenever I did I felt the sense of rightness. I felt God blessing our relationship. I felt the Glow.

Then, slowly yet interminably, things took a turn. The distance was taking its toll. We weren’t as close as we once had been. The “I love you’s” were fewer and farther between. But I persisted stubbornly in feeling the Glow. I convinced myself that everything would be better once we were engaged. Thankfully, she was a stronger person that I was. On an incredibly painful night in May 2006 she ended our relationship.

Months later, I was journaling when I realized something about the Glow. Something frightening. The Glow can be manufactured. That’s the trouble with relying on yourself alone to discern God working within you. For those last few fairly dismal months of our relationship, I didn’t actually feel the Glow. Instead, I remembered feeling it. I forced myself to recall its warmth and light from an earlier time when it was really and truly present. I didn’t want the relationship to end, so I tricked myself into feeling the echo of the Glow. God was still at work in me even then, but I ignored what God was actually saying to me in favor of what God had said to me in the past.

So sometimes the Glow burns bright and strong and immediate, and there’s no mistaking the direction God is leading us. Other times, we know just what we want (no matter how God might be prompting us), and so we manufacture a feeling of rightness in order to sanction our disobedience.

And this is where the Glow emerges from the interior of the individual and mixes with the light of the community, thereby creating something of a safeguard against our own confused desires. About this time last year, another job prospect came along. I had been at St. Stephen’s nearly four years, and while I still felt the Glow ministering there, I also knew that God was inviting me to seek new challenges.

I arrived at St. Mark’s in the middle of a Friday afternoon to meet with the search committee. The first person I encountered was Angie Robinson. Now, there are people out there who just seem to glow all the time. Angie is one of them. Angie’s natural shining stirred the Glow in me. We couldn’t use the Undercroft because of the D.A.R. tea the next day, so I helped Angie move the tables to another room, and in so doing, made a lifelong friend. The Glow grew as I met more people and as the possibility of joining you here at St. Mark’s became more and more real. But the Glow would not have ignited in me if it had not also ignited in you. The Glow was mirrored between us, this sense of the rightness of God calling us together.

As the Apostle Paul asserts, God is at work in us, enabling us to will at to work for God’s good pleasure. We participate in God’s work when we recognize God’s movement in our lives and we resonate with it. I call this the Glow. I wonder what you call it? This week, I invite you to think and pray about how you describe resonating with the God who is at work in you. What words or images do you attach to this resonance? What is your version of the Glow? How do you separate a true feeling of spiritual rightness from a manufactured one? What role do other people play in your discernment of God’s call in your life?

God calls each of us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. This is the true purpose of life. And God is at work in each of us, breathing on the embers of the Glow so that it is ready to flare up when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.* So look within and see how God is working in you. Look around and see where God yearns for you to serve. And then…Glow.

* A paraphrase of Frederick Buechner’s famous line about vocation from his fabulous Wishful Thinking.

The Unfair Fight

(Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2012 || Palm Sunday Year B || Mark 11:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11 (NOTE: At my church, we read the Passion Gospel at the end of the service, so this sermon moves from Palms to Passion.))

I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of the scene. A crowd lines the dusty road leading up to the gate of Jerusalem. They are there to see a parade, but the spectacle is just a fellow riding a baby donkey. People spread their cloaks on the ground as a sign of respect. But Jesus isn’t stepping on the cloaks: the donkey is.

The crowd shouts aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Now when David entered Jerusalem, he did so at the front of a grand procession – “all the house of Israel,” II Samuel tells us. They were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. There were shouts and the sound of the trumpet and the sacrifice of an ox and a fatling. And “David danced before the Lord with all his might.” David had just defeated the Philistines and his dynasty was assured. His triumphant march into the city was a victory march.

But when Jesus rides to Jerusalem, he rides alone. No army. No conquering legions. The people in the crowd shout for the return of the kingdom of David, but all they see is a lone man atop a baby donkey. As I said, I’ve always been struck by the incongruity of this scene.

Sensing something to be incongruous – to be out-of-place – means that there are expectations that are not being met. If you go to a job interview at State Street in a t-shirt and jeans, there’s a better than average chance that the interviewer will take one look at you and send you home. The interviewer has the expectation that you will enter the room in your best suit, and the incongruity of your casual clothes will trigger discomfort and then disapproval in the interviewer. But say that you wear your t-shirt and jeans to the park to throw a Frisbee with the guys. No incongruity there. The expectations match the scenario.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of the baby donkey, he is actively challenging the expectations of the crowd that is shouting “Hosannas.” They praise him while he rides in humility. They celebrate his arrival in the capital city while he knows the outcome of his arrival will be bloody. They show him the respect due to royalty. And all the while Jesus is boldly defying the people who have no respect for him, the chief priests and their lackeys, who have until now hoped he would keep a lower profile.

And in the greatest incongruity of all, the crowd shouts for the return of David’s kingdom; that is, a kingdom marked by a sovereign Israel, an Israel with no Roman occupiers. But Jesus frustrates this expectation, as well. In this case, the crowd is thinking too small. They have only their own country on their minds. But Jesus isn’t concerned with the Romans. They’re small potatoes. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of that baby donkey, he sets in motion events that will drive out, not the Romans, but the power of death, the grip of evil, all the forces of darkness. No wonder no one was expecting that.

Jesus hovers above the crowd, sitting atop the donkey as the beast shambles ahead. He remains above the crowd not for the glory of the exalted position, but in order that the powers of death, evil, and darkness might get a clear view of their target. And in seeing this small, humble human being, those powers underestimate their foe.

The powers of darkness do not realize that this Jesus riding on the donkey is someone they’ve met before, albeit in a more glorious form. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us why the powers don’t recognize Jesus. Paul says, “Though [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross.”

The powers of darkness have their expectations too. The incongruity of Christ’s humanity throws them. They have no idea who they’re dealing with because Jesus acts in ways they never expect. While the powers of darkness would always seek to exploit, Christ empties. While they would always seek self-aggrandizement, Christ humbles. While they would always seek to get their own way, Christ becomes obedient to the point of death.

How could the powers of darkness possibly think they could win if they completely underestimate their opponent? And all the while, Christ is here on earth, learning all about the darkness, participating in the brokenness of people’s lives, bringing wholeness, bringing hope, bringing light.

And yet, the darkness sees the little man on the back of the baby donkey and wishes for a more impressive opponent, if only so the fight would be more interesting. But what the darkness fails to realize is that this is the most unfair fight of all time.

The powers of darkness bring all of their standard weapons to the ring: fear, mistrust, the desire to dominate. They expect Jesus to bring the same. But Jesus brings no weapons at all. Instead, he brings the willingness to sacrifice. He brings the love that gives him the courage to lay down his life. He brings the peace that passes all understanding.

They are David and Goliath, and David left his sling at home. Normal expectations would ask how Jesus could possibly win this fight. But we know the incongruity of God’s love. We know that God loves us even though we don’t deserve such an amazing gift. We know that God loves this broken, messed-up world so much that God sent God’s only Son to save the world. We know that God rejoices in letting us in on the secret that our expectations are always too small. God let slip this secret when the women went to the tomb on Easter morning.

But we’ll get there with them next week. First, the powers of darkness marshal. First, Jesus rides humbly into the teeth of the storm. First, the battle.

The Heart’s Square Footage

(Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2012 || Feast of the Holy Name || Luke 2:15-21; Philippians 2:5-11)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to invite you to make a New Year’s resolution, but don’t worry because you only have to fulfill the resolution for a week, which I think is the standard longevity of such things anyway.

But first I have a couple of wondering questions that this morning’s Gospel calls to mind. We read that the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child.” I’m wondering to whom did they make this known? I’m really curious. Did they run through Bethlehem Paul Revere style (“The messiah is coming! The messiah is coming!”)? Did they go to the local census bureau and tell them to add another Israelite to the rolls? Did they go to the religious leaders and tell them that their hopes had been fulfilled?

In fine Godly Play style, I’m just going to let that first question hang in the air while I pose a second one. I’m wondering what kind of reaction the shepherds received. Luke tells us “all who heard [the shepherds’ testimony] were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” But “amazed” is neither a positive nor a negative word. As far as the shepherds are concerned, I suspect that they received quite a few responses that went along the lines of: “That’s amazing; ridiculous, but amazing.” Others probably said, “Get off my front stoop, you mangy shepherds.”

In the end, the narrative gives us single answers to both these wondering questions. While the shepherds surely told a wide array of people and received a wide array of amazed responses, we are privy to only one, and that is Mary’s. The shepherds burst in on the exhausted new parents with their witness to the angel’s words about the infant. The angel had said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The shepherds proclaim this good news to Mary and Joseph. And “Mary treasure[s] all these words and ponder[s] them in her heart.”

Notice what is happening here with Mary’s response to the shepherds’ news. For nine months, since the angel appeared to her on that fateful day, Mary has carried within her the Incarnate Word. She has nurtured in her womb the physical embodiment of God’s good news to the world. She has felt the Son of God kick. Then, on the night we celebrated last week, she delivers him. Jesus is born to the rest of the world, and Mary’s womb is empty once again.

And yet, even though her womb is now empty, is her body void of the Word of God? Thanks to the shepherds: No. They bring the first message of the Gospel back to Mary, and she fills herself with the good news. She treasures their words in her heart as she had so recently treasured the Word in her womb.

Each of us bears the Gospel inside of us. The good news of Jesus Christ is treasure hidden in our hearts waiting to be shared. But our hearts are also home to all of the boxes and baggage and bulk that accumulate over lifetimes of focusing our attention away from the things that really matter, away from God and loving relationships. Our hearts are storage units for all of our misplaced priorities, inflated egos, broken promises, habituated distrust, forgotten loyalty, and shackling fears. These things clutter our hearts and leave less room for the good news of Jesus Christ to dwell.

Mary’s brave agreement to carry the Christ child makes a space within her, and God fills her emptiness with the embodiment of this good news. In today’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us of another emptying, one that the Word made flesh accomplished in order to inhabit Mary’s womb. Paul says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself; by taking on the form of a slave; by filling Mary’s empty womb and being born in human likeness.

All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself. And Jesus emptied himself to fill Mary’s emptiness, to fill our emptiness.

So the question is: how empty are we? How much space within our hearts is left for the good news of Jesus Christ to fill?

If you’re anything like me, then the boxes and baggage and bulk take up a majority of your heart’s square footage. But we can begin to clear away this accumulation by resonating with Jesus’ own self-emptying and echoing Mary’s assent to be filled with God. The resulting emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or a sock drawer on laundry day. This is purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal storage units, once the depositories for those misplaced priorities and shackling fears, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.

This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: breaking down the boxes, removing the baggage, and shaving off the bulk. When we, like Mary and Jesus, empty ourselves, we find ourselves ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.

I invite you to join me in a New Year’s resolution this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much square footage within you, that is cluttering your heart. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Practicing this holy emptiness will allow more space for the good news of Jesus Christ to breathe and move and dance within you. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you from the beginning, and you will be able to dance along.

Emptying

(Sermon for September 28, 2008 || Proper 21, Year A RCL || Philippians 2:1-13)

For the first several weeks after moving into my townhouse, about half my stuff littered the living room floor. I had put away my clothes and shelved my books. I had arranged my furniture and replaced the light bulbs with those curlicue ones. I had set up my TV and hung a handful of pictures. But this mass of extraneous stuff persisted. There were sealed boxes and boxes whose contents had thinned as I randomly put things away. But even these boxes lingered, some with single items remaining in their depths. Every time I came home I dodged the crate of office supplies, stepped over the plastic filing cabinet, and wished everything would gain just enough sentience to find a place to go that wasn’t the middle of my living room. The objects of my wish, of course, remained stubbornly inanimate.

The number of times I’ve moved has reached the double digits now, and I have discovered a universal law: for every five boxes you pack, one will remain unopened until your next move. These extra boxes are (a) shoved unceremoniously into the closet under the stairs or (b) stacked in the garage where the car should go or (c) pushed next to the couch with decorative afghans thrown over them and turned into end tables. Currently, my one-in-five-boxes, so recently cluttering my living room, are now lined up against the wall in the guest room awaiting their fate.

I have all this stuff. I can’t possibly need it all. I can’t possibly use it all — the nearly empty boxes, the still sealed boxes, the hanging bags, duffel bags, laundry bags, garbage bags, trunks, suitcases — not to mention all the stuff that used to be in these containers that I did unpack. Most of the stuff seems to exist simply to take up space.

So, when I read in today’s lesson from Philippians that the same mind that was in Christ Jesus should be in me, I find I’m in a bit of a bind. Paul praises Jesus for doing something that my accumulation of stubborn inanimate objects shows I’m unwilling to do. “Jesus,” says Paul, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself. By taking on the form of a slave. By being born in human likeness.

Then he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Then God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name. All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself.

And I am supposed to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? Surely, Paul, you ask too much this time.

If I am unwilling to relinquish my stuff, even the stuff in the boxes that won’t see the light of day until I move again, how much more unwilling am I to empty my heart and mind of all the stuff that diverts me from following the Lord. Indeed, the boxes and bags and furniture function merely as physical reminders for all the clutter encumbering my soul. If one in five boxes remains unopened after a move, what percentage of my soul remains sealed off after moving through life? How much of my heart is unusable because of all the stuff piled so high? With my mind distracted by the detritus of the day, when will I have time to contemplate the works of God?

Where is this mind of Christ Jesus that neither grasps nor hoards, but seeks to empty? How do we obtain this mind? How do we grasp it? Right here. Right here is where the imitation of the mind of Christ begins. We can’t obtain it. We can’t grasp it. We can only resonate with Jesus’ self-emptying by beginning to empty ourselves. We can only come to some lowly analog of the mind of Christ when our own minds let go of the persistent accumulation of distractions. This emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or the emptiness of thirty miles after the fuel light comes on. This is expectant emptiness, purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal houses, once the storage depots for the stuff of the world, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.

This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. Paul says that God is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: rearranging our internal furniture, removing the clutter, and unsealing those parts of our souls we packed away. Truly, we’d never have been able to start emptying ourselves without God first tidying up the place. When we empty ourselves, we are ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.

I invite you to join me in an experiment this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much space within you, that is cluttering up your internal living room. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Allow more space for God to move in your life. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you all along, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Thanks be to God.