The Pearl

Sermon for Sunday, October 8, 2017 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14

Have you ever noticed that when you borrow someone else’s stuff, you’re always extra careful with it? You return the casserole dish wrapped in towels, lest it break in transit. You don’t dogear the borrowed book or break its spine. Leah and I have friends who are so wonderfully generous in lending that at any given time, our house contains six or seven of their possessions, and I’m irrationally afraid of what might happen to them.

One time I had to retrieve a couch for my previous church’s youth room. I borrowed a truck that could have plowed any other car off the road, but I treated it like the most fragile vehicle out there. I wanted to honor the trust the owner placed in me, and so I treated the truck with much more care and attention than I normally would my own car.

The thing is, if we truly lived our lives as children of God and as followers of Jesus Christ, we would treat our own possessions with the same care and mindfulness as we treat the possessions of others. Because, when you get right down to it, our possessions aren’t really ours at all. Everything we have belongs to God, who is the author of all creation. Continue reading “The Pearl”

Citizenship in Heaven

Sermon for Sunday, February 21, 2016 || Lent 2C || Philippians 3:17–4:1

CitizenshipinHeavenLast fall, I had to renew my passport before my trip to Haiti with Tim Evers. I had originally gotten my passport in advance of a choir trip to England back in college in 2003, and that first document was still valid when Leah and I went to South Africa for our honeymoon in 2011. But they’re only good ten years, so in the fall of 2015, I found myself stapling an unsmiling picture to an application I picked up at the post office. I filled in all the information – name, address, social security number. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen,” dropped the package in the mail with the processing fee, and a few weeks later, received my new passport.

The trip back and forth to Haiti went swimmingly. The government agents stamped my shiny new document and welcomed me to Port-au-Prince and New York City, respectively. All was well until this week when I read the lessons for today. All was well until I realized that I lied on my passport paperwork. I checked the box marked “U.S. Citizen.” I checked that box because I was born in the great state of Maine, and I have the birth certificate to prove it. But the Apostle Paul claims something else for me: “Our citizenship,” he says, “is in heaven.”

Reading those words this week knocked my socks off. Our citizenship is in heaven. Not some time in the future. Not after we die. Paul doesn’t say, “Our citizenship will be in heaven.” No. Our citizenship is in heaven. Take a few breaths to let that sink in.

If we believe our passports our wrong; if we believe we are citizens of heaven, then we can take this imagery one of two ways. First, we can extend the metaphor and claim to be resident aliens here on earth. We have green cards, but this isn’t really our home. Our home is in heaven, and we’ll get there someday and be reunited with those we love who have gone home before us. This idea of heaven brings comfort and hope and peace, especially when life here on earth lurches towards the intolerable.

This idea of heaven finds expression in so many African-American spirituals, which have their roots in the horror of slavery. “Deep river, my home is over Jordan.” “I’m goin’ home to be with Jesus, since I laid my burden down.” “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.” What better way to combat the misery of enslavement than to sing about one’s true home, a home that can never be bought or sold or taken away? What a sense of power enslaved people must have felt to be able to claim citizenship in heaven?

This legacy of hope and consolation – this balm in Gilead, so to speak – is the positive side of thinking of heaven as a home we are heading towards. But there is a negative side, as well. During the Industrial Revolution, the notion of heavenly citizenship began meandering down a long path towards environmental apathy. “We don’t really belong here on this planet,” this thinking goes, “so we need not take care of it.” This poor judgment had little effect on the environment until we got really good at polluting. But now the idea of heavenly citizenship is oftentimes weighed down by indifference for the earth and for generations yet to come. This is especially true in the United States where heavenly citizenship and American individualism collide.

Both the positive balm in Gilead and the negative environmental apathy find their roots in the idea of heaven as somewhere else. Somewhere better and new, and often “up.” Along with this idea of heaven as a home over Jordan, we can also think of our heavenly citizenship in another way. Here we must think of heaven not as a place, not as a location, but as the full and all-encompassing presence of God.

Now suddenly heaven is not just somewhere we go when we die; heaven is the kingdom of God breaking into this reality. Heaven is the name for the reality we strive for when we pray the Lord’s prayer, a prayer that is decidedly about now, today. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be down, on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, “May thy reign, O Lord, be so present and so participatory that we can’t tell the difference between heaven and earth.” This is our prayer, and we pray it everyday to remember where our citizenship lives: in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. That’s our true home.

And that home is here. The full and all-encompassing presence of God is all around us, within us, permeating and sustaining creation. You may have felt this presence in your life. You may have stumbled into it one day when you least expected it and needed it most. You may have encountered this presence and not known what to name it. Its name is heaven, and it happens more than we realize.

When you see someone in need, and your heart trembles, urging you to reach out with open arms, then heaven is close by, the presence of God is calling you home – this home that is not up or away, but deeper in. Deeper in relationship. Deeper in solidarity. Deeper in love.

When you look out at an eagle in flight, and for a moment you are struck by the incredible closeness of your son who has passed away, then heaven is close by. Your loved one is awash in the full and all-encompassing presence of God. And for an elusive minute you realize you are there, too. And so you two are close again, and the barrier of death seems ever so flimsy.

When you fall to your knees in thanksgiving or in fear or in mourning or in joy, and your soul whispers to you that you are not alone and that you are loved beyond measure, then heaven is close by. It’s only our frail and limited perception that keeps us from seeing the home of our true citizenship breaking in all around us.

Living into our heavenly citizenship combines these two understandings of heaven: first our hope of future consummation and bliss in our home across the Jordan, and second our awareness of the immediate presence of God, which through us, continues to bring heaven closer to earth. There will never be true heaven on earth until all people and all things are fully reconciled to God. Put another way, there is no way for some of us to experience true heaven in the here and now. Either everyone does or no one does. If there is even one person living in hell on earth, then heaven is not fully realized this side of the Jordan.

These may seem like abstractions, like pie-in-the-sky theology that will never, ever in a million years become a reality. And yet, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live each day with the willing expectation that heaven on earth will come to fruition. And in so doing, we make it more real. We live our heavenly citizenship. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. We pray this daily because we are a people of hope.

And if there’s one thing I hope for more than any thing else, it is this. That every person on this planet, when their earthly journeys are done, might swim across the Jordan, back home to the full and all-encompassing presence of God, and have this one thought on their minds: “I think I’ve been here before.”

Christ’s Own

(Sermon for Sunday, October 2, 2011 || Proper 22A || Philippians 3:4b-14)

My grandfather, Roy Thomas, went into hospice twelve days ago, after several difficult weeks in the hospital. Less than twenty-four hours later, he passed away due to complications from being alive for more than nine decades. I awoke to the phone ringing at quarter to six in the morning, and I knew before answering what the news would be. Now, my grandfather and I were never close. There are no pictures of him teaching me how to fly fish or taking me to the ballgame or riding a tractor with me perched on his lap. There was never a Norman Rockwell moment in our relationship. He sent me a card each birthday, and I saw him every other year, give or take.

So, when I broke down weeping in my office a few hours after I received the call from my father, I was taken completely by surprise. Where were those tears coming from? How could the loss of someone, with whom I had but a passing relationship, hit me so hard in my gut? These were the questions I was asking myself as I wiped the tears away. I felt a bit silly, crying so uncontrollably when I was sure I was just fine, thank you very much. But perhaps, more fitting questions ask exactly the opposite. How could I be surprised that I felt such tear-stained grief over the loss of my own grandfather, no matter the state of our connection? How could I possibly think that the loss of a member of my own family wouldn’t hit me so hard in my gut?

The concept of “loss” is tricky thing. The overriding fact of earthly life is that one day – perhaps not today or tomorrow, but one day – we will lose our earthly lives. Everyone dies. There are no exceptions. We have thousands upon thousands of years of data backing up this reality. And yet, we train ourselves to ignore this overriding fact. We assume that death is something that happens to other people – fuzzy, nebulous people on the news and in the obituaries. Not the people we love. Not the people close to us.

But then a relative develops an aggressive cancer. Or a friend flips his SUV. Or a grandparent goes into hospice. And the illusion that loss only happens to other people shatters. The overriding fact that earthly life always ends sneaks up and surprises us, even though this fact is enmeshed in the very fabric of existence.

And death isn’t the only kind of loss we encounter. We confront loss on a daily basis, and still we have tremendous difficulty dealing. There is the loss of autonomy when others make decisions for us. There is the loss of relationships when we part ways with those who have made impacts on our lives. There is the loss of material possessions, the loss of health, the loss of trust, the loss of baseball games (sorry, fellow Sox fans). There is even the loss of loss, which is the grief that happens in response to you realizing that you are no longer grieving.

With loss surrounding us all the time, you’d think we’d have developed ways to deal that didn’t include various forms of denial and willful ignorance. But more often than not, we ignore the potential for loss until the loss is right in front of us hitting us in the gut.

And this willful ignorance is what made me read today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians over and over again. Paul writes: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”

Somehow, Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ has allowed Paul to confront the reality of loss head on, well before any sort of loss has a chance to sneak up and surprise him. How does Paul do this? Let’s take a look. Can we do the same? Yes, I think we can.

According to Philippians, Paul values knowing Christ Jesus above all else. Nothing even comes close. The value of being in relationship with Jesus surpasses everything. And because knowing Jesus is so incalculably valuable, everything else in Paul’s life seems utterly insignificant. The gulf between what was important before meeting Christ and what is important now that he has met Christ is so wide that Paul can barely see the stuff of his old life shrinking in the distance.

And, therefore, he regards everything as loss. Based on Paul’s own words and my interpretation of them a moment ago, we might come away with the impression that nothing besides being in relationship with Christ should matter, that we should ignore everything that isn’t Jesus. This is the interpretation favored by hermits and ascetics that got away from everything to focus on God. However, I’m not convinced that that’s what Paul had in mind. We must keep going, because so far we’ve only gotten through the first half of Paul’s discussion.

Because Paul values his relationship with Christ above all else, he no longer attempts to cling to the rest of his life. He lets go of everything – his relationships, his possessions, his fears, his illusions. But all of this that Paul regards as loss is not lost. Paul does not cast everything into the void. Rather, he gives everything away to Christ. He gives everything to Jesus, and in doing so, Paul finds that everything he has regarded as loss was always God’s in the first place. Even Paul himself.

Paul relates this comforting reality to the Philippians: “Not that I have already obtained [the resurrection] or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Christ Jesus has made me his own. These words are the crux of Paul’s ability to deal with loss. The surpassing value of knowing Christ compels Paul to give everything up to Jesus and thus find himself at a loss. But in the act of giving away everything to Jesus, Paul discovers that Jesus has taken even more. Jesus has taken Paul. Jesus has made Paul his own, along with all that stuff that Paul gave him.

And Christ has made us his own, as well. When we enter into relationship with Christ, the surpassing value of that relationship makes everything else seem entirely insignificant. This seeming insignificance allows us to release our stranglehold on everything that we have been putting in place of a relationship with Christ. And when we release our grip and give away everything to Christ, we will find that Christ has already obtained us in the bargain.

Because Christ Jesus has made us his own, he has empowered us to give to him everything and everyone that we possibly could lose before the loss sneaks up and surprises us. Does this make grieving un-Christian? Of course not. Rather, our grief is one of the things that Christ invites us to give over, so that God might enfold us in our hour of need.

When my grandfather passed away eleven days ago, I was not prepared for the sense of loss that would hit me. Perhaps, this profound loss of someone I didn’t even realize I was clinging to has opened my eyes to truth that I still have plenty to give away to Christ. I would hazard to bet that we all continue to cling to things that have never really been ours to cling to. The good news is this: Any loss, any gain, any grief, any joy, any challenge, any victory is ours to share with Jesus Christ because Christ has made us his own.

Total loss

On Sunday, I was driving home from a soccer tournament — a bit worse for wear and sore, but in the good way. We were losing light quickly as the game drew to a close, and by the time I was on the road, dusk had suddenly become full darkness. The darkness didn’t bother me, because I’ve driven back and forth on Route 9 dozens of times since I moved to West Virginia. Every time, I lament the fact that the the DOT hasn’t finished the bypass (and probably never will). On Sunday, my lamentation was justified.

A tenth of a second before the deer hit my car, I saw it flash in the headlights. I heard the impact before I felt it — the sound of someone beating the dust out of an oriental rug, except the rug was metal. The deer collided with the front, left edge of the car, and the force of the impact pushed me off the road. Pumping the brake, I drove through several lawns before coming to a halt. The deer skidded off in the other direction — a rag doll carcass — and came to rest on the shoulder on the far side of the road.

A sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be driving by a minute after the collision, stopped to help me. The driver’s door would not open, so I crawled out the passenger’s side. I was limping, but, I assured the deputy, the limp was a preexisting condition from the soccer tournament. He walked around the car, shining his flashlight and making official sounding grunts. Another officer unceremoniously dragged the deer fully off the road and left it there. I called Triple-A. An hour and fifteen minutes after the collision, a tow truck driver loaded up the car and took me home. Country music played on his radio.

The next day, I called the claims representative. He read through the online report I had filed when I got home the night before. “There’s a better than good chance that this will be a total loss,” he said. A total loss, he explained, happens when the cost of repair outstrips the value of the vehicle. If a total loss is filed, I’ll never see the car again. The insurance company will send me a check, less my deductible. “So take all your stuff out of the car and remove the license plate just in case,” he advised. Apparently, most deer strikes end in total losses. I’ll find out in the next few days.

The phrase “total loss” keeps ringing in my mind. I can’t help but think of Paul’s writing to the Philippians: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:7-8). Paul is talking about his position before becoming a follower of Christ. He was a Pharisee, blameless under the law, a prime specimen of the people of Israel. And he gave it all up when the scales fell from his eyes after being struck blind on the road to Damascus.

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Notice the use of the word “regard.” The surpassing nature of Christ reorients Paul’s perception of himself and the world. Jesus changes Paul’s attitude and outlook, in order that Paul might not mistake the insignificant for the consequential. The world around Paul has not changed, but he no longer views it as he once did.

This reorientation is such a wonderful part of being a follower of Christ. If we keep our eyes and hearts open long enough, we might just notice Jesus pointing us towards the right path, the most effective service, the best attitude. On Sunday, as the car came to a rest and my heart kept right on beating down Route 9, I found myself unexpectedly overcome by my own reoriented spirit. I might have adopted a why me, God? attitude. I might have raised my fist and cursed God’s apparent punitive capriciousness. But, by the grace of God I didn’t. I closed my eyes and thanked God that I was not injured. I thanked God that no one else was involved in the collision. I thanked God for the presence of the deputy.

It is so difficult, in a world that stumbles over itself attempting to remind us of the scarcity that supposedly dominates our lives, to notice Jesus reorienting us towards the abundance that marks the truth of our existence. But the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ opens our eyes to the beauty of this abundance. Everything else is loss. Total loss.

Note: I’m still dealing with the fact that I killed a deer. I’ve never been hunting, never shot a gun, and I never want to. I am aware that, as part of humanity, I am responsible for the deaths of countless innocent animals. I’m not sure what to do with this greater context. But the immediate incident keeps replaying in my mind. It’s just different because there’s blood and fur on the mangled hood of my car It’s different because I saw the deer alive one split second and utterly dead the next. I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye. I keep seeing it tumble away, limbs flailing without purpose, glinting in the glow of my smashed headlight.