One of my favorite American poets, James Weldon Johnson, opens his book God’s Trombones with a poetic prayer, which begins like this:
O Lord, we come this morning Knee-bowed and body-bent Before Thy throne of grace. O Lord—this morning— Bow our hearts beneath our knees, And our knees in some lonesome valley. We come this morning— Like empty pitchers to a full fountain, With no merits of our own. O Lord—open up a window of heaven, And lean out far over the battlements of glory, And listen this morning.*Continue reading “The God-Fountain”→
Sermon for Sunday, August 28, 2016 || Proper 17C || Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
I hope it hasn’t escaped your notice that the gardens here at St. Mark’s look fantastic right now. Over the course of the summer, a group of dedicated parishioners came together to restore every one of the gardens here at the church — and there are about a dozen. Now that the weeds are plucked and the mulch is poured, the hard work of maintaining the gardens has begun. I don’t know much about gardening myself, but I watched the gardeners work and I listened to them strategize. And I learned a horticultural word unknown to me: deadheading; that is, the process of removing dead flower heads to encourage further growth and blossoming.Continue reading “Spiritual Deadheading”→
Sermon for Sunday, November 16, 2014 || Proper 28A || Matthew 25:14-30
As an avid game player, one of my favorite things to do is teach other people how to play games. Leah and I have several dozen board games in our upstairs hall closet, but we don’t have people to play them with because games like Monopoly have, over the decades, taught Americans that board games are not fun. But the ones we play come mostly from Germany, and the Germans sure know how to make fun board games. These games are beautifully designed and highly strategic, so a new player often doesn’t catch on until near the end of her first game. For the bulk of that first game, she plays by the rules, but she doesn’t play strategically. Then something happens. The light goes on, and she realizes why she might do this instead of that. She realizes how a choice made now will affect the game in a few turns. I love watching for this moment when I’m teaching a game. Suddenly, the new player stops wandering through her turn and begins striding through it. She’ll need several more games under her belt before she really understands the strategy, but she’s taken the important first step. She has begun to play with purpose.
Like many of the lessons board games can teach, playing with purpose stretches far past recreational outlets and touches all facets of life. Playing with purpose encourages us to act intentionally rather than spasmodically. Our daily questions of “What?” and “How?” deepen with the addition of “Why?” We plan, we set goals, we care about the destination and the journey.
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond because he realized he wasn’t playing with purpose. He writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” *
To live deliberately. To live with intention. To waken to all the ways God could be calling you to make the most positive difference with your life. This is what playing with purpose means.
Most of us take a while to start playing with purpose. Case in point: allow me to introduce you to Glenn. Glenn graduated from college three years ago with a degree in history. He thought about law school but never got around to registering for the LSAT, let alone studying for it. In three years, he’s worked five jobs but none has held his attention for long. Same with girlfriends. A few dates here or there, but he’s never made a true commitment to any of them. He’s also moved back home twice since college for a couple months at a time. When his parents ask him what he wants to do, he says things like, “I dunno,” or “Something’ll come along.” Glenn does everything vaguely, indistinctly, like he’s a figure in a coloring book, who’s only partially colored in.
Then he meets Helen, and the light goes on. They really click, but Glenn knows that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone as luminous as she. She is so full of life. She pursues her passions. She has dreams, yes, but more than that, she has lists of conscious steps to achieve those dreams. Opening her own bakery is just a year or two away. Seeing himself through her, Glenn realizes just how listless he has been, how the last three years have been one long meander. And yet when Helen looks at him, he feels fully colored in.
Following her example, Glenn begins playing with purpose. He remembers his love for history and the high school teacher who fired that passion. He starts substitute teaching at a private school, and soon he’s there everyday filling in for a history teacher on maternity leave. He starts taking night classes to get his masters in education. Two more years sees him in a classroom of his own. His purpose is to teach, and he’s never felt more alive.
Before Glenn met Helen, he could have been the third servant in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the story of a man who entrusts his servants with extraordinary wealth. The first two play with purpose and double that wealth by the time their master returns. But the third servant never uses the wealth given to him. He just puts it in the ground and goes about his regularly scheduled life.
This story fits snugly between last week’s Gospel lesson and the one we’ll read next week, which make up the entire twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew. In each parable, there are characters who make deliberate, intentional decisions to act and those who don’t. The wise bridesmaids bring extra oil. The foolish ones don’t. The first two servants invest their master’s wealth. The third doesn’t. Next week, we will hear of the sheep who feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned. And we’ll hear about the goats who don’t.
In each story, the ones who act with intention – the ones who play with purpose – remain in right relationship with the various persons of power: the bridesmaids enter into the wedding banquet with the bridegroom; the first two servants “enter into the joy of their master”; the sheep who served the least of God’s family “inherit the kingdom.”
If we stop there, however, then we will see these stories merely as quid pro quo. Do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll be rewarded. Don’t and you’ll be punished. But such a conclusion reduces our relationships with God to mere transactions. If God desired for us to live these quid pro quo kinds of lives, God would have given us a rule book or a scorecard. But God did something else. God gave us God’s son. And this Son taught us to live with intention, to keep awake for opportunities to bring the kingdom closer to earth, to play with purpose. And more than that: this Son, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, wiped out the quid pro quo system entirely when he died and rose again.
If it’s a scorecard you’re looking for, a measuring stick to see if you’ll be rewarded or punished, then you’ve come to the wrong place. In this place, we practice playing with purpose. We act as Helen does with Glenn, as catalysts for each other’s dreams. We pray for clarity about where God is calling us. We discover how our passions fit those callings. We partner with one another to strengthen each other for service. We take risks, knowing that the Holy Spirit will lead us through both failure and success to greater collaboration with God in our own lives and in the life of this community.
If you feel like a figure in a coloring book who’s only partially colored in, then ask God to help you play with purpose. Playing with purpose is the difference between talking and proclaiming, the difference between swaying and dancing, between running and racing. Playing with purpose is the difference between floating along and trimming the sail to catch the wind.
*Henry David Thoreau. Walden. (But I first hear it in Dead Poets’ Society.)
**Image of Walden Pond courtesy of my sister, Melinda Thomas Hansen.
Sermon for Sunday, November 9, 2014 || Proper 27A || Joshua 24:14-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Last Wednesday, I was visiting Gene and Judy Roure at home as Judy continues recovering from surgery. I arrived right after lunch and we were having a pleasant conversation when something unforeseen happened. My eyes started to close. I couldn’t help it. I made a conscious effort to keep them open as we talked, but you know if you ever try that tactic, your body just assumes you’re using reverse psychology. I knew the lack of sleep Leah and I have been experiencing would catch up to me eventually, but I sure didn’t want it to happen during a pastoral visit! So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked Gene and Judy if it would be okay to close my eyes for five minutes while sitting in the terribly comfortable rocking chair in their living room. Being the lovely and gracious people they are, they readily said, “Yes.” I put my head back and let my eyes do what they desperately wanted to do. I shut them and slept for five glorious minutes.
So when I read the end of today’s Gospel lesson, all I can do is chuckle half-heartedly. Jesus sums up the rather strange parable of the ten bridesmaids by saying: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” of the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Keep awake, he says. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last three months since the twins were born, it’s this: trying to keep awake makes you really sleepy.
Even the bridesmaids in the story don’t keep awake. All ten of them — the wise and the foolish — get drowsy and fall asleep when the bridegroom is delayed. They all wake up at midnight, but only the five wise ones have enough oil in their lamps to see the bridegroom coming. These details of the parable make Jesus’ summary sound a little off. Rather than “keep awake” shouldn’t he say, “tend your light” or “keep your lamp lit?” If this parable were one of those stories on a standardized test, one of the questions might be, “Which title best describes this story?” If my choices included both “keep awake” and “tend you light” I think I’d choose the latter. But Jesus chooses the former.
(As an aside, I don’t think Jesus would have been a very good standardized test taker, what with his penchant for answering people’s questions in wildly creative and unexpected ways.)
Whether or not the testing board would accept Jesus’ answer of “keep awake,” that’s the one he gives. This leaves us in the position of reconciling the content of the parable with Jesus’ odd summary. What about tending our lights leads to “keeping awake?”
First of all, we mustn’t take Jesus’ summary literally. Obviously, we can’t survive if we stay awake all the time. If we don’t sleep, eventually we go insane. (There’s a great Star Trek: The Next Generation episode about that, by the way.) So if we can’t literally keep awake all the time, how do we live into Jesus’ instruction? At Wednesday’s visit with Gene and Judy, my eyes started closing of their own accord because of my physical exhaustion. But there are plenty other types of exhaustion that lead us to close our eyes and ignore our part in bearing witness to the coming kingdom of heaven.
There’s emotional exhaustion. You carry the burdens of so many others on your heart. You worry. You fret. You can’t help vicariously feeling their pain, and it overwhelms you. There’s the exhaustion of crises. Everything in this world seems to be going haywire. Famine, poverty, war, discrimination, disease. You can’t even watch the news anymore because the compounding crises overwhelm you. There’s the exhaustion of resources. You give and you give, and there’s always more need. It never stops and the direness of the need overwhelms you. You start to see a pattern here. When we feel overwhelmed, we get tired. We just want to close our eyes and enter the blissful ignorance of sleep. So we disengage. We fail to keep awake.
And this is where tending our lights comes into play – because there’s another term for disengagement and failure to keep awake. It’s called “burn out.” Show of hands: how many of us have used the phrase, “I feel so burned out right now,” at some point in our lives? Being like the wise bridesmaids in the parable means keeping oil in our lamps so they don’t burn out. After all, it’s a whole lot easier keeping a fire burning than it is to light a new one.
Burn out happens when we exhaust our supply of oil and have no way to replenish it. You take on too many responsibilities and pretty soon juggling all of them is the biggest responsibility you have. You start to wonder if there’s any way for a day to be more than twenty-four hours. To stick with our metaphor, you’re burning the candle at both ends and your fuel ain’t gonna last much longer. Burn out is inevitable. And when it comes, you don’t necessarily stop. You might continue your breakneck pace with no fuel until you enter freefall and crash land in the desert.
So tending our lights means making good choices about what to spend our oil on, so we don’t exhaust it. If we choose everything, then nothing gets the attention it deserves, we never achieve the excellence that focus instills, and, more to the point, we burn out. But by carefully and intentionally choosing where to place our energy, we keep the oil burning in the lamp longer, and, in a happy coincidence, our choices can lead to replenishment of the oil.
Let’s take Joshua’s speech to the people of Israel for example. At long last they have occupied the Promised Land, and now Joshua puts a choice before them: “Choose this day whom you will serve.” The choices are the Lord, the God of their ancestors or the false gods of their neighbors in their new home. Joshua makes his choice clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
This is the first choice Joshua puts before the people. And it is the first choice that confronts us each morning when we wake up. Who will you serve today? The Lord, who calls us to be lamps shining with the light of the kingdom, or the false gods that litter our lives with the junk of the world and scream in our ears words like “more” and “now.” When we wake up in the morning and answer “The Lord,” then all the other choices we make that day will be built on the sure foundation of the God who yearns for us to be shining versions of ourselves. This yearning leads to us burning bright, not burning out.
When we tend our lights to burn brightly, we first choose to serve God each morning. Then, with God’s help, we decide how best to move through the day so that our own personal flourishing contributes to the flourishing of the world and the coming of the kingdom. Rather than taking on too much, we focus on those passions, which God gives us the gifts to pursue. Rather than being overwhelmed by crises and need and emotional entanglement, we say, “I can make a difference,” and then we shine our lights into particular dark corners of this world that we can, in fact, help to brighten.
Today, I invite you, I urge you, to make the active, conscious, and intentional choice to serve the Lord. With this choice made, see how God helps guide your other choices so that your lamp stays lit and so that you keep awake to the coming kingdom of heaven. We’ve all been burned out before. Some of us might be on the edge of burn out right now. When you feel yourself approaching that edge, just stop. Stop and focus on your own light. How much oil is left? Can you really sustain the pace you’ve set or will the fuel run out before the race is run? Tend you light by overhauling your choices. First choose the Lord. Then ask God to guide you to make choices that will replenish your oil so your light will grow all the brighter. And with this fierce conflagration shining inside you, you will awaken to the coming kingdom of heaven.
Sermon for Sunday, March 30, 2014 || Lent 4A || John 9:1-41
“Let me see some I.D.”
I have had this exchange a handful of times with police officers and one very friendly Texas state trooper. They, of course, want my driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance so they can go back to their cars and run me through their databases looking for past infractions while I’m sweating through my palms and my stomach feels like I just swallowed several gallons of quick-dry cement and my mind is racing in compound-complex run-on sentences such as this one. A warning. Yes, officer. Yessir, no more rolling stops. Yessir. Thank you. You too.
But the words they use are telling: “Let me see some I.D.” Some identification. Really, they just want my name and some corroboration that the picture next to the name matches my appearance. They ask for my identity, and all I give them is a plastic card with my name on it. Date of birth. Address. Sex. Height. Eye color. The fact that I’m an organ donor.
But there’s so much more to my identity than the information listed on that plastic card. I’m a husband and a son and a brother and a priest and a writer and a guitarist and a board game enthusiast. And I’m a follower of Jesus. In fact, my identification card has no room for the most important pieces of my identity. The relationships we hold dear, the values we live by, the priorities that shape us – these are the markers of our true identities.
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the story of a man who discovers and proclaims his true identity. Jesus heals this man, but the miraculous granting of sight is only part of the story. The truly extraordinary aspect of his healing is his ownership of an identity he always had, but which was hidden within him.
Jesus sends the man to the pool of Siloam to wash, and this man, who was blind from birth, comes back able to see. Do you remember what happens next? His neighbors don’t recognize him! Now, he hasn’t put on weight or grown a big bushy beard or dyed his hair. Nothing cosmetic has changed about him. And yet these people, who have presumably lived near him his entire life, can’t decide if he’s the guy they always saw on the street corner begging. All they ever saw was his blindness; they never looked deeper to see the identity of the man beneath his physical challenge. And since others’ impressions of us tend to shape our identity, I bet the man himself had stopped looking deep within himself, too.
That is, until Jesus heals him. He returns home, and when his neighbors ask him if he’s the blind street corner beggar, he says, “I am.” Now, we’d be hard-pressed to find two more important and impactful words in the entire Gospel according to John. Jesus says these two little words all the time: I am the bread of life. I am the good shepherd. I am the light of the world. I am; don’t be afraid. I am. I am. I am.
These are magic words in the Gospel. Mystical words. These two little words, “I am,” transport us all the way back to Mount Horeb, to a man exiled from his home in Egypt, to a bush ablaze with flame, to an encounter with the Creator-of-all-that-is. Near the end of their conversation, Moses asks God what God’s name is. “I AM WHO I AM,” responds God. “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
When Jesus echoes God’s “I am” in the Gospel according to John, he reveals his divine identity in small pieces, pieces small enough for us to digest over the course of a lifetime. Jesus’ echoes God’s “I am.” And the man who was formerly blind echoes Jesus’ “I am.” Thus, the man reveals his discovery of Jesus’ identity within himself. Jesus heals him in order that he might take on this identity that he always had buried deep inside, but which had never come to light.
After discovering Jesus’ identity within himself, he can’t help but proclaim it. Even as the religious officials hound him about the details of his story, he sticks to the truth and proclaims Jesus’ healing presence in his life. No threat, no argument, no earthly authority can take away this new identity he has discovered within himself, this new identity as a follower of Christ.
But what of us? What of our identities? We may have never washed in the special pool of Siloam, but we have washed. We have washed in the waters of baptism. We may never have had mud spread on our eyes, but we have been marked as Christ’s own forever. Our baptism into Christ’s body reveals an identity we’ve always had, an ability to echo Jesus’ “I am” with one of our own. The act of baptism marks and celebrates our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.
Each of us has this identity within us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But if you’re anything like me, the times when this piece of my identity rises to the surface are few and far between. Other pieces of my identity take charge, and “follower of Jesus” sinks down the list. But if I’m honest with myself, if I listen for the whispered invitation of Christ in my depths, I hear him beckoning me, I see his radiance shining within. And God’s promise resonates in my bones: seek God first, own your identity as Christ’s follower, and each other piece of your identity will find a snug fit, properly ordered so that you can experience the abundance of life, so that your default nature is one of service and love, so that you may invite others into the brilliance of the Light of World each day of your life.
Promoting “Follower of Jesus” up the list of pieces of our identities takes commitment. “Husband” wouldn’t be high on my list if I weren’t whole-heartedly committed to my marriage. “Writer” wouldn’t be high up there if I didn’t write every single day. “Follower of Jesus” trends upwards when we commit to praying daily, serving the least of those around us, dwelling deeply in God’s word, and cultivating an awareness of God’s presence in our lives. As this season of Lent marches toward Easter, dedicate yourselves to owning your identity as followers of Jesus. Like the man born blind, hear Jesus’ divine identity echo within you. Look yourself in the mirror and say aloud: “I am. I am a beloved child of God. I am a follower of Jesus Christ.”
This is and always will be the primary piece of our identities, whether or not we put it at the top of the list. God created us to be God’s beloved, and following Jesus Christ leads us to embrace God as our beloved. This is our true identity. This is what the card we hand to the police officer should say. To begin to own this identity, I invite you to sit down and write out a list of all the pieces of your identity. Order those pieces from most to least important. Be honest where you slot in “Follower of Jesus.” Does it make the Top 10? Top 5? When you’re done, recommit yourself to partnering with God to move “Follower of Jesus” up just one slot. Just one. Baby steps here. Over time and with God’s help, move it up the list. Notice how your life changes. Notice how you change the lives of those around you. Own your true identity and shine with the Light of the World.
*Art: Detail from “Christ Healing the Blind Man” by El Greco (1560)
Sermon for Sunday, February, 16, 2014 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
When I was a little kid, I wanted to grow up to be a fireman. Well, a fireman and a garbage man. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, and a baseball player. Well, a fireman, a garbage man, a baseball player, and a paleontologist. I wanted to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. And you know what? That didn’t happen. Something even better happened. I got to be someone whose job it is to walk with people during the most important moments of their lives and point out God’s movement in those moments. I got to be a priest. And I got to be your priest.
But getting back to my childhood’s occupational dreams, I can tell you one absolutely essential thing about them, which is this: My parents never quashed them. They never told me to stop dreaming. They never told me I was being silly or that I couldn’t, in fact, be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Instead, they encouraged me to reach for the stars and to fuel my dreams with all the fodder of my boundless imagination. When so-called “reality” set in years later, I didn’t feel betrayed by this encouragement, as one might expect; rather, the early training in dreaming big helped me retain the capacity to imagine more and better possibilities than so-called “reality” presented.
Such a capacity involves consciously making choices about what kind of life you want to live. Do you want to live a small life boxed in by the scarcity inherent in subscribing only to the notion of the currently possible? Or do you want to live a full life unbounded due to the abundance inherent in trusting in the creativity of our God? What kind of life do you want to live?
This is the question that both Moses and Jesus address today in our readings from the book of Deuteronomy and the Gospel according to Matthew. And this is the question they challenge us with today. What kind of life do you want to live?
Moses has stood on the mountaintop and looked on the vista of the Promised Land. But he knows he himself will never get there. He’s about to die, but before he does, he has a few more words to say to the people of Israel who have been walking with him through the desert for forty years. These words make up the book of Deuteronomy: Moses’ last speech, the last piece of the law, the restatement of the Ten Commandments and more, and these words today, in which Moses gives the people a choice:
“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity,” he says. “…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses…” And then Moses, with all the fervor of someone who knows his time is short and his words precious, implores the people, saying: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”
Well, we know those people and their descendants had a, shall we say, checkered history with this choice. Sometimes they listened to Moses’ final invitation, but more often than not, they didn’t. The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures trace the trajectory of this choice and of God’s constant and persistent calls through the prophets to renew it and once again “choose life.”
When Moses issued the original invitation before his death, he was speaking about all the fullness of life with God and one another that the Law was designed to promote. But over the centuries, people interpreted and reinterpreted the Law into smaller and smaller boxes. By the time of Jesus, the Law of Moses had been parsed to within an inch of its life. The people, against whom Jesus spoke, had gotten lost in the minute details of the Law and forgotten its original intent to promote the fullness of life, the dream that God always had for God’s people.
And so we watch Jesus ascend the mountain, sit down, and begin a long sermon. He speaks of blessings for people not normally considered blessed (what we call the “Beatitudes”). He speaks of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. And then he says something curious, which we read last week. He says this: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
To fulfill the law. To complete it. To make it what it was always designed to be. In his fulfillment of the law, Jesus takes one step past Moses’ original choice. For Jesus, the choice isn’t simply between life and death because he has already chosen life for each of us. His choice is what kind of life.
And now we hear Jesus offer examples of the kinds of life we might lead. In each one, he takes a piece of the law and expands it, deepens it. Not just “do not murder,” but also, be reconciled to those you are estranged from. Not just “do not commit adultery,” but also, act with virtue and fidelity in all things. Remain in relationship rather than looking for easy outs. Speak truthfully always rather than trying to convince people through deceptive oaths.
In each example, Jesus offers two paths to choose: division or reconciliation? Depravity or virtue? Isolation or relationship? Dishonesty or truth? Each choice builds the kind of life we lead. Our lives can be small – empty of meaningful relationships, bursting with regret, littered with the collateral damage of strife, envy, and enmity. Or our lives can be full of all the good things God yearns to share with us – the abundance of lives lived with and for others, the joy of trusting and being trustworthy, the simple grace of acting virtuously.
Just a quick aside—I know Jesus’ language seems awfully harsh, and, in reality, it is. But we have to remember that he lived in a world where punishments included actually having body parts chopped off and where divorces could be handed out for baking mishaps. While some of his words might be hard for us to digest, the seriousness of his tone and the weight of the message can still sink in.
This message offers us the expansive dream that God invites us to be a part of – the kind of dream where someone might actually grow up to be a baseball playing, dinosaur-fossil finding, fire fighting trash collector. Or more to the point, the kind of dream where someone might actually choose the abundance of reconciliation, virtue, positive relationship, and trust.
If we are to take a step today to not only choose life, but choose the abundant life that Christ offers us, what might we do? Let’s start with a baby step. A mentor of mine, the Rev. Dr. David Lose, suggests this: think of two relationships you currently have. One should be the most wonderful, fruitful, mutual, and loving relationship of your life. The other should be one that’s on the brink of failure because of neglect or hurt feelings or betrayal. Take both of these relationships to God in prayer. Ask God to help you see what sustains and strengthens the first one. Why is that relationship important to you? What about it do you have to thank God? For the second relationship, don’t try to place blame, but instead hold the other person up in prayer to God. Offer God the brokenness of the relationship as something that can’t be mended without God’s help. What actions and choices can you make to move that second relationship to better health?
As you pray about these two relationships, remember the choice that Jesus puts before us today. What kind of life do you want to lead? A life full of reconciliation, virtue, uplifting relationships, and trust? A life of abundance? Yes, all that and more. A life of dreams that are so big that only God can contain them.
(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.”
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.
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 outLuke 12:13-21before 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?
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.