What Kind of Life?

Sermon for Sunday, February, 16, 2014 || Epiphany 6A || Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37

whatkindoflifesquareWhen 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.

Never Wear Your Collar on an Airplane

(Sermon for Sunday, February 27, 2011 || Epiphany 8, Year A || Matthew 6:24-34)

A few weeks before he ordained me to the priesthood, the Bishop of West Virginia gave me one truly inspired piece of advice. You might imagine that this piece of advice dealt with the delicacy of liturgy or the intricacy of theology or the intimacy of pastoral care. No. Rather, his advice was quite a bit more practical and worldly. He said to me: “Adam. Never ever ever – no matter what you do – never wear your collar on an airplane.”

In the three years that I have been snapping the collar on, I have discovered the unerring truth behind this advice. There are two reasons why a priest like me should not wear his collar and black clerical shirt on an airplane. First, I will undoubtedly attract the attention of the one person on board who will feel compelled to sit next to me and tell me his or her entire life story. While this isn’t necessarily awful, I’d much rather read Ken Follett’s new book while in the air. I admit that this reason is a bit self-serving, but the second reason is more convincing: I’m not really all that great a flyer.

Airplane! (1980)

There’s something about traveling at six hundred miles per hour, thirty thousand feet in the air in a glorified hollow, metal cylinder that tends to rattle me. And there are not many things worse for passengers’ morale than a priest in his clerical collar who is having a mild panic attack during takeoff.

Better to travel incognito: a guy in a t-shirt and jeans having a mild panic attack during takeoff is much easier to ignore. Now, I’ve heard all the statistics. You’re more likely to have a vending machine fall on you, more likely to be struck by lightning, more likely to die in a motor vehicle collision than you are to be involved in a plane crash. But the statistics have nothing to do with my dislike for flying. I don’t have anxiety over that fact that the plane might do something as unlikely as crash. I’m not anxious that a bird might get sucked into a turbine or that the landing gear won’t deploy.

My anxiety comes from the simple truth that there’s nothing I can do if one of these things happens. I’m anxious because I have no control. I’m anxious because, once the cabin doors are sealed and the tray tables and seats are in the upright and locked position, I have absolutely no ability to determine the direction of my fate.

And this is most unnerving. When I connect the two metal parts of the belt buckle and the plane starts taxiing to the runway, my anxiety takes over. I bow to the anxiety and all I have left to me is an expected bout of intestinal distress. But you know what? Anxiety, as a state of being, is (when you get right down to it) a sin, a distortion in our relationships with God.

Anxiety happens when we give in to the temptation not to trust. Trust is a fundamental building block of any good relationship. When (for any number of reasons) our trust for one another evaporates, we lose the foundation of the relationship. The same is true in our relationships with God. When we give into the temptation not to trust that God fulfills God’s promises, our relationship with God becomes distorted. And anxiety is one of the unpleasant byproducts.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount by looking up into the air and speaking about the birds and looking down the hill and seeing the wildflowers poking up through the grass. God, he says, gives to these birds and flowers what they need to flourish. The birds have enough food, even though they do not plant, grow, or store their sustenance. The flowers display great beauty, even though they are here today and gone tomorrow. If God sustains these small, passing things that have no worries at all, then why are you worrying, why are you anxious, Jesus wonders.

On our honeymoon last week, Leah and I saw dozens of examples of Jesus’ illustration. Bumping along in the open air Land Cruiser on our safari in South Africa, we took in the grandeur of God’s creation and witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of animals eating and sleeping and wallowing in the mud. The trip was truly spectacular. I found myself agreeing with Jesus all the more. Of course, God’s relationship with me allows me to flourish as the elephants and buffalo and giraffe and zebra do.

Then we got into the propeller driven plane back to Johannesburg, which kept threatening simply to fall out of the sky, and my trust abdicated once again, only to be replaced by anxiety. Notice the odd reality at work in this example: I am less anxious on the ground because I have some semblance of control over myself. In the air, anxiety reigns because that control is gone. Now, if anxiety is the temptation not to trust in God, why would flying trigger my anxiety while being on the ground does not? In neither situation am I relying particularly on God. On the ground, I rely on myself. In the air, I don’t have that option, so I quickly notice the absence of my self-reliance. Cue the mild panic attack.

The loss of control confronts us with the stark truth that our tendency to rely on ourselves overwhelmingly trumps our tendency to rely on God. When we are in control, we can ignore the fact that we aren’t carrying our weight in our relationships with God. We aren’t opening ourselves up to God’s movement. We aren’t filling the role of trusting children. But when we go up in the air, our self-reliance vanishes and we cannot ignore our failure to join God in right relationship. We cannot ignore the fact that anxiety, rather than trust, fills the hole, which is left when self-reliance is not an option.

So, how do we fill the hole with trust instead of anxiety? Well, the short answer is that we can’t. Whenever our self-control or self-reliance or self-determination is threatened, anxiety will be the byproduct. Therefore, removing things such as self-reliance from the equation is the only way to move toward trust and away from anxiety. After Jesus talks about God’s care for the birds and flowers, he tells his disciples not to be anxious. And then he gets to the punch line: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for God’s righteousness means devoting ourselves to living in right relationship with God. This relationship acknowledges that we are never really in control, whether we are on the ground or in the air. A right relationship with God is predicated on relying on God first, so that we can be open to God working through us. Holding up our part in this relationship means making an effort to take stock how much we rely on ourselves, how often we maintain lone wolf attitudes, how quickly we fail to trust when things get bumpy. Flourishing in this relationship with God happens when we notice ourselves falling into old patterns of anxiety, and, instead of giving in, we pray, we surrender our self-determination, and we trust God.

This is not easy. God knows my success rate is quite low. But over a lifetime of spiritual practice, of walking with God, of following Jesus’ path rather than our own, I believe that we can, with God’s help, overcome the temptation not to trust, the temptation that leads to anxiety. In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, an anxiety-ridden Zion cries out: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”

But the Lord responds: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

God has each of us written on the palm of God’s hands. God will not forget us. God is here and always will be. When we begin to trust this fundamental, immutable basis of our existence, we will find our right relationship with God. We will move from the floundering of anxiety to the flourishing of trust. Who knows: when I find this trust, perhaps I’ll be able to wear my collar on an airplane.