The Giver

Sermon for Sunday, March 11, 2018 || Lent 4B || John 3:14-21

God has blessed Leah and me in the past few months with the opportunity to participate in the Financial Peace University class here at St. Mark’s. The nine-week course is part lesson and part support group as singles and couples gather to examine and change their financial practices. We only have two classes left, and I can’t begin to explain how much the class has changed my outlook on money and on my family’s future.

But I must confess to a fairly large dose of hubris going into the course. I knew the developer of the class, financial guru Dave Ramsey, purported to use “biblical principles” to guide his thinking about money. I assumed such principles would consist of half-baked theology used to prove his points, or else his principles would rise out of the muck of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which is anathema to true Christianity. Boy, was I wrong. Continue reading “The Giver”

The Whole City

Sermon for Sunday, February 4, 2018 || Epiphany 5B || Mark 1:29-39

There’s a certain line in this morning’s Gospel lesson, and I can’t decide whether it is hyperbole or not. “That evening, at sundown,” Mark tells us, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” The whole city. Archaeologists tell us the city of Capernaum had a population of about fifteen hundred in Jesus’ day, so imagine a group larger than the student body of Fitch High School crowding around one house on a quiet side street near the sea. “The whole city was gathered around the door.”

Now you might be wondering why I’m harping on about this rather innocuous verse, and I’ll admit it has stuck in my craw this week. To be honest, reading about this whole city gathering around Jesus made me sad and wistful. Imagining this great throng trying to get near this wonderful source of healing made me long for a return to another time in the history of our little piece of the world.

Continue reading “The Whole City”

The Widow’s Note

Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017 || Reign of Christ, Year A || Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

About two months ago, I got a call from one of the nearby care facilities. An elderly man, whom I had never met, was actively dying, and the staff member on the phone asked if I could come over and pray with him. Now I wish my first thought was, “Yes, of course, I’d be honored.” To be honest, it was one of those days. I was on the run from here to there doing a million things, none of them very attentively because there was so much to do. So my second thought was, “I’ll go if I can squeeze in another visit.” After all, the man wasn’t one of my parishioners, not one of my flock.

Thankfully, a third thought bubbled up from my gut, from that place within that you listen to because you’re pretty sure the thought originated from someone other than yourself. The third thought was a simple imperative: “Go.” I got in my car and drove to the care center. The staff directed me to the room where I found the unconscious man and his wife sitting vigil next to him. Their adult children were on the way, but she wasn’t sure they would make it on time. She and I chatted for awhile about their life together, the blessing of his long years, the pain in seeing him move towards death. Continue reading “The Widow’s Note”

Come, Lord Jesus

Sermon for Sunday, May 8, 2016 || Easter 7C || Revelation 22

comelordjesusYou probably didn’t realize it, but a few minutes ago _____ read the very last prayer in the Bible. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” These are the words of John of Patmos as he wakes from his vision, which we know as the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. A succinct prayer, to be sure, but powerful. It sounds to me like a breath prayer; that is, a prayer short enough to be said slowly in a single breath. <demonstrating> Come, Lord Jesus. Praying a breath prayer is a wonderful practice that helps us stay immersed in the healing waters of God’s presence. A breath prayer can be anything that you can say with one breath: Continue reading “Come, Lord Jesus”

Advent in Haiti

Sermon for Sunday, December 6, 2015 || Advent 2C

AdventinHaitiAs many of you know, Tim Evers and I spent much of last week in Haiti visiting our mission partner, St. Luc School. As you will see later in this sermon, I’m so thankful that a coincidence of calendar had us travel there during Advent. My first glimpse of the country came from 10,000 feet in the air. The Haitian landscape rises rugged and mountainous to the east where it abuts the Dominican Republic and flattens to the west where a peninsula bathes in the Caribbean Sea. Our destination was in the countryside west of the capital.

We arrived at the hospital of St. Croix in Leogane after the wildest vehicular ride of my life. Negotiating intersections paired survival of the fittest with a massive game of chicken. There were next to no traffic lights, and the painted traffic lanes seemed merely suggestive. Even which side of the road to drive on was in doubt. But we made it, thanks to our driver’s aggressive skill and liberal use of the horn.

As we drove, both from the airport and on the way to St. Luc, I tried to take in as much of my surroundings as possible. Here are a few impressions in no particular order:

Wherever there is an open patch of ground, there are kids playing soccer on it. Grass is optional. And having a ball is optional.

Most people are dressed the way you or I might when we’re doing yard work. The big exception are kids – particularly girls – wearing immaculate school uniforms. And I mean immaculate. Their blouses are the only thing I saw that I would classify as the color white. Everything else that could be white was painted tan by all the dust.

There are stray dogs all over the place, many with mammary glands obviously swollen with milk. I realized how odd this sight was to me because nearly every dog in the U.S. is spayed or neutered.

The two main forms of transportation are walking and riding small motorcycles — dirt bikes, really. I didn’t know you could fit five people on a dirt bike, but you can.

There are lots of scrawny little goats milling around.

Many of the ramshackle dwellings are fenced in with tarps emblazoned with “USAID” – the United States Agency for International Development. The tarps say, “From the American People” on them. It’s a sad commentary that the emergency tarps provided five years ago after the earthquake have become a permanent fixture in people’s dwellings.

In the distance, the landscape is truly stunning, but focusing on the landscape close by tells what happens when there is no functioning sanitation department. Discarded bottles and Styrofoam food containers collect in piles like raked leaves, along with other unidentified refuse.

All this I saw from the seat of a dented Mazda dualcab truck. All this I saw without actually interacting with anyone. Thankfully, we did interact with people, and so my appreciation for both the blessings and challenges of life in Mercery, Haiti deepened. Our main contact was Fr. Sonley Joseph, the priest in charge of St. Croix and its eight — eight! — satellite parishes, including St. Luc. Sonley and I have a lot in common: we’re both writers and we both lived in the same dormitory at Virginia Theological Seminary (he a couple years after I). I liked him immediately, and not just because of our kinship, but because of his soft-spoken, yet ardent and inviting vision of the mission of God. In Haiti, the Church’s participation in God’s mission has always been linked with education, and most churches have schools attached. Sounds like St. Mark’s, if you ask me.

Fr. Sonley was our guide and interpreter when we went to St. Luc on Wednesday morning to say hello to the students and teachers. We received 270 bon jours in return across the eight classrooms, from 6th grade on down to pre-K. The school has no electricity, but there is enough tropical sunlight to illuminate all the rooms, save one whose windows are shaded by plants. The classrooms are quite noisy because there’s nothing but cinderblocks to keep sounds from one room invading another. And most teaching is done using the blackboard, as there aren’t enough books to go around.

But even with these challenges, the teachers’ love for their profession and their students is evident from the moment you step into the room. Tim and I met with the teachers later in the day, and they all agreed that St. Luc is the best school in Mercery. Their pride for and dedication to their school was wonderful to feel. Access to education is a fundamental human right. And these teachers are realizing this fundamental human right for those 270 beautiful children, in a country were such access is far from assured.

To be involved in the process of educating these children, even in the small way we at St. Mark’s are, is a gift. Our partnership with St. Luc School is a gift from God, a participation in God’s mission as Fr. Sonley described it. Of course, there is so much more we could do. We have a list, prioritized from simple to incredibly ambitious. But that’s only for these 270 kids. What about the other children of Haiti or in other poverty-stricken places (even here in the States) or the other needs and disparities that need to be addressed or the issues of injustice that keep people from having access to fundamental human rights? There is so much more that we could do! There is always so much more we can do — So, so, so, so, so much more that we can easily be overwhelmed; the need can steal our breath, then our balance, then our will to persevere.

And this is where the season of Advent infiltrates our hearts and minds and gives us a little breathing room to stand back and take it all in. Yes, the needs of this world are great. Yes, the harvest is plentiful and the laborers are few. But Advent teaches us two things that will sharpen our focus and our will.

First, as Stacey so aptly put it last week, Advent reminds that the One we long for is already here. There is a tension at play between God’s kingdom already here and God’s kingdom still to come. God’s kingdom is alive and well in Haiti. Indeed, despite the general poverty of resources and circumstances, the faith of the people of Haiti is deep and abiding. I saw dozens of signs that said “Merci Jesus” on them. Thank you, Jesus! For what, you might ask? For life. For love. For family. For the same things you and I thank Jesus for. That’s the “already” of the kingdom. The “not yet” is still breaking in: it’s in the teachers sweltering at blackboards with 50 students clamoring for attention; it’s in the mother painstakingly washing the uniform each night so it is immaculate again in the morning; it’s in the hungry yet smiling faces of those children who are Haiti’s future, whom we are helping to educate.

Second, Advent teaches us to focus on a particular spot at a particular time on a particular person. The particularity of Jesus’ Incarnation is what we are getting ready for. God came to us in all the particularity of a precious human life, born in a place that could easily have been fenced with a tarp from USAID. Because of this Incarnation, Jesus had a chance to meet people in a way God couldn’t — eye to eye, touching, embracing, walking with, eating with…dying for. When you start to get overwhelmed by the needs of the world, return to Advent. Walk with Mary and Joseph to that starlit stable in Bethlehem and witness the birth of grace and love. See Christ embodied in his own peculiar humanness. Then go back to the needs of this world. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity. Instead, do what God did in the Incarnation: pick a place; pick a person. Be present there. Form a partnership there. Form relationships there in that singular place. Find Christ in that person. And be an incarnation of Christ to that person.

That’s what we’re doing in the partnership between St. Mark’s Church and St. Luc School. It’s an Advent partnership: already begun but never quite finished. It’s also a Christmas partnership, because in that little school off a dirt road in the boondocks of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, we incarnate Christ for each other. Thanks be to God.

The Line After Recess

Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2015 || Proper 20B || Mark 9:30-37

lineafterrecessEvery day of my fourth grade year, my class lined up at the end of recess to go back inside. The bell rang, and we raced to our spots in the line. But the race was in vain because no matter who arrived at the door first, we always lined up alphabetically by last name. By last name. What I wouldn’t have given to line up by first name. Then (Oh happy day!) I would have been at the very front of the line. No Aarons or Abigails in my class. No. Adam would have been the first name on the list. But those days were cruel. Every morning, I stood on tiptoes to see over the twenty-three heads in front of me, and only one boy – Shane Yellin – was worse off than I.

Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. Ida Hughes, my math teacher, challenged us to line up in reverse alphabetical order. And for one cold, drizzly, glorious day, I stood at the front of the line and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.

Standing at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The bucket of fried chicken at the church potluck retains its full complement of chicken legs. Certainly, perks abound for those in front. Go to any shopping center in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving and witness the millions of Americans attempting be first in line simply to purchase new TVs for “doorbuster” prices.

Of course, these benefits are all about me. I get the tickets and the autograph and the preferred piece of chicken. I get the deal on the television. I get all these things because I got in line before you. You are behind me and someone else is behind you and countless faceless others line up behind that someone else. So we stand in our line and stare at the backs of the heads in front of us. In this linear configuration, no one can converse. No one can relate. No one can do anything more than slowly shuffle forward, both surrounded and isolated at the same time.

This isolation is the danger Jesus envisions when he places a little child among his disciples. They’ve been arguing about which one of them is the greatest (in other words, which one of them should be first in line). The prevailing linear culture has thoroughly molded the disciples. They only understand relationships in terms of hierarchy based on class, gender, and age. But they’ve been hanging around Jesus long enough to know that Jesus is thoroughly countercultural. He talks with women. He eats with outcasts. He touches the unclean. And so the disciples lapse into embarrassed silence when Jesus asks them about the content of their argument. They know they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”

The disciples expect something countercultural and that’s exactly what Jesus gives them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” To illustrate the revolutionary nature of this statement, Jesus brings a small child and places the child among the disciples – not before them or after them, but among them. In Jesus’ day, this child was the last of the last. The hierarchy of the society placed children just below farm animals because you could get a lot more out of a goat than a toddler, and the goat would probably live longer. Children had no rights or protections. They weren’t even considered people until they were old enough to work.

But Jesus ignores this cruel stratification when he says: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus commands his disciples and us to welcome those whom society deems lowest of all. With this welcome comes the opportunity to see the faces and learn the stories of those who until now were at the end of the line, too far removed from us to register on our radar. And as we hear the stories of the lowest and the last, we seek ways to serve them and serve with them.

But one of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve: “You might not have said you need a well in your village, but we’re going to come and build one anyway.” This imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service should be attempting to supplant. However, with his command to welcome, Jesus doesn’t allow us to develop a “serve first and ask questions later” mentality. Welcoming provides the framework through which service leads to the building up of relationships.

With his emphasis on relationships, Jesus changes the existing linear model into a circular one. In the line, you can’t welcome anyone because all you see are the backs of heads. You can’t serve anyone because the implied hierarchy of the line makes isolation the norm. You can only count the number of people ahead of you and nurse your own indignation over your rotten place in line. But in the circle, there is no first and no last. We can grasp hands in welcome precisely because we will be unable to quantify our position in the continuous round. And relationships have a chance to flourish because we look not at backs but at each other’s faces.

This circular model of welcome and service stands in laughable contrast to the current situation in this country. Too many incidents to count show that the tired old scourge of racism is alive and well. The drive to produce leads to longer hours, more work, and more money, but assuredly less happiness, less camaraderie. The gap between the rich and the poor grows ever wider. Each of these examples depends on the linear model continuing to thrive. And it is. So here we sit with our Lord challenging us to do something, which the loudest voices on the other side of those doors claim is utter nonsense.

To be first you must be last of all and servant of all, he says. Let go of linear relationships based on power and ambition and embrace circular relationships based on welcome and service. If you are standing near the front of the line now, start walking to the back. Grab the hand of the last person in line and form the circle. Welcome the least among us. Listen to their needs, their desires, their dreams. Form new relationships. Partner with them in service because we are only as strong as our weakest members. Jesus invites us over and over again to accomplish these things. And Jesus never issues an invitation without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to embrace it.

So to every fourth grader lining up after recess and to every businessperson lining up at Starbucks and to everyone whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back: Give up your place in line.

As You Wish

Sermon for Sunday, April 26, 2015 || Easter 4B || 1 John 3:16-24

asyouwishMany of you met (or at least saw) my sister Melinda two weeks ago when we baptized Charlie and Amelia on this very spot. She’s one of the strongest and most loving people I’ve ever known, and I’m glad that my years spent being her “annoying little brother” didn’t damage our long term prospects of maintaining a close connection. This may sound funny, but I think one of the primary reasons we survived our young years with our friendship intact was the movie The Princess Bride. We both loved it, and no matter how long it had been since we last watched it, we would quote it to each other at every conceivable opportunity. And we still do sometimes. Rest assured, you can mute the film, and Melinda and I can supply the dialogue.

So it should come as no surprise to you that when I’m doing pre-marital counseling with couples preparing to be married, wisdom gleaned from The Princess Bride tends to slip in. As of last count, I’m officiating at ten weddings this year, so I’ve had the golden opportunity to give the “As you wish” talk to many couples, with many more to come.

The film opens with a grandfather reading S. Morgenstern’s “classic” tale to his sick grandson. As he reads, the picture melts into a bucolic setting where we meet two beautiful people. Buttercup commands the farm boy, Westley, to do several menial tasks – polish her horse’s saddle, fill buckets with water, fetch a pitcher. Each time, he responds, “As you wish.” Then we hear the grandfather, voiced by Columbo himself, the inimitable Peter Falk, say, “That day, she was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you.’ And even more amazing was the day she realized she truly loved him back.”

This discovery, of course, leads to a sunset kiss, a leave-taking to seek fortune across the sea, a supposed death, and (eventually) a harrowing reunion, a second separation, another supposed death, a rescue, and (finally) an escape together from the homicidal schemes of the evil prince. (It’s a fantastic movie.)

I bring up Westley’s “As you wish” with couples preparing for marriage because I’ve found that often they don’t realize or haven’t processed the ways in which their partners show their love. Rarely do both members of a couple display their love in the exact same ways. Because our husbands or wives show love differently than we do, we have a tendency to miss it and thus fail to appreciate this love.

Our New Testament lesson this morning speaks to the “As you wish” exercise. “Little children,” says the writer of the first letter of John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Just before this, the letter gives an example from Jesus: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

The writer of First John knows that saying, “I love you,” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. Too often, the abused wife returns to her husband because “he says he loves me.” Too often, the college freshman wakes up crying the next morning, after being duped by “I love you.” Too often, “I love you” hurts more than it heals. The abusive husband and the collegiate predator weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences.

But this is where action comes in. This is where service separates truth from manipulation. You may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. If this were the case, however, there would still be regular jousting tournaments throughout Christendom. Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love – one that makes the spoken words extraneous (even though they are still nice to hear).

Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not only in poetic protestations: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” No. Love expresses itself in holding the beloved’s hair back when she’s bent over the toilet with stomach flu. Love waits all night in the hospital room, visits the prisoner, builds affordable housing, donates mac & cheese. Love gets its uniform dirty.

We will be reaffirming our baptismal covenant in just a few minutes. One of the promises echoes Jesus’ great commandment: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

Will you serve? Will you love? “I will, with God’s help,” you’ll say. How will you serve? What will your love propel you to do?

This week I invite you to talk to your spouse or child or sibling or friend. Ask them how they see you demonstrate love. What ways do you show it above and beyond the spoken “I love you?” To whom are these displays of love directed? How can you employ your unique set of gifts to become an even better version of the loving person that God made you?

Do the same thing for your spouse, child, sibling, or friend. Discover together the ways God is calling you to be God’s loving servant. Discover together how God prompts you to be servants of one another in the power of mutual love. And discover together where God is inviting you to turn that internal love into external service. The writer of First John continues on this theme: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” How indeed?

In The Princess Bride, Miracle Max reminds us that “True love is the greatest thing in the world.”* But unless we display that true love through our service to one another and to our brothers and sisters in need, what good is it? After we share Holy Communion with each other this morning, we will orient ourselves away from the table and toward the door. And we will pray, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we will respond, “As you wish.”

* “Except for a nice M.L.T. Mutton, lettuce, and tomato, where the mutton is nice and lean. They’re so perky. I love that.”

Miserere Mei

Sermon for Sunday, November 23, 2014 || Christ the King, Year A || Matthew 25:31-46

misereremeiWhen I was a kid, there was a series of books called the Magic Eye books. Each page of these books was filled with what looked like very precise and geometric versions of Jackson Pollock’s art work. The pictures were just jumbles of kaleidoscopic lines and shapes, and if you didn’t know any better, that’s all you saw. But the trick with these books was that if you looked at the pictures a different way – sort of squint a bit – then you saw an image hiding beneath the jumbled surface picture. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I never once saw anything besides the geometric Jackson Pollock’s. No matter how often I lied to my friends and said, “Of course, I can see the person walking the dog,” I just could never get my eyes to focus correctly to see the hidden images. Let me tell you, it was quite frustrating.

Every single day, we live in a world like the Magic Eye books, and the feast we celebrate today reminds us of the true picture buried beneath the jumble of lines and shapes. The foundation of our existence is the reign of our king Jesus Christ. This fundamental reality of existence is, if you will, the image concealed beneath the geometric Jackson Pollock. The kingdom of Christ is our true home; this is where we live and move and have our being. But most of us spend much of our time seeing only the jumble of lines and shapes, all the clatter of this broken world that redirects our attention away from the reign of Christ. I could never see the image hidden in the Magic eye, and my success rate at perceiving the reign of Christ in our midst isn’t much better.

And yet, I believe Christ isn’t through with me yet. Unlike other kings, who might have cast me from their service upon my first failure, Jesus, in his mercy, gives me a second chance. And then a third chance. And then a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is, by the way. Mercy is the action of giving someone another chance.

In today’s Gospel lesson, neither the sheep nor the goats see into the heart of the Magic Eye picture. When the king says those famous words about being hungry and thirsty and alien and naked and sick and imprisoned, both groups ask, “Lord, when was it?” When did we see you in these circumstances? And he responds, “That was me. I was there shining from within the least of those who are members of my family.” One group serves and the other does not, but neither group knows whom they, at least, have the potential to serve. They do not have Kingdom Eyes. They do not see the presence of Christ buried beneath the need.

When we see those who are in need, we have so many different reactions. We might cringe and turn away. Or we might be spurred to help, to show compassion. We might be paralyzed by indifference. Or we might reach out in love. We might wonder where the reign of Christ is in the face of so much need. And that’s when we need to pray for Kingdom Eyes, so that, with God’s help, we can see the presence of Christ in the least of the members of Christ’s family. And in witnessing that presence be spurred to help, to show compassion, to reach out in love.

But even when we witness God’s presence amongst the need in this world, even when we see the image hidden beneath the Magic Eye picture, we are not guaranteed to respond in a way that makes the reign of Christ more complete in this broken world. And this is where the mercy of Christ returns to this sermon. You see, none of us is a sheep or a goat. It’s just not that cut and dried. Sometimes we act like one and sometimes like the other. But Christ is not through with us yet. We have a second chance to respond with compassion when we see Christ’s presence in the least of these. And then we have a third chance. And then we have a fourth chance. That’s what mercy is. Through the mercy of God, we have a chance each and every day to respond with compassion when we say, “When was it, Lord? When did we see you? Oh, right there…today…on the street corner.”

The Latin phrase for “Have mercy on me” is Miserere Mei, which is the title of the song I’d like to share with you to close this sermon. This is a song about second and third and fourth chances. It is a song about seeing the reign of Christ in the midst of need and praying for the will to engage that need.

Miserere Mei, by Adam Thomas

Lord, I saw you yesterday
You were holding a cardboard sign near the highway
I tried not to notice when you looked at me
All I saw were a duffel bag and tattered jeans
I looked without seeing
I felt without feeling
You were so easy to ignore
How can I stand here being
A rich man while I’m stealing
The lives of the least of these your children, Lord?

Lord, I saw you on the TV screen
Your belly distended, your arms so lean
You looked at the camera, your dark eyes burned
But I pressed fast-forward till my show returned
I’m all the time pretending
The next time you’ll be sending
Me out to serve is not today
But I feel my lethargy is ending
My tattered heart is mending
When next I see you Lord help me not to turn away.

Miserere mei

Lord, I saw you at the hospital
You were lying in a bed surrounded by white-coated people
You watched me standing frozen at the door
I was looking for the courage to take one step more
I feel myself regressing
My lack of faith is pressing
Me to rely on self alone
I am always second-guessing
When I should be confessing
That I will trust your strength O Lord and not my own

Miserere mei,
Lord have mercy on me.

*You can listen to the live recording of  “Miserere Mei” in the sermon audio above or download the original recording here.
**The image associated with this post comes from magiceye.com and serves as the sample image there. I still can’t see the hidden image, even with instruction.

A New Dream

Homily for Maundy Thursday || April 17, 2014 || John 13

MaundyThurs2014Imagine with me the Apostle Peter at night in his prison cell in Rome near the end of his life.

It all happened so long ago. Thirty years or more now. And yet sometimes – like tonight – I wake up in the cold wee hours of the morning gasping for air because my dreams drag me back to that week. One moment, I’m being suffocated by the crowds pressing in on me, buffeting me, shouting for blood. The next I awake in my prison cell, take in great swallows of stale air.

My cellmate – another follower rounded up here in Rome like I was – he says, “You were shouting in your sleep again.”

“What was I shouting?” I ask, though I already know the answer.

“Something like, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ ” he says.

Yes, of course. The same old dream. I always wake up when the rooster crows.

Why can’t I dream of the happier times? Lugging the huge catch of fish onto the beach. Talking with Jesus around the campfire. Sharing a meal with him in our hideout in Jerusalem.

“Perhaps you still feel guilty,” my cellmate says. “We’ve all heard the story: how you denied you knew Jesus when he needed you most.”

“But Jesus forgave me,” I say. “I told him I loved him. He gave me a mission to feed his sheep. He knew I couldn’t live with myself, so he told me to live for him instead…And I have…”

My voice trails off. I used to give this defense with more fire.

He might have forgiven you.” My cellmate again. “But have you truly accepted his forgiveness? Have you ever forgiven yourself?”

I want to say, “yes.” I want this fellow in my cell to know that I am one of Jesus’ most fervent followers, that I remember everything he ever taught, that I apply it constantly to my life. But it’s all a lie. A front I put on so others will be encouraged. If they knew the doubts that assail my hearts, they’d be less eager to follow, I tell myself. I do follow, but…fervently?

His question lingers in the stale air: “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” I want to say, “yes,” but something about the dank prison cell drags the truth out of me instead. Must be the hardness of the floor, the right angles of the walls, the smoothness of the stones. In Rome, even the prison cells are plumb. “No,” I say. The word rebounds off the wall. The echo indicts me.

Silence replaces the echo, and we listen to each other breathing in the dark. “I’d always heard you were stubborn, Peter,” says my cellmate. “But that forgiveness. That love of his. It was a free gift. You didn’t need to earn it. Your denial didn’t make you unworthy of it. Do you not see that?”

A recent convert, this one. I can always tell by their zeal. This one is mouthier than most.

He presses on. “It’s the footwashing all over again.”

“The what?”

“The night before Jesus went to his death on the cross. We’ve all heard that story, too. Jesus knew he was going to God and so he wanted to show you all the importance of service. Of love. The fact that service and love are really the same thing. So he took off his robe, got down on his knees, and washed the feet of his friends.”

“I remember. I was there.”

“But…but when he got to your feet, you didn’t want them washed. You didn’t feel worthy of that either.”

This I have to answer. “He just looked so small,” I say. “Crawling on his knees, pushing the wash basin before him. It felt so wrong for him to humble himself like that for my sake. His humility made me feel even more unworthy.”

More silence. Again, the truth tumbles out.

“It still does.”

And what does my cellmate do? He starts to sing:

“Being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

“I heard that the day I was arrested,” he says. “We sang it at a gathering.”

“So?”

“It says Jesus humbled himself and became obedient. Don’t you see, Peter? How can I, who is so new to the Way, be the one to teach you this, you who have the keys to the kingdom? Humility and obedience go together.”

I shift on my cot. I don’t want to hear this, but his voice has taken on a new tone, one I remember Jesus using: excitement and insight mixing together to form revelation. I sit up and feel the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

“When he washed your feet he demonstrated humble service. And what did he do next?”

“He told us to love each other.”

“No. He commanded you to love each other. It wasn’t a request. Jesus gave you a direct order, a new commandment. To obey you had to love. To show love you had to serve humbly. To serve humbly you had to obey – to listen deeply for his call and act on it. I found my church – my new family – because I watched them loving each other, serving each other, and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to follow Jesus’ commandment.”

“And yet here you are, in prison with me.”

“I believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.”

“And what exactly is that?”

He takes a deep breath. “Helping Peter find a new dream.”

I grunt my derision, but the memory of the rooster crowing still hovers behind my eyes. I’m listening, in spite of myself.

“Look,” he presses. “You can dismiss everything I say as the ravings of convert’s zeal. But just because I’m new doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Those words you said in fear that night still haunt you. Let them go. Tell me now. Say it aloud. Say you know him.”

His words awaken the same ones in me. I open my mouth. My voice catches in my throat. But I force them out. “I do know the man.”

“Say it again.”

“I do know him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s here in this cell. I hear him speaking through you.”

“What is he commanding?”

“He wants me to let go, to let his forgiveness wash me clean, to release my stubbornness and pride, to hear and obey.”

“ To hear and obey. To love and serve in humility?”

“That is his command. Loving and serving. The command and the gift, both at the same time.”

He reaches across the divide between our cots and grasps my hand. I can feel his blood pulsing. And for the first time in God knows how long, I feel the fire blaze in me again. He squeezes my hand and holds it fast. “Peter, my friend, there’s your new dream.”

*Art: detail from “Columbus in Prison” by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

True Purpose

Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2014 || Epiphany 7A || Matthew 5:38-48

dolphin“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? Sounds like naïve idealism at worst and hopeless hyperbole at best. Sounds like one more command of Jesus that we could never live up to. I mean, it’s hard enough turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile and loving our enemies, but now he wants us to be perfect on top of all of that? Doesn’t he understand that to be perfect there could never have been a time when one wasn’t already perfect? Doesn’t he understand that one cannot become perfect? Either you are or you’re not…and we’re…not.

I don’t mean to be sound discouraging right off the bat, but I bet that many of you were thinking something along those lines after I finished reading the Gospel. Like dutiful Episcopalians, you still said, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” in response to my, “The Gospel of the Lord.” But I’m sure some of you were thinking instead: “What in the world do you mean, Lord Christ?”

Let’s face it. Sometimes Jesus says things that we don’t understand. Sometimes he says things that make us uncomfortable. And sometimes he says exactly the thing we need to hear, the words our hearts have been longing for. Every so often, he scores a hat trick – he’ll say something we don’t understand that makes us feel uncomfortable, and yet those same words end up being precisely what we need to hear.

Such is the case, I think, with these words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Let’s stick with these words for the rest of this sermon, despite our possible discomfort, and perhaps in the end we will hear them with new ears.

English translations of the Bible going back to the King James Version in the early 1600s have used the word “perfect” to render the original Greek. The trouble is the Greek word is better translated, not as “perfection,” but as “maturation” or “culmination” or “completeness” or “fulfillment.”

Try this translation on for size: “Be complete, find wholeness, therefore, as your heavenly Father is the source of all wholeness.” Sounds a little more doable, doesn’t it?

Or how about this one: “Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”

When we render Jesus words like this, we hear not a command, but a desire, a deep yearning of our Lord for us. Jesus isn’t commanding us to “be perfect” like you might command a dog to roll over. No. Jesus is offering us a vision of the life he invites us to take part in.

“Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes.”

This vision – this invitation, really – is Jesus’ dream of bringing humanity back into full communion with God. Somewhere along the path, humanity forgot its true purpose. Humanity forgot what God designed it to do and be. Humanity forgot, and we are the legacy of this forgetting. All that is wrong with civilization – from the global (environmental degradation, war, poverty, hunger) to the personal (domestic strife, substance abuse, body images issues) – all that is wrong with civilization can trace its roots back to people deliberately or unintentionally failing to fulfill the purpose God gave us.

This purpose is simple: love God and love each other. The other includes the person in the next booth at the restaurant, the person on the street with the cardboard sign, the person across the ocean in the refugee camp, not to mention the earth we walk on and everything else that calls this earth home. And the love I’m talking about here is not simply emotional fondness. Here love is multifaceted: love is the catalyst for service, love is the connection between the server and the served, and love is the affection generated in the act of serving, which perpetuates a virtuous cycle. When we look on the other as a subject to be loved, and not as an object to be possessed, we take a step toward the true purpose that God instilled in us along with God’s image and likeness.

When we participate in Jesus’ vision “to be perfect,” we rediscover this true purpose and we find fulfillment in the love we share and the actions such love spurs. And I promise you God delights in this fulfillment in the same way God delights in the dolphin that soars out of the water or the tree that grows straight and tall and bears radiant, delicious fruit. God delights in us always, but we reflect that delight when we live into the true purpose for which God created us.

Here’s what I mean. Have you ever had a moment when you realized you were exactly where you were supposed to be? You took a step outside your body and a thought struck you like a bolt of lightning that your whole life was preparing you for this one, singular moment.

Perhaps you were in the delivery room breathing along with your wife. Her hand squeezed yours so hard that you thought every bone in your fingers was crushed. Finally, at long last, the baby arrived and you gathered the tiny life into your arms and he opened his eyes. They were brown flecked with gold just like yours. And in that moment, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that room, to that new heart beating next to yours. The love you felt in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.

Perhaps you were deployed to Afghanistan, to one of the forward posts, just you and a dozen other troops in a small fort on a hill in the middle of nowhere. One day you were out on patrol and without warning the wind was full of enemy fire. The staff sergeant next to you took a bullet to the leg in the first wave. It sliced through his artery and the blood flowed too fast. You were pinned down behind a crumbling wall, but still you fashioned a tourniquet from your backpack strap. You flung him over your shoulder, and disregarding the rounds whizzing by, you hiked back to base. He lost the leg but kept his life. And during that hike, you realized your whole life was hurtling forward to that day, to that service, to that comrade-in-arms who needed your help. The service you gave in that moment was the fulfillment of your true purpose. It was your perfection.

Perhaps you can think of a moment like that in your own life. Perhaps you can remember a moment when you realized your whole life was hurtling to that day, to that place, to that person, to that love and service bursting to be fulfilled.

Now wouldn’t it be extraordinary if those moments were the norm and not the exception? When we recognize and step into Jesus’ vision for us, we discover more and more how God is charting the trajectory of our lives, how God is creating opportunities for us to fulfill our true purpose – to love God and love each other.

So be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Be fulfilled in your true purpose, as your heavenly Father is the culmination of all true purposes. Love God. Love each other. And start to notice how God is preparing you for each moment of your life – each moment in which we have the opportunity to love, to serve, to be true to the purpose for which we were designed.

*Art Credit: Lomvi2, commons.wikimedia.org