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.”


“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

The Spotlight

 (Sermon for Sunday, September 16, 2012 || Proper 19B || Mark 8:27-38)

I put the guitar down on the wooden bench, dropped my right knee to the root-strewn ground, and produced the ring from my pocket. The green light that shone through the trees of the outdoor chapel glinted off the diamond and sapphires, a perfect analog for the light that I felt sure was bursting from my own chest. The last words of the song I had just finished singing clung to the hot, humid, late-July air and surrounded us with the most important question I have ever asked: “Leah, darling, will you marry me?” She nodded her head once, unable to find her voice. Then, after an eternal moment during which I could feel in the depths of my soul the momentum of our entire lives converging on that one point in time, she whispered the single word I longed to hear: “Yes.” My hand trembled so much that I had trouble finding her finger with the ring. And as we embraced, I realized something profound – profound and wonderful. I realized that I was no longer the main character in my own life.

For the first 27½ years of my existence, my chief concern, whether I acknowledged it or not, was me. I was Numero Uno, first in line, the Big Cheese. I was in the spotlight. Sure, I lived my life with a dollop of self-sacrifice, of serving the other at my own cost, but this behavior was much more garnish than entree. I was the main character of my life: the rest of the cast never really could rival me for my own attention. Then I met Leah and everything changed. Suddenly, not only did I desire to share the spotlight, I would have been excited to give the prime spot to her alone. A whole new world of service opened up to me that I don’t think I was ever aware of before. When we came together as a couple, I finally understood the joys of self-sacrificial love.

Looking back on those days two years ago, I chuckle at God’s sense of humor and rejoice in God’s providence. I can just hear God the Father saying to God the Son: “You know that Adam Thomas fellow? He’s my beloved child, he’s even a priest of the Church, but he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand your words, Son, when you said to your friends: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ ”

“You know what we should do?” says God the Son. “We should get him to Massachusetts so he can meet Leah Johnson. I think she will clue him in.”

You see, I spent 27½ years – that’s 93.2% of my life, by the way – trying to have my cake and eat it to. I tried to follow Jesus and remain the main character in my own life. But Jesus’ words and his own self-sacrificial love show us a different way.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We Americans are programmed to cringe at the thought of “denying ourselves.” We want giant SUVs that have great fuel economy. We want the beer to taste great and be less filling. We want to treat ourselves to chocolate desserts that don’t have any calories. We want to pursue our happiness, and we don’t seem to mind advertisers telling us just what our happiness should look like. These marketers know they will rake in so much more money if they continue convincing us that being the main characters of our own lives is the best way to live.

Until I met Leah, I bought into the hype. I’ll let you in on a secret: when I was in elementary school, my parents sent me to a session or two of therapy because of how awfully and brutally I insisted on getting my own way. The temper tantrums I threw if we didn’t go to the restaurant I wanted to go to were the stuff of legend. One of these tantrums happened on my mother’s birthday. While that behavior faded as I got older, I still succumb all too often to our me-first consumer culture. I’d be willing to bet that you do to.

But when we deny ourselves and stop striving to be the main characters, we no longer feel shortchanged when Jesus spins the spotlight away from us and shines the light on others. These others are always the ones that Jesus desires us to see: the ones who seem to us to be the ensemble, those brought in just to fill out the cast, the extras. In our film, these extras are those who have no roof over their heads or who have no money for food or who lay in the nursing home with no one to visit them. But in God’s film, these extras are the stars. When we insist that the spotlight stay on us, these others remain in the shadows, too unimportant to garner any attention. But when we follow Jesus Christ as he yearns for us to, we let go of our stranglehold on the spotlight and finally see those whom he would have us see.

And when we see in this way, when we notice those outside our own spotlights, something happens that the advertisers and marketing directors never prepared us for. We discover a latent desire that Jesus’ words planted within us when we were looking the other way. We discover the desire to be generous and welcoming to those who never enjoy the spotlight. We look the ensemble cast members in the eye and realize that we want to know their names and where they grew up and what their hopes and dreams for the future are. We turn out our pockets and volunteer our time and invite the stranger to become friend because by doing so we notice clearly the footsteps of Christ walking one step before us. We feel the life of Christ welling up from within us and connecting with the life of Christ welling up from within the other, who now shines in the spotlight.

Jesus Christ is always walking one step before us, but we don’t always walk one step behind him. We stray, we go off on our own, we set up camp rather than continue following. But even with all of our wilderness wanderings and our prima donna tendencies, he continues to stay one step away, calling us back to his path. His path is hard: the way of denial, of self-sacrifice, of cross-carrying. But his path is also the way of true joy.

When we walk down Jesus’ path, the spotlight is never on us, but on those around us, those walking with us. Now that God has blessed me with a partner to remind me that I am not the main character of my life, I have crept slowly and haltingly onto this path and found the joy of stepping out of the spotlight, the joy of generosity and welcoming and service. Perhaps you have, too. Perhaps, as we turn the spotlight on each other and on those Jesus would have us see, together we will notice, there marking the ground in front of us, the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

The circle and the line

(Sermon for September 20, 2009 || Proper 20, Year B, RCL || Mark 9:30-37)

Every 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 queue. 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 – stricken with a name beginning with the letter “Y” – was worse off than I.

Then, on the day when all the mothers began insisting that their fourth graders wear winter coats to school, something happened. Mrs. 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 queue and only one head obstructed my view of the playground doors.

beefeatersStanding at the front of the line feels good and the benefits are numerous. Being in front means that the concert tickets aren’t sold out. The first baseman hasn’t tired of signing autographs. The stalls of the women’s bathroom remain unoccupied. 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 a GPS system for twenty percent off retail.

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 GPS. 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 that they’ve provided Jesus with what would now be called a “teachable moment.”

Now, we know Jesus is about to [drop some knowledge] on the disciples because he sits down, which is the preferred position of any self-respecting Jewish teacher. 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. As we hear the stories of the lowest, we seek ways to serve them.

One of the greatest mistakes of our time has been the Western presumption that we know what’s best for the people we serve. But this imperialistic attitude only perpetuates the linear model, which our service attempts 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 grasp hands in welcome because we are 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. A declining economy makes people cling ever tighter to their presumed spot in line. Distrust and belligerence and hate disfigure our political discourse. The gap between the first and last grows ever wider. And in the middle of this maelstrom, here we sit on Sunday morning. Here we sit with our Lord challenging us to do something, which every screaming voice on the other side of those doors claims is utter nonsense. Here we sit and if Jesus’ words don’t make us squirm in our seats then we aren’t listening.

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 relationship based on welcome and service. If you are at 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. Serve them because we are only as strong as our weakest member. Jesus commands us to accomplish these things. And the good news is this: Jesus never issues a command without simultaneously offering the gifts needed to carry it out.

So to every fourth grader queuing up after recess and every suit lining up at Starbucks and to everyone, myself included, whose ambition blinds him or her to those standing on tiptoes in the back:

Give up your place in line.

Love gets its uniform dirty

Last post, I began with an illustration from The Princess Bride, and it seems once you get me going, I have trouble stopping. Here’s another one. At the beginning of the film, 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.” In time, Buttercup realizes that “As you wish” is Westley’s way of saying “I love you.” 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.

“As you wish,” says Westley before doing Buttercup’s bidding. Too remove any mystery from where this post is going, let me put it bluntly: his actions display his love. He serves Buttercup, and the love that prompts this service stirs in her, as well, though the words “I love you” are never uttered.

You see, saying “I love you” is all too easy – just three little monosyllables. Subject, verb, object. Meaning it is the hard part. I could say, “I’m going to eat eighty-seven hotdogs in twenty minutes,” but (unless I conveniently morph into a hundred pound Japanese man) there’s no way I mean it. But you could drive one of those Wide-Load trailers with half a mobile home on it through the gap between what we say and what we mean.

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 manipulative scumbag weaponize the phrase, with no thought to its destructive consequences and their own dormant culpability.

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, there would still be myriad jousting tournaments throughout Christendom.*) Rather, active service is a spontaneous symptom of love, and one that often removes the necessity of speaking the words aloud.

Note the dirt stains on Dustin Pedroia, reigning AL MVP.
Note the dirt stains on Dustin Pedroia, reigning AL MVP.

Loving and serving – we really mustn’t separate the two. Love expresses itself not in poetic protestations, but 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.**

The Baptismal Covenant is the Episcopal playbook for turning love into action. 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? I will, with God’s help. How will you serve?

Will you love? I will, with God’s help. What will your love impel you to do?

God has given gifts to each of us so that we might enrich the lives of those around us. The ability to love is one such gift. The desire to serve is another. Paired with these gifts are those sets of talents unique to each one of us. When we combine our unique giftedness into that sacred body of which Christ is the head, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

On Sunday morning, God nourishes us when we share the body and blood of Christ. Then God orients us toward the door at the back of the church and the world waiting beyond. We pray, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” God sends us out to love and to serve. I pray that we can, with God’s help, respond, “As you wish.”


* I’m sure we could come up with some modern analogs. However, I beg you to concede the point.

** Have you ever noticed that there are certain baseball players who, no matter what, end the game with grass and dirt stains all over their uniforms?