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.”

Footnotes

* 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?