The Last Week in July

Sermon for Sunday, March 1, 2015 || Lent 2B || Mark 8:31-38

lastweekinjulyThe last week of July has been a wonderful week of my life ever since I was eleven-years-old. This is the week my family takes our annual vacation to the mountains of North Carolina, to a quiet Episcopal retreat center called Kanuga, where we sit and read and play board games and enjoy each other’s company and never watch TV. In 2010, the last week of July became more special because it’s the week Leah and I got engaged. And in 2014, it became even more special because it’s the week Charlie and Amelia were born. Whenever I think about the moment I slid the ring on Leah’s finger, I am overcome by the joy that echoes into the future from that hot July afternoon. Whenever I think about Amelia and Charlie screaming their welcome to the world, I am overcome by the extravagance of the gift God gave us in them. In both cases, when I remember those two focal moments, I realize again and again a profound truth. I realize that I am 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 edge of the expanse of the joy of self-sacrificial love. Adding the twins to the mix makes me understand even more of that joy, but I know I have a long way to go yet.

Leah and I met five years ago this month, and looking back, 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 86% 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 version of the 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 version of the 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 and children 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. Here’s truth: 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.

Too Close

Homily for Good Friday || April 18, 2014 || The Passion According to John

goodfriday2014‘When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’

“It is finished.” The clock has run out. The game is over. The final whistle has blown. It is finished. The end. Jesus releases the last ragged gasp of hard-fought breath. His mother and his beloved friend look up in time to see his body sag. A moment ago his spent muscles had been holding him up, keeping him from suffocating, but now…the nails keep his body pinned in place, another victim of Rome’s desire to turn execution into demonstration.

Imagine yourself standing with his mother and friend. The horror of witnessing his torture has already cleared the contents of your stomach. You’ve retched multiple times since, but with only bile as a result. You bit back bile of a different sort when the soldiers divided his clothes between them. You wanted to let them have it, to excoriate them for their cold-hearted avarice, but they have swords and spears, and all you have is your ragged faith in a dying man. You hear his last words: “It is finished.” And in that moment, those are the only words in existence. Nothing he said before enters your mind – certainly nothing about rising again on the third day. In that moment, “It is finished,” are the final words anyone will ever speak. They truly are the end.

After all, how could they mean anything else? He said he was “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” But his way led him to this horrible destination. His words of truth were suffocated out of him. His life ended. As we dwell here at the foot of the cross on this Good Friday, we hear those words, we hear the finality in them. “It is finished.” Full stop.

If you touch him now, you know his body will be unnaturally cold. Death is too close.

Even though it’s midday, thick clouds blot out the sun. Darkness is too close.

As his breath fled him, any last bastion of hope fled you. Despair is too close.

Fear. Shame. Domination. All of them, too close.

And as the weight of all the powers of evil and separation come careening toward Golgotha, as they bear down on you, as they crush you like they crushed him, those three words mutate in your mind, become gangrenous. It is finished. We lost.

And yet. The faintest ember of hope glimmers beneath the ash of your extinguished fire.

What if? The sun is still there behind the clouds, still warming the earth with its light, whether or not you can see it.

And yet what if all of this was a trap? What if Jesus, unwilling to risk anyone else, offered himself as the bait? What if Jesus positioned himself high on that cross so the powers of death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination could get a good view of him? Could not resist such a juicy target. What if Jesus knew what he was doing all along? Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Was his sacrifice a way to draw his enemies out, to draw them to him, to nail them to the cross with him? If so, no wonder they’re too close. No wonder you feel the crushing weight of the powers of evil careening toward Golgotha.

The words kindle again within you. It is finished.

Could he?

Could he possibly have meant something else?

In those final moments, did he know his plan had worked? Could he feel death and darkness and all the rest scuttling around his cross? Inching closer? Triggering his trap?

It is finished. No. Not the end.

It is accomplished. It is completed. My work is fulfilled. No. Not the end. This is but the middle of the story.

*Art: Detail from “Crucifixion” by Nikolai Ge (1831-94)