Hold Fast to Hope

Sermon for Sunday, November 15, 2015 || Proper 28B || Hebrews 10:11-25

holdfasttohopeNote: For the sermon at St. Mark’s on 11/15, I was planning to read the Bishop’s address to the Diocesan Annual Convention, which took place the same weekend. Then when the terrorist attack in Parish happened, I knew I needed to say something different. Arriving home from convention in the evening of Saturday, I had little time to put a sermon together, so I went back in my vault to see if I had anything appropriate. I found a sermon from six years ago and started with that as my base. But with the Paris attacks on my mind, the old sermon morphed into something completely different, with nearly two-thirds of the words being new.

I know I already used my yearly allotment of Princess Bride references in sermons, but I was a little time-crunched this week after my homiletic plan changed, so I went back to the deep well that is one of my favorite movies. So imagine this scene: Inigo Montoya, the Spanish hired sword who helped kidnap Princess Buttercup, is losing his duel with the Man in Black. The fight has ranged all over the rocky terrain at the precipice of the Cliffs of Insanity. The two swordsmen had both begun left-handed, but have switched to their dominant hands when they recognized the masterful fencing of the other. Thrust. Parry. Riposte. The Man in Black acrobatically flips off the ruins. Inigo stares at him, clearly amazed: “Who are you?” he asks.

“No one of consequence,” replies the Man in Black.

“I must know,” pleads the Spaniard.

“Get used to disappointment.”

The fight continues, only to end a minute later with an increasingly flustered Inigo receiving a knock to the back of the head. And I’m sure the Man in Black’s words rang in his mind.

Get used to disappointment. Sounds like quite sensible advice. Sounds like the Man in Black has been around the block a few times. Sounds like he knows something about the ways of the world. However, this worldly wisdom is often counterproductive to a life of faith. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us this morning to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for Christ who has promised is faithful.” In a world that teaches us to “get used to disappointment,” holding fast to our hope can be so very difficult.

Our inoculation begins at an early age. Children enter life with bright, wide eyes and unbounded, unfettered imaginations. Every couch cushion is a stone in a castle under siege by the invading hordes who desire nothing more than to pillage the kingdom. Every bath is a deep-sea expedition to find the lost city of Atlantis. Every day is another chance to see a unicorn. But before long, we start getting used to disappointment. We are told that couch cushions are for sitting, baths are for bathing, and there’s no such thing as unicorns.

I remember my mother shouting: “Young man, there are no dinosaur bones in the backyard. Stop digging up my flowerbeds.” But what she didn’t know was that my imagination was equipped with ground-penetrating sonar and that there was an intact velociraptor skeleton just beneath the gardenias. It was the find of the century. Any moment, Richard Attenborough was going to land in a helicopter and whisk me off to Jurassic Park.

But in the grand scheme of things, from the moment we are born, our imaginations do nothing but shrink as our understanding of so-called reality grows. The trouble is that hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the “real” world. We are made in the image of God; therefore, our imagination connects us to the creative spark of our Creator within each of us. And hope resides in this spark. As mounting disappointment attempts to snuff out our imaginations, we encounter great difficulty in accessing the hope, which our Creator installed in us.

This disappointment comes in both the mundane and the catastrophic. First the mundane: another chance for promotion and you’re passed over. A promising new relationships ends abruptly – and you thought it had been going so well. The new water heater has inferior parts and you have to jury-rig what should be a simply installation. Each of us has such mundane disappointments, setbacks, and frustrations all the time. They sap our vitality. And they obscure our hope.

Then there are those catastrophes that make hope seem silly and microscopic in comparison. A parent dies; or a child. A missed payment turns into two and three and the landslide has started and before you know it you’re out on the street with nowhere to live. A war rips through your town and the next day you’re a refugee fleeing the violence. A terrorist attacks ignites the Parisian sky with explosions and gunfire and litters the ground with the slain bodies of the innocent.

How can hope possibly compete with this twin barrage of mundane disappointment and heartbreaking catastrophe? Shouldn’t we, as the Man in Black suggests, get used to such things? They seem to be the natural order, after all. Shouldn’t we just get used to disappointment?

No.

No – because we have been to the foot of the cross. No – because we have seen the ultimate disappointment that was the Savior of the World gasping for his final breath: betrayed, abandoned, mocked, hanging limp.

But that’s not the end of the story. The last vestige of hope was buried with Christ in the tomb. His hopeless friends then entombed themselves in their own hideout. But as Andy Dufresne reminds Red in another of my favorite moves, The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” Such was proven true three days after the ultimate failure when the ultimate triumph changed everything. Hope rose from the tomb with Christ. Hope does not die. Hope might hide. Hope might be obscured or hard to find. But hope does not die.

The next day dawns. The catastrophe has still happened. The Parisian streets are still awash with innocent blood. But the next day still dawns. And the day after that. And the only thing that keeps those of us who remain alive and eating our breakfast and hugging our children – is hope. Hope does not die. Hope will never die.

And do you know why?

Because Christ who has promised is faithful. That’s the reason the Letter to the Hebrews gives. The writer states emphatically: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for [Christ] who has promised is faithful.” We hold fast to hope not through the strength of our own faith, but through the surpassing faith of Christ, the same Christ who early on that Sunday morning simply would not break a promise to be with us always.

We do not manufacture our faith. Faith is not self-centered. Faith is God-centered. The confession of our hope proclaims that the reality of resurrection life exists, and that we will encounter its utter joy when we finally and fully enter God’s eternal presence.

We believe that this happens in the power of the resurrection when we pass from life through death to new life. But the confession of our hope does not merely cast our thoughts to the life beyond death. Remember, hope exists in the imagination’s ability to frustrate the enclosing nature of the so-called “real” world. This real world is full of disappointments, frustrations, and, yes, catastrophes.

But God has blessed us with hope-fueled imaginations. God has blessed us with the mission, as Hebrews says, “to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” God has blessed us with the resources to feed and clothe everyone in this world. God has blessed us with the patience and love to stand together against terror and senseless violence. We must only provide the will. We must set our disappointments in the context of the hope that God’s own faith makes real in our lives.

When we were children, the magical words “Once upon a time” lost their luster when we heard their counterparts: “Sweetheart, it’s only make-believe.” But I say to you that we have the opportunity, we have the imagination, we have the will to change this world for the better. Because God keeps God’s promises, we are able to keep our promises. We are able to make a difference in people’s lives. Get used to disappointment? Not a chance – because hope is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies.

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.”

Turn Around

(Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2013 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12)

InconceivableAbout ten minutes into The Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies), we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo, who kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country. Once there, the giant Fezzek scales the imposing Cliffs of Insanity with the other three strapped to him. All the while, the Man in Black has been chasing them, but Vizzini, the leader of the thieves, dismisses their pursuer, saying it would be “inconceivable” that anyone would have known they kidnapped the princess in the first place. And yet the Man in Black starts climbing the cliffs after them. “Inconceivable” says Vizzini again. So Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” Vizzini says a final time. Then the Spanish blademaster Inigo looks at Vizzini and says one of the more quotable lines in a film full of quotable lines: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Well, friends, Inigo’s gentle rebuff finds a second target in a certain word that John the Baptist says three times in our Gospel reading for today. We also say this word every single week during our worship services. The word is “repent,” and I can hear Inigo saying to us what he says to Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

See if this popular misunderstanding of repentance resonates with you. You’re walking toward Fenway Park for a game or you’re about to board the T at Government Center and you see a man standing before you wearing a sign. The sign is decoupaged with dire warnings about the end times, the largest of which says in big black letters on an orange background: “Repent! The end is near.” The man would be easier to dismiss if he were shouting at the top of his lungs on the street corner, because then he would be reduced to a silly caricature of himself. But this man’s solid, disconcerting silence makes you take him more seriously. I see him often when I’m in the city, and every time I do, I have to remind myself that I disagree with his sign’s version of repentance.

You see, the misunderstanding the sign promotes is that repentance is only relevant at the end, whichever end you might be thinking of – the end of life or the end of time. This misunderstanding reduces the act of repentance to a last minute bargain with God – a “Get out of jail free” card, if you manage to time your repentance at just the right moment. This misunderstanding is like repentance at gunpoint; it’s a “repent or else” threat that reduces the meaning of true repentance nearly to invisibility. Indeed, I would wager that when you hear the word “repent,” you have a negative visceral reaction because this misunderstanding runs rampant in popular culture and in certain very loud expressions of Christianity.

So let’s see if we can remove some of the negative reaction, because true repentance energizes our walks with God in ways few other spiritual concepts can. True repentance is concerned less about the future and more about the present. The word “repent” literally means “to turn around.” A recent translation of the Bible adds a layer of interpretation every time “repent” appears in the Gospel. “Change your hearts and lives” it reads instead. Change your hearts and lives. This is a good rendition of the original Greek because true repentance is both an active, kinetic force and a spiritual orientation.

When we repent, we reorient our lives in God’s direction. We bend toward God as a tree bends towards the sun, knowing that God is the source of our sustenance. Repentance begins with our acknowledgement that we live most of our lives facing the wrong direction: we ignore the need around us and we catch God’s glory only out of the corner of our eyes. Repentance helps us face head-on the need God yearns for us to notice. Repentance gives us the opportunity to rejoice in God’s glory, distraction free. When we participate in God’s work of changing our hearts and lives to resonate more fully with God’s movement, we discover the true meaning of repentance. True repentance is about turning to face God fully – with every facet of our lives – and to accept the truth that we can hide nothing from God, no matter how hard we try. When we repent, when we turn to face God fully, we discover new faculties for seeing and responding to God’s call in our lives, Christ’s presence in the lives of others, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising movement throughout all of creation.

Sure sounds like a different understanding of repentance than we’re used to, doesn’t it? Speaking of things we’re used to, let’s turn to the place in our worship in which we repent every week, and see if we can inject it with our better definition. You know that part I’m talking about? That’s right, the Confession of Sin:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Repentance is right there at the center of the confession. We begin by stating how we have separated ourselves from God. Then we repent. And then we ask for the fruits of repentance: forgiveness, delight in God’s movement, and a closer walk in God’s ways. Notice how our better definition energizes our confession.

“We are truly sorry and we humbly turn to you, we humbly seek to change our hearts and lives.” When we turn to face God fully, we find the mercy and forgiveness that we usually catch only out of the corner of our eyes. When we turn to face God, we find God’s delight in us reflecting on us fully, granting us the ability to delight in God. When we turn, we find the life-affirming paths that lead us to walk in God’s ways. This is what our repentance accomplishes here and now. The future ramifications for our souls that the sign-wielding man touts are byproducts of how our repentance leads us to closer relationships with God in the present.

So why are we talking about repentance during the season of Advent? Because Advent is a time for noticing. Advent is a time for changing our hearts and lives so they resonate more fully with the promises of God. Advent is a time for turning around and seeing the glory of God here now and the glory that is coming. This glory was easy to miss on that night in Bethlehem, which we will celebrate in a few weeks. No one expected the messiah to come in the manner Jesus did. No one, that is, except for those who noticed, for those who turned to see the promise of God fulfilled: shepherds who looked up at the right time to catch the angels’ song, magi who saw a star and knew to follow it, and a loving couple who changed their hearts and lives to make room for the Christ child to enter their midst.

A Little Head Jiggle (January 13, 2012)

…Opening To…

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. (Miracle Max, The Princess Bride)

…Listening In…

Fezzik: You just shook your head… doesn’t that make you happy?
Westley: My brains, his steel, and your strength against sixty men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy?

…Filling Up…

Westley has been mostly dead all day, but the chocolate-coated pill Miracle Max made to bring him back to life has worked – almost. The former Man in Black can talk and move his eyes and wiggle his finger, but those are the extent of his physical abilities. Inigo and Fezzik bring him back so he could plan a way to break into the castle guarded by sixty men. Needless to say, things look bleak.

Westley indicates the fact that things, indeed, do look bleak by shaking his head, although it comes off as more of a loll back and forth. This is when Fezzik quips the line above. It seems that Fezzik is looking on the bright side, while Westley, who has been mostly dead all day and now must think his way past a gate guarded by sixty men, is seeing no reason for optimism.

He calls it a head-jiggle. How is a little head jiggle supposed to make him happy? We can ask the same question about our lives. The little head jiggles in our lives are those tiniest of blessings that we more than likely miss because we are busy calculating how to get into the castle (thanks for riding this metaphor with me, by the way). But it is these blessings that make up the great majority of the blessings God bestows on our lives. Not every blessing is flashy. Not every one has neon sign that points to itself and says, “Hey I’m a blessing.” Most blessings are like the plankton whales eat. You wonder how a great, big whale can survive on microscopic organisms. Well, it’s because each whale eats about a million a day.

So remember the little head jiggles that make you happy. Write them down. You might be faced with a castle gate and five-dozen armed swordsmen, but each head jiggle is just as important.

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for blessing me with the abundance of gifts, both that I see and never notice. Help me to appreciate the blessings in my life so that I can remember them when times are tough. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that yours is the truest love in the world and that not even death can stop true love.

One of the Classic Blunders (January 12, 2012)

…Opening To…

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. (Miracle Max, The Princess Bride)

…Listening In…

Buttercup: And to think, all that time it was your cup that was poisoned.
Man in Black: They were both poisoned. I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.

…Filling Up…

The two lines above conclude one of the two most famous scenes in The Princess Bride. (The other is the fight that begins with, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya…”). Of course, I’m talking about the “Battle of Wits.” The Man in Black has already bested Inigo at fencing and Fezzik at hand fighting, and now he comes upon Vizzini sitting calmly with a picnic spread before him and a knife at Buttercup’s throat. The Man in Black and Vizzini find themselves at an impasse, so they have the Battle of Wits, in which Vizzini must discover which cup of wine contains the poison.

His dizzying intellect whirs into high gear, and even though he cheats by switching the glasses, he ends up laughing until he suddenly dies. He never makes the mental leap that the Man in Black might have poisoned both cups in order to ensure that Vizzini doesn’t end up killing Buttercup. He doesn’t think that the Man in Black might sacrifice himself so that Buttercup could be safe. Of course, the Man in Black has an immunity to the poison, so he’s not quite as noble as I’m making him out to be. But still.

Vizzini operates under an assumption – that the Man in Black wants to kidnap what he (Vizzini) has rightfully stolen. And this assumption kills Vizzini. He thinks he knows everything or can deduce everything. He is wrong. Sometimes, especially in my low moments, I make assumptions about God. I assume that God can’t possibly be in this situation or that crisis. And it kills me – not physically, mind you, or else I wouldn’t be typing this, but spiritually. The minute I assume God hasn’t or isn’t going to show up is the minute I stop looking for God’s presence.

Perhaps you’ve had similar times in your life. It’s at these times that I have to remember that both cups of wine were poisoned. I have to remember that God is in every situation. And I have to remember never to get involved in a land war in Asia.

…Praying For…

Dear God, you permeate all of existence, including mine, even when I don’t acknowledge you. Help me to practice seeking your presence so that I may get better at finding it. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that yours is the truest love in the world and that not even death can stop true love.

Get Some Rest (January 11, 2012)

…Opening To…

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. (Miracle Max, The Princess Bride)

…Listening In…

Prince Humperdinck: Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work, but I’ve got my country’s five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it: I’m swamped.
Count Rugen: Get some rest. If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.

…Filling Up…

Just in case you haven’t see The Princess Bride, you should know that the two people quoted above are the bad guys. Even so, Count Rugen gives the prince some good advice. The count has just invited Humperdinck to watch him torture Westley on “The Machine,” but the prince just has too much on his plate. So Rugen (also known as the six-fingered man, for those of you keeping score) councils his liege to “get some rest.”

How often do you just go Go GO without any thought of what this go Go GOING is doing to your body? I often tell myself: “Okay, next week – next week you can get some rest.” And then next week rolls around and guess what I say. Yep. Same thing. In college, I had to schedule time off from studying because I had a tendency to tell myself that I would take time off when I was done. And you know what happened. I was never done. So I never “got some rest.”

Each one of us is built to serve God – that is the primary purpose of our existence. But God didn’t create us to be androids that can function with no food or rest. God didn’t create us to be nonstop creatures. In fact, God built the very concept of “rest” into the fabric of Creation. Do you think God stopped creating on Day Six? No sir. God created rest on Day Seven. That’s the whole point behind Sabbath – to rest in the arms of God and by doing so attune yourself to God’s movement in Creation.

So, even though Count Rugen is the bad guy, please take his advice when you’re overwhelmed. Heck, take it before you’re overwhelmed. God will sustain you no matter what, but there will be more of you to sustain if you “get some rest.”

…Praying For…

Dear God, you instituted a time for rest from the very foundation of Creation. Help me to slow down and rest my restless heart in you. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that yours is the truest love in the world and that not even death can stop true love.

As You Wish (January 10, 2012)

…Opening To…

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. (Miracle Max, The Princess Bride)

…Listening In…

Grandpa: [voiceover] 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.
Buttercup: Farm boy… fetch me that pitcher.
Westley: As you wish.

…Filling Up…

At the beginning of The Princess Bride, 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 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 may be tempted to say that action is needed to prove that a spoken “I love you” is real. But the film argues for the opposite. Active service is a spontaneous symptom of love, and one that often removes the necessity of speaking the words aloud.

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.

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 God can accomplish through us.

…Praying For…

Dear God, because you love me you give me the ability to love. Help me turn my love into the desire to serve others in your name; through Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that yours is the truest love in the world and that not even death can stop true love.

We’ll Never Survive (January 9, 2012)

…Opening To…

Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world — except for a nice MLT — mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that. (Miracle Max, The Princess Bride)

…Listening In…

Buttercup: We’ll never survive.
Westley: Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.

…Filling Up…

Devo180 returns after a two-hiatus, and you might have noticed that the trappings have changed. Devo180 is now a section of WheretheWind.com rather than its own website. You can check the final post on Devo180.com if you want to know why, but to suffice it say I wanted to get all my chickens in one coop.

One of the youth at my church has been bugging me for months to do a week of Devos about the film The Princess Bride (1987), which is one of my favorite movies. So here we go. Perhaps this will be the first in a series of Devos using movies as a reference. We’ll see. I’ve preached several times using The Princess Bride, so I’ve got some ammunition here. If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.

The quotation above comes as Buttercup and Westley are fleeing into the fire swamp as Prince Humperdinck and his soldiers close in. The fire swamp is legendary for its three dangers: the flame spurts, the lightning sand, and the R.O.U.S’s (Rodents of Unusual Size, which may or may not exist). No one has ever made it out of the fire swamp alive, hence Buttercup’s concern.

Westley’s response is the sort of thing that I think God hopes we will say when confronted with situations that appear overwhelming. “Nonsense,” says Westley. Just because no one has ever survived the fire swamp doesn’t mean we won’t, he tells Buttercup. Likewise, just because the situation you are facing is overwhelming you doesn’t mean you won’t survive. Just because you can’t see your way out right now doesn’t mean that no way out exists.

The bottom line is this: God says, “Nonsense,” whenever we say, “Impossible.”

…Praying For…

Dear God, thank you for believing in me even when I don’t believe in myself. Help me to trust that you are with me when I am overwhelmed. In Jesus Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

…Sending Out…

I leave this moment with you, God, knowing that yours is the truest love in the world and that not even death can stop true love.

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?

“If we only had a wheelbarrow…”

princessbrideThe situation looks hopeless. The odds are twenty to one against, and one-third of their party has just been revived after being mostly dead all day. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzek peer furtively at the newly improved defenses of the castle gate. They have only Westley’s brain, Inigo’s steel, and Fezzek’s strength against 60 men. “If I had a month to plan I might come up with something,” says Westley. Then, half to himself, “If  we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” It turns out, upon second thought, they do have a wheelbarrow; and, upon third thought, a fire-resistant cloak. With this rather odd pairing of materials, they break into the castle, save the princess, steal the prince’s beautiful horses, and make a daring escape. On the walltop over looking the castle, the three heroes make their plan. Here’s the progression as I see it: they state the problem (breaking into a castle guarded by sixty men); they say what they do not have (a month to plan); they re-examine their assets (a cloak and a wheelbarrow); they overcome the problem even though their assets are meager.*

A similar progression, with an all-important extra step, happens when Jesus feeds the five thousand people (as told in Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John). A large crowd is following Jesus because they like a good spectacle. Jesus has just healed the man at the pool of Bethzatha, so the crowd knows they won’t be disappointed. Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples and looks down, surveying the vast multitude spread out below him. They could ignore the crowd, and, judging by Philip’s response to Jesus’ question the disciples probably wanted to. But Jesus does not give them that option. Instead, he states the problem: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip (characteristically for this Gospel) answers a different question than the one Jesus asks. He says what they do not have: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew re-examines their assets: a little boy has five barley loaves and two fish. Notice how wildly inadequate this amount of food is for so many; I bet Andrew felt foolish even bringing it up.

But Jesus seems to think this very foolishness is just the sort of thing needed to solve such an intractable problem. So he takes the loaves and fish and then adds the all-important extra step in the progression. He gives thanks. He gives thanks even though he has a loaf per thousand people. He gives thanks even though the situation seems impossible. He does not let the apparent meagerness of his resources dictate whether or not he offers thanks to God. He gives thanks, and the crowd eats, and the disciples gather up twelve full baskets. The crowd is looking for a spectacle and they get such a grand one that they try to take Jesus and make him king.

Let’s take another look at the giving thanks. The special word for The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion is “Eucharist.” (N.B. “Eucharist” comprehends the entire Sunday worship experience, but we are focusing here on the second half, the meal.) When we worship God by sharing this meal, we pray to Christ to somehow enter the bread and wine. Then we break the bread and share the cup, thus sharing Christ with each other. And our eyes are opened to the reality that the love of Christ is inside us and is made known in the sharing of community and love with each other.

The fancy word “Eucharist” is a much less fancy word if you happen to be both from Asia Minor and two thousand years old. This strange looking word simply means “to give thanks.” So, when we come together to share the meal, we are coming together to give thanks to God for all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. The fact that this intentional thanksgiving happens in a community reminds us that we must share our blessings just as we share the body and blood of Christ. And it is the very dwelling of Christ in us and we in him that sustains us as we share with others.

When I give thanks to God for the blessings and gifts God has given me, I must remember that thanksgiving is the catalyst for sharing. If I do not share my gifts with others, then I have not truly thanked God for them. Let me say that again, make it plural, and italicize it so you don’t miss it: If we do not share our gifts with others, then we have not truly thanked God for them

Sometimes, these gifts may seem meager or inadequate. But those are the times we must remember that Christ is there with us, giving thanks for us, and breaking us so he can share himself through us.

Footnotes

* The Princess Bride (1987); dir. Rob Reiner. Watch this film ASAP if you’ve never seen it. In fact, just go home right now and watch it. I’ll lend you my DVD.