Four Faiths

Sermon for Sunday, June 21, 2015 || Proper 7B || Mark 4:35-41

fourfaithsTwelve years ago today, I preached my very first sermon. Delivering a sermon was a requirement of my internship at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Dallas, Texas. So when the other four interns and I received the readings we’d all be preaching on, we dove right in, determined to preach the best sermons the great state of Texas had ever heard. That didn’t happen. But we each managed to say something coherent about Jesus calming the storm, and none of us fainted in the pulpit, so I call that a win. I have a muffled recording of the sermon I preached. I made the mistake of listening to it earlier this week. Wow, it’s really bad. There was something about complacency and faith and God shaking us up and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion, but I didn’t real say anything to take home with you.

The thing is, at the time, I thought it was a pretty good attempt at preaching. I felt pretty good when I sat down. So why do I shake my head when I listen to it now? Well, my understanding of faith has changed quite a lot in the last twelve years, so what I hear in the sermon rings a bit hollow. But I expect my understanding of faith to change quite a lot in the next twelve years, too.

The question is this: if I’m no longer where I was faith-wise twelve years ago, does that make my earlier faith false? The answer to this question must be a resounding, “No!” Surely God is able to work through the most tentative faith or the most hardened faith or even the most erroneous faith. God makes use of any raw materials we bring to the table, however clumsy they happen to be.

I’d hazard to guess that your understanding of faith has changed quite a lot over the course of your lifetimes, as well. This isn’t a bad thing. Rather, if your faith has changed over time, you’ve probably been wrestling with it, questioning it, wondering how it impacts your life. A faith that does not undergo some kind of change over time is more than likely an unexamined faith or just a cosmetic one.

I’d like to share with you four understandings of faith that I have gone through since I preached that sermon twelve years ago. I don’t claim that any of these are wrong; rather, where I am now in faith happens to be the most helpful understanding for the current stage of my following Jesus. As you listen to these four descriptions, see if you can locate how you experience faith. Is another description beckoning you? Or is there a completely different understanding of faith that I know nothing about? This exercise is important because an unexamined faith often becomes a stagnant one.

First up: my understanding of faith during that sermon in Dallas. At that time, faith was a quantity. It was something I could measure. This makes sense: after all, in today’s Gospel reading, after Jesus calms the storm, he says to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” If they have zero faith, then presumably they could also have a little faith or some faith or much faith.

The challenge to this understanding comes when something happens to tip the scales: a tragedy that takes a loved one’s life, an unexpected diagnosis, a relationship in tatters. You might beat yourself up, saying, “If only I had a little more faith, I could get through this.” When tragedy strikes, we forget the blessing that comes with this understanding of faith as a quantity. Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed (that is, the smallest amount possible) is enough to weather the storm.*

When I was in seminary, my understanding of “faith as a quantity” morphed into something else. For a long time, I swapped “faith” with a word that’s almost a synonym. That word was “trust.” For some reason, I couldn’t find the active component of faith that seemed to be missing from the “quantity” definition, so I replaced it with something I felt I could do. I could trust God. When Jesus calms the storm, he might as well have said, “Why are you afraid? Don’t you trust me?”

The most common expression of this understanding is the proverbial “leap of faith.” The shadowy unknown spreads out in front of you, and yet you walk on, trusting that God will guide you. Your faith is like the headlights on your car, which only illuminate the patch of road in front of you but still somehow manage to get you home.**

Over the first few years of ordained ministry, this view of “faith as trust” broadened. The act of trusting was not big enough to contain all that faith was. This is when “faith” became a verb for me. Faith was the active component of my relationship with God, the thing that spurred me to love God and serve God’s people. While Jesus might say the disciples have no faith, they still woke him up, thinking he could do something about the storm. As I said in a sermon for you all last year, this understanding of faith “borrows the best parts of trust, confidence, humility, and zeal and molds them into our response to God’s presence in our lives.”

The word “presence” carries over from this understanding of faith to the one that is alive for me today. And that is faith as direction or orientation. Faith is the mysterious something inside us that always and forever points to God’s presence, like a compass needle pointing due north. But we are not always facing the right way, and so the compass of faith prompts us to turn around. The technical word for this turning is “repenting,” which can lead to a renewal of our relationships with God.

Sometimes we have blinders on our eyes that make us look straight ahead through a narrow field of vision.*** God might be calling us to unimagined possibilities dancing just out of sight. Our faith invites us to widen those blinders until we can once again see what’s pointing to God. When we are overwhelmed by tragedy or grief or doubt, the blinders can snap tight again. But faith beckons us to open wide so we can find our true orientation towards God’s presence. Do you think Jesus halting the storm with a word was even close to a possibility on the disciples’ minds when they woke him? No. And yet what little faith they had still pointed to him as their refuge.

This is where my understanding of faith currently stands. I learned it from my father and from talking with many of you as you’ve sat on the couch in my office and spoken of your secret hopes and deepest fears and gnawing doubts and strangling griefs. I don’t know what my understanding of faith will be twelve years from now, but for today, this is it. Faith is the internal compass needle pointing to God’s presence. And since God’s presence happens to be everywhere, the blinders on my eyes serve no purpose at all.

I hope you will take some time this week to take stock of how your faith expresses itself. If faith is a quantity, how much do you need for it to guide your life? If faith is trust, into what unknown is God calling you to leap? If faith is a verb, the active component of your relationship with God, what are you and God doing together this afternoon, this week, this year? And if faith is your orientation towards to God’s presence, where and to whom is it pointing? What possibilities are dancing just out of sight?

*Actually, it’s enough to uproot the mulberry tree and have it throw itself in the sea, but I’m working with the storm metaphor here.
 **I first heard this metaphor during a seminary class, but I have no idea where it originated.
***Thanks to my father, the Rev. Dr. William Carl Thomas, for this image.

A Resounding Yes

Sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2014 || Proper 17A || Exodus 3:1-15


aresoundingyesI’ll tell you all the truth: I’ve been struggling lately. The day the twins were born, about a month ago now, life took a dramatic turn. I knew this tectonic shift in life was going to happen, but I sure wasn’t prepared for it. At times over the past month, I have felt helpless. I have felt frantic. I have felt desperately inadequate. The learning curve for new parenthood is steep, and I’ve had to adjust my expectations about how fast I catch on. I’ve always been a quick study, but in this particular case, there’s no substitute for the exhausting daily grind of caring for the twins. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I knew it was going to be hard, but my definition of “hard” has never reached the superlative level of caring for multiple newborns.

Of course, there is joy, too. And love – so much love that it leaks from my tear ducts when I gaze upon their sleeping faces. But both joy and love often get buried under the weight of bone-wearying exhaustion, and at the end of the day or at the end of the night – and with newborns they are pretty much the same thing – all you can say is, “We survived.” And you’re too tired most of the time to appreciate that survival, in itself, is a pretty astounding gift.

In light of the last month, I read our passage from the Hebrew Scriptures this week with new eyes. I have read the story of Moses and the burning bush hundreds of times, but this time around new words shimmered for me. My feeling of desperate inadequacy led me to see the same feeling in Moses. Today’s story takes place on Mount Horeb, but let’s back up and see how Moses got there.

After growing up the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses was caught between two worlds, the life of privilege of the king’s house and the life of slavery of Moses’s family of origin. One day Moses visits the work camps and sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. While the book of Exodus skips Moses’s upbringing, we can easily conjure a scenario where he had no firsthand knowledge of the plight of his people before this. Sure he heard rumors, but they were easily dismissed by his Egyptian family. Then he sees for himself the rumors are true, and his sense of betrayal mingles with his sense of justice. Moses secretly kills the offending Egyptian. But such an act cannot stay secret for long, and when Pharaoh finds out, Moses flees.

Settling in the land of Midian, Moses meets his wife at a well (which is where everyone meets his spouse in the Hebrew Scriptures). Zipporah brings Moses home to her father, who takes him in and teaches him to be a shepherd. A long time passes, and Moses finds himself with the flock beyond the wilderness on the mountain. God calls to him from the burning bush and gives Moses the task of delivering God’s people from the hands of the Egyptians. And this is where Moses’s feeling of desperate inadequacy rises to the surface. He asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

You can see where Moses is coming from. He’s been gone so long. Who would remember him? He wasn’t even raised among his own people. Who would accept him? Later, he mentions he’s not a very persuasive talker. Who would listen to him? All of these worries and fears boil under the surface of Moses’s question. But God stops Moses in his tracks.

And here we must pause for a moment for an aside. Whenever you read the Bible, I want you to pay especially close attention to how questions are answered. More often than not questions are not answered directly in scripture. When God in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in the Gospel answer questions, they often answer the one they wish they had been asked, rather than the one that was asked. So – Bible study tip – pay special attention to how questions are answered.

So let’s turn this special attention to Moses’s question. Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” His feeling of deep inadequacy weighs the question down. But God lifts him back up with the answer. “I will be with you.”

This doesn’t answer the question Moses asked. “Who am I?” he pleads. And the response. “I will be with you.” The question God answered, the question God wished Moses had asked, was: “Will you be with me?” And the answer: a resounding “Yes.”

God’s answer to this question reverberates throughout the Bible. God shows Abraham the way through the desert to a new home. God comes to Elijah not in the storm but in the sound of sheer silence. God descends into the den of lions with Daniel. God gives Jesus a second name, Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”

And so when I read the story of Moses and the burning bush in the light of my own desperate inadequacy this past month, I realize I have been asking the wrong question. Like Moses, I have been asking, “Who am I? Who am I that I should be able to accomplish the task of helping to care for these two precious lives?” But that’s not the question God is answering right now.

Instead, God has prompted me to ask the question God yearned for me to ask all along: not “Who am I” but “Will you be with me?” And God has answered that question with the same resounding “Yes” which God promised Moses. Yes, I am with you in the helping hands and loving hearts of the friends and family who have given countless hours of their time. Yes, I am with you when you breathe deeply in moments of serenity and when your patience stretches past the breaking point when the crying won’t stop. Yes, I am with you in the peace that comes from a few hours of treasured sleep. Yes, I am with…always.

The feeling of desperate inadequacy can paralyze us. Perhaps a challenge seems too big for us to even begin to grasp. Perhaps we’ve been down a certain road before and failed. Perhaps we’re facing something new and the fear of the unknown cripples us. Whatever the case, we can begin to move past our inadequacy or whatever else is holding us back by changing the question we ask of God. Rather than asking, “Who am I to take care of my aging parents”; or “Who am I to be able to find friends at my new school”; or “Who am I to make the slightest difference in a world full of pain”; rather than asking, “Who am I” ask the question God yearns for you to ask.

Ask, “Will you be with me?” And believe in the deepest core of your being that the answer to that question is always and will always be, “Yes.” When you hear that “Yes” resound in your core, you will begin to see with new eyes and reach out with less burdened arms and discover all the ways God is already using you to shine God’s light in this darkened world, no matter the inadequacy you feel.

I still feel inadequate when the twins start crying. I’m still exhausted most of the time. But we’re doing it. One day becomes the next, and that in itself is a gift, as is God prompting me to change the question I was asking, so that God could answer with a resounding “Yes.”

Three Words

 (Sermon for Sunday, November 24, 2013 || Christ the King Year C || Luke 23:33-46)

Today, on this final Sunday of the church’s year, we celebrate the “kingship” of Christ or (put another way) the “reign of Christ.” I prefer this second word because “kingship” conjures up for me images of thrones and jousting and ladies bestowing tokens on knights who catch their eye. Possibly, I’ve read too many novels in the “historical fantasy” genre. But more than that, the word “reign” just feels broader and more energetic. The eternal “reign of Christ” stretches out from Christ the King and supplants the lesser things that attempt to reign in this world and in our lives. When we turn our attention away from these lesser (yet louder) things – power, money, fame, and the like – we can see and participate in the greater (yet quieter) reality of Christ’s reign.

The territory over which Christ reigns encompasses the whole of Creation, and yet we tend to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule because it seems like the normal and acceptable thing to do. But there’s the rub: Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing, so, of course, his reign subverts the expectations of the world.

Speaking of expectations – show of hands – how many of you expected to hear the story of Jesus’ crucifixion when you came to church this morning? Yeah, I didn’t think so. A little jarring, wasn’t it? We’re about as far from Good Friday as we can get on the calendar, and yet we read this story today. So my question is: why?

RubensCrucifixion Well, the easy answer is that the reading speaks of Jesus being a king and today is Christ the King Sunday. But this sermon has about seven minutes left in it, so I should probably say more than that, right?

While reading this story may seem strange, no other passage of the Gospel sheds more light on Christ’s reign than this one which recounts his torturous crucifixion. On the cross, Jesus was expected to succumb to the agony of the nails driven through his wrists and feet. He was expected to be ashamed of his nakedness. He was expected to cry out for pity’s sake and beg for mercy even as his breath came short and ragged because of the slow asphyxiation the cross delivers.

The normal and acceptable thing to do on the cross was to whimper your way to your last pitiful breath, all for the pleasure of Rome. But remember, Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing.

He was expected to show agony and shame and to cry out for mercy to an empire that never showed any. But instead, in the midst of his torture, he spoke three kind, generous words, words that echo through history and come to us and show us what Christ’s reign is really about. The cross magnifies the power of these three words because they stand in stark contrast to what the cross represents. The cross represents domination, separation, and fear. And yet, while nailed to its wood, Jesus spoke words of forgiveness, relationship, and trust. When we live into the reality dreamt by these three words, we cede our personal territory back to the reign of Christ and the lesser things slink off in defeat.

First, forgiveness. The sound of the hammer’s echo is still reverberating when Jesus speaks his first word. He looks down from the cross, sees his captors gambling for his clothing, grubbing over bloody scraps of cloth, and he says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgive them: my betrayers, my torturers, my murderers. Forgive them. I have trouble forgiving the guy who cuts me off in traffic, and here’s Jesus choosing to use his last breaths to forgive those who numbered those breaths. What does he know that we forget all the time? What about forgiveness places it squarely in the center of Christ’s reign?

Jesus knows that forgiveness is a much larger concept than mere pardoning of misdeeds. Forgiveness is both an action and a state of being. When we forgive, we choose not to let anger, isolation, and vengeance reign in our lives. Forgiveness allows us to let go of these lesser things that, in the long run, can damage us irreparably. Writer Anne Lamott puts it this way: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Forgiveness releases us from the damaging power of brooding malice, of getting even. In their place, we find Christ’s reign, and with it the healing of brokenness and the bestowing of generosity of spirit.

Second, relationship. The sound of the thief’s request hangs hopeful in the air. And Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” You will be with me. I can’t think of a more wonderful promise for Jesus to make. With these words, he reminds us that the cross, which dominates the scene, is just a passing thing. The separation it stands for is one of those lesser things that tries to rule, but which will ultimately fail.

Death seems so final, the pinnacle of separation, but in Christ’s reign, death is just another passing thing. In his resurrection, Jesus demonstrates the utter lengths he goes to be with us forever. He proclaims this promise to the thief on the cross and he fulfills this promise in our lives when he claims our personal territory as part of his reign. The thief himself speaks of his just condemnation as a criminal, and yet Jesus doesn’t see this as a barrier to relationship. Rather, Jesus sees the thief’s sin as a reason for relationship. In the reign of Christ, our sin separates us from God; but, in a mysterious cosmic paradox, our sin does not separate God from us. We may cede our personal territory to such a lesser thing as sin, but the territory, in the end, belongs to Christ. He’s not going to let passing things like sin and death defeat his presence and relationship in our lives.

Third, trust. With his last breath, Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Another translation says, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” With these words, Jesus once and for all destroyed the power of the cross, which is a symbol for the power of fear. The Romans used this torture device precisely because it struck fear into the hearts of those living under Roman rule. But Jesus knows that trust is the antidote for fear.

The reign of Christ is a place where fear finds no foothold. Fear reduces us to selfish hoarders, whose lives are scarred always by the thought of “never enough.” But trust expands us, makes us generous givers, and vaults us into the reign of Christ, where the “never” of “never enough” falls away. When we trust God, we let go of the fear that grips us. Indeed, the act of simply attempting to trust God is in itself an act of trust. So even when we are bad at trusting, each attempt is a little skirmish that God wins over fear. Trust allows us to see past the deserted island of fear and view the ocean of God’s presence surrounding it. When we step off the island and into the water, we find ourselves floating in God and trusting God to keep us from sinking.

Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the words on the lips of Jesus as he hangs on the cross. Forgiveness. Relationship. Trust. These are the ways Jesus invites us to participate in his reign. We might be tempted to cede our personal territory to the lesser things that seek to rule us. But in the end that secession is a mere illusion because our personal territory has never been ours to cede. We belong to Christ. We live in his reign. By the standards of the world, Christ’s reign is neither normal nor acceptable. But Jesus never did the normal or the acceptable thing. And nor should we.

Cloudburst (Davies Tales #8)

Aidan Davies stepped onto the platform of South Station. He looked left, then right, then left again. The trickle of passengers disembarking the commuter rail train turned left, and Davies joined them. As he headed for the terminal, a drop of rain hit his nose. He quickened his pace, but the drop only brought along a few dozen companions. Davies looked up and frowned at the sky. The sun shone through the clouds’ ragged edges, gilding them with light but failing to penetrate the bulk of the cloud, which was becoming increasingly darker. It’s a good thing the subway stops at the hospital, Davies thought.

Today would be his third day in a row traveling into the city to Mass General. The accident had happened late Saturday evening, and he had arrived at the hospital bleary-eyed but alert early Sunday morning, wearing his clergy clothes and the “I’m supposed to be here” expression that he saved specifically for the ICU. The family had been on a nighttime sail when nine-year-old Janice stood up at the wrong time. The boom hit her full in the back of the head, knocking her simultaneously unconscious and overboard. The rescue chopper brought her straight to the hospital in Boston, leaving her stricken parents on Nantucket to await the ferry the next day. Janice was brought up to the ICU from the OR an hour before Davies arrived. A patch of her dark ringlets was cut away at the base of her skull, revealing a dozen hasty sutures. He held her hand gingerly so as not to disturb the IV until midmorning when her mother pelted into the room. Davies then melted into the background, feeling suddenly inadequate in the face of the mother’s frenzy.

Two days later, Janice was still unconscious in the ICU, and her mother had not left her bedside. The doctors had not used the word “coma” but Janice’s mother feared the worse. With her husband at the office for a few hours, that fear was her only companion until Davies arrived. Fat lot of good I’ve done the past two days, he chided himself. An unconscious girl is one thing. A desperate mother is something else. I wonder when she’ll figure out I have no idea what to do.

He checked his mobile phone. Plenty of time to get there, he thought. Just a few stops up the Red Line. He swiped his card, jogged down the stairs, and flung himself aboard an idling subway car. Perfect timing, he thought, beaming around at the passengers as if he had just landed the dismount. A few of his fellow travelers smirked at him, shook their heads, and looked away. Just then the PA system crackled to life, and the man next to him pointed in the general direction of the indistinct voice coming over the speaker: “Due to a fire at Charles/MGH station, the Red Line is delayed. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”

Chagrined by his train-catching heroics, Davies shared a shrug with the man, leaned nonchalantly against a pole, and called up a mental map of downtown Boston. MGH isn’t too far a walk from South Station, he told himself. Just through the Common and over Beacon Hill. He looked around at the waiting passengers and wondered how long the train had been stuck at South Station. Just then two young men, frat boys by the looks of their untidy hair and polo shirts half tucked in to display massive belt buckles, launched themselves into the car as Davies had done. He smirked at them, shook his head, and exited the car.

He walked back up the stairs into South Station. There’s a buck seventy I’ll never see again. He ordered a panini and ate it quickly as he walked out of the station onto Summer Street. Davies oriented himself toward the Common and trudged up the sidewalk, hands in his pockets and his laptop bag bouncing against his back. He looked up at the sky again and the amateur meteorologist in him told him he would have been better off with the train delay. The sky had darkened considerably while the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority had been thwarting him below ground. Licking his fingers, he tossed the remains of his hurried lunch into a trashcan and strode toward a store a few blocks from the station.

Five minutes later Davies emerged with a new umbrella under one arm. It’ll never rain now, he thought triumphantly, assured that reverse psychology works quite well to influence colliding low-pressure systems. Davies licked his lips, suddenly thirsty from his sodium-laced sandwich. I wish I had bought a bottle of water at the store. “Too late now,” he said aloud to no one in particular. Just then, he walked past a van painted in violently neon shades of green and orange. Two college-aged women, wearing shorts and the kind of socks that basketball players wore in the 70s, stood at the rear of the van, each holding a case of violently neon sports drinks.

“Have you Thrust today?” one of them asked Davies as he walked by, and he could tell she enjoyed asking such a seemingly provocative question to a guy wearing a clerical collar.

“No, I can’t say I have,” Davies said.

“You should try it,” said the other, and she held out a bottle sporting the word Thrust in lightning bolt-shaped letters. The bottle was filled with a liquid that looked like it was distilled from traffic cones.

“Thanks.” Davies took the drink and continued up the street, trying to resist the urge to look over his shoulder at the nubile Thrust promoters. He chugged the neon fluid, hoping that it would quench his thirst before he noticed how awful it tasted. He crossed Tremont Street and entered Boston Common as he emptied the last drops of the traffic cone flavored beverage into his mouth. Then he heard the rain.

With the sound of a thousand car washes a solid sheet of water was approaching rapidly from across the Common. So much for tricking the weather, Davies thought. At least I have this handy thing. He opened the umbrella and hunched beneath it just as the deluge reached him. After a minute of slogging across the open green space, his trousers felt like they had just come out of the washing machine. Davies reached the far end of the Common and looked through the rain for the street his phone’s GPS had told him to take over Beacon Hill. He walked one block down the Hill hoping for a street sign. No such luck. This city, apparently attempting to stymie foreign military occupation, keeps signage to a minimum, he mused ruefully. Davies took the next right and walked fifty yards. This isn’t it, he thought, seeing the street terminate in a row of brownstones a couple blocks ahead. He turned to retrace his steps. Then the rain did the impossible and worsened.

With the same vigor he had used flinging himself into the subway car, Davies dove for the relative dryness of a sheltered doorway. He squeezed the excess water out of his pants, dried his glasses, and oriented himself. I am one street down too far. Davies waited out the worst of the rain hunkered down in the doorway. After ten torrential minutes, the sun blazed through the spent clouds, raising steam from the street. Davies left the shelter and continued his charge up Beacon Hill.

Taking a left on Cambridge Street, he walked the last few blocks to the hospital. The imposing complex of parking garages and mismatched hospital buildings rose up on his right. He stopped to cross the intersection at Cambridge and North Grove. The cars navigating Boston’s surface streets glistened after the downpour. There it is, he thought, storm clouds forming in his mind as they had done in the sky. Through the main doors, down the hall, up the elevator, around the ward, into the room. Davies shivered. I’m just cold from the rain, he told himself, though he knew it wasn’t true. What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? I am so ill-equipped for this that it would be laughable if the situation weren’t so serious.

The traffic light changed and the walking person blinked across the road, telling him to cross. Davies stayed put. After half a minute, the light changed again, and a red hand replaced the person, warning pedestrians not to cross. Davies stared at the hand. He closed his eyes and the blurry afterimage of the warning signal danced across his eyelids. He took a deep breath and held it. The hand fixed itself in his mind, a symbol of something he told people everyday but often forgot to believe himself. The hand slowly dissolved into a voice in his head, his own voice but with deeper resonance and greater clarity. You were thirsty and I provided drink. You were drowning in the rain and I provided shelter. Do you honestly think that I will break this pattern when you enter that hospital room?

Davies exhaled slowly and opened his eyes. The red hand shone from the signal across the street. The voice echoed faintly in his mind. You are always in the palm of my hand. Yes, even you, Aidan. The hand changed back into the walking person, and Aidan Davies crossed the intersection. He pushed through the main doors of the hospital, strode down the hall, rode up the elevator, paced around the ward, and walked into the room.

Never Wear Your Collar on an Airplane

(Sermon for Sunday, February 27, 2011 || Epiphany 8, Year A || Matthew 6:24-34)

A few weeks before he ordained me to the priesthood, the Bishop of West Virginia gave me one truly inspired piece of advice. You might imagine that this piece of advice dealt with the delicacy of liturgy or the intricacy of theology or the intimacy of pastoral care. No. Rather, his advice was quite a bit more practical and worldly. He said to me: “Adam. Never ever ever – no matter what you do – never wear your collar on an airplane.”

In the three years that I have been snapping the collar on, I have discovered the unerring truth behind this advice. There are two reasons why a priest like me should not wear his collar and black clerical shirt on an airplane. First, I will undoubtedly attract the attention of the one person on board who will feel compelled to sit next to me and tell me his or her entire life story. While this isn’t necessarily awful, I’d much rather read Ken Follett’s new book while in the air. I admit that this reason is a bit self-serving, but the second reason is more convincing: I’m not really all that great a flyer.

Airplane! (1980)

There’s something about traveling at six hundred miles per hour, thirty thousand feet in the air in a glorified hollow, metal cylinder that tends to rattle me. And there are not many things worse for passengers’ morale than a priest in his clerical collar who is having a mild panic attack during takeoff.

Better to travel incognito: a guy in a t-shirt and jeans having a mild panic attack during takeoff is much easier to ignore. Now, I’ve heard all the statistics. You’re more likely to have a vending machine fall on you, more likely to be struck by lightning, more likely to die in a motor vehicle collision than you are to be involved in a plane crash. But the statistics have nothing to do with my dislike for flying. I don’t have anxiety over that fact that the plane might do something as unlikely as crash. I’m not anxious that a bird might get sucked into a turbine or that the landing gear won’t deploy.

My anxiety comes from the simple truth that there’s nothing I can do if one of these things happens. I’m anxious because I have no control. I’m anxious because, once the cabin doors are sealed and the tray tables and seats are in the upright and locked position, I have absolutely no ability to determine the direction of my fate.

And this is most unnerving. When I connect the two metal parts of the belt buckle and the plane starts taxiing to the runway, my anxiety takes over. I bow to the anxiety and all I have left to me is an expected bout of intestinal distress. But you know what? Anxiety, as a state of being, is (when you get right down to it) a sin, a distortion in our relationships with God.

Anxiety happens when we give in to the temptation not to trust. Trust is a fundamental building block of any good relationship. When (for any number of reasons) our trust for one another evaporates, we lose the foundation of the relationship. The same is true in our relationships with God. When we give into the temptation not to trust that God fulfills God’s promises, our relationship with God becomes distorted. And anxiety is one of the unpleasant byproducts.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount by looking up into the air and speaking about the birds and looking down the hill and seeing the wildflowers poking up through the grass. God, he says, gives to these birds and flowers what they need to flourish. The birds have enough food, even though they do not plant, grow, or store their sustenance. The flowers display great beauty, even though they are here today and gone tomorrow. If God sustains these small, passing things that have no worries at all, then why are you worrying, why are you anxious, Jesus wonders.

On our honeymoon last week, Leah and I saw dozens of examples of Jesus’ illustration. Bumping along in the open air Land Cruiser on our safari in South Africa, we took in the grandeur of God’s creation and witnessed hundreds upon hundreds of animals eating and sleeping and wallowing in the mud. The trip was truly spectacular. I found myself agreeing with Jesus all the more. Of course, God’s relationship with me allows me to flourish as the elephants and buffalo and giraffe and zebra do.

Then we got into the propeller driven plane back to Johannesburg, which kept threatening simply to fall out of the sky, and my trust abdicated once again, only to be replaced by anxiety. Notice the odd reality at work in this example: I am less anxious on the ground because I have some semblance of control over myself. In the air, anxiety reigns because that control is gone. Now, if anxiety is the temptation not to trust in God, why would flying trigger my anxiety while being on the ground does not? In neither situation am I relying particularly on God. On the ground, I rely on myself. In the air, I don’t have that option, so I quickly notice the absence of my self-reliance. Cue the mild panic attack.

The loss of control confronts us with the stark truth that our tendency to rely on ourselves overwhelmingly trumps our tendency to rely on God. When we are in control, we can ignore the fact that we aren’t carrying our weight in our relationships with God. We aren’t opening ourselves up to God’s movement. We aren’t filling the role of trusting children. But when we go up in the air, our self-reliance vanishes and we cannot ignore our failure to join God in right relationship. We cannot ignore the fact that anxiety, rather than trust, fills the hole, which is left when self-reliance is not an option.

So, how do we fill the hole with trust instead of anxiety? Well, the short answer is that we can’t. Whenever our self-control or self-reliance or self-determination is threatened, anxiety will be the byproduct. Therefore, removing things such as self-reliance from the equation is the only way to move toward trust and away from anxiety. After Jesus talks about God’s care for the birds and flowers, he tells his disciples not to be anxious. And then he gets to the punch line: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Striving for God’s righteousness means devoting ourselves to living in right relationship with God. This relationship acknowledges that we are never really in control, whether we are on the ground or in the air. A right relationship with God is predicated on relying on God first, so that we can be open to God working through us. Holding up our part in this relationship means making an effort to take stock how much we rely on ourselves, how often we maintain lone wolf attitudes, how quickly we fail to trust when things get bumpy. Flourishing in this relationship with God happens when we notice ourselves falling into old patterns of anxiety, and, instead of giving in, we pray, we surrender our self-determination, and we trust God.

This is not easy. God knows my success rate is quite low. But over a lifetime of spiritual practice, of walking with God, of following Jesus’ path rather than our own, I believe that we can, with God’s help, overcome the temptation not to trust, the temptation that leads to anxiety. In today’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah, an anxiety-ridden Zion cries out: “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”

But the Lord responds: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

God has each of us written on the palm of God’s hands. God will not forget us. God is here and always will be. When we begin to trust this fundamental, immutable basis of our existence, we will find our right relationship with God. We will move from the floundering of anxiety to the flourishing of trust. Who knows: when I find this trust, perhaps I’ll be able to wear my collar on an airplane.

Facing Fear

(Sermon for August 8, 2010 || Proper 14, Year C, RCL || Luke 12:32-40)

The Bene Gesserit test Paul Atreides at the beginning of Dune. (1984)

Many years ago in a dusty volume, I read an old Bene Gesserit litany against fear, and this prayer has stuck with me every since. “I must not fear,” says the litany. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Now that dusty volume was Frank Herbert’s Dune, the best selling science-fiction novel of all time, but the words of the litany ring true nonetheless. “I must not fear… Fear is the little-death… I will face my fear.”

From the time we are young children, our parents echo these words and tell us to face our fears. Perhaps you were afraid of the dark. So you mother let you sleep with the lights on for a while. Then she turned the lights off and left the bedside lamp on. A few days later, she turned off the bedside lamp and plugged a nightlight into the wall near the door. Pretty soon, you didn’t even need the nightlight. Your mother helped you face your fear of the dark, and you overcame it.

Or perhaps you were afraid of the monsters under your bed. There they were: always lurking, rumbling, slurping, ready to pounce – until you summoned up enough courage to dangle your head over the side of the bed and chase the monsters away. You faced your fear, and you overcame it.

We look back on these childhood fears and chuckle at how intangible worries grew into monstrous fears. The shadow of your own feet under the covers cast a winged creature on the wall, and the creature moved the more you shook. Under your bed, a pair of shoes and a couple of tennis balls made the ears and eyes of a monster peering up through the floorboards. The fears were nothing really. Our imaginations ran away with us, that’s all.

At least, this is how we adults dismiss those childhood fears. We dismiss them as fanciful or as attention-seeking or as the fruits of overactive imaginations. But hidden within this easy dismissal is also a tacit dismissal of our parents’ advice. “Face your fear,” they said, and we did, and everything got better.

But those were our intangible, childhood fears. That advice couldn’t possibly work on our concrete, grown-up fears. Our fears are too immediate, too relentless, too real. Of course, we forget that this is exactly how our childhood fears felt, as well. Perhaps our parents’ advice, the same advice that I learned reading science fiction, really might work in our lives today. In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples to take our parents’ advice. He asks them to face their fears.

But before we get to that, we first need to address where fear comes from. The root of fear is deprivation. We fear when something has the potential to become scarce. We fear when we perceive that there is not enough of a certain something. Supply and demand economic theory is based squarely on this reality. The root of fear is deprivation. You can trace all fears to this specific cause, even though specific fears may appear quite differently. Fears manifest themselves one way or another depending on the nature of the deprivation. If you are afraid of the dark, you fear a scarcity of light. If you are afraid of contracting a terminal illness, you fear being deprived of a long, healthy life. If you are afraid of how you will live when you retire, you fear that you will not have enough income to sustain your manner of living.

You can trace all fears to specific deprivations, and by confronting the sources of scarcity, you can face your fears. Jesus identifies the disciples’ source of fear when he says to them, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Jesus assures them that their fears are baseless because their accumulation of stuff will not help them enter the kingdom of God. This assurance runs counter to the fashionable reasoning of the day, which stated that the more stuff you owned, the more blessed you were. “God obviously favors that person,” ran this line of thinking. “Just look at all the stuff he has.” Not too much different from today, I’m sad to say.

But Jesus changed the rules. Remember last week’s Gospel? Jesus told us the parable of the rich fool. His land produced more than his barns could hold, so he decided to tear down those barns and build larger ones. The more stuff the rich man had, the more secure and comfortable he would feel, he told himself. Surely, this man would have been considered blessed in his society. But he died the very night he planned to erect larger storehouses, and he surely couldn’t take his barn-loads of stuff with him. The rich man’s folly shows the misguided lengths to which people will go to ward off deprivation, the root cause of fear.

But Jesus shows his disciples another way to face their fear. Rather than accumulating stuff, give it away, he says. Face deprivation by depriving yourself of the things you think you can’t live without. And you’ll discover pretty quickly that you can, in fact, live without those things.

I’m sure that you’ve heard this interpretation before, perhaps so many times that you tune it out now. And if you’re like me, you really aren’t any closer to facing the root of fear than you were the last time you heard someone talk about this. I know for myself that I used to be able to fit all my possessions in a 1992 Mazda Protégé. When I moved to Massachusetts, I needed every square inch of a 14-foot U-Haul. With more stuff comes more fear of loss, more fear of that stuff not being enough.

And the more fear that we have, the more we deprive ourselves of fear’s antidote. That antidote is trust. When we were children, we faced our fears because we trusted our parents’ advice. We believed that they would not lead us astray, and they didn’t. The darkness did not frighten us to death. The monsters did not pounce.

So how come we have so much trouble trusting in God? How come fear tends to trump trust more often than not? I think the answer is this. Trust takes energy. While fear creeps along, keeping us from action, trust derives from the kind of sustained relationship, which establishes and nourishes fidelity. God always keeps God’s promises. God is always trustworthy. The trouble is we have to trust that God is trustworthy. We have to practice the faith that God has given us in order to maintain our ability to trust in God.

And fear constantly diverts this ability. But when we practice trust, when we believe that God’s keeps God’s promises, we can face our fears, we can keep at bay the gnawing dread of deprivation. Our grown-up fears may be concrete and relentless. But I am convinced that they are no match for the power of trusting in God.

This week, I ask you to take some time to be silent and to turn your thoughts inward. What do you fear? What kind of deprivation is at the root of that fear? And how will practicing trusting God help you face that fear? In your reflection, remember this good news. When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” he is not just giving a command. He is giving a promise that when we face our fears, we will not be alone. When we face our fears, they will pass through us, and when they are gone, only God, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, will remain.

Something stronger

(Sermon for June 28, 2009 || Proper 8, Year B, RCL || Mark 5:21-43)

Imagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. And so I feared scorpions. When I was old enough to understand the meaning of the scowling soldiers wearing shiny, metal armor, I realized what happened to people who looked at them the wrong way. And so I feared that my father might one day fail to return home. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared that I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny, insignificant puncture on her forearm, and she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the assassin and stomped its hardened, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed – shivering – to the ground. My wife came `round the corner and saw me weeping, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing, raced over, and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could barely talk through my heaving: “Not me. Not me. Not me.” She understood and launched herself into the house to find our daughter. I couldn’t go back inside. I rocked back and forth: “Not me. Why not me? Why not me instead?”

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore, if I’m honest with myself. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why one day. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy,” she said.

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my anger, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target. He created the scorpion: for that, I could not forgive him.

I stalked back home and tapped on my daughter’s bedroom door. My wife opened it, and our eyes met – one empty stare gazing past another. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by the one I love but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke suddenly and cursed myself for having fallen asleep. Dawn was piercing through the gaps in the window’s shutters. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I growled and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I resolved first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street in the direction of the shore. They were laughing and calling to one another: “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

Then he turned and gestured to me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger ripped them out of me. The fear fought back, reminding me of last night’s blasphemy. A new fear gripped me – that God had, indeed, heard my anger and would do nothing for me now.

We walked back to my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. Who cares? My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother and his sons pushing their way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I started to fall, but my brother caught me and held me tight. “Your daughter is dead,” he whispered. I sagged in his arms. Again, he picked me up. “Come,” he said. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that had earlier ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said, and he pulled me along the path to my house. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. And I had no eyes but for my little daughter. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep,” he said, “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, and it felt utterly foreign in this house, which now had Death for a tenant. But then I laughed again, and I noticed that the laugh didn’t come from my fear. The stronger something caused the laugh. The laugh was my body’s involuntary response to the truth of Jesus’ words.

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. He stared back into my eyes and suddenly I knew that hurling blasphemies at God under the cover of darkness meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

Jesus’ own laugh pulled me out of my thoughts. He smiled at the three of us twirling around and said, “She’s had a rough day. Give her something to eat.” My wife rushed off to the kitchen to prepare something, tears streaming behind her as she went. And then my daughter looked up at me, trust shimmering in her eyes. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms.

I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.