Saturday, November 1, 2008

Not Yet Revealed

Not Yet Revealed
1 John 1:1-3
All Saints’ Sunday
2 November 2008

As most of you know, I have been taking a break from the pulpit and other pastoral duties to spend more time at home this last year before the boys start kindergarten. It has been a real gift to them, and to me, and to our family, to get to do this, and I so appreciate your support and your encouragement in this decision, as well as the work Paul is doing to make it possible.

I have had pretty vivid ideas of what this time was going to look like. Our days would be filled with crafts and Candy Land, with books and baking, with parks and puppet shows. The time that had been moving so swiftly would suddenly expand, and slow down. I would find myself able to give my time and my attention completely to my sons. It was going to be perfect. Perhaps it is more accurate to say my ideas were less about what this time was going to be than about the kind of mother I was suddenly going to become. I would be so loving, so patient and so kind. I wouldn’t feel anxious or pressed for time. I would never treat my children as interruptions. I would never hear myself saying things like, “Hurry up,” or “Leave me alone.” The boys would never ask why I was using my grumpy voice. Oh, and my home? It would be a tidy and inviting place of peace and order. In other words, I was not only going to become a better mother. I was going to become a completely different person.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you – and it shouldn’t have surprised me - that things have not been as blissful as I’d imagined. I am impatient. I can be quite irritable. I do sound grumpy. I don’t like playing Candy Land. And my house? Well, let’s not talk about what kind of house I keep. And what I am reminded of, yet again, is that I never ever end up being as good as I set out to be. I never do end up becoming the person I had hoped. I never get things just right, let alone perfect. This is our story. We are not what we meant to be. We are not what we were intended to be.

Sometimes we miss the mark in spectacular and horrific ways. But most of the time, we miss it in smaller, painfully persistent ways. We try, try, try to become better people. We have the sense that we are supposed to be getting better. We have the sense that life is supposed to be about forward motion, about progress. But we never seem to get there. We never really measure up.

Kakfa said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” In other words, our living is shaped by our anxiety, angst, and dread over our finitude. The limitation on life gives it meaning. Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day for stopping to listen to the clock ticking on all our lives, and what it means. What meaning do our days have, given that they will end?

Our preoccupation with our end starts early. “Mommy, you are sure getting old. When are you going to die?” one of my sons asked the other day. I don’t know. None of us knows, I said. “I don’t want to die. Ever!” Charlie insisted. “Well, sorry Charlie,” Rob responded. “Sometimes it happens.”

Yes it does. Not just sometimes. It’s coming for us all. And we know so little in the face of it. “What we will be has not yet been revealed,” John says in his letter this morning. His words confirm our ignorance. We don’t know. We don’t know when it will come, or how. We don’t know, not really, what the life after this one looks like. We don’t know, not really, what we will become. Not in this lifetime, and certainly not in the next. We don’t know.

But there is such power and such promise in those two words – Not Yet. Those words point forward. They suggest that what we do not know now, what we cannot know now, we one day will. They suggest that what we cannot be now, we one day will. They suggest that the essence of who we are and will become lies in the future – the Not Yet – rather than in the past, where all our failures have stacked up behind us, or in the present, where we still struggle to be who we’re meant to be.

John writes, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Christ] is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” John acknowledges that there is so much we don’t know, so much we can’t know. But he insists that we do know that in the end, we will see Christ, and, seeing him, we shall be like him. Becoming like him will come not from all our trying, not from all our determination, but simply from seeing him, as he is. Just by laying eyes on him, we will be transformed.

These words are meant for our hope. All the ways life has left us unsettled and unsatisfied, all the ways we have let ourselves and others down, all the ways we have missed the mark – they are not the final word. The word now is “Not yet.” The final word is we will see Christ, and we will be like him. We will be fully, finally, beautifully what we were meant to be. All else will be stripped away.

Is this word enough to keep us going amidst our failures and frustrations and flaws? Is it enough for us to know that someday – not yet, but someday – our lives will shine with the light of his love, and completely? Is it enough to know that all our wounds and all our griefs will be healed and all our failures will be erased and all our lives will be only love?

It might be enough, but it’s not all. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and so we are…. Beloved, we are God’s children now.” We look forward towards the Not Yet, towards a future that has not yet been revealed. But we have everything we need for now. “Beloved, we are God’s children now,” John says. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God, and so we are. Now.”

What this means is not that we take hold of our longings to have a better life or to be a better person, and then somehow make those desires come true. What it means is that we know who we are – God’s own children, now, and we know what we will become – like Christ, whom we shall see fully. And in the meantime, we give ourselves to the seeking of him. We set our gaze on him now. We seek to see him, to know him, little by little, and so to be made like him, little by little, by God’s grace, and not our own doing. We seek him with our praying, and our serving, our thinking and our giving, our loving and our living.

So much has not yet been revealed. So much of what we long for, what we lean towards, has not yet been revealed. So much of who we will become has not yet been revealed. But in the meantime, don’t we have enough to keep us going on the way of Christ?

Not long ago, I visited a church that had a baptismal pool at the entrance. In order to come into the sanctuary, you had to pass by those waters. And at this church, the water was constantly flowing into that pool, from a source above it. Anyone sitting in that sanctuary would hear the rush of water into that pool. I sat in that sanctuary alone, and the water seemed so loud as I prayed. I was seeking direction, and guidance, and I kept hearing that water. And suddenly I had the strongest sense of something else in that room besides that water. I saw my cloud of witnesses, there, above me. There was my cousin Blake, made whole. There was my grandmother, Edith, and my grandmother, Thelma. There was my brother-in-law David. My father-in-law Nelson, my Uncle Don. There stood my grandfathers, whom I never knew. There was a whole circle of people around that sanctuary and another circle behind them and another behind them. Zella Willis and Laura Barbour and Dorothy Lamerson and Helen Brewer and people whom they had loved and lost, all stand in that circle. And behind them, the circle goes on, and it goes on. The Bible calls it our cloud of witnesses.

Above the sound of those baptismal waters, I perceived that cloud, and those beautiful, beautiful people, who have been made well and whole. And I had the strongest feeling myself that I am headed for that wholeness, too, that all shall be well. I had the strongest, clearest remembrance that they, too, had been laid down in those baptismal waters, and they now stand by the river that flows by the throne of God. We were raised up from those baptismal waters to walk in newness of life. They do so perfectly now. I still struggle. But some day I won’t. And you won’t either. Those faithful ones who have gone on – they struggled too. They made their mistakes. Sometimes they failed us, and themselves. They were not everything they wanted to be. But they are now.

And what are we now? We are God’s own children. We are beloved. We have a cloud of witnesses that has surrounded us with their love and encouragement and example. And we have this table, where Christ meets us and gives us again what we need to keep moving forward in our seeking and our following. We do not come to this table alone, but with each other. And not only with each other, but with all God’s children throughout this world. And not only with all God’s children throughout this world, but with all those beyond this world. They sit now at the great table, at the heavenly feast, completely filled by his goodness and love, and transformed into that goodness and love themselves. Now we take our taste, too. And it will be enough, for now. Until we finally join them, and gaze on the beautiful face of love, and become, with them, like him ourselves.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

What We Owe

Phew! A bit late getting this one done and posted. I'll come back when I'm less bleary-eyed and add the footnotes.

What We Owe

Romans 13:8-11
17th Sunday After Pentecost
7 September 2008

Who do you owe? And what do you owe them? We think of owing someone in terms of financial debt, but there are kinds of owing that have nothing to do with money. We owe someone an explanation. We owe someone an apology. We owe somebody a phone call or a visit. We owe somebody a thank you note or an invitation. Some of us keep us with all these obligations as if we were keeping a tally – constantly totting up to make sure we are in no one’s debt (or to see who owes us what). Others of us are certain we can never catch up with all our obligations, and so we resign ourselves to live with the constant sense that we are never doing enough.

Paul begins his counsel this morning from his letter to the Romans with words about our obligation. “Owe no one anything,” he begins. I kind of wish he had tweaked it just a bit. How about something like: “You don’t owe anyone a thing.” There now, that’s better, right? He could go from there. “You don’t owe anyone a thing. Just be true to yourself. Be true to what you want. Be true to what you need, what you believe. In Christ you have been set free, you no longer owe a thing.” Oh, I would love to read that in my Bible this morning.

And why doesn’t it say that? In Christ we have been set free! Christ has paid our debts – how is that we owe anything? Why should I feel obligated to do anything, when Christ has done it all?

And it is true – Christ did come for freedom, Christ pay our debts and set us free. We do not live under compulsion, we are no longer under obligation to the law. What this means is that Christ has set us free from ever having to do anything to be made right. Christ has set us free from having to do anything to justify ourselves or our worth. We do not need to do more or do better in order to be loved, or in order to be saved, or in order to be good. We have been set free from all that. We are loved already. We are loved entirely. We have been set right.

This does not mean we no longer have any obligations. It means that how we handle our obligations does not determine our worth. It means that neither our successes nor our failures have the last word on who we ultimately are. It means that we do not need to live under the hissing judgment of should and ought as if such words could save us or damn us. It means we rise to obligations out of our freedom, and with a sense of purpose and grace.

Paul says, “Owe no one anything, but love.” It is love that saved us, it is love that has been given to us, so freely. And so it is love that we now have, in abundance, to share. We owe it not because we are trying to get something, or trying to make up for something. We owe it because we have been given it.

Knowing all of this does not make it all that much easier to do, however. Love is never easy. There are some people in our lives who are certainly easier for us to love. But in the end, love – real love – always demands something of us.

Catholic ethicist Paul Wadell writes, “Love doesn’t sound dangerous until you’ve tried it.” What makes love dangerous? It is dangerous because it is costly. Love, the kind of love Paul writes of, is not about mere affection, or attraction, or compatibility, or mutual enjoyment. It is, ultimately, about self-giving, which means the sacrifice of self-interest. The New Testament defines love in relation to the cross. What is involved when we give ourselves to the obligations of love, then, is something like a death. A death to self.

That’s why it can be so hard. How many times a day can we stand to let ourselves die, and die again, to what we want? Some of the little deaths may be easier to accept – the daily sacrifices a parent makes for a young child are set in the context of the parents’ deep love and commitment. Still, they are sacrifices, and still they can be difficult to accept. Parents are meant to love their children, children are meant to love their parents, spouses are meant to love each other – and yet all of know how fraught with complexity and conflict all of these relationships can be. In her book What We Were Made For: Christian Reflections on Love, Christian ethicist Sondra Wheeler acknowledges, “… loving those near to us well is hard enough, … no wonder a human love that extends to strangers and enemies is hard even to imagine.” And yet that is what we are called to – a love that extends. Such a love pulls us beyond where we’re comfortable. Sometimes it feels like it will break us – to try to love people who aren’t like us, to try to love people who make us anxious or angry, to try to love people we don’t like. It is hard enough to be faithful in loving the people we actually like.

Human beings were created with a powerful need for companionship and community. We were meant for love, we were meant for relationship. And yet it is exactly this deep need that can make love so difficult. Out of our sense of own neediness and vulnerability, distorted patterns of relating arise, patterns that focus not at all on self-giving, but on finding ways to somehow get what we need. So we become manipulative and controlling. Or jealous. Or dependent. We become fearful, self-protective, distrustful. We cling to illusions about ourselves, and about others – illusions that cannot survive the honesty and growth required by real relationship. In so many ways, we are so broken. Love has been poured out for us, over our lives and into our hearts. But it sometimes seems that all the cracks in us make it impossible to hold all that love, let alone start giving it away.

Love is the only commandment, but sometimes it seems impossible to keep. How on earth can we get any better?

For starters, we come here. St. Benedict called Christian community a “school for souls.” Here is where we learn. In community with other people who are both broken and blessed – people who were neither our family nor our friends, but who can now become both, if we allow it. We are here to know and to be known, to learn to love and to learn to be loved. This is our school for souls. It is here that we encounter hope and healing for all the distortions that make loving relationship so hard.

If we have any hope of putting self-interest to death, this is where we start – in community, and in a community that chooses together to point ourselves toward God. To worship at all is to acknowledge and to celebrate that the world is governed by someone other than us. To worship is to say Self is not on the throne, and to say that self-interest will not be in charge. To worship together is to acknowledge how hard it is to do all this alone. Outside these walls, we encounter people at work, people on the street, people in our families that we find difficult to love. Outside these walls, we come up again and again against the supreme difficulty of self-sacrifice. Gathered in this room together, we are reminded that we do not actually have to do any of that alone. We come here to find our shared identity in God, an identity and a security that can begin to release us from fear and distrust. We come here to get honest about ourselves, and our failures, and our need. We come here to pray and to learn to pray, so that we find our first and best relationship with the Source of all other relationship.

And we come here to be fed. We gather at this table, to open ourselves to a God who nourishes and nurtures, a God who wants to fill us up, to satisfy us with good things. We come as we are to this table. Needy, broken, selfish, troubled, bowed-down, puffed-up, disbelieving, or hopeful. We come as we are, to find what we need, together. And what we find is this: we have been given so much. The love of God, the life of Jesus, has been poured out for us. And God wants it to be poured out through us. We find freedom at this table, too. Not just freedom from the things that would push us down, but freedom for – freedom for dying to our old selves, freedom for rising to our new purpose, freedom for getting up and going out, together, to love, and to love, and to love again, and to owe no on anything but love.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Learning to Praise

Learning to Praise
Psalm 148
Myers Park Baptist Church
24 August 2008

The psalm this morning may seem benign and ordinary. “Praise the Lord!” it begins. “Praise the Lord!” it ends. And we’ve grown accustomed to such an exhortation. It’s what we’re here at church for, after all – to praise. But this is no ordinary act. And this psalm offers no ordinary word.

What is praise, but the staking of one’s whole life on goodness, on the goodness of God? What is praise, but the pouring out of one’s daily living in joy and gratitude for what has been given? In the face of so many forces of darkness, of despair, of violence and evil, there could be no more radical act than that.

But this psalm takes the revolutionary act of praise a step beyond. The psalmist issues an invitation to the entire universe. Everything that is, praises God. Not just “everything that breathes” as Psalm 150 would have it. But everything that is. Not just the angels in heaven. Not just the humans on earth. Every created thing. Animate, inanimate. Sun, moon, stars, rain, earth, fire, hail, snow, frost, wind. Mountains, hills, trees, mammals, sea creatures, creeping things, flying birds. Every cell of the universe, every atom of space, every single bit of creation does one thing in unison – it all praises God.

It is a sweeping and impressive picture – not only of unity of purpose, but of the radical inclusivity of praise. This is what everything was made for. This is what it all does. Every created thing praises the God who created it, simply by being what God made it to be.

Well, maybe all but one.

The psalmist here seems to have great faith that humans will respond to the innate urge to praise God. “Kings of the earth and all peoples,” he declares, “Young men and women alike, old and young together!” His confidence is inspiring. It is endearing. Is it not also a bit unwarranted?

The truth is, while cedar trees and dolphins and goldfinches and stardust all praise God by being beautifully exactly as God created it all to be, we have somewhat deviated. We struggle to give ourselves to God. We have a hard time seeking and seeing the goodness of God all around us, and responding to it.

There are so many reasons we find ourselves blocked from such a life. We are busy, and so don’t notice the pulse of God beating beneath the surface of everything. We are disappointed or disillusioned or grief-stricken, and therefore unable to see how we might give praise without being false. We are tired and drained and sucked-dry by the demands we face, and, finding no way to receive what we most need, we also have nothing more to give back, including our praise.

You may have seen the Washington Post story last year. That January, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell engaged in a little experiment at the behest of a Washington Post reporter. Bell, dressed in street clothes, took his 300 year-old Stradivarius to the L’Enfant Plaza Subway Station. For 43 minutes during the morning rush hour, he performed, playing some of the most beautiful, most powerful, most difficult pieces of music ever written. The concert was videotaped with a hidden camera. Guesses were made ahead of time, about how people would respond, how many people would stop and listen, how much money might be tossed into his violin case. Plans were made to deal with crowd control.

Those plans were not needed. What happened was this. In the 43 minutes that the internationally acclaimed virtuoso played his violin, 1097 people passed him by. Most did not even look at him. Only one person, at the very end, recognized him. A few tossed in quarters or even pennies. And only seven people stopped what they were doing, to stand and listen, at least for a minute.

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post staff writer who put Joshua Bell up to this experiment, and then reported on it, poses the question in his article: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that – then what else are we missing?”

It is a haunting question. What are we missing? What great gorgeous joy and wonder are present in the life God has given us, that we cannot see, cannot open ourselves to? What praise can we not give because we cannot see the millions of reasons to give it?

During Bell’s second piece, Schubert’s Ave Maria, “something revealing happened.” Weingarten writes of a woman and her preschooler coming off the escalator. The mother is walking quickly, needing to get her son dropped off at school so she can go on to work. Her son, however, is intent on hearing the music and watching the musician. On the video, you can see him twisting around to see Bell, even as he is being hurried towards the door. Finally, his mother maneuvers her body to block the child’s view. As mother and child leave the station, the boy can still be seen straining to get a look.

Weingarten writes:
"The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

(Weingarten goes on) "There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."*

Can you imagine if you had been one of those people who walked past Joshua Bell without stopping? Or if you had been one of those parents, can you imagine how you’d feel when you were told who that was standing there in the subway station fiddling as you dragged your listening child away?

I think I’m that person on a regular basis. I think I’m that parent on a regular basis.

Every morning, the great God of the universe plays the best music ever made for us, and we march forward in our grim determination to get everything done. We scrabble on, trying to get what we think we need, trying to get ahead, ignoring the music of life. Instead of feeling joy, or hope, or gratitude we often feel resentment, or apathy, or resignation. Some of us even drag little ones along behind us, ignoring their innate sense of wonder instead of letting it teach us.

Those people in the subway station that morning thought Joshua Bell was just another street performer. How often do we look at a person and see something less than what is there? How often do we look at a tree, a rock, the sky, the ground, and see something less than what is really there? It is, all of it, glistening with God. How much of that are we missing?

In the midst of the press and crush of life, sometimes one of my children will interrupt me with something that seems very urgent to them – and so irrelevant to me. “Look! An ant!” “Look! The sky is grey!” “Look! Mimi is outside walking her cat! That man just ran by without a shirt on! That fat squirrel is sleeping on the picnic table! LOOK!” Or I will be trying to concentrate so hard on something so important and one of them will just burst out singing for no apparent reason, in words he insists are the right ones: “I hope! I hope! It’s off to work I go!” And it is so loud! And it is so joyful. And it is like they are responding to the music underneath everything, and picking up with a tune of their own in response. And I have a choice with how I respond. I can sigh with impatience, answer with gruff tones, ignore the ant, the squirrel, the tree, and the child, respond in a distracted, “Yes I see,” when I definitely do not. And I certainly have done all of those things. Or I can slow down. Wake up. Pay attention. Listen for God’s music. And be drawn back to wonder, and to praise.

When life has choked out your own poetry and music and praise, find a child. That child might teach you how to see again. And how to sing. Maybe the child you need to find is the one inside you. Jesus once said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15). I think by “receiving the kingdom of God as a little child,” this is part of what he meant – the opening of ourselves to the wonder and joy of the moment. Finding our way back to simplicity and a sense of the adventure and magic that lurks in each new day. Getting outside and letting ourselves be schooled in the ways of praise by the dragonfly and the maple leaf, the raindrop and the bullfrog. There is a revolutionary fellowship of praise, right outside our door – can we look up from our computers for a few minutes to really see it, and to participate with it in responding to the God behind it all?

Every day, we have the chance to choose: will I treat this day and its obligations as something to be gotten through? Will I treat people as interruptions, or burdens? Will I ignore anything that has no utilitarian purpose for me? Or, will I give myself to this day and its obligations? Will I treat people as holy, as God-given opportunities to love and to give? Will I treat creation as holy, as kindred spirit and kind tutor in the art of praise? Will I be on the look-out for the tiny shimmering clues to God’s goodness? Will I be listening for the gorgeous notes of God’s great music?

Can you see it? Can you hear it? Can you lift your voice in chorus with brother sun and sister moon? Can your life burn and glow like they do, in praise of the God who created and still creates? The animals, the trees, the skies, the earth, the children, they all give their witness to God’s goodness and truth, and in bearing their witness, they also give their praise. They are playing their music. God is playing, too. Now, what about you?

*Gene Weingarten. Pearls Before Breakfast.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Doors of the Heart

The Doors of the Heart
Matthew 15:10-28
15th Sunday After Pentecost
17 August 2008

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus tells the crowd in this morning’s Gospel story. I have to say I like the sound of that, given the sorts of foods I indulged in on our recent vacation. Good southern cooking in Alabama, decadent desserts in Georgia, fried shrimp in Florida – I feasted plenty, and the scale agrees: it’s time to get back on the wagon. I would love to think that what goes into the mouth does not defile, but all evidence points to the contrary.

We have made a high art of food rules in our culture, and we know more about the connection between food and physical health than ever before. We would very much argue that what goes in to the mouth definitely can defile. None of that has stopped us from glutting ourselves and suffering the consequences. There is a deep and complex connection between our emotions and our appetites, our hearts and our stomachs. We come up with all kinds of diets and rules to try to do battle with our appetites; some people even make a kind of religion out of dieting.

That leap isn’t far. In truth, food and religion have always had something to do with each other. They both have something to do with sustenance, and with strength. They both have dimensions that are highly personal and internal as well as dimensions that are highly external and communal. Both food and religion can be a source of great connection and community or a source of great division and even hostility. Food is highly pleasurable; religion can have that element as well, though many don’t associate pleasure with faith.

Throughout history, most religious traditions have had celebrations around food as well as rules about food. For the Jews of Jesus’ days, the rules were clear. According to Old Testament law, priests were required to wash their hands before eating (Ex. 30:17-21; Lew. 22:4-7), as a matter not of hygiene but of ritual purification. The Pharisees expanded the requirement to cover everyone, not just priests. We tend to think of Pharisees as purists and zealots, but their beliefs were actually radically egalitarian and democratizing. They believed in the equality of all people before God, and that everyone had equal obligation to devote themselves to the godly life, everyone ought to have the chance to live the holiest life possible. So the Pharisees kept the purity standards for themselves, including ritual handwashing, and they taught that everyone should do the same.

And then Jesus comes along with his disciples, and they do not keep the purity code. Most obviously, they don’t wash their hands before eating. The Pharisees, of course, notice. What kind of Jews are these that do not try to live the holiest kind of life?, they wonder And so they press Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? Why don’t they wash their hands?” Jesus responds with brevity and force: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It is a strikingly freeing word. Ritual is not the way to God. We are set free from the old laws and observances about food and another daily details. Freedom is at the core of what Jesus was about – and that freedom goes far deeper and far wider than we typically dare imagine. But these words about what goes into the mouth and what comes out aren’t only about our freedom. They are also about our need.

What is our need? Scripture says that our most essential need is to be put back in right relationship with God, and therefore with each other and with ourselves. The whole story of Scripture boils down to this one thing – this terrible fracture in relationship and how it can be overcome. This is what the laws in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy were about – they were about healing the breach. The Law was a gift from God, given so that we might find our way back to God. What was at stake when a law was broken was no minor thing, even if the law itself might seem unnecessary in our eyes. What was at stake was further separation from God and from the people of God. This is what it meant to be defiled, this is what impurity was ultimately about – a rupture in the relationship between a person and God.

It is hard to take the Pharisees’ question seriously because the issue of defilement is so foreign to us. We chafe at the idea that our relationship with God could be dependent upon external ceremony. But Jesus does not mock or argue with their concern about defilement – he shares it.[1] Separation from God, from holiness, from each other, from ourselves – this is what Jesus came to mend. We don’t call it “defilement” but that is what it is. Life as God intended it has been spoiled, and our best intentions have been corrupted. Even when we try to do our best, we hurt each other and even ourselves. We find ourselves feeling cut off from God. This is what it means to be defiled.

Jesus shares the Pharisees’ concern about defilement. He also radically clarifies it. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,” he says, “it is what comes out…. Because what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

Jesus takes seriously the power in our words. According to him, our words matter very much. They seem so insignificant to us – just a little bit of air through the vocal cords, molded by the tongue and the lips, cut off with the teeth. Just a puff – and then the word is gone. That’s part of its power – we can’t take it back. Words are a kind of action: they can build up or tear down; they can encourage or manipulate; they can illuminate or deceive. Words can be the most vicious kind of weapons we have. They can create realities that shouldn’t be and destroy realities that should be. Words matter a great deal.

Most of all, words matter because they reveal the heart. They are like doors that open to show the world what’s inside of us, and who we are. The opening of those doors unleashes our actions for good and for ill. The heart is the place where our motives and intentions are born and take hold. All the good a person musters in life starts as the smallest intention in the heart. And the seeds of all the evil ever sown in the world started in the tiniest darkest places in human hearts. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart,” Jesus says, “and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person….”

What this means is that the problem is much worse than we like to think. The problem is inside of us. The problem is with our hearts. It would be easier, actually, if the real problem was somehow somewhere out there, outside of us. We could close the doors to our heart to whatever would invade us from out there. We could keep certain laws, do very specific things, to make ourselves pure, to set ourselves right. It would be easier still to believe that because we’d been set free from those laws there was no problem at all anymore. But too often we find, in our freedom, that we feel just as separated from God as ever – sometimes so separated that we aren’t even sure God is out there anymore. And we find we are just as cut off from each other and ourselves as ever. Freedom doesn’t mean anything if it’s not for finding our purpose, our wholeness, our relatedness with God and with each another.

In this passage, Jesus just stops the teaching here (or so it seems). He points out where the problem is – the heart – and then he leaves. Where he heads is Gentile territory, where the people would not be asking the same kinds of questions as the Pharisees – they did not live by Jewish purity codes there. A Canaanite woman approaches him and begs his mercy and his healing for her daughter. He says nothing. The disciples urge him to send her away; they can’t stand her shouting. Jesus responds that his mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but she persists: “Lord, help me.” He insults her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replies, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Here we are again, talking about food and religion. She doesn’t care a thing about ritual purity, what she wants is the real food this man was meant to bring. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus marvels, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. It is a disturbing story – to see Jesus respond to a woman’s distress first with silence, and then with insults. For some people, it is even more disturbing that Jesus is bested in an argument, and by a Gentile woman.

But it’s a marvelous story, too. This woman knows her need. She doesn’t argue that she’s good enough, or that she deserves what Jesus has come to bring. She throws herself on her knees, and she begs for his help. “This is (faith) down to basics: When we are thrown to our knees.” [2] “Lord, help me,” she asks. And she just keeps asking. And he gives her what she needs, and praises her faith.

This story may reframe how we see Jesus. Maybe it could also reframe how we see ourselves. We are supplicants. We are desperate. We are broken and needy. And if we want a fix for our unpure, broken, alienated hearts, then this is what we do. We throw ourselves down before him, and we pray the simplest prayer with her, “Lord, help me.” Help me.

“Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,” we sang a bit ago. It’s a prayer worth praying every day. “Lord, I want to be a Christian, I want to be move loving, more holy, more like Jesus, in my heart. Lord, here’s my heart, I can’t fix it. I’m giving it to you. Lord, help me.” It’s what he came for – to take our broken hearts and make them whole, to bridge the gap between us and God, to heal the rifts between us and each other, to take up all our faulty, dishonorable words and gather them into his perfect self, the Word made flesh, and then to give us new words to sing and to pray and to live.

[1] This idea from The Sword of His Mouth by Robert C. Tannehill.
[2] Steven Shoemaker. "When Jesus Changed His Mind," preached at Myers Park Baptist Church, 11 May 2008.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Lightest Burden

The Lightest Burden
Matthew 11:25-30
8th Sunday After Pentecost
6 July 2008

Scott Peck’s bestseller The Road Less Traveled begins with the famous first sentence, “Life is difficult.” On the surface, it seems such an obvious statement. But we wrestle with the truth of it, we struggle to accept it. Most of the time most of us function as if difficulty in life is actually an aberration. We seem to believe that life is actually supposed to be comfortable, convenient, easy, and fun. “Life is difficult,” the first sentence said. Yes it is. But we don’t really think it’s supposed to be.

We chafe at the difficulties. Some of us rebel at whatever burdens life harnesses us with. We do what we can to throw off the things that make life hard. We live in an era when convenience seems to be a sort of ultimate value – and so we have come almost to believe we have a right to a dinner that only takes 15 minutes to prepare, a shirt that doesn’t require ironing, and a computer that zips to the next page as quickly as we can click. As a society, we seem to be trying to turn convenience and comfort into an art form.

Yet for all our trying, life doesn’t get any less difficult, does it? Not really. The microwave, the dishwasher, the remote control, the car – have they made us happier? Have they made us freer? Or have they just freed up our time to get more done, and to expect to get more done?

We are not more well-rested than our ancestors. We are not more well-rounded. We are not more well-read or more well-fed, not in terms of true nurture and nutrition at least. We are simply busier. And maybe more tired.

And so Jesus’ words this morning come with a particular jolt: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

The invitation could not be more plain and compelling. Sweet as honey, strong as steel, his words come at us with a force and attraction that meet us at a very deep level. They come with the power to speak into any situation, into any heart. Come to me, you weary, you who carry heavy burdens. Come to me, and I will give you rest. It sounds so good.

But the invitation and the promise are not the same as what all our many consumer goods offer. This is not an offer of convenience. Not an offer of a particular kind of ease. Not even an offer of the kind of comfort so many of us think we are looking for. Jesus is not promising more pleasure and less pain. He is not promising a better life. If you are looking for the secret to the best life now (1) – the one where things go the way you want, and good things come to you, then you’ll need to look elsewhere. This is not what he is offering. If we answer his invitation, it does not change certain facts of life – illness, death, disaster, these remain. Life in some of the most basic respects, will still be difficult. These are not the burdens he seeks to take from us.

His words go to a deeper place, and to bigger burdens. The burden he seeks to overthrow is the burden of how we manage our existence. Our management of our own lives is, in large part, about managing and dealing with our fears and anxieties. Kierkegaard argued that in all of us is an element of despair, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Augustine believed that restlessness drives us all, our whole lives. Tillich argued that “The law of religion is the great attempt of man to overcome his anxiety and restlessness and despair, [to close the gap within himself, and to reach immortality, spirituality, and perfection].” (2) To be human is to live with a basic anxiety and restlessness; religion is how we try to manage that.

Some would argue that this is not the case for everyone, because there are so many irreligious people in the world. I would argue that their religion simply goes by some other name. Perhaps their religion is Science. Maybe their religion is Self-Improvement. Or it could be that their religion is Football. We all want something to believe in, something to give our lives meaning and order, something to keep the deeper anxieties at bay. And so we look for a system for managing our lives. Whatever that system is, that is our religion.

When Matthew recorded these words of Jesus, he particularly had in mind the burden of religious obligation imposed by the scribes and Pharisees, which he understood to be a barrier to relationship with God. Jesus’ invitation was an invitation to be delivered of the burdens of religion. And not just the religion of the scribes and Pharisees. Throughout the history of the church, this invitation has been heard as a more general one, to all who labor under the obligations of religion, any religion. (3)

This may come as bit of a shock, seeing as how we have an entire religion built around Jesus. Most of us here consider ourselves religious people, and we see this as a good thing. But Jesus didn’t come to start a religion, he came to free us from religion. He came to overcome religious law, and to overcome any system we humans put in place to manage our anxieties and fix ourselves.

“Take my yoke,” he said. “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” In the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, “yoke” was a common way to speak of servitude and obedience. Rabbis spoke of the “yoke of the Torah.” A person submitted oneself in obedience to the laws of God. A yoke is something that weighs down. It is something a person lives under and strains under.

By speaking of his yoke, Jesus was placing himself on par with God’s will and God’s word. But Jesus said his yoke is easy. This is paradox, of course. How on earth could a yoke be easy? How on earth could a burden be light? This seems to be a contradiction, an oxymoron. Paul Tillich wrote, “The yoke of Jesus is easy in itself, because it is above law, and replaces the toiling and laboring with rest in our souls…. (The yoke of Jesus) is not a new demand, a new doctrine or new morals, but rather a new reality, a new being and a new power of transforming life." (4)

Have you had this experience? You are struggling in some deep inner way, maybe in bondage to some compulsion or fear or sin, and you cannot manage it yourself. And suddenly, somehow beyond your struggle comes this … grace. Something like a victory. Something like release. Something you didn’t do yourself.

Or maybe you are restless, striving for something you don’t know how to name, spinning with unexplained anxiety, and then somehow, from somewhere beyond yourself, you are grasped by a peace beyond your understanding. This is grace. He called it is his yoke, which means it comes from above and grasps us with saving force. He called it easy, which means that it is not a matter of our acting and striving, it is something he gives, before anything we can do or give. (5) And so he called it light. And it is.

His yoke is not another way for us to manage. It is not another way for us to fix ourselves or our problems. It is an invitation to lay all that down, or to throw it off, or, when we realize we can’t even do that on our own, to let him take it all for us. He will take it off our shoulders – all those old oppressive demands. All those old persistent teachings that tell us that in order for our lives to be right, we must first be good, or religious, or wise, or moral, or believing the right things. Jesus lifts all of that off our backs, and demands nothing like it. What he asks is that we simply accept such a gift as he gives. We come to him and let him take it all. We come to him and let him lay his own being across our shoulders, and around our lives, and within our hearts. It is no longer we who carry the burden of our existence, it is he who will carry us. It is not we who must get our lives in order, it is he who will hold us up and hold us together in the midst of whatever difficulties that come.

Of course this is a bit disconcerting. What morality will there be, if we are not under some obligation to be moral? What will become of our religious beliefs and institutions, if we are not under some moral obligation to maintain them? Those are not the questions to start with. They are the issues that follow, that flow from a heart that has been set right and set free. When our souls have found their rest in him, we will find the strength and the wisdom to follow where his yoke would lead us. Grasped by the truth of his being in and over our lives, how could we not respond with lives of grateful love and obedience?

So now we face his table. It, too, comes with an invitation. That is what he was best at, really, issuing invitations, not demands. What is weighing on you now? he would ask. How are you trying to manage your life, and what is not working? In what ways do you feel pulled apart, pushed down, or stretched thin? How are you still trying to measure up, and how long are you going to keep trying? What are you restless for? What are you in despair over? He would ask these questions of you, of me, and then he would pull up a chair for us at this table and listen to our answers. And then he would speak the same words now that he spoke then, Come to me, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. Come to me. Come to me.


1 - The allusion to Joel Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now is intentional.
2 - Paul Tillich. “The Yoke of Religion. The Shaking of the Foundations.
3 - NIB.
4 - Paul Tillich. “The Yoke of Religion.” The Shaking of the Foundations.
5 - Ibid.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Hard Command

The Hard Command
Matthew 6:24-34
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
25 May 2008

What do you worry about?

If you made a list of your worries, what would be on it? Money? Your house? Your job? Your kids? Your parents? What else? Retirement? Your health? The cost of health care? The cost of gas? The cost of food?

How much of your worries can’t even be specifically named, because they are just such a deep and ingrained part of your way of being, your sense of your self and the world? George Buttrick once said that it is easier to face a fear than to face an anxiety. Because, he said, “fear is specific – as with a fire in the house when we can at least scream – whereas anxiety is inchoate like a clinging fog.”*

Now tell me, what does it do to that clinging fog for someone to wag a finger at you and say simply, “Don’t worry.” Is there anything so useless in the face of real and persistent anxiety as the advice to not worry? Sure, we can smile and sing along when someone starts in with “Don’t worry, be happy.” But soon enough those brief moments of singing and levity are gone, and our real anxiety tends to hang on.

Of course we know that there are many practical reasons not to be anxious. For one, what good does it do? It doesn’t change whatever it is we’re afraid of. Worrying about the future does not make the future more secure. Charles Spurgeon said it this way, “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow – only today of its strength.” William Ralph Inge put it like this, “Anxiety is the interest paid on trouble before its due.” Jesus said it too, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

We know. We know. Worry doesn’t add a thing. It only subtracts. But for most of us, knowing that doesn’t change the fact of it. We are still going to worry, about little things and big ones. Jesus’ question, though, zeroes in on the biggest worry of all, possibly the one that is the source of all other concern. He asks if we can add a single hour to the span of our life? The answer is, of course, no. We can’t add a thing, we can’t change the hard fact. We are all going to die. And that, surely, is the primal source of all our other anxieties.

It is the thing that separates us from the rest of the created order. Everything, every being is going to die. We just happen to know it. The squirrel running across the street doesn’t wonder if he’s going to make it. The cow being led to slaughter doesn’t realize what’s about to happen. The dog with the tumor doesn’t speculate about life after death. Even chimpanzees do not seem to be aware of their own mortality. Humans alone live with the gift and the burden of self-awareness. We are the ones who know we’re going to die.

Could this be at the root of all our other worries? Could worry about clothes and food, about money and jobs, about family and health – could all of these simply be the day-to-day manifestations of our ultimate worry? Anxiety always has at least one foot in the future. Which is to say that anxiety always takes us one step closer to death.

When Jesus gives us his counsel – when he says those hard, sometimes unacceptable words: do not worry – the examples he holds up for us are of beings who cannot worry, because they do not know what is to come. For them, everything is a given. “Look at the birds of the air,” he says, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?.... Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?”

In urging us not to worry, Jesus holds up creatures and creations that have no idea that worry – or death – is a possibility. What do flowers and birds have to teach us? They have no choice. We have every choice – about how to think, and how to respond, and how, finally, to live in the face of death. How can beings with no idea about their fate have anything to teach us about what matters? And yet his words are not absurd. They are beautiful. These are some of the best-loved words of comfort in Scripture. They speak to something deep and needy in us. So we sing, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

Jesus is not saying we are like the sparrow or the flowers, as if we could somehow find a way for our lives to be as simple as theirs, and uncomplicated by consciousness. In fact, it is consciousness he is inviting us to take hold of. His words here are: Look! and Consider! These are words of great spiritual counsel. They are reminders that in the midst of all the things we think we need to do to secure our future, what matters first is that we stop, step back, take moments for reflection, for connection to God and to what matters. Look! Consider! Pay attention! These are invitations to any who are feeling the grinding pressure of everyday life and the mounting anxieties that go with living. Invitations to step back from what’s right in front of our eyes and see what else is true. And transcendent.

Look at the birds. Tiny little creatures made of just a bit of feather and bone, of beak and claw. And God more than the most delighted birdwatcher on a park bench, thrills at feeding these little beings. How much more will this God take us, and feed us, and keep us?

Consider the lilies! These gorgeous, completely unnecessary, heavily scented, heavenly-scented creations. They bloom, then they die. Consider them! – and then consider what they have to show you about a God who would create such profligate splendor. God has clothed this green earth with beautiful bloom. How much more will this God take us, and clothe us, and keep us?

When Jesus says, “Do not worry,” he is doing far more than offering simple advice. He is expanding our vision, and he is offering to expand our trust. He starts by redirecting our gaze, pulling our eyes away from our own little lives and the many complexities and legitimate concerns. He asks a question: Isn’t your life more than this? Isn’t it more than the things you concern yourself with? Lift your eyes off your life, and look around. He draws our gaze up – to the birds soaring overhead – and then down – to the blooms bursting underfoot. The hummingbird and the stargazer, the rainbow and the geode – they are signs pointing beyond themselves, to a God who in infinite wisdom and love is creating still, and tending to creation still, and holding us in most precious care. The God who is bigger than the sparrow and the lily is bigger than our little lives, too, and all our deaths, and all our countless worries.

Is it possible to be anxious and in awe at the same time? Is it possible to worry about tomorrow when we are intentionally focused today on stopping to look, and to consider the precious and extraordinary gifts of God and to locate ourselves in the deep care of God? Self-awareness is the burden that separates us from the chickadee and the daffodil. Self-awareness is also the gift that allows us to find again our rightful connection to them, our rightful place alongside them as recipients of God’s nurture and faithfulness. Maybe the opposite of anxiety, with its future focus, is memory. Memory of our place, memory of God’s goodness, memory of whose we are and the joy and love for which we’ve been created.

In the face of worry and small faith, Jesus invites us outside, to consider and contemplate the million miracles of creation, and the God behind it all. Wendell Berry speaks of this kind of contemplation in a poem:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.**

The grace of the world has much to teach us about the reliable care of God, who loves us with a reckless, extravagant abandon. The birds and flowers are small signs of that. Jesus, of course, is a sign of it too. And when he stood on the mountain, with the wildflowers swaying in the breeze, and the birdsong echoing on the hills, what he gave was more than advice. It was a kind of command – and a gift. Do not worry, he said. Do not worry about your life. Do not grasp after the things you think will make your life secure. Look at what God has made. Look at what God has given. Look at how God cares for all of it, and for you. Seek this God. Strive for the kingdom of this God, and for God’s righteousness.

How, then, could we spend one more minute on our worries, when there is so much of God’s goodness to see and to seek and to serve, and, finally, to show in the living our own little lives. What a command Jesus gave when he said, “Do not worry.” What a command he gave when he said, “look at the birds and consider the lilies and seek God.” What a command. What an invitation. And what a gift!

*"Anxiety and Faith." Sermons Preached in a University Church. George A. Buttrick. 38.
**"The Peace of Wild Things." The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry. 1998.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Acts 2:42-47
4th Sunday of Easter
13 April 2008

My sons have been busy this year learning very important things in preschool. They are learning how to follow instructions, how to sit still and listen, how to clean up after themselves – all of which I think more than justifies their tuition! They are learning that eating good food helps you grow and get strong. They are learning about growing things, and they love to remind me that every plant needs three things to grow: dirt, water, and sunshine. They don’t know it yet, but they are learning some of the most foundational things they need for their future and ongoing education.

Of all the things they are learning, there is one in particular that seems most important to them and their classmates. They are learning how to be friends. Do you remember your earliest experiences of friendship, and how very important it was to you? What we learn as preschoolers about friendship holds throughout the rest of life: how to take turns, how to share, how to listen, how to cooperate, how to trust and how to be trustworthy.

For my boys, “friend” is the most important thing you can call somebody, and they use it almost like a title. So sometimes I am called “Friend Mommy.” And at Christmastime, Charlie liked to talk about his Friend Santa. When he looks in the mirror, the person he says he sees is Friend Charlie.

Part of what is so delightful about watching three and four year-olds build friendships is the joy and innocence with which they approach it. They are not yet interested in scheming or excluding, gossiping or betraying. Their goal is simple – they simply want to be together, and to have a good time. Recently, when a new girl joined Rob and Charlie’s preschool class, she approached another girl with a very straightforward request: “Will you be my friend?” The other little girl responded very matter-of-factly: “I’m everybody’s friend. We are all friends here.”

If only that attitude could hold. Somewhere along the way, we lose that happy inclusive embrace of any who come seeking friendship. As we grow older, friendship becomes no less important, but it does become more complex. Very firm lines are drawn, so that we know who is in our circle, and who is out – or whose circle we are in. In adolescence, friendship can be the source of some of the most intensely wonderful moments in our young lives – and the source of the most painful, most devastating ones as well. As teenagers, the nature of our friendships colors every aspect of our lives.

Eventually, though, for many of us, at some point friendship begins to take a back seat to other primary relationships in our lives, like the relationship we have with a spouse, or a child, or a job. We become more casual about our friends, we have less time for them, which makes us think we have less need of them.

This sad fact doesn’t make us long for connection any less – we still have that deep and primal need. If you keep up with popular culture at all, you know that so many of its messages are directed at our need for acceptance, relationship, belonging. The 80s sitcom “Cheers” hit the nail on the head with its theme song: “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.” The 90s sitcoms “Seinfeld” and “Friends” showed us adults with strong and unwavering commitments to each other. Many morning talk shows are designed to make the viewer feel like he or she is sitting at the table, too, chatting it up with the hosts and the guests. Reality shows give us the illusion that we really know the people we are watching, that they are somehow part of our circle of friends.

Interestingly, some sociologists would argue that the demise of friendships and community in our society is directly proportionate to our increased television viewership [viewing?]. It seems that many of us substitute watching pretend people have relationships for actually building and nurturing real relationships ourselves. Over the last 40 years, there has been a well-documented decline in participation in public life. More and more it seems that people are hunkering down, cocooning within their homes, with their families or their TVs or their computers. Our world seems to be fragmented, disconnected, disintegrating. Do we even know what genuine, committed adult friendship is supposed to look like anymore? Do we even know where to find it?

The value of adult friendship has been bedrock throughout human history. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Chrysostom, Plutarch – they all regarded friendship as supremely important. They wrote of friends as having one soul, being another self, being partners, holding all things in common, being in relationships of equality and reciprocity. Cicero’s classic definition is: “Friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection.” (1) This is the adult and ideal manifestation of what we begin learning as youngest children.

For the ancients, friendship was not a casual matter. The hope of all society rested on the ideal of friendship. It involved a serious commitment, mutuality, unity, equality, reciprocity. They stressed inclusivity – meaning that true friendship should extend beyond merely sharing the same interests or vision; it meant full sharing, in spiritual matters, in material matters. It meant actively sharing one’s goods, and helping and giving oneself to the other. Friendship meant genuine obligation. It implied a claim. (2)

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that, though the New Testament does not use the words “friend” or “friendship” all that often, friendship is still a pervasive theme, and ancient readers would have understood the many allusions to it. In writing this morning’s passage from Acts, Luke draws on the language not of other Scripture, but of the Greco-Roman philosophers. Johnson writes, “By saying that the believers were ‘one soul,’ held ‘all things in common’ and called nothing ‘their own,’ Luke described them as friends…. The first believers were not simply ‘friendly’; they realized the ideal sharing that philosophers considered the essence of true friendship.” (3) Johnson says their practices of sharing with each other identified those first Christians “as the most successful of all ancient experiments in friendship.” (4)

Can you imagine the church as [containing] the best expression of real friendship? Do you realize it is our calling? We tend to use the more spiritualized word “fellowship” as if fellowship were somehow a more noble concept than friendship, rather than just another name for it. Friendship is not some superficial secular value; it is a deeply theological concept. In his last conversation before his death, Jesus says, “You are my friends.” And then he tells us how to be a friend: This is my commandment, that you love each other as I have loved you. What more profound relationship could we be called to, than one that implies absolute equality, radical sharing, and mutual devotion to the great call of Christ?

Is this what you find, when you come here? Is it what you are looking for? You might think you already have enough friends. Or you might think you don’t have time for such a thing as friendship, and the real obligations it implies. Maybe you’ve had too many disappointments in your past relationships to trust that you could have good friends, or that you could be a good friend. Maybe you think you are too different from others, that your opinions are not orthodox enough for Christian community.

We tend to be well-defended people. Which means we have defended ourselves not only against obligation and disappointment, but also against the great gift of being claimed, of belonging to each other, of being community with each other. And to close ourselves to the gift means we also close ourselves to one of the ways God wants to work in our midst and through our community. Luke’s story of the early church reminds us that Christian friendship and community isn’t only for the people inside – it is always for those people out there, too. Luke tells us that when those early Christians gave themselves to such friendship, God worked many wonders through them, bringing many people into the life of faith. Sociologist Parker Palmer writes, “When people look upon the church, it is not of first importance that they be instructed by our theology or altered by our ethics but that they be moved by the quality of our life together: ‘See how they love one another.’” (5) That was what people saw when they looked at the early church.

Was it ever perfect? Of course not. Those people were as fallible as any of us. They had made terrible mistakes in their past, and they would make more in their very near future. There is no such thing as utopia – there wasn’t then, and there isn’t now. What there is is an invitation. An invitation to honest friendship, to genuine community, to know and to be known, to give concrete care and to be cared for in concrete ways. Those first believers were not drawn together by a mere shared interest. They were not together because they shared the same opinions. They were brought together because they had been given the same Spirit – God’s own.

And this is how it happens. Christian friendship, Christian community, doesn’t happen because we have worked hard at it. It doesn’t happen because we have the same opinions or the same interests. It doesn’t happen because we don’t have conflict. And it doesn’t happen because we just really want it to. It happens because we open ourselves to it, or, more to the point – it happens because we open ourselves to the Spirit which makes it happen. That Spirit is a gift, and the friendship it creates is a gift, and the first thing that has to happen with a gift is you have to accept it.

The text from Acts shows us some of the ways those first Christians opened themselves and accepted the gift. They devoted themselves to learning Christ, and to prayer, and to worship, and to hospitality, and to sharing everything they had. They accepted the gift Christ bestowed on them, which included both his Spirit and each other, and then they set to nurturing that gift, together. They kept returning to all those places they had experienced his presence before – in Scripture, and prayer, and worship, and fellowship, and in tending to actual needs within and outside of the community.

In the end this all sounds rather simple. Maybe even a bit bland? It hasn’t got all the exciting, intense connotations that all those friendships on TV have. It’s just got what Eugene Peterson calls a “long obedience in the same direction.” It’s just a bunch of ordinary people who keep showing up, and who keep opening themselves up to God and to each other, and responding to what they receive. It’s just a bunch of ordinary people who let God go to work in their midst.

It isn’t utopia. It is friendship. It is community. It is the church. It can be this church – you and me. Friends. Friends. It’s not just a preschool word. It’s Christ’s own word for what we’re meant to be. It’s a word with the healing of the whole world in it. Friends.

1 - Luke Timothy Johnson. “Making Connections: The Material Expression of Friendship in the New Testament.” Interpretation. 160.
2- Ibid.
3 - Ibid. 161.
4 - Ibid. 171.
5 - Parker Palmer. The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life. 118.
6 - Eugene Peterson. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

New World

New World
Matthew 28:1-10
Easter Sunday
23 March 2008

I almost decided not to preach this morning. This wasn’t because I wanted to stay home and eat Easter candy, though there were at least two people in my family who would happily have done just that. It’s just that I wasn’t sure I would be up for preaching today.

You see, on Thursday night, not long after we got home from our Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my 24 year-old cousin had been killed in an explosion on my uncle’s farm. It has been a devastating loss, and I have been wrecked over it. So I wondered how I could possibly stand up here, three days later, and proclaim good news, when the news and the images swirling in my head have been anything but good. My heart is a graveyard.

But here is also the truth: the best news I ever heard came from a graveyard. If the good news of Christ’s rising can’t be proclaimed in the face of death, then where on earth can it be proclaimed with any truth at all? If we cannot stand in our grief and announce through tears and gritted teeth, “Our Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!” then how can we say it any other time, with any relevance at all?

Some of us come this morning with fresh and terrible grief. There have been losses sustained in this congregation, through death, and illness, and injury quite recently, and there is good reason to grieve. Whether or not your grief is fresh, all of us have behind us a string of tombstones – losses stretched out over the years of our lives as testimony of the sure sadness that comes with loving. And when we look ahead, we can count on seeing more tombstones in that direction as well. To live is to lose. To love is to lose.

Death is natural to life. And yet the fact of it feels cruel and unnatural. I have heard people who have lived very long, very good lives say at the end in the face of the grave, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” Few of us go gently. And yet death – our own and that of everyone we love – is a fact, a certainty. It’s the one thing we can count on.

And so it was that when the stone was placed at the mouth of Jesus’ tomb that Friday evening, what was sealed was a certainty. Death. Jesus was dead. Just one of a million billion deaths in the span of human history. Life goes on. Death goes on.

What happened next, though, was the least natural thing of all. When we try to get our minds around resurrection, we use familiar natural imagery. It’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly! we say. It’s like a flower shooting forth from a dead-looking bulb! we say. It’s like winter turning into spring! we say.

Only it’s not like any of that, is it? I mean, have you ever seen someone get up out of their grave and start living again? If you had, you surely would not compare it to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, would you? It is not what is supposed to happen. That caterpillar wasn’t dead. That bulb wasn’t dead. We know that spring always follows winter. But real life after real death is simply not in the natural order of things. And what Jesus went through was a real death. What his friends went through was a real grief. With no expectation of its undoing.

With puffy eyes and broken hearts, the women go to see his tomb. Only what they find there defies all the facts. An earthquake, an angel, the look of lightning, the stone rolled back, emptiness. And then a new word, which will mean a new world: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly, and tell. He is going ahead of you, and you will see him.”

From a graveyard, from a tomb, a new world is spoken into being. He is not here. He has been raised. But do you hear what the angel’s invitation is? Come, see the place where he lay. In other words, look at death, it is real, no denying it. See where he lay. But then, go, and tell – he is not here – then you will see him. Out there, in the new world he has made by his rising.

His resurrection is not the denial of death – it is its undoing. It is not the denial of grief – it is its answer. Grief? Yes, you will face it. A lot of it. Come to the graveyard, see where he lay. He knows grief and death, too. But then? See this too: he is not here. He is not in our graveyards. He has sprung the lock of all our certainties. He has rolled back the stone that sealed all our facts. Those facts include not only death, but sin, betrayal, denial, deceit, despair. All our old realities are now part of the old world. But he has gone ahead of us, off the old map, into a new world.

What does this mean? We can scarcely imagine or understand. We have often spoken of it as having to do with heaven, an afterlife. But surely his rising means more than that. Even pagans believe in an afterlife; they see it as a natural next step in the cycle of life. Jesus means more. He always means more. His rising does not mean only an afterworld. It means a new world. For you, for me, for anyone willing to look for him beyond the graveyard.

It is hard to see his new world, or even the signs of it, because the old one fills our vision so much. We are accustomed to its ways – the ways of force, and manipulation, and self-reliance, and death. The way of Jesus takes us off that map. A new world charted by his way, and lit by his light. We recognize it sometimes, when startling reversals happen, when things that aren’t supposed to happen do, and they are good. We recognize it when hope lights on us when we least expect it and most need it. We recognize it when comfort comes, when peace descends, when love flows, and all of it from beyond ourselves. We recognize it in each other.

And when we cannot recognize it, or see any sign of it, we try to trust, and we help each other trust. He has gone ahead of us, he is up ahead still, and sometimes the best we can do is see not where he is, but where he has already been. See where he lay? He is not here; for he has been raised. So we stumble forward, in fear and great joy, and in hope.

It used to be that this continent we live on was considered a new world. The New World. At first, people in the Eastern Hemisphere didn’t know it existed. Then some people said they discovered it, which is to say that they found something that was already true and real. But some people still didn’t believe it existed. It was not the kind of thing easily proven, except for those who encountered it themselves.

In the late 1500s, Sir Walter Raleigh, an explorer and adventurer, went on multiple expeditions to the Americas. In the movie, Elizabeth: The Golden Ages, a fictionalized account of that era, he gives a compelling speech to Queen Elizabeth, who has never ventured beyond England’s shores:

Can you imagine what it is to cross an ocean? For weeks, you see nothing but the horizon, perfect and empty. You live in the grip of fear, fear of storms, fear of sickness onboard, fear of the immensity. So you … study your charts, watch your compass, pray for a fair wind, and hope. Pure, naked, fragile hope.

At first, it’s no more than a haze on the horizon. So you watch. You watch. Then it’s a smudge. A shadow on the front water. For a day. For another day. The stain slowly spreads along the horizon taking form until on the third day, you let yourself believe. You dare to whisper the word: Land. Land. Life. Resurrection. The true adventure. Coming out of the vast unknown, out of the immensity, into new life. That, your majesty, is the New World.


Did you know that one of the ancient symbols for the church is a ship? It’s true. We are in this boat together, holding onto our fragile hope, scanning the horizon for the new world Christ has already brought into being by his rising. It is there. It is already true. Many before us have already set foot on it, have already embraced the great adventure of faith.

That adventure is ours, too. We huddle together in the hull of this old ship, trying to follow the course he charted by his living, and his dying, and his rising. There are times we cannot believe it is true, that his New World exists. We find it hard to see it, to trust it, to take hold of it. But listen. You may not be able to see, but can you hear? Can you hear it? The witness of the angel, and the women, and of all the other explorers before us? Sometimes it’s just a whisper. Sometimes it’s a shout. Sometimes it is said in defiance, or through pain, or with faltering voice. Sometimes it is sung. Always it is said with countless others, including those on another shore. In the darkest night, its truth still holds. It is the one true thing. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

What We Know

What We Know
John 9:1-41
4th Sunday in Lent
2 March 2008

He can see now.

He was born blind. Been blind his whole life. Now he can see.

What is their response? Joy? Celebration? Do they throw him a party, tell all their friends and neighbors, show him all the things he’s never seen before, give glory to God for the healing?

No. They interrogate him. They talk about him but don’t listen to him. They discount him and dismiss him. They vilify and revile him. They drive him out. This is how they – the religious ones – respond to the best news this guy has ever gotten. He can see now.

They cannot.

John begins his gospel by announcing that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God.” (1:9, 11-12). It is the central and startling irony of John’s Gospel – that his own people rejected the light he came to bring. This morning’s rich and dramatic story of the man born blind brings this sad truth into sharp focus.

The blind man sits on the side of the road, begging. As Jesus and the disciples walk along, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They treat him as a problem not a person. They want to know who sinned, whose fault it is that the man is blind, deficient. They see the world as a neat system of cause and consequence, so if something has gone terribly wrong – like a baby being born blind – then someone has to be to blame. Teacher, who sinned?

But the Teacher’s light burns through their small and controlled understandings of how the world works. “No one sinned,” he replies. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” [In other words,] Quit theorizing about why the suffering is there, and start responding with God’s good for God’s glory. Stop seeking blame or cause, and start seeking to serve.

And Jesus heals the man. Mixes mud with saliva and spreads it on his eyes. A kind of earthy baptism. He tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and the man must hear some power and authority in that voice, because that is what he does. And when he pulls his head out of the water, he can see. First light comes streaming into eyes that have only ever known darkness. He can see.

The neighbors want to know how it happened, so he tells them. They want to know where the man who did it went. “I do not know,” the man says. So they take the man to the religious authorities. They want to know how this happened, so he tells them. They say it couldn’t be true, because the man who healed him did it on the Sabbath, and how could a sinner perform such a miracle? So they decide the guy is lying. He wasn’t really born blind.

They haul in his parents. Under questioning this parents admit, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him.”

So for the second time they bring in the man who had been blind. They say about Jesus, “We know this man is a sinner.” He answers, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

On the surface, this story seems to be about the recovery of physical sight. But John always has at least two stories going at once, and the deeper story here has to do with another kind of sight, a deeper kind of knowing. John uses the verb “to know” 11 times in these 41 verses. In Greek, there are two words for knowing – ginosko and oida. John uses both words throughout his gospel with startling frequency, using them both more than any other book in the New Testament. But in this story, he only uses one of the two verbs: oida, which has, at its root, the verb “to see” (id-). (1) Every time in this story that someone claims to know something, they are simultaneously claiming to see it. And when the man says he can now see, he is also claiming a new knowledge.

There are a whole lot of people claiming knowledge in this story – the disciples, the neighbors, the Pharisees. But the man who was born blind mostly claims not to know things. Throughout the story, it’s like his refrain under interrogation: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know – but one thing I do know; I was blind, now I see. How could that not be enough?

But it is not enough for them; they push. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” They cannot accept the bare fact of this good news. They cannot rejoice over something wonderful because it wasn’t supposed to happen, and it wasn’t supposed to happen this way, and it wasn’t supposed to happen at the hands of an unsanctioned prophet. This man stands in their midst, looking at them with new eyes, eyes that can see for the first time ever, and all they can do is argue and interrogate.

And isn’t this the way it goes? It’s so hard, terribly hard for some of us, to allow new experience to overturn old understandings. But this is what Jesus does from the start, proclaiming reversals, challenging old assumptions, undoing the bad news of people’s old lives. It’s how the church was born – his resurrection radically upending all the old realities, like sin and death, and setting into motion a whole new way of being. What a tragic irony, then, that the church – born out of freeing experiences of God in Christ – has become an institution that is so frequently cautionary and moralizing, resistant to new revelation, new experience, new forms of the Spirit’s power in our midst. (2) We presume to know how things are supposed to work, why things are the way they are, how they are supposed to be, what can and cannot rightly be done, and who’s a sinner.

The Pharisees, thinking they were serving God, rejected Jesus and the work he did. In how many ways does the church, thinking we are serving Jesus, in fact reject him and the work he means to do in our midst?

If we want to be people of his light, then we open ourselves to the shining of that light in whatever ways it comes. It’s all right if that light comes into another person’s life in a way that contradicts our own experience or understanding. It’s all right, if we can’t explain it, or find it hard to believe or embrace. The blind man’s story teaches us that maybe it’s even better if we are ignorant of such things. His ignorance was his humility. What made him able to receive the knowledge that mattered was the fact that he wasn’t too concerned about knowing so many things that didn’t.

And what knowledge did matter? What knowledge does matter? The Pharisees knew so much. They knew the laws about what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. They knew that a blind person was born entirely in sins. They knew that God had spoken to Moses, and they knew the laws of Moses. When it came to Jesus, they said, “As for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” Case closed. Healer and healed dismissed.

The blind man’s witness falls on deaf ears, but he answers one last time anyway. “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” The man born blind will not judge Jesus according to the Pharisees’ categories. He will judge Jesus according to the gift Jesus has given. (3)

Have you ever received a gift that changed your life? Have you ever had your eyes opened in some unexpected way? We call it grace, and we call it amazing, and if we really have new eyes, then we start letting what we see through Christ reshape what we know. We let it challenge our certitudes, even about things we thought really, really mattered. We keep telling anyone who will listen the one thing we know – our experience with Christ. We keep embracing it, and whatever fresh experience may come. We live into it. We let it shed its light onto how we live.

And if you haven’t had any of that kind of experience, you open yourself to it. The blind man didn’t make it happen. He didn’t create his own reality; he didn’t pull himself up by the bootstraps and think himself positively into a new direction. Jesus sought him out, and he accepted what Jesus brought, he accepted how Jesus changed him.

In the end, the ones who thought they knew the truth drove out the man who only knew one thing – that once he was blind, and now he could see. And Jesus came and found him then, too. And for the first time, the man lays eyes on the face of the One who gave him new sight, and new life. And he worships him. [This is how it is for us, too. Whatever seeing we have now, whatever knowing we have now, is only ever partial, until we meet him face-to-face.]

Jesus has a final word to say about the ones who thought they knew. He completely inverts their definition of sin. It is not defined by the presence of illness. It is not even defined by violation of the law. Sin is a resistance that closes us to the presence and works of God in the world. (4)

Many of us have well-defended certainties. They bring us comfort, security, maybe even a sense of righteousness. But it is not likely that they bring us into the life-transforming light of new sight. In the end, if we are honest, there is a whole lot about faith that we do not know, cannot explain. If we are honest, we are blind, ignorant, or presumptive about so much.

The man who was blind shows us the way. His stance is the opposite of resistance. He sits by the roadside, and he begs. And one day, when a man he cannot even see walks up with light in his eyes and healing in his hands and touches him, the blind man lifts his chin and lets the light come in.

He can see now. What about you? What about us?

(1) Gail O’Day. The Word Disclosed. 78.
(2) Paul Simpson Duke. The Right Expertise.
(3) Gail O’Day. The Word Disclosed. 79.
(4) Ibid. 86.