Theophanes the Cretan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Growing Into Our Baptism

NOTE: There will be much talk about Star Wars in this sermon, but NO SPOILERS about the new film.

I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in the same year that The Empire Strikes Back was released. As a little kid, I saw the movies and played with the toys. My younger brother and I would dress up as the characters. Since I was the taller one, I would put on a football helmet and tie a towel around my neck and become Darth Vader. My brother would be Luke Skywalker. Then our dad would put on his Star Wars disco record (and yes, it was still a record) and we would duel in the living room with plastic baseball bats as lightsabers. As I got older, I would re-watch the movies with my friends and read the novels and comic books. Several of us got together and played a Dungeons and Dragons style role-playing game based on the movies. When I was nineteen years old, I met my wife in the same week that Episode I: The Phantom Menace came out. I won’t lie: I saw it six times in the theater that summer… and I’ve already been to see The Force Awakens three times since it came out last month.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. There has never been a time in my life when these movies weren’t there. Their presence has been a given in my life, and I made their story my own as I grew up. And now, I get to pass them on to my kids as the saga continues in these new films that are coming out.

Tell you this today, not just to gush about these movies, but because I can see in my love for them something about how Christian faith begins and grows in the Church. And my point will be this: faith begins, not with what we do or believe in relation to God, but with what God does and believes in relation to us.

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus by St. John the Baptist in the river Jordan. Scholars generally agree that this event is the moment when Jesus’ public ministry begins. Jesus’ baptism is, in a sense, his ordination. Especially interesting are the words spoken to Jesus after his baptism: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Jesus’ ministry begins with the message, communicated to him in baptism, that he is loved. That love is a given. It’s just there. It’s the foundation upon which the rest of Jesus’ ministry is built. There is no part of Jesus’ life that is not shaped by this love. Because Jesus is loved, and because he knows he is loved by God, everything else he says and does becomes possible: his teaching, healing, forgiving, welcoming, even dying, and rising again from death. God’s freely given, unconditional love is the source for all of this.

The same is true for you and me. Those words, which God spoke to Jesus at his baptism, God also speaks to you in your baptism: “You are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” God’s love is a given. Like the Star Wars movies, it’s just there. We grow up with it. Most of us take it for granted and never stop to think about how amazing it is.

The sacrament of baptism is how we become conscious of God’s love.

The word baptize comes from the Greek word baptize, which means “to submerge or immerse.” Think about soaking in a bathtub, jumping into a swimming pool, or floating in an ocean. When we are immersed, the water surrounds us on all sides, holds us up, and carries us along in its currents. Now, imagine that the water is God’s love: surrounding you, holding you up, and carrying you along. God’s love washes us clean. The water of baptism is a symbolic representation of that truth. The sacrament of baptism is not a religious merit badge or even a rite of initiation. Baptism does not make God love us; it makes God’s love real to us in a physical way.

The Holy Spirit meets us as we celebrate this sacrament and speaks to each and every one of us the same words that God the Father spoke to Jesus at his baptism: “______, you are my child, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

This, by the way, is the reason why we Presbyterians (along with Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, and Anglican Christians) have always been comfortable with the baptism of infants. Whenever a baby is born, we believe that God loves and accepts that child before he or she can say, do, or think anything. We believe the spiritual journey does not begin when a human being makes a conscious decision to search for God, but when God makes a decision to search for us. And the good news, the best news, is that God already made that decision a very long time ago. God says in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart.”

The promises we make in baptism, to turn away from sin and turn toward Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, are only ever a response to the grace that God has so freely bestowed upon us. This is why we say that baptism is not a merit badge. It is not something we do for God; it is something God does in us.

In the same way, growth in the Christian faith is not about how much we love God; it’s about realizing how much God loves us. Like Star Wars, God’s love is ubiquitous: it’s just there, all around us. We grow up with it, and we grow into it.

The more we realize just how much God really does love us, and how there really is nothing we can do to about it; the more our lives and our ministries begin to look like Jesus’. Everything Jesus did, from teaching, to healing, to feeding, to welcoming, to forgiving, even to his death and resurrection, was based on this core truth that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

I pray that we, as a church and as Christians in this world, would realize this same truth in our own lives, and that our lives, one day a time, might begin to look more and more like his life.

By Ranosonar (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Reason for the Season

Merry Christmas!

I still say Merry Christmas to you because the celebration of Christmas in the Christian Church (unlike the rest of society) lasts for an entire season, and not just a day. The last vestige of this tradition in our cultural consciousness is the song The Twelve Days of Christmas. That’s how long the liturgical season of Christmas lasts.

Note: In case anyone’s wondering, today is the tenth day of Christmas, wherein the anonymous “true love” gives “ten lords a-leaping,” according to the song.

The Christmas holiday seems to come and go so quickly in its secular, materialistic celebration. Celebrating it as a season (as indeed it was meant to be) is one way that Christians can make the joy last and (hopefully) let the spiritual significance of Christmas sink a little deeper into our souls.

Last Sunday, Rev. Bill Dodge spoke about making Christmas last, not by savoring the nostalgia, but by looking forward to take hold of the promises that God has laid up for us in Christ. Today, I would like to pick up on the heels of where my mentor left off and talk about the reason why Christmas happened in the first place. My hope is that if we can answer this question adequately, we might be in a better position to understand the meaning of Christmas and keep it in our hearts all year long.

Why was Jesus born?

There are several theories that propose an answer to this question. First, there are those who think the meaning of Jesus’ life was his message. “He came as a great teacher,” they say, “to show us how to love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now, there is certainly a degree of truth in this idea. Jesus was, after all, a great teacher. However, he is hardly the first great teacher to walk the earth. Others have come from all corners of creation to enlighten the world with their wisdom. As a teacher, Jesus is one among many. Furthermore, scholars of comparative religion will tell you that many of the truths he taught were also devised by others. The Golden Rule, for example, is so-named because of how often it appears in the various philosophical and religious traditions of the world. There is nothing unique about Jesus if we relegate the significance of his life to his words alone.

There are others who claim that the meaning of Jesus’ life can be found in his death on the cross. “He came to die,” they say, “His blood paid the price for the sins of the world, so that those who believe in him can go to heaven when they die.” This theory is the one most commonly associated with traditional Christian teaching. However, I find it just as incomplete as the theory that Jesus was nothing more than a great teacher. If we believe the only reason Jesus was born was so that he could die on the cross, then we can conveniently ignore everything that came before and after that event: not only his teaching, healing, confronting, and forgiving, but also his resurrection, ascension, and eventual return. If he only came to die, then we can conveniently dispense with reading the remainder of the Bible and rest assured that our sins are forgiven and our eternal destiny secure.

So then, why was Jesus born? Why was it that Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, “became flesh and made his home among us,” as it says in this morning’s gospel?

St. Paul gives us a better answer in this morning’s epistle:

“God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

Jesus Christ, in the mystery of his Incarnation, “bring[s] all things together in [himself], the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

This is a central theme of the Christian faith. If we miss it, we are dangerously close to missing the whole point of Christianity itself. Jesus, the Divine Word, crossed the divide between heaven and earth so that he might also bridge the gap between God and humanity. And precisely because he has done this, he also bridges the many other gaps that divide us on earth: the gap between races, genders, social classes, political parties, nations, and even the various denominations and religious traditions. This is why Paul is able to say, in another place, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

When people begin to realize our oneness in Christ, all of those petty distinctions lose their meaning. In place of those divisions, we come to see the truth, as Paul did, that:

“Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. Certainly the body isn’t one part but many… If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.”

It is not too much of stretch to say that this healing of divisions in Christ applies even to the breached relationship between human beings and the earth. We read in Colossians that “[Christ] existed before all things, and all things are held together in [Christ].” Therefore, Paul has no problem saying to us in today’s epistle that God’s plan is “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” This promise includes all human beings, as well as all things animal, vegetable, and mineral. God’s plan even includes planets, stars, and galaxies. When St. John tells us in his gospel that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life,” the word he uses for world is cosmos; so it’s not just the world of people that Christ came to save, but the entire universe.

Paul calls this work “the ministry of reconciliation” in his second letter to the Corinthians. It begins with God reconciling the cosmos to himself in Christ and continues as God then invites each and every one of us to participate in the reconciliation of broken relationships through Christ. This, by the way, is why we are rightly able to call ourselves catholic Christians, as we say in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The word catholic means one, and we are indeed one in Christ: having been brought together and reconciled to God, each other, and the cosmos. We form part and parcel of the one Body of Christ, the holy catholic Church.

This ministry of reconciliation matters now more than ever in the world. Human technology has advanced to the point where we have now sent spacecraft to the edge of our solar system. Humans have stood on the moon and snapped photographs of the entire earth at once. Telephones have made it possible to communicate instantaneously with people on the other side of the planet. The internet gives our brains instantaneous access to massive amounts of information.

But what have we done with all this knowledge and power? We have used it, not to unite, but divide ourselves even further. We use our rockets to launch missiles at our enemies’ cities. We use our computers to anonymously abuse each other in comment threads. We access only those bits of information that confirm our previously-held opinions and demonize our opponents in the worst-possible light. We use our telephones to stay connected to the latest headlines, but we are utterly disconnected from the person standing next to us in line or even lying next to us in bed. We are lost.

But we are not without hope, for the purpose of Christmas still holds true, two thousand years after it was first revealed to us. St. Paul said it best: “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.”

This is what God intends for us, and God will not rest until this ministry of reconciliation is accomplished in us. The reconciliation of broken relationships is the mission of the Church catholic. How do we participate in this mission? In two ways: by receiving the gift of reconciliation from God and by sharing that grace with our neighbors.

First of all, we receive reconciliation from God through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. We listen for the Word of God in the Scriptures, as they are read and preached. We are washed clean and grafted into Christ in baptism. When we celebrate the Eucharist together, we ask the Holy Spirit to bless us and the elements of bread and wine, so that our physical eating and drinking might be a spiritual Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ. And then, as we receive the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ: we are made one with God and one with each other in Christ.

Once we have received God’s grace in Word and Sacrament, we are sent back out to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Our job is to do today what Jesus did when he was on earth: heal the sick, feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, forgive our enemies, open blind eyes, and bring new life to those who are dead inside.

Just as Jesus Christ bridged the gap between heaven and earth in his Incarnation, so we his Church are also called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue his work in the world by bridging the infinitely smaller gaps between us and our neighbors. This is the work to which North Church has given itself over the years. Ever since four teenagers snuck off into the woods with stolen hymnals, the members of this congregation have been continually drawn toward the least, the last, the lost, and the loneliest people in our society. We had our beginnings in a time when this country was divided and at war with itself, and ever since then, we have not ceased to reach across the gaps that divide “us” from “them.” In the middle of the last century, we reached out to our neighbors who are hungry and homeless through ministries of service and compassion. In a time of racial division (much like our current time), the pastors of this church took a dangerous and unpopular stand in favor of equality and desegregation. The Rev. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained a pastor in the Presbyterian Church, has preached from this pulpit. We have stood up for the rights of the poor and the oppressed, we have spoken out against violence, and spoken up for expanded public transportation and equal marriage rights for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. For the last 27 years, we have especially dedicated ourselves to fighting the stigma that is heaped upon people who live with mental illness. Every Sunday at worship and every Thursday at the Togetherness Group, Christian hands and hearts reach out across that divide and the demonic spell of isolation is broken, even if only for a moment. This is the work of the Church, the work of Christmas, and it is our work.

St. Paul says, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth.” Brothers and sisters, that is why Christmas happened; that is the reason for the season. So may we, the people of the Church, keep our hand to that plow and Christmas in our hearts all year and every year from now until the end of the age.

Earth_(17310307593)

A Long Time Ago in a Galilee Far, Far Away?

Tonight we gather again to hear the Christmas story: the story of angels and shepherds; the story of Mary and Joseph; the story of Jesus who was born in manger. It is one of the most beloved stories in all of human history. It is a beautiful story.

But it feels sometimes feels removed from real life. We hear about the angels singing, “Glory to God” and “Peace on Earth” but this Earth often seems to be quite devoid of peace. We enjoy the warm glow of the Nativity Scene and the Hanukkah Menorah in a city park, but that stands in stark contrast to the biting chill of the wind on our faces. Our world feels very different from the world we imagine when we hear the Christmas story. It seems sometimes like tonight is the one night a year when we take a break from harsh reality and pretend to believe in magical things like angels and Saviors. We tell and retell this imaginary story from “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.” We cross our fingers and hope against hope that our telling of this story will somehow spark the imagination of our hearts and carry us through to next Christmas, when we will come to church and hear the story once again.

But here’s the thing: our world is not a different world from the one into which Christ was born. It is the same world. The shepherds who saw the angels were poor workers. They were despised and distrusted by respectable society. They knew the struggle of making a living, the pang of hunger, and the sting of rejection. Mary and Joseph were refugees, hustled around like cattle being counted and finally forced to flee for their lives from violence and tyranny in their homeland. Mary, his fiancée, was an unwed teenage mother. We hear that Jesus was born in a stable; have you ever smelled a stable?

The Christmas story is not something that happened “long ago” or “far away.” It is the story of how God comes to meet us: and the time when God comes to meet us is now; the place where God comes to meet us is this place, with all its problems, messes, and stinky smells.

I think the reason why we tend to get so romantic and nostalgic about our Christmas story each year is because we don’t like this world we’re living in. We want to change it. We want to believe that it can become better. We think, “Maybe if we just try harder, or close our eyes and pray harder, the wish will come true and the magic of Christmas will come alive forever!” But, obviously, that hasn’t happened yet. The world we are left with now is still the same weary world into which Jesus was born two thousand years ago.

Some might take that fact as a sign of cynicism or despair, but I don’t. I see it as a grand opportunity. If the world into which Christ was born is this world (so we say), and if Christ is alive forever (so we also say), and if Christ has promised, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (so we also also say), then the place and time where God comes to meet us is here and now. God lives within and around us in this world. If we don’t see God, it is not because God isn’t here, but because we, in the hardness of our hearts, are refusing to look.

We wish we could change this weary old world and make it into what it ought to be. But obviously, we can’t. This world is what it is and things are the way they are. We have no control over those circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that change is impossible.

First of all, the loving power that spoke the universe into existence now lives, breathes, loves, and works in each and every one of us. That truth alone is no small cause for hope. Secondly, the power of God is able to change us.

Tonight’s epistle reading tells us, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people.” I love that. Let’s break it down: It begins with grace. The “unmerited favor” of God, the love God gives us in abundance whether we deserve it (or want it) or not. This work of transformation begins, not with our best efforts, but with God’s decision to love us beyond our own capacity for self-destruction.

And this grace, we are told in the reading, “educates us so that we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives right now by rejecting ungodly lives and the desires of this world.” Grace is our teacher. God’s grace changes us from the inside out. Grace gives us the power to envision a life we never thought possible. We may not have the power to change the world, but we have the power to live changed lives, not by virtue of our own strength and wisdom, but because the love of God is able to change us as we live our lives in this world.

My hope, my prayer for all of us this Christmas, is that we would come to trust this silent and invisible power of God’s grace so much that we will live changed lives in the midst of this weary world. And I further hope that we, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, will “be the change we wish to see in this world.”

The time and place where God lives is not “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away,” but here and now, in this place, at this time. God meets us here and now, in the messy, stinky problems of this world as we know it. God meets us in the little things, like refugee babies born in stables, and works in us through those little things to change the world into what it ought to be.

Fruit_Stall_in_Barcelona_Market

God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

The text is Luke 3:7-18.

Jesus is coming!

That’s what Christians believe. We say it a lot, especially in this season of Advent. The phrase has a dual-meaning for us. First of all, we use it as we prepare our hearts and minds for the upcoming celebration of Christmas. We remind ourselves annually that, in the mystery of the Incarnation, God crossed the divide between heaven and earth to meet us here, where we live. We couldn’t get ourselves to heaven, so heaven came to us.

But there is a second layer to our celebration of Advent. We’re not just looking back to remember when Jesus came to earth the first time; we’re also looking forward to his Second Coming and preparing ourselves for it. Christians believe that God’s story is not yet over. We believe that history is not a random series of events, but the gradual unfolding of God’s plan for the world over time. History is going somewhere, and we believe the day will come when the divine plan is accomplished and all that is wrong will be set right in the world. Until then, we are invited to play a small part in that unfolding story as Christ’s church on earth.

We remind ourselves that Jesus is coming so that we don’t forget or lose heart in the struggle to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. The drudgery of everyday life, combined with the tyranny of the urgent, can easily distract us from the primary purpose of our lives. The still-unfolding story of God’s creation and redemption of the universe in Christ is what gives our lives meaning. We say, “Jesus is coming” in order to remind ourselves of that. As we sing in the hymn For All the Saints: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant, far-off song and hearts are brave again and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!”

But we also sometimes use that phrase in ways that are less than helpful. For many Christians, “Jesus is coming” has become an escapist slogan. We sometimes use it as an excuse to not get involved in the very real problems of the world around us. We say, “Jesus is coming… so we don’t need to worry about preserving our natural resources, fighting poverty, or working for social justice.”

There is a popular idea that has taken hold in some Christian circles. It’s called the Rapture. Many claim that it is a biblically-based doctrine, even though it did not exist at all before the 1830s (when it was invented out of thin air by two preachers named John Darby and Charles Scofield). Those who hold to this idea believe that the world is soon headed for a seven year period of great suffering called the Tribulation. During this time, an evil world leader called the Antichrist will achieve global dominance through a reign of terror. At the end of these seven years, Jesus will return to judge the world and history will reach its conclusion. But before all this happens, according to Darby and Scofield, all true believers in Christ will be mysteriously “caught up in the air” (i.e. Raptured) and taken out of the world to be with Christ, so that they won’t have to endure such pain and suffering.

What it means then, for those who accept this idea, is this: So long as you are in God’s club, you don’t have to worry about all that difficult stuff in life. Our club membership grants us a “get out of jail free” card. By this, we know that we are in God’s good graces and can expect to be excused from the many trials and tribulations that afflict the world from time to time.

It is this same kind of attitude that St John the Baptist is addressing in today’s gospel reading. His prophetic ministry was taking off, John himself had become quite the popular preacher, and people were coming out in droves to hear the sermons and get their spiritual “membership card” stamped by participating in the ritual cleansing of baptism. But John very quickly realizes what’s going on and, in typical prophetic fashion, addresses the issue head-on.

“You children of snakes!” He says, “Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones.”

John is talking here about those who take pride in their cultural and religious heritage. They thought to themselves, “We’re members of God’s club! Our dues are paid and our card is stamped, therefore we shouldn’t have to worry about what comes next.”

In John’s place and time, it was Jewish ancestry that counted for membership in God’s club. Here and now, we have different criteria for membership, but the process is the same. We like to think of ourselves as “the good guys” by virtue of our ethnicity, nationality, or political affiliation.

We even do this when it comes to the way we practice our religion. We rely on church affiliation, regular attendance, or the size of our offering check as indicators of our membership in “God’s club.” If John the Baptist were with us today, he might say something like: “Don’t even think about saying to yourselves, we are Presbyterians. I tell you that God is able to raise up Presbyterians from these stones.”

What John is trying to do here, both in his day and ours, is draw our attention to what it is that spirituality is all about. He’s trying to help us distinguish between the grain of wheat, which is the kernel of our faith, and the husk that surrounds it.

John says, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

Wheat, just like ears of corn, grows inside of a husk that carries and protects it. The husk is part of the wheat, the wheat wouldn’t survive without it, but there comes a time when the husk must be discarded in order for the wheat to fulfill its destiny and become what it was meant to be.

In the same way, the elements of our religion (e.g. churches, denominations, buildings, rituals, the Bible, and the Sacraments) are like husks of wheat. They are necessary to protect the seed, which is our faith, but they are only a means to an end. God, according to John the Baptist, is not interested in our husks, but in the fruit that grows from the seed inside the husk. He says to the people in the crowd, “Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives.”

A changed life is the fruit that grows from the seed of faith. The evidence of authentic faith is not religious observance, church attendance, tithe checks, or Christian bumper stickers. The evidence of faith is when your neighbors in the world look at you and say, “There’s something different about you.” St Paul called this “the fruit of the Spirit” in his letter to the Galatians. He described this “fruit” as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

When the husk of our religion has done its job well, the seed of faith will grow up to produce this kind of fruit in our lives. When we see that fruit, in our lives or in anyone else’s, we can trust that it comes from an authentic faith (no matter what its previous husk may have looked like).

The really interesting thing about fruit is that each kind is unique to the tree that produced it. Oranges don’t grow on apple trees or grapevines. Fruit grows naturally out of each tree’s unique identity. In the same way, the fruit of the Spirit growing in your life will inevitably look different from the fruit of the Spirit growing in the life of your neighbor. I think this is why John the Baptist, in today’s reading, gave different instructions to different groups of people.

The crowds asked [John], “What then should we do?”

He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. They said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He replied, “Collect no more than you are authorized to collect.”

Soldiers asked, “What about us? What should we do?”

He answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, and be satisfied with your pay.”

The fruit for which John was calling is diverse. It comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors. I think that’s why Paul kept his description of this fruit very broad and general. God wants us to have the freedom to explore the unique ways that the fruit of the Spirit might take form in our lives.

When it comes to the way we talk about religion today, I think we spend way too much time arguing over the husks (the religious externals), instead of nurturing the growth of spiritual fruit (the seed of faith). I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “God wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts.”

I think our friend St John the Baptist would agree with that. In this Advent season, as we await the coming of Jesus, may we become the kind of Christians who know how to discard the husk of religion when it is time, and nurture the growth of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives and in our world.

Adventskranz 1. Advent

The Unanxious Fig

The text for this week’s sermon is Luke 21:25-36

Do you ever feel anxious about the future?

That’s a silly question, I know. Everybody does.

What do you tend to get anxious about?

For some people, it’s the state of the country or the world-at-large. They wonder, “Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?” For others, it’s particular circumstances that may or may not be arising in their future. Younger folks tend to ask questions like, “Will I get the job I want? Will I find true love? Will I have kids?” People at the middle of life’s journey ask, “Will I keep this job? Will my kids turn out okay? Will my marriage last?” Sometimes, they even have to jump back to the first set of questions as life, jobs, and relationships don’t turn out exactly as expected. Finally, people in the latter part of life’s journey ask, “What will happen to my spouse/kids/home after I’m gone? Will there be anyone left to care about the things I care about?”

I’m currently at the stage where I worry most about all the many things that need to get done at work or at home. It seems sometimes like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to keep on top of every task that needs to be completed.

Whatever the object of our anxiety, the process remains the same. Furthermore, there will never come a time when all of our excessive worrying turns out to be the key that unlocks the solution to all of life’s problem. There will never be a day when the headlines on our newspapers read, “Local hero cures anxiety by thinking about it real hard.”

Thankfully for us, the problem of anxiety is nothing new for the human race. Ancient writings reveal that the battle with fear has been waged for thousands, if not millions, of years. In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus describes a time when “dismay,” “confusion,” and chaos come upon the earth. He says that people will “faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like every age of human history to me.

It should be no surprise that doomsday prophets keep popping up in the media, year after year. Because every period of history has felt like the “end times” to those who lived in it.

In response to this “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus does something very interesting. If you remember, he has just described the shaking of entire planets and “the roaring of the sea and surging waves.” So, what symbol then does he use to conjure up hope in the midst of chaos and anxiety?

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near.”

He goes back to one of those small, simple images from nature. This seems to be a favorite teaching strategy of Jesus. He draws his teaching illustrations, not from huge, dramatic happenings, but from the little things of this world. When people asked him to describe the kingdom of heaven, he pointed to flowers and birds, farmers planting crops and workers harvesting them, bakers kneading bread dough and merchants trading in the marketplace. When Jesus points out the fig tree in today’s reading, he’s giving people the smallest glimmer of hope in the midst of big anxiety. I can imagine scared people shouting back at Jesus, “Hey man, what gives? The whole world is coming apart and you want us to look at some little tree?! That’s ridiculous! You’ve got to give us a better sign of hope than that.”

The images Jesus uses are all very ordinary images from everyday life. There’s nothing particularly dramatic or profound about them, yet these little things, according to Jesus, are the things that reflect the glory of God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”

Jesus points out the sprouting of the fig leaves, not because they are a powerful sign of hope in themselves, but because they indicate a deeper, natural rhythm that pulses at the heart of the universe, like a heartbeat. This rhythm was put there by God. We can even see it with our own eyes if we stop to look… really look.

Day and night, summer and winter, new moon and full moon, childhood and old age, work and rest, breathe in and breathe out. These signs of hope are there. They tells us, in their own quiet way, that this universe is not just some random explosion of chaos into which we humans have accidentally stumbled for a few odd years of existence. The pulse of nature whispers to us that there is a divine plan unfolding within us and around us. The psalmist tells us, in Psalm 19:

Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork. One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words—their voices can’t be heard—but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.

Both Jesus and the psalmist are urging us to listen for nature’s silent voice. We can’t hear it with our ears, so we have to listen with our hearts. Unlike some other religious traditions, Christians don’t believe that nature itself is God, but we do believe that the created universe has the capacity to reveal something of God to us, provided that we have the ears to hear.

If we do listen to nature’s message, Jesus promises, we will “know that God’s kingdom is near.” Now, here’s something we’ve done together before. I’m returning to it again (and will continue to do so in the future) as a helpful reminder. The old King James Version of the Bible translates “God’s kingdom is near” as “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”

Hold out your hand in front of you. Think about that phrase, “the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” Heaven is not far away. God is not far away. The place where God lives and reigns is “at hand.” God really is this close to us, “closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine would say.

Our lives in this universe are not some random accident, they are part of the divine purpose that is unfolding from the heart of all things. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.” In other words, the individual, little parts of this universe (i“heaven and earth”) are certainly finite and temporary (“will pass away”), but God’s plan: the purposeful, underlying rhythm of the cosmos (Jesus called it “my words”), is eternal (“will not pass away”).

The image of the fig tree is meant to remind us of God’s plan, so that we might draw hope from it.

This hope we discover when we listen to creation’s heartbeat, according to Jesus, is not simply for our comfort; it asks something of us as well. In response to the nearness of God’s kingdom (manifested in the sprouting fig tree), Jesus gives us a Don’t and a Do.

The Don’t is this: “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.”

Now, we could easily take this command of Jesus as a simple condemnation of all alcohol (many Christians have done so), but I think that narrow interpretation misses the point that Jesus is trying to make. Jesus is not trying to say that alcohol itself is evil. It’s simply another substance on this earth. What concerns Jesus is our relationship with all the substances of this earth. Jesus is warning us against our very human tendency to want to numb ourselves against all the painful things that can happen in life. And we don’t just do this with alcohol either: we numb ourselves with drinks, food, sex, entertainment, work, even religion. None of these things are bad in themselves, but all of them can act like a drug to keep us from experiencing the true depths of life.

The problem is this: the anesthesia we use to numb ourselves from the pain of life also numbs us against the experience of deep joy and hope. If we refuse to feel the bad, we will not be able to feel the good either. Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came so that [you] could have life—indeed, so that [you] could live life to the fullest.” Staggering through existence in a numbed state until we die is less than the kind of full, rich life that Jesus intends for us.

The Do Jesus gives us is this: “Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

Jesus tells us, his followers, to “stand up straight” when the rest of the world is “faint[ing] from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” When we see the disturbing reports on the news, when we hear the end-time fanatics prophesying doom and gloom, the believer’s job is to remain still and calm, like the eye of a hurricane. The storm may rage around us, but we remain at peace in the center. We may not be able to do anything to change our circumstances, but we can remind ourselves that there is a divine purpose at work in the unfolding of this universe. Our spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, help us to stay in touch with that calm center.

When the rest of the world sees this difference in us, it will wonder why we do not fear what it fears. The people around us will ask, “Why aren’t you panicking with us? Don’t you realize the world is coming to an end?” And we can answer in the words of the old hymn:

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name…

When darkness veils his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace;
in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand.

By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (135/365: Piedras) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Not Even One Stone

I delivered this sermon this morning just after announcing to the congregation our session’s decision to leave our building and move our church’s ministry to a new physical location after almost a century at the corner of Burdick & Ransom. I don’t think it was a coincidence that today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is the story of Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Some weeks, the Holy Spirit makes more work for me…

The text is Mark 13:1-8.

If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time? What do you want your life to stand for? When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you? These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.

The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself. Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.

Each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself. We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them. Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

As it is with individuals, so it is with groups of people. These groups might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence. Families are mortal. Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring. Churches and other faith communities are mortal. There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors. Nations are mortal. The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it. Where is the great Roman Empire today? Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts. Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal. One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.

If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible. Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.

Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE. Jesus, as usual, is storming out in a huff after yet another fight with the established religious authorities.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism. They say of the temple, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

Jesus is unimpressed. He says, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people. They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection. For them, the temple was immortal. It was an end in itself as a center of worship. The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.

As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on. The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal. It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE. It was never rebuilt. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.

The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable. The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things. Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.

If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that. What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” All things are mortal.

The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality. Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for? What will people remember about me when I’m gone? What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole? What is the meaning of my life?”

The day will come when we, along with our families, our church, and our country, will only exist as a chapter in a history book. Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves: “When that day comes, what will we want that chapter say?”

As a congregation, we’ve been asking ourselves some very hard questions this year. We’ve been participating together in the New Beginnings assessment and discernment process. Throughout this process, the biggest and most pressing question we’ve had to ask ourselves is: “What is the church?”

Is the church a building? Is it an institution?

Or is it a community of people on a mission? A community of people, called together by Jesus Christ, living together in Christ, and following Christ into the world to live that mission?

Our final answer has been that third option: the church is a community of people on a mission.

Because we believe this, we have been able to make a bold new decision this week. We have decided to leave the building where we have worshiped for almost a century in order to continue the ministry of our church in a new location. The session, the presbytery, and I are currently working together on the details, and we will call a congregational meeting in a few weeks to let you know what the plan is.

This new move is not a death, but a resurrection.

We are not doing this because the church is dying; we are doing this because Jesus is alive.

We are honoring the heritage of the ministry that has been passed down to us, not by preserving it, but by continuing it.

We are doing this because:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us],
because the Lord has anointed [us].
He has sent [us] to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We are doing this because Jesus said:

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

Our ancestors in the faith (and in this church) believed this, I believe it, and the session believes it. Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

Let’s go follow Jesus.

By StarHeal (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Turning the World Upside Down

In lieu of my own sermon, which I am accustomed to posting here on Sundays, I would like to offer instead this mighty moment that took place at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC today.

The event is the installation of Bishop Michael Curry as the 27th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. I got to experience it as it was broadcast over the livestream this afternoon. Bishop Michael had me cheering, shouting, and clapping, even though I was alone in my bedroom.

I love both traditional liturgy and progressive theology. There are some who say, “Those religious rituals are dry, joyless, and spiritually dead.” There are some who say, “Those liberals are biblically illiterate heretics who only preach about what they don’t believe and reduce Christian faith to political activism.” I have been told more than once that there is no way that Jesus Christ could be present by the power of the Holy Spirit in my church.

To those who would make the above accusations, I would invite them to take forty minutes or so to listen to Bishop Michael’s sermon. You may not agree with everything you hear, but I sincerely hope that you will see what I see here: Jesus Christ living and working through a progressive Christianity that is theologically grounded, biblically shaped, Spirit filled, and sold out in service to God and neighbor. Get ready, my friends, because it’s time for CHURCH!

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Call Them Here

The text is Mark 10:46-52

I’ve recently been invited to help my friend, Minister Pamela Robinson of Emerging HOPE Ministries, with her doctoral dissertation. It’s been a privilege to assist with this project because the work she’s doing is so important. The research she is doing is about helping churches raise their awareness of people who live with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Her very helpful term for these conditions is “invisible disabilities”. She calls these disabilities “invisible” because their presence in people is less obvious than a visual or mobility impairment.

There is a stigma around cognitive disabilities in this culture because, in the eyes of many people, mental illness doesn’t count as a “real” disease, like cancer or the flu. Many of us who live with mental illness are often told to “just snap out of it” or “have faith” (as if depression or anxiety could be controlled by flipping a switch). Believe me: if any of us could choose to stop having these symptoms, WE WOULD.

Under the weight of this social stigma, we who live with mental illness often become “invisible people” who suffer silently and alone from the effects of our conditions. We are treated as failures, ne’er-do-wells, and misfits in a society that measures the “worth” of a person based on his or her ability to produce and consume in a capitalist economy.

In this morning’s gospel, we encounter the story of a person, Bartimaeus, who was similarly “invisible” to the people of his own place and time.

There are several things it is important to note about Bartimaeus as a person. First of all, his name. In Aramaic, it literally means “son of Timaeus”, which is to say that he really doesn’t have a name or unique identity of his own. He is only identified in relation to other people. As a physically disabled (“blind”) non-worker in the economy (“beggar”), Bartimaeus doesn’t count as a “real person” in the eyes of his neighbors, so he has been pushed to the margins of society (“by the roadside”), where his presence and voice can be conveniently ignored (“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet”).

Yet, there is more to Bartimaeus than meets the eye on the surface. He might be visually impaired, but we the readers quickly learn that his spiritual insight goes deeper than that of his neighbors. He sees Jesus more clearly than anyone. As Jesus draws near, Bartimaeus begins to make quite a fuss, calling out to Jesus as the “Son of David”.

“Son of David” is a messianic title, referring to King David’s heir, God’s anointed, and the rightful king of Israel. Many have speculated about Jesus’ identity up to this point in Mark’s gospel, St. Peter has even realized the truth in private, but this is the first time in Mark that anyone, anywhere publicly identifies Jesus as the Messiah.

What Bartimaeus says to his Messiah next is “have mercy on me!” This sounds to us like a plea for forgiveness, but is actually more like a welcoming affirmation. Caesar used to enter the city of Rome in triumphant procession with the citizenry crying “Lord, have mercy!” around him on every side. It’s kind of like an ancient version of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen”. Bartimaeus has something unique to teach his people: he knows who Jesus really is, but they don’t want to hear it, so they yell at him to sit back down and be quiet.

Sadly, this story is way too familiar for many of our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities, visible or invisible, in the church. As human institutions, churches often act like the crowd around Bartimaeus: ignoring and objectifying disabled people, pushing them to the edges of church life and telling them not to make too much of a fuss, so that business-as-usual can continue uninterrupted on Sunday morning. What these churches don’t realize is that every person is made uniquely in the image of God, therefore each individual has something to teach the rest of us about God that cannot be learned from anyone else on earth. Those who lose the most when disabled people are ignored are not the disabled people themselves, but those who ignore them. So it was with the crowd around Bartimaeus, and so it is in too many churches today.

But the good news is that Jesus is not content to simply walk by while this happens. Jesus listens to the voice of the voiceless and ensures that the lessons they teach will not go unheard. Looking closely at his interaction with Bartimaeus, we can get an idea of how Christ is working with disabled members in the church today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To begin with, the first important thing that Jesus does is nothing. He simply stops. The text says he “stood still”. What this tells us is that Jesus is willing to be interrupted by this person. Sure, Jesus is busy. Sure, he has other important things to do (go to Jerusalem and save the world, for instance). But business-as-usual gets put on the back burner for Jesus when it comes to having a relational encounter with this person. Imagine the church doing that! Imagine what Christianity in this world would look like if the leaders of the church were willing to put aside their overcrowded schedules and interrupt business-as-usual in order to listen to the pained cries of needy people.

The second thing Jesus does is say, “Call him here.” He re-arranges his ministry so that the marginalized person sits at the center of the action and concern. And he doesn’t do it alone, either. Jesus could have easily called Bartimaeus over himself, but he enlists the help of the whole community, instead. So then, it is the crowd that changes its tune and says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Again, imagine the church doing this today: becoming a community that speaks forth Christ’s calling on the lives of the very people whom the world ignores!

The next thing Jesus does is give a voice back to the voiceless. Instead of presuming to know what is best for this other person, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is a very important detail because Jesus is relating to Bartimaeus as a real person, not just as an object or problem to be dealt with. And when the miracle is said and done, Jesus even gives the credit back to Bartimaeus himself: “your faith has made you well.”

Imagine a church focusing its ministry like this: interrupting business-as-usual to forge real, authentic relationships with people whose voices have not yet been heard in the mainstream of society. Imagine the church becoming a community where people are treated like people. Imagine a church that re-orients its entire ministry to put marginalized people at the center of its life and action. Imagine a church that doesn’t just welcome people who live with mental illness, but empowers them to fulfill their calling in Christ. Can you imagine a church like that?

I can.

I can imagine that kind of church because that is exactly the kind of ministry that North Presbyterian Church has been doing for the last 27 years. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is the kind of community the Holy Spirit has made us into.

So many of us, myself included, have tried to make our spiritual home in churches where we are tolerated at best, or rejected at worst. But the Holy Spirit has called us together in this little community where we can be a light to the world.

And our ministry is not going unnoticed. What we do here has been written about in college and seminary textbooks. Letters of support have poured in from all over the country. Denominational officials are telling us how we have inspired a movement, how we have shaped the national church, how we are pioneering a new model of ministry from which all churches can learn.

North Church may be a little church, but we are “the biggest little church in Kalamazoo.” Our significance doesn’t come from a huge budget or fancy programs, but from the fact that we are doing the kind of ministry that Jesus demonstrated with Bartimaeus: centered on building relationships with marginalized people who live with mental illness.

The power of the special work we do is rooted in the power of the gospel itself and grows out from it to form a community where all people can find a home.

The power of this church comes from that core truth we tell each other week after week:

“I love you. God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

By Patnac (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

What Do You Say to the Person who has Lost Everything?

This week’s sermon.

The text is Job 38:1-7, 34-41.

Last week, we asked the question: “What do you get for the person who has everything?” And the answer we came up with, following the gospel story of Jesus and the rich man, is “Nothing.”

This week, we’re going to flip that question around 180 degrees and ask, “What do you say to the person who has lost everything?”

That’s the question that hits us as we read the story of Job, as we have been doing in our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures these past few weeks. The book of Job contains the most well-known story of suffering in all of human history. This story has been read the world over by people in different countries, languages, and religious traditions.

The story follows this guy Job, a decent person who stands by helplessly as everything he loves is suddenly taken away from him. In the end, he is left sitting by himself on a garbage heap, wondering what the heck just happened. Eventually, his friends come along and try to comfort him with sage advice and religious platitudes like, “Don’t worry, God has a plan” and “Everything happens for a reason.” But these bumper-sticker slogans do nothing to comfort Job in the midst of his pain. In fact, Job’s friends end up making the situation worse as they proceed to blame the victim for his own suffering. Following the line of conventional wisdom that one finds in the book of Proverbs, they theorize that God must be punishing Job for some secret sin, and if Job would simply search his heart and confess whatever he had done wrong, the affliction would leave him and all would be well again.

But Job isn’t buying what these so-called “defenders of the faith” are selling. Their sloganeering has less to do with comforting the suffering person and more to do with comforting themselves. They think that if they can identify some specific reason why all this suffering was visited upon Job, then they can prevent something similar from happening to them. So they recite these pointless platitudes that seem reasonable to them, but do nothing to alleviate Job’s pain.

Sadly, I’ve noticed this same tendency in a lot of religious people over the years. When unthinkable tragedy strikes, people of faith are often the first to offer some kind of explanation or solution, no matter how badly conceived, whether it was asked for or not. They say things like, “God has a plan… Everything happens for a reason… God took your baby because he needed another angel in heaven… There’s a lesson in this for you, if you would just learn it… You just need to have more faith… God never gives you more than you can handle…” Just like Job’s friends, I think those who say these things are more interested in comforting themselves than comforting the one who is suffering. People who are going through incredible pain don’t need bumper stickers or Bible verses, they need friends who will stay with them through the pain, listen to their struggles, and not try to “fix” them.

Like Job, most people who suffer know instinctively how unhelpful these pat answers are. They might listen politely, but on the inside they usually walk away feeling more alone and hopeless than ever. Job, however, was not so polite in his response to his friends. He was brutal in his honesty. He defended his own integrity, shook his fist at the sky, and straight-up accused God of being unfair.

At the beginning of his story, Job’s remarks still sound conventionally religious: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21) A little while later, Job’s anger begins to show as he curses the day he was born (3:1). He is harsh toward his friends and their unhelpful advice, calling them “miserable comforters” and wondering why they keep talking at all.

Eventually, Job lets loose his anger toward God directly. He says that God has wronged him (19:6), denied him justice (27:1), and demands a response from God (31:35). There is nothing in Job’s tirade that sounds like traditional piety or stoic resilience in the face of suffering. He says that God owes him an answer; he dares God to come down from heaven and face him like a man, and that’s exactly what happens.

Today’s reading from the book of Job outlines the beginning of God’s response to Job’s demand. Job finally gets the face-to-face encounter he’s been shouting for, but it doesn’t exactly turn out like Job had expected.

To begin with, God doesn’t offer Job any answers, only questions: sixty of them, to be exact. The first question sets the stage for the rest: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And it only gets more intense from there: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? …Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” This is just a small sample of the questions God asks Job in response to Job’s demand for an answer.

Job finally gets his face-to-face encounter with God, but none of the answers he was looking for. The voice from the whirlwind overwhelms Job with a barrage of questions about the mystery and the grandeur of the universe. Job is left standing in awe. His only response, at the end of the interrogation, is a stunned silence. In chapters 40 and 42, he calls himself “small” and says, “I lay my hand on my mouth… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Job’s experience of God’s presence is hardly sweet, comforting, or peaceful, but it was exactly what he needed. The attempt of Job’s friends to present a tame, orderly, and comprehensible God left Job feeling empty and dissatisfied, but the blunt force of awestruck mystery was enough to shake him out of his pain-induced stupor. Job never got his answer, but he got what he needed: a direct experience of God’s presence. Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”. Somehow, that was enough for Job, even when there were no answers or solutions to be found.

So, this leads us back to our initial question.

Last week, we asked, “What do you get for the person who has everything?” And the answer we came up with was, “Nothing.”

This week, we are asking, “What do you say to the person who has lost everything?” And the answer is the same: “Nothing.”

This is an important lesson for us to learn in today’s Church, where too many Christians are prone to lean back on empty platitudes instead of trying to be really present with those who suffer. It’s not our job to offer easy answers to tough questions or come up with quick fixes to big problems. Our job is to be with each other when we suffer, to listen, to empathize, to ask questions. Somehow, this means more to people than all the answers and solutions in the world. Our friends in pain may never remember what we say, but they will remember that we were there with them when times were tough. This is the Church at its best.

What’s even cooler is that, in the midst of our care for each other, we begin to sense another, mysterious presence in our midst. Our love for each other points the way to a bigger love, the Biggest Love, that holds the universe together in arms that will not let us go.

I think about this mystery each Sunday as we celebrate the Eucharist. As a pastor, people often come to me with problems we don’t know how to solve and painful questions I don’t know how to answer. It gets overwhelming sometimes. I am keenly aware that many of you may be going through something horrible this morning, and there is nothing I can say from this pulpit that will make you feel any better. Clergy are neither psychologists, nor social workers, nor business managers, nor politicians. I don’t actually know how to fix the problems in your life, the church, or the world, but what I can do is invite you down to the front of this church each Sunday, hand you a piece of bread, and say, “The Body of Christ, given for you.”

What I can offer you is Christ, sacramentally present with us in bread and wine. As we share the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ (you are what you eat). We become part of each other through Christ, and Christ’s presence becomes apparent among us through each other. This presence, more than anything else, is the most healing thing we can offer to each other in moments of pain.

Let us be present with each other then, no matter what we are going through, in order that we may be attentive also to the healing, sacramental presence of Christ in our midst.

By chensiyuan (chensiyuan) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What Do You Get For Someone Who Has Everything?

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 10:17-31.

What kind of gift do you get for the person who has everything?

I did some Google research on that very question this week, and here are a few of the ideas I came across:

  • A wine rack made out of snow skis.
  • A corkscrew that looks like a fish.
  • Cufflinks that look like glasses.
  • A beer holder for your bike.
  • A snowball slingshot.
  • A pillow that functions as a working remote control.
  • A robotic exoskeleton.
  • A hovercraft.
  • Contact lenses that project TV directly onto your eyeballs.
  • A belly button brush (I don’t want to know).
  • Anonymous business cards you can leave on people’s windshields to complain about their parking.

You and I live in a highly consumeristic society. We want everything to be “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” We are constantly inundated with messages trying to sell us stuff. One study declared that the average American is exposed to 247 advertisements a day. We are told that our spouses will love us more if we buy them diamonds; we will become better basketball players with the right kind of shoes; we will appear sophisticated if we drive the right kind of car; and (my personal favorite) we will become “the most interesting man in the world” if we drink the right kind of beer. We are locked into the ridiculous habit of “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s a ridiculous cycle that all of us are caught up in. We need to be reminded of its ridiculousness from time to time, for the sole reason that no one has ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. You can’t take it with you. There has to be more to the meaning of life than the acquisition of “stuff.”

Unfortunately, we’ve been so shaped by our consumer society that we’ve forgotten how to think outside the box of “getting more stuff.” We’ve even applied the principle to our religious life.

We’ve been trained to think that spirituality, salvation, or enlightenment are all about gaining something for ourselves: knowledge, wisdom, inner peace, mystical experiences, etc. And we think we can earn the rights to this consumer product through religious observance, correct theology, or moral fortitude.

We have been trained to interact with God in the same way that we might interact with a clerk at 7-11: approach the counter, exchange payment, receive desired product. The problem with this is that the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us goes far deeper than the kind of momentary interaction we have with clerks at the store, where neither party is likely to remember the other person’s name by the end of the day. God wants more than that (from us and for us). But in order to get us into that kind of relationship, God has to shake us out of our consumer-capitalist mindset.

That is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with the rich man in today’s gospel.

The story begins with the rich man approaching Jesus with a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And that’s our first indicator, right there: the little word do. He assumes that there is an exchange that needs to take place. He intends to do something for God, and then receive something else (i.e. eternal life) from God in return for his payment of doing. We soon learn that this particular person is already quite wealthy (he is “the man who has everything”), and as such has learned to interpret his entire life in terms of economic exchange (even his relationship with God). He is approaching God with a proposal for a business transaction and nothing more.

But Jesus responds, not by imparting some new knowledge to this man, but by appealing to what he already knows: “You know the commandments,” he says, and then proceeds to recite several of the Big Ten from the book of Exodus.

The rich man is clearly unimpressed. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “I know all that stuff already. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. But else needs to happen? I feel like there’s something more to life, something I’m missing, so I want to make a deal with you, Jesus, and obtain whatever it is that I am lacking.”

So there it is. Jesus is now faced with the question: What do you get for the man who has everything?

And this is Jesus’ answer: Nothing. Jesus gives him Nothing.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t give him anything; it’s that Jesus gives this man the gift of Nothing.

Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

In other words, he says, “Take all your possessions and the mindset that comes with them, take all your merit badges and accomplishments, take your experiences, take your trophies and diplomas down from the wall, take your preconceived notions about God, take your politics, your religion, your economics, take it all, and let it all go.” And he says that same thing to us today.

The best those things can do is feed our ego, which is a false conception of who we are. Our true self, the deepest part of us that is made “in the image and likeness of God” lies far deeper than those things. And we can only discover that true self by letting go of these other things in our lives that tempt us to identify with them.

Many of us, including the rich man in this story, are too frightened to embark on this journey of discovery. We are afraid that, if we let go of all these other identifiers, we might discover that there is no true self underneath the piles of “stuff” we have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. We think those “things” are us. We say, “I am the person who does this; I am the person who owns that; I am the person who is this.” We hold onto these false idols and identify with them because we are scared that, deep down, there is no Great “I Am” holding it all together. So we think it’s up to us. And too many of us go to our graves, kicking and screaming, and defending our little patch of earth until our hearts stop beating.

But here’s the thing: We’re wrong about all that. In spite of our deepest fears, there is a Great I Am who is deeper still (“Closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine says).

The rich man in today’s gospel, for whatever reason, was unable to let go and join Jesus on this journey of discovery. He wasn’t able to accept the gift of Nothing from Jesus. He walked away sad, still identifying himself with the “stuff” that he thought was his. But there have been others along the way who have accepted Jesus’ gift of Nothing.

Most notably, there is St. Paul the Apostle, who wrote much of the New Testament. He, like the rich man, had amassed a great treasury of accomplishments in the name of patriotism and religion. He lists them in his letter to the Philippians:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are things that Paul used to identify himself and uphold his little false ego-self. But then something happened to him: he had a blinding encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And this was the result, after his conversion:

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”

St. Paul received Jesus’ gift of Nothing and was transformed by it. He discovered the truth: that there is a Great I Am at the heart of all things. The true self that Paul discovered was not another ego like the one he had constructed, but the Spirit of Christ himself. He writes in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

This is the goal of all Christian spirituality: not a list of religious accomplishments, but a letting go of all these things so that we can receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing and so discover our true identity in Christ.

One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, calls this “the Spirituality of Subtraction.” It’s not about gaining more experiences or accomplishments. It’s about letting go of those objects, experiences, and accomplishments we think we own.

What does this look like when we live it out? How do we measure Nothing? How do we chart our success in the art of letting go?

The only answer I can even begin to imagine for that question is this:

We achieve success by accepting failure. That’s the only way to make spiritual progress in the Christian life. We learn to accept ourselves (maybe even love ourselves) with all of our faults and limitations. When we fail or fall, we laugh at ourselves, rather than beat ourselves up.

The theologian Paul Tillich said it like this:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

This is what we call “grace.” This is what it means to receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing. And when we can do this (i.e. achieve success by accepting failure), a most amazing thing happens: our acceptance of ourselves and our failures starts to spill over toward acceptance of other people and their failures. Grace is contagious.

And here’s the really neat thing: in the end, it changes the way we understand God. As we open our hearts to grace, we gradually stop imagining God as the angry judge in the sky who makes impossible demands on us for the sake of religious observance, moral fortitude, or theological accuracy. We begin to see God as Jesus saw God: the Giver of Grace, the Giver of Nothing, the Great I Am beneath and beyond our false little ego.

And with that in mind, we can step back out into this world with full assurance of that which we affirm every Sunday:

That God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.