Anaesthesia

You were looking the other way
while I was distracted
by stacks, and stacks, and stacks
of things.

Disconnected,
just a highly organized
pile of rubble,
really.

Grasping
for some sense
of control,
I ask for information.

Scheduling
my death
as a dentist appointment.

Endings, you say,
are not so important
as sustained beginnings
in a single direction.

Pain
is how life
comes into the world.

Looking away
to not see
blood is the path
that leads to bloodshed.

Bear
with life
and all
it offers.

Then,
and only then,
will you begin
to make an end.

A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? 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? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

O Restless Heart

O restless heart, who knows the way
that wanders not, but seems to stray
from end to end, by many means,
as each new crossroad intervenes.

A promise made on one’s behalf
had carved in stone the epitaph
before a babe a word e’er spoke,
or strength from weakness had awoke.

The frailty of a father’s will
bade not the peregrine be still,
for silence would not silence keep
till ev’ry song its harvest reap.

So, following the ancient way,
by trails unblazed in light of day,
from deep to deep, the altar call
makes three in one the all in all.

 

-Memorial of St. Odo & the Holy Abbots of Cluny

 

Photo credit: Jan Sokol (self-published work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Eighteen Inches Down

There’s nothing wrong with me
a slip on ice won’t fix.
A view up close, from down
below, within the mix.

In woods, a fallen log
homes life in midst of death.
In space, exploding star
births atoms with her breath.

In cloud, I see a shape.
In night is not the dark.
The there is ever here.
At home, shall I embark.

In silence is a sound,
unknown to neural net.
From eighteen inches down
flow words both wild and wet.

I see together hang
the cords unbroken still,
the dangling of the spheres,
not thrust by might of will.

Upon this ground, I lie,
upheld a billion years,
while trust unknown will sound
the song that charms my fears.

There’s nothing wrong with me
a slip on ice won’t fix.
A view up close, from down
below, within the mix.

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

Pranking the Devil

The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.

This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.

St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.

We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.

We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”

Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.

With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”

But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.

The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.

One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.

What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:

“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.

Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:

 “Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
bestowing life.”

Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.

Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.