The Overview Effect

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year A.

The text is John 17:1-11.

Almost fifty-five years ago, something happened to planet Earth that had never happened before. The exact date was Christmas Eve 1968. On that day, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders (crew of the Apollo 8 spacecraft) became the first humans to travel to the moon. Their mission was not to land on the surface, but simply to circle the moon and take pictures. Of all the photos snapped on that trip, one stands out among the others.

At about 3:40pm, Bill Anders was taking scheduled photographs of the lunar surface when he looked up and exclaimed, “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.”

Commander Borman ordered back, “Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

Thankfully for the rest of us, astronaut Anders did not seem particularly keen on following orders that day; he lifted his camera and captured what nature photographers consider to be “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Image credit: Earthrise. Taken by Bill Anders on December 24, 1968. Public Domain.

The photo itself was quickly published after Apollo 8’s return to Earth. In it, we can see the gray horizon of the lunar surface and, floating just above it, a tiny blue marble that contains everything we’ve ever known and everyone we’ve ever loved.

Anders’ photo itself left people around the world breathless, but any astronaut would tell you that the photograph does no justice to the experience of actually seeing that sight with your own eyes. Psychologists have interviewed returning astronauts over the past several decades and recorded their personal thoughts and feelings after seeing the Earth from space. They call it “The Overview Effect” and describe it like this:

“The thing that really surprised me was that [the Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” (Michael Collins, Apollo 11)

“[It’s an] explosion of awareness… [an] overwhelming sense of oneness and connectedness… accompanied by an ecstasy… an epiphany.” (Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14)

The Overview Effect is powerful because it is, in scientific terms, what we would call, in theological terms, a mystical experience. According to early 20th century philosopher William James, an experience can be described as “mystical” if it is given (not produced by the observer), transient (not lasting forever), noetic (having some kind of content or message), and ineffable (indescribable). The Overview Effect meets all four of these criteria, even though it is natural, not supernatural, in its essence.

The main thing that astronauts struggle with in the Overview Effect is how impossible it is to describe to people who have not gone to outer space and seen it for themselves. In this morning’s reading from John’s gospel, we hearers encounter a similar difficulty when listening in on Jesus’ high priestly prayer to his Father in heaven.

Jesus speaks this prayer during Holy Week, just after the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, mere hours before he is arrested and crucified by the Roman authorities. Up to this point in John’s gospel, Jesus has dropped various hints about his identity as God’s Son, but now he is speaking plainly about who he is. The only problem is that Jesus is using human words to describe a reality that is inherently beyond human understanding. He might have better luck describing nuclear physics to a Doberman!

So, as we eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer to the Father, it sounds to us like he is talking in circles: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you… I glorified you on Earth… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed… All mine are yours, and yours are mine… I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” He goes on and on like this for quite a while. If you listen to the whole thing, you start to get dizzy after a few verses. I don’t blame you.

What Jesus is doing here is putting words to something that is, by its very nature, beyond all words. He is pulling back the curtain of this world so that we can get the briefest glimpse of the reality he lives in on a daily basis. In simpler terms, Jesus is showing us how he sees the world.

It’s not all that different from the way that astronauts saw the Earth from space. Down on the ground, people tend to be consumed by conflicts that seem to be of utmost importance, when seen up close. Up in orbit, an astronaut doesn’t see national borders, skin colors, or religions. The astronaut only sees the big picture of this little planet, suspended in space by a thread. In its obvious smallness and fragility from space, it becomes painfully obvious that all the Earth is one.

Now, Jesus was not an alien who came down from outer space (although I’m sure there are people on the internet who would debate me on that), but he did reach the same conclusion as astronauts through his own spiritual awareness. The path is different, but the destination is the same: “We are one.”

Jesus prays that his followers “may be one,” as Jesus and his Father are one. The oneness of Jesus and his Father was the hot topic of debate during the first several centuries of Church history. Bishops, popes, and priests spilled a lot of ink and spent a lot of time debating what this actually means. At the Council of Nicaea, the debate became so intense that St. Nicholas (yes, THAT St. Nicholas) slapped another priest for disagreeing with him about the nature of Christ. (SIDE NOTE: In my career as a Presbyterian and an Episcopalian, I’ve been in a lot of tense church meetings, but never one so bad that Santa Claus punched a guy.)

Based on this story, it’s safe to say that the oneness of Jesus and his Father was very important to the early Christians. Eventually, the Church came up with the doctrine of the Trinity to describe the relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. What we Christians believe, in some way that defies rational explanation, is that Jesus and the Father are one. Christians call Jesus “the Son of God” because of family resemblance. It’s the same as when we look at a baby and say, “She favors her mother!” To see Jesus is to see God. The resemblance is not physical, but spiritual. When Christians say that Jesus is the Son of God, we mean that God is the kind of person that Jesus was.

When Jesus prays, “that they may be one, as we are one”, he is inviting us all into the dynamic mystery of the Holy Trinity. In some way that defies rational explanation, we are joined together in that same divine unity of spirit. All distinctions of race, nationality, gender, language, sexual orientation, politics, and social class disappear. We are all one in Christ. As our patron, St. Paul, famously wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What the astronauts observed fifty years ago from space, Jesus revealed two thousand years ago in spirit: “We are one.” The discoveries of science and the revelation of the Bible are unanimous, in this respect.

The oneness we all enjoy, as beloved children of God, is the central fact of our existence. Our central task, as Christians, is to celebrate and activate this oneness in our daily lives. When we gather to pray, sing hymns, hear the Scriptures, and celebrate the Eucharist, we are actualizing the fact of unity, as Jesus revealed it in the first century. When we live in this world as Jesus lived, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and welcoming the outcast, we are embodying the divine truth that astronaut Bill Anders saw when he snapped his famous photo of the Earth from space.

Jesus prayed to his Father that his followers “may be one, as we are one.” When astronaut Bill Anders saw the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, he heard the answer to Jesus’ prayer.

May we, in our lives, become the answer to Jesus’ prayer. May we look past our sad divisions of race, religion, politics, and economics. May we do our level best to tend this garden that God has given us. May we live as beloved children of God in a world that would divide us by any other criteria. May we be one, as Jesus and his Father are one.

May it be so. Amen.

Top image credit: Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola on the International Space Station. Photo by NASA. Public domain.

Divine Validation

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Link to text: Acts 17:22-31

[TW: Discussion of suicide and self-harm.]

Many years ago, I was going through a particularly rough time, psychologically speaking. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, I felt trapped in a situation that I couldn’t see my way out of, and I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously if I spoke up about how miserable I was. Eventually, my mental health deteriorated to the point where I was regularly contemplating suicide.

[Since you can see that I’m still here, I obviously didn’t act in any final way on those self-destructive impulses, and I’m very glad today that I didn’t. If you, or someone you know, is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, I strongly urge you to reach out to someone you can trust: friends, family, clergy, or therapist. If you can’t think of anyone you know, call 988 on your phone. This is the number for the new Suicide & Crisis Lifeline launched last year by the federal government. This Lifeline, the biggest project of its kind, exists to help people get immediate help in a mental health crisis.]

At the height of my own struggle, I finally spoke up during a prayer meeting at my church. I didn’t go into much detail, but simply said I was “going through a hard time.” Honestly, I wasn’t even sure what I was asking for, but thought it might be nice to hear someone say a prayer for me. The pastor leading the service surprised me by telling the group that I am “a very unselfish person.” His brief compliment, in that moment, took my breath away. I didn’t think of myself in that way (frankly, I still don’t), but those kind words gave me something I didn’t realize I needed: Validation.

Validation, in the sense that I’m using the word here, is about the basic human need to know that we matter and we belong. People go about trying to meet this need in all kinds of ways. Some seek validation in their professional or academic accomplishments; others seek it in their money or possessions; some seek it in their family roles or relationship status. The options are nearly limitless.

One place where I see this human need for validation in our world today is in the online world of social media. With every narcissistic selfie, every envious like, every enraged tweet, and every hormonal swipe-right, we are building a digital temple of idols to our ongoing search for validation. We desperately need to know that we matter and we belong, so we look for that assurance in the never-ending data stream of the internet. Like Athens in Paul’s day, social media is a marketplace of ideas. In some ways, the internet has united human beings with the ability to share information faster than anyone else in recorded history. In other ways, its carefully cultivated algorithms have made us more misinformed, divided, depressed, and angry than ever. We come to these platforms seeking the validation of our human dignity, but settle for the cold reassurance that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Each click fills our brains with a momentary rush of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical in our brains) but leaves our hearts starved for the validation that comes from genuine relationships.

St. Paul the Apostle, in today’s first reading from the book of Acts, seems to recognize this universal human need for validation. The story opens with Paul teaching on Mars Hill in the famous city of Athens. Athens had been home to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many other well-known Greek philosophers. It was the intellectual capital of ancient Europe, much like Harvard or MIT might be today.

By speaking his message in Athens, St. Paul was very intentionally bringing Christian faith into the marketplace of ideas in his time. One of the things I love most about this story is the way that Paul engages in dialogue, as a Christian, with intelligence, respect, and compassion. Paul doesn’t try to defeat his opponents with forceful rhetoric; instead, he offers them validation by affirming their deepest concerns and aspirations.

He says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.” From there, he goes on to describe his experience of visiting their city and equates their “altar to an unknown god” with his own faith in the one God of Jewish and Christian tradition. Later on, he even quotes two Greek philosophers directly: Epimenides, who said, “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being,” and Aratus, who said, “we too are [God’s] offspring.” Both Epimenides and Aratus wrote these lines about the Greek deity Zeus, but Paul applies them to his God.

By doing this, Paul demonstrated that he could understand and appreciate the thought of pagan philosophers, even though they didn’t share his beliefs. It would have been so easy for Paul to berate the Athenians with insults about how ignorant and superstitious they were, but he offers them validation instead. He looked deep into their hearts, past their surface-level disagreements, and said to them, in effect, “I see who you are and what you’re trying to do here. You are searching for God, and the God you are searching for is not far away. In fact, God is right here, within us and all around us, just as your own philosopher Epimenides has said: ‘In God we live, and move, and have our being.’”

St. Paul’s method of respectfully and intelligently validating the Athenians is very much in keeping with the core message of the Christian Gospel. As Christians, we believe that Jesus, the Living Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelt among us.” In Christ, God validates humanity by becoming one of us and meeting us right where we are. Jesus came into this world offering validation to lonely, hurting, and sinful people who are, for all their brokenness, still beloved children of God.

This affirmation is not limited to human beings, either. In Christ, God validates the entire universe by incorporating elementary particles from the Big Bang and DNA molecules from life’s evolution into the incarnate flesh of the Divine Son. As that most well-known Bible verse says, “God so loved the cosmos (Greek for “world”) that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). The Christian Gospel is all about God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

Kindred, this message of validation has the power to change our lives. If we believe that God truly validates the dignity of who we are, in our deepest selves, then we can find, in that faith, the strength to give that same validation to ourselves. We can stop abusing ourselves with words like, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” Instead, we can practice radical self-validation by asking ourselves questions like, “Why do I feel this way?”

The difference between those two statements is subtle, but important. First of all, that second statement is a question, which means we are cultivating curiosity about ourselves, instead of passing judgment. The question assumes there is an important message in whatever feelings we feel.

If we’re feeling depressed or anxious, our body may be trying to tell us that we are overwhelmed and need to rest or ask for help. If we’re feeling angry, it might be because our dignity is being attacked, so we need to set up healthy boundaries to protect our sense of self-respect. These are just examples. You’ll have to search your own feelings in a given situation to discern the message those feelings are trying to send you. The point is that, by asking a question instead of passing judgment, we are practicing radical self-acceptance and thereby coming into agreement with God’s validation of who we are, as beloved offspring of the Divine.

The second step of coming into agreement with Divine validation is to extend our radical self-acceptance toward radical acceptance of others. This is exactly what St. Paul does in his validation of the Athenians. Christians today can find, in Paul’s message, a helpful strategy for engaging in intelligent and respectful dialogue with science, philosophy, and other religions. These things are not enemies of faith, but products of the human mind in its God-given quest for truth and meaning.

As Christians, we might not agree with everything said by our neighbors of other faiths, but if we look deep enough, we might find significant points where we do agree, and those points of agreement might lend new insight to our own faith, as well as cultivate goodwill in our relationships with our neighbors. Let us remain open to these new insights, as they come.

In my own aforementioned experience of validation, from all those years ago, I discovered new strength for living. Across the year that followed my interaction with the pastor at that prayer meeting, I started making some necessary changes in my life, with the help of my family. I switched schools to a smaller environment where I felt less overwhelmed, I got myself into counseling and on medication that stabilized my mental health, and I started exploring my spirituality in a deeper way than ever before. Validation gave me the strength to change for the better in ways that self-criticism never could. May the same be true for you as you practice radical acceptance with yourself and with everyone you meet in the validating and unconditional love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Image: Ruins of the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, Greece. Photo by Daniel Nouri.

The Language of the Heart

Sermon on John 14:1-14.

Imagine with me, if you will, that you are a kid on a playground. You’re having a fine time running around on a lovely day. Then you decide that you’d like to feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, so you start to make your way over to the swings. Just then, the biggest kid in the neighborhood steps in front of you, blocking your path.

The big kid says, “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“I’m headed to the swings,” you reply.

“Is that so?” he says, “Well, here’s the thing: Those are my swings. If you want to play on them, you’ve got to get through me first. Let’s find out just how tough you are!” And he puts up his fists.

Now, most of us can understand exactly what’s going on in this situation: The big kid is being a bully. As parents, that’s the moment when we would probably step in and say, “Hey now, that’s not nice! These swings belong to everyone, so anyone can play on them. Why don’t you take a step back and let the smaller kids go play on the swings?”

As grownups, we wouldn’t just stand by and let that kind of bullying happen to our kids on a playground. So then, why do we just accept it when certain kinds of Christians do it to other people? In my job, I spend a lot of time on the highway. I regularly see religious billboards with messages trying to convert people to Christianity. A common Bible verse that appears on these billboards is John 14:6, which we just heard in our gospel reading this morning. In this verse, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Now, I’m not going to speak against this verse itself; it’s part of our sacred scriptures and I love it. What I am going to speak against is the fact that some of our fellow Christians use this Bible verse as a threat. When Christians post these words of Jesus, out of context, on their billboards and church marquees, they are sending the implied message that no one can have a genuine spirituality unless it looks like theirs. That’s a problem. In a country where Christians already make up a majority of the population, that’s bullying.

More than that, it’s a misrepresentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word “Gospel” means “good news”, and those who post these billboards think they’re just “preaching the good news”, but frankly, I can see nothing “good” about it. The real Jesus didn’t threaten people with hellfire and damnation. The real Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick. The real Jesus welcomed outcasts and forgave sinners. The real Jesus got himself in trouble for hanging out with the wrong kind of people. The real Jesus is more likely to be found at the Stonewall Inn than the National Cathedral.

[SIDE NOTE: If you don’t know what the Stonewall Inn is, then please watch the award-winning documentary The Stonewall That Didn’t Fall by Cadence Phillips, a parishioner at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joseph, Michigan. This documentary recently won first place in the state and has been nominated to represent Michigan in the National History Day film competition in Washington, DC. Cadence is currently trying to raise $1,000 for the trip to Washington.
Please consider donating here:
You can watch the film here:
Thanks in advance for your support!]

Now that we’ve talked about what Jesus didn’t mean in that verse, let’s talk about what he did mean when he said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

First of all, it’s important for you to know that biblical scholars generally agree that these words were never spoken by the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. There was a literary convention in the ancient world that feels foreign to our own. It was a common cultural practice, in the ancient Mediterranean, for students of a great teacher to honor their mentor by writing in their mentor’s name. The idea was that they were continuing their teacher’s thought where the teacher left off, so any credit for brilliance would be given to the original mentor and not the student. Outside of the Bible, we can see this happening in the writing of the great philosopher Plato, who wrote most of his Dialogues in the name of his mentor Socrates. There is little debate among modern scholars that most of Plato’s ideas come, not from Socrates, but from Plato himself (even though he writes in the name of Socrates). It is the same with the author of John’s gospel and the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

When John puts these words into Jesus’ mouth, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”, he is not committing forgery, but honoring the teacher who changed his life. The author, in this verse, is telling the readers of his gospel what Jesus meant to him.

This is a problem for us readers in the modern world, who value accuracy above all else, but it was not a problem for ancient readers, who understood that biography was more about “who this person was” than “what actually happened”. If we were to describe what the author of John’s gospel was trying to do, in modern terms, we might say that he was “speaking the language of the heart”.

Let me describe what I mean by “language of the heart” by way of analogy. Imagine a married couple, out to dinner on their wedding anniversary. One of them raises a glass to the other and says, “Sweetheart, you are the most wonderful person in the world and I am the luckiest person in the world. There’s no one else for me. I love you with all my heart. Happy anniversary!” Now, we would all agree that this person was speaking from the heart. So, imagine how inappropriate it would be if the waiter were to interrupt the speaker in that moment and say, “Now wait just a minute, Buster! You can’t possibly say that your partner is the most wonderful person in the world because you haven’t met all the people in the world! For all you know, there could be another person out there, more wonderful than your partner, so you shouldn’t say such inaccurate things on your anniversary!”

If you were sitting at a nearby table, you would be perfectly justified in standing up and saying to that waiter, “Hey now, that’s not nice! This person was talking to their partner on their anniversary. You had no right to interrupt them. In fact, you have no right to pass judgment on their relationship at all!”

When it comes to the language of the heart, most of us would agree with the philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said, “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.”

This is also how it works, when it comes to Christian faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We owe no one an explanation when we say, “Jesus, you are the way, and the truth, and the life.” We are speaking the language of the heart, just like that couple out to dinner on their wedding anniversary. This is what the author of John’s gospel was trying to say when he put those words into Jesus’ mouth. Using the cultural conventions of his time, he was trying to express his love for the man who had changed his life for the better.

In our day, let us also be just as exuberant in our praise of Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Let us proclaim to the world the good things he has done for us, not only in our words, but in our deeds. If Jesus is our way, our truth, and our life, then let us strive to become the kind of people that Jesus was. When we see the hungry, let us feed them. When we see the sick or injured, let us heal them. When we meet the outcast and sinners, let us welcome and befriend them. May we, like Jesus, get ourselves in trouble for hanging out with queers and freaks. When the bullies of this world come hunting for us, may they find more of us in Stonewall than they find in cathedrals. That’s how they’ll know we are there because we are following Jesus, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Image credit: Billboards Portrush by Willie Duffin, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Doubt is Not a Barrier to Faith

Sermon on John 20:19-31.

Once upon a time, there was an expecting mother. In her womb, there were twins. These twins, as people often do when they spend a lot of time together, liked to talk about various things. One day, a particularly philosophical question came up. One turned to the other and asked, “Do you believe there’s any such thing as life after birth?”

“Never really thought about it,” the other twin said, “but I highly doubt it. We’ve never seen anything outside of this place. No one who leaves ever comes back. I think that, when the time comes for us to be born, we just go through that passage and cease to exist.”

“I disagree,” the first said, “I mean, you’re right that we’ve never seen anything outside of this place, but just look at these eyes, ears, hands, and feet that we’re growing! Why are we growing them, if we’re never going to use them? I bet, after we go through that passage, we’ll find out there’s a whole world outside that we’ve never seen before. I have no idea what it will be like, but I have a hunch our time in this womb is getting us ready for whatever comes next.

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said the other. “I bet the next thing that you’re going to tell me is that you’re one of those crazy religious people who believes in the existence of Mom!”

“Well, I don’t think I’m crazy,” the first said, “but, as a matter of fact, I do happen to believe in Mom.”

“Oh, really?” The other said, “Then why don’t you enlighten me, if you’re so wise? I’ve been in this womb for almost nine months, but I’ve never seen a ‘Mom’ or any evidence that convinces me to believe there’s any such thing as life after birth. So then, just where is this hypothetical ‘Mom’ that you supposedly believe in?”

“It’s hard to explain,” the first said, “but I think that Mom is everywhere, all around us. Everything we see in this womb is a part of Mom. So, I guess, it’s kind of like… maybe we’re growing inside of her? You said you’ve never seen Mom, but I think we’ve never seen anything other than Mom. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I suppose it’s just another one of those things we won’t know for sure until after we’re born.”

There are two things I’d like to point out about this little parable, which I have adapted from Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. First of all, neither twin in the story is in a position to know, with any certainty, what the full truth of the matter is. The answers to questions about “life after birth” and “the existence of Mom” are pretty obvious to you and me, who have lived outside the womb for most of our existence, but we can imagine how scary it must have been when we were going through the process for the first time. Even now, uncertainty about “life after death” and “the existence of God” makes us nervous. Maybe someday in eternity, we’ll look back on our earthly lives and laugh at how little we knew back then, but today we can only know what we know, which might give us a little sympathy for those unborn twins and their philosophical questions.

The second detail from that story I’d like us to notice is that the presence of doubt has absolutely no bearing on the twins’ status as beloved children of their mother. She will love them just the same, no matter what philosophical conclusions they draw during their time in utero. In the same way, even the oldest among us are still babies in the eyes of God. Our eternal Mother knows full well that human beings are incapable of answering the biggest questions about reality, so she is able to have sympathy for those who struggle honestly with doubt. Just like those babies in utero, each and every one of us will be loved forever, no matter what we come to believe during our brief time on this Earth.

This means that doubt is not a barrier to faith.

This second fact about Nouwen’s parable of the twins is what I want us to keep in mind, as we turn to look at today’s gospel.

The story of St. Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ is the most thorough treatment of doubt in the New Testament. Our brother Thomas gets an unfair shake when we use his name to make fun of someone for being “a Doubting Thomas.” After all, Thomas was only doing what any of us would have done, if someone came to us with news that seemed unbelievable. For this reason, I like to think of Thomas as “the patron saint of critical thinkers.” The scientist Carl Sagan famously quipped that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I imagine Dr. Sagan applauding when St. Thomas proclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

The most intriguing aspect of this story is not Thomas’ doubt, but Jesus’ response to it. If John’s gospel had been written by modern Fundamentalist Christians, they probably would have said that Jesus couldn’t appear in the upper room until the other disciples had excommunicated Thomas for his skepticism. If Jesus appeared at all, it would probably be on the far side of the locked door, shouting about how Thomas is a “sinner” and is “going to hell,” if he doesn’t change his mind. But that’s not what actually happens in John’s gospel.

In the real version of the story, the text says, “Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Thomas’ doubt, for Jesus, was not a reason to stay away, but a reason to come closer. Thomas’ doubt, for Jesus, was not a reason to offer words of judgment, but a reason to offer words of peace. Jesus doesn’t command Thomas to have blind faith, but gives him the extraordinary evidence he’s looking for.

The presence of this passage in our sacred Scriptures should shape the way we deal with doubts, both our own and those of others. It should help us learn how to accept the process of critical thinking as a necessary part of faith. It should lead us, not to retreat from hard questions, but to advance alongside them.

As Episcopalians, we are blessed with abundant spiritual resources to help us on this journey. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican theological tradition. One of the things that makes Anglicanism distinct from some other expressions of Christianity is the way in which we think about our faith. Some other churches see their faith as a monolithic statement by a single and infallible authority. For Roman Catholics, it’s the Pope; for Fundamentalist Protestants, it’s the Bible. But the Anglican theological tradition, as far back as Fr. Richard Hooker in the 17th century, has always viewed Christian theology as a three-way dialogue between Scripture, tradition, and reason.

This way of thinking about our beliefs, sometimes called “the three-legged stool,” means that Episcopalians see our religion as a never-ending conversation. Everyone gets to have a seat at the table, but no one gets to stand on the table and yell at everyone else. Unlike some other religious traditions, Episcopalians do not view their leaders as infallible. We honor our ancestors, but we also believe the Church can be wrong. An interpretation that made sense at one time might stop making sense for future generations. A way of life that seemed just and holy in one century might seem abhorrent in another, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean that “anything goes” in Christian faith and practice, but it does mean that Episcopalians are always open to having a conversation about it.

This understanding of the Christian faith means that Episcopalians can be notoriously hard to pin down when someone asks what our church believes. We frequently disagree with each other, sometimes passionately. The late comedian and devout Episcopalian Robin Williams once said, “No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be an Episcopalian somewhere who agrees with you.”

Finally, thinking of the Christian faith as a three-way dialogue between Scripture, tradition, and reason means that The Episcopal Church is a place where you can bring your whole self to church: Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal, believer and skeptic. To all these parts of ourselves and each other, the sign outside our churches around the country proclaims the message loud and clear: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you!”

Whoever you are, whatever you believe, however you identify, and wherever you are on your spiritual journey, you are welcome in this sacred space. That is the message that Jesus proclaimed to St. Thomas in today’s gospel. That is the message that The Episcopal Church seeks to embody every day, as it has for hundreds of years. And that is the message that I hope you hear in this sermon today: That you, with all your doubts and fears, are still a beloved child of God, and you are welcome in this place.


Empty Tombs and Chaos Muppets

Sermon on John 20:1-18.

       On this glorious Easter Sunday, the most sacred day in our spiritual tradition, I very much want you to know, dear kindred in Christ, that there are, basically, two kinds of muppet: Chaos Muppets and Order Muppets.

       Order Muppets are those devoted characters who are just trying to do their job, keep it together, and maintain some shred of sanity. Order Muppets include characters like Scooter, Bert from Sesame Street, and (the greatest muppet of all-time) Kermit T. Frog.

       Meanwhile, the Chaos Muppets, like Ernie, Miss Piggy, and (my personal favorite) Animal are constantly on the verge of blowing everything up with their shenanigans (sometimes literally).

       Now, it’s important to remember that neither kind of muppet is inherently evil. The world of The Muppets is based on friendship and balance. A great example is the duo Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Bert (the Order Muppet) is steadfast and meticulous. Ernie (the Chaos Muppet) is a whimsical free spirit who, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, wants “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” Ernie sometimes needs Bert to help him stay focused and get things done; Bert sometimes needs Ernie to help him relax and enjoy the little things of life. These best friends need each other and help each other, even though they are very different.

       As human beings, I think there is a bit of the Chaos Muppet and the Order Muppet in each of us, but one or the other will tend to be more dominant, based on our personality and circumstances. I, for example, have frequently been typecast as a Chaos Muppet. This is largely due to the fact that I live with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD” for short). This condition, which affects a little less than 1 in 10 people, is a developmental disorder that affects the way by brain functions.

In scientific terms, my brain produces less dopamine and more reuptake transport proteins than the average brain does. This structural difference results in an interruption of the reward pathway and an overall increase in executive dysfunction and emotional dysregulation.

In plain English, that means that I cannot feel as good as other people, and when I do, it doesn’t last as long. You know that satisfied feeling you get when you finally get the house clean or finish a project ahead of schedule? I literally can’t feel that.

On the outside, it sometimes looks like I am impulsive, undisciplined, and oversensitive. On the inside, I know that I’m working as hard as I possibly can, but it doesn’t seem to be good enough. In short, ADHD makes me into a Chaos Muppet.

       Now, I’m not telling you about my ADHD because I want your sympathy. I’ve lived with this for my whole life and I’m honestly fine with it. I’ve done years of medication, talk therapy, and research to manage the way my particular brain works. I’ve hit a lot of speed bumps of life’s road, but at 43, I’m pretty happy with where I am and who I am today.

I’m telling you all this because living with ADHD is about learning how to embrace life’s chaos and work with it. Your chaos might be different from mine. It might be related to your job, school, relationships, medical problems, or grief. I can’t list all of the potential causes, but I’d bet dollars to donuts that each person in this room feels some kind of stress in their life that is threatening to tear them apart at the core. That’s the call of the chaos.

       When I look at our gospel reading this Sunday, it’s the chaos that stands out to me most. Everybody is running back and forth, jumping to conclusions, disagreeing with each other, and trying like heck to figure out what’s really going on. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb and finds it open, immediately decides that she knows what’s happened (without even checking to look inside), and then she runs back to Peter and John to announce her conclusion. Peter and John then run back to the tomb, look inside, and come to their own conclusion (without any direct evidence, I might add), and then run back to their house. Mary Magdalene, meanwhile, has also run back to the tomb, still clinging to her original interpretation, and collapses in an emotional mess.

       This is where things start to get interesting (and more than a little funny) because, while Mary is still standing there, in the midst of a mental breakdown, angels appear to her. Normally, you’d think this would be enough to snap her out of it, but it doesn’t work. So then, she turns around and Jesus himself is standing right in front of her, but Mary is still so hyperfocused on this thing she’s afraid of, she can’t recognize the obvious truth, even though it’s literally standing right in front of her!

It’s not until Jesus says her name, “Mary!” that she finally pauses long enough to realize what’s actually going on.

       I find it very interesting that the thing that brings Mary back to reality is the sound of her own name, spoken back to her by someone who loves her. There’s something very powerful in that. When Jesus speaks Mary’s name, he is bringing her back to the awareness of who she really is. Behind and between the letters of her name are the years of shared history, in which Jesus and Mary had traveled and worked together. This was the voice of someone who saw her, knew her, and loved her more than anyone else ever could. By speaking her name in that moment, Jesus grounded Mary in the reality of her true self.

       Practicing the Pause is good medicine when we feel so overwhelmed by the stress of life that we begin to lose our bearings on reality.

  • Sometimes, like Mary, the Pause is given to us by someone who loves us.
  • Sometimes, it feels like we are alone, so we have to speak our own name to ourselves.
  • Sometimes, we see a miracle so amazing, it takes our very breath away.
  • Sometimes, all we see is this ordinary world, but we notice some detail or perspective that piques our curiosity enough to bring us back from the edge of catastrophe.

       Either way, the effect is the same: We are drawn out from the momentary crisis and rooted firmly in the truth of who we are. Like Mary Magdalene, we begin to see through the swirling clouds of chaos and begin to realize the creative possibilities emerging from the depths of reality.

       For me, the emergence of these creative possibilities happened much more slowly than it did for Mary Magdalene. In the swirling chaos of life with ADHD, I spent decades floating from job to job, relationship to relationship, and church to church. At this point, I’m beginning to learn how to be more grounded in the truth of who I am and the creative possibilities that are still emerging from that truth.

Recently, I’ve learned that the neurological differences that made me a very bad administrator can also make me a very good hospice chaplain.

  • I’m finding that my emotional sensitivity, which made personal relationships so difficult in the past, can also give me the compassion to sit with dying people in the final moments of their lives.
  • I’m finding that my unfocused wandering, which has made me late for work on more than one occasion, can also give me the mental flexibility to jump from topic to topic with hospice patients from a wide variety of religious backgrounds.
  • I’m finding that my inability to feel the satisfaction that other people feel at solving problems can also give me the patience to sit with someone in a terminal situation where there is no solution other than the imminent finality of death.

These are just a few of the creative possibilities that are emerging for me from my life with ADHD (even though I’m still a Chaos Muppet).

       I asked you earlier to think about the stressors and chaos in your own life. Where does the Chaos Muppet vex the Order Muppet within you? Now, let’s turn that around. Like Mary Magdalene, let’s pause at the sound of our own name. If you were to rest in the full acceptance of who you are, what creative possibilities might emerge for you, from the chaos of your life?

       As we begin to discover our own answers to that question, we will experience, with Mary Magdalene, what it feels like to have Resurrection energy flowing through our bodies. We will, each Chaos Muppet and each Order Muppet, in our own unique ways, live out the truth of the oldest Christian creed: “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

A Fresh Set of Eyes

Dr. Dave Wilson

Sermon on John 9:1-41.

I’d like to begin this morning by telling you about Dr. Dave Wilson. For almost a decade, Dave has been one of my closest friends (a “bromance,” if you will). In the moments when he’s not presiding over a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or spending quality time with his kids, Dave works as a professor of physics at Kalamazoo College. More specifically: Dave is a physicist who studies viruses.

       “Now, wait just a minute,” you might ask, “wouldn’t that make him a virologist?”

       “No,” Dave would respond, “I am a physicist who studies viruses.”

       Now, that might sound kind of ridiculous, at first, until you realize just what Dave has managed to accomplish, as a physicist who studies viruses. Several years ago, Dave made a groundbreaking discovery that is currently changing the way virologists practice their science.

       What Dave has discovered is a particular internal structure to certain types of viruses, called spherical viruses. This structure appears because of the way that particular atoms and molecules bond to form proteins in the shape of a sphere, with little hook-like protrusions sticking out. These “hooks” are the way in which these viruses latch onto the cells in your body and feed off of them, thus making you sick.

       Dave’s discovery of an internal structure to these viruses opens up new avenues of study for traditional virologists, who are now using this information to develop new kinds of antiviral medicine and even exploring ways in which viruses might be used to help fight cancer. (For those who might be wondering, the virus that causes COVID-19 is exactly this kind of spherical virus.)

       When Dave first started sharing the results of his discovery with fellow scientists, some of the leading virologists in the world looked at his findings and smacked their foreheads in wonder.

       “It was right in front of us the whole time,” they said, “we can’t believe we didn’t notice it before!”

       What it took for this new discovery to come to light was a fresh set of eyes. It took a physicist, looking at the problem from a fresh point-of-view, to notice the truth that had been hiding in plain sight all along. I tell you this story because “the need for a fresh set of eyes” is central to understanding the meaning of this morning’s gospel.

       In this passage, Jesus gets himself into trouble, not for the first time, by questioning traditional assumptions of his religion.

       Most pertinently, he questions his culture’s traditional beliefs about the nature of suffering. The prevailing belief of that time, which continues among many religious believers today, was that suffering happened as the result of divine punishment for misdeeds. This is why Jesus’ disciples ask, at the beginning of this passage, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus, on one the few occasions when he answers a question directly, responds in the negative. I will follow the Rev. Carrie Bail’s suggestion that we alter the punctuation of our English translation.

       “Neither,” Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. [PERIOD] So that God’s works might be revealed in him, [COMMA] we must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

       What Jesus does so brilliantly in this encounter is shift the direction in which his disciples are looking for the meaning of suffering. The disciples, by their question, reveal their assumption that the meaning of suffering can be found by looking to the past. Jesus, by his response, opens their minds to the possibility that the meaning of suffering might be created by looking to the future.

       No one can fully understand why bad things happen to good people. When tragedy strikes, our evolutionary programming kicks in to help us identify a cause, in hopes that we might be able to prevent such tragedy from befalling us. This strategy, while sometimes useful, sadly leads us to blame the victim when the unthinkable happens.

  • “What was she wearing?”
  • “Why didn’t he look both ways before crossing the street?”
  • “Why didn’t you go to the doctor sooner?”

On the many occasions when no immediate cause can be found, we resort to empty platitudes.

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
  • “Heaven must have needed another angel.”

These phrases, I’ve noticed, tend to comfort the bystanders of tragedy more than the victims. We say them to make ourselves feel better, rather than the people we are trying to help. Even if we could somehow figure out all the causes of a particular tragedy, that knowledge would do nothing to remedy the present situation or alleviate the suffering of those already affected.

       Jesus, thankfully, gives his disciples a fresh set of eyes for looking at the problem of suffering. Instead of looking for past causes of present crises, Jesus looks to future responses. The question, for Jesus, is not, “Why did this happen,” but “what will we do next?” The first question looks for the meaning of suffering in the past; the second question creates the meaning of suffering in the future.

       We know from the story what happens next: Jesus opens the eyes of the man born blind. I’m not going to spend much time talking about the miracle itself because I don’t think that’s the actual point of this gospel. The real point is not how Jesus changed the way one person saw two thousand years ago, but how Jesus changes the way we see today.

       The miracle caused quite a controversy in Jerusalem. The day on which Jesus performed this act happened to be Shabbat, the traditional day of rest in Judaism. The respectable members of the congregation took offense at this timing because they thought it violated their time-honored traditions. After a very long and drawn-out debate, they excommunicated the man born blind from their synagogue because he refused to join the authorities in their denunciation of Jesus.

By this action, the gospel tells us, the authorities prove themselves to be the ones who are truly blind, while the formerly-blind man sees the goodness of Jesus more clearly than anyone. Jesus tells his listeners, in the final words of this passage, that the failure of the authorities to recognize goodness is rooted in their firm conviction that they already know the answers to every question they ask.

       This is a problem that afflicts people in our age, as well. Social psychologists recognize a phenomenon known as “the Dunning-Kruger effect,” wherein people who know very little about a given subject tend to have more confidence in their so-called knowledge than the actual experts do. Actual experts, who have studied a subject in depth, tend to be more aware of the complexities involved with their chosen subject, and therefore tend to have more humility about their conclusions. This means that those who shout loud and talk fast are most likely to be heard, while those who consider carefully and take their time are more likely to offer genuine insight, but less likely to be heard.

       The best way to get unstuck from the Dunning-Kruger effect, according to Jesus, is to practice the Zen Buddhist principle of shoshin (“Beginner’s mind”). In the cultivation of beginner’s mind, Buddhist practitioners are taught to let go of their preconceived judgments and ideas in order to see themselves and their world with a new set of eyes. This discipline of beginner’s mind applies, not only to those who are new to Zen Buddhist practice, but even more so to those masters who have practiced this form of meditation for many years. The most experienced spiritual masters, like Jesus and the Buddha, are able to see reality clearly by greeting each new moment with fresh eyes and the absence of judgment. This is what it means to truly see.

       The contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition offer us ways to cultivate beginner’s mind in our own lives. Taking time to pause in prayer and meditation, we create space in which we can disentangle ourselves from the reactive need for quick and easy answers. In its place, we plant seeds of wonder and peace that grow into wisdom and healing.

       When we let go of our arrogant impulse to possess all the right answers, we open ourselves to the fullness of reality in the present moment. Like my friend Dave Wilson, we gain the ability to bring fresh perspective to a situation and discover truths that were hiding right under our noses. Like Jesus, we open the door to new ways of seeing, opportunities for healing, and paths to a meaningful future.

       May it be so for us. May we pause long enough and often enough to question our assumptions and gain insight. May the seeds of peace we plant grow into fruits of discovery, healing, and a meaningful future. May it be so, today and always. Amen.

More Than These

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11.

Today marks the first Sunday in our church’s journey through the 40 days of Lent. Christians have traditionally thought about this season as a time for “repentance” in preparation for the Feast of Easter. For many people, the word “repent” conjures up the mental image of a televangelist shouting through the TV screen in Elizabethan English: “REPENT of thy sins, for the end of days draweth nigh!”

If we were somehow able to ask that preacher, through the TV, what he thinks the word “repent” means, he would probably say it means to fall on our knees and grovel before the Almighty, wallowing in guilt for our many transgressions. For many people, both inside and outside the church, that’s what the word “repent” means. There’s only one problem with this definition: That’s not what the word “repent” means.

In the New Testament, which was written in Greek, the word that gets translated as “repent” is metanoia. If we break this word down into its constituent parts, we get meta, which literally means, “change,” and noia, which means, “mind.” So, the word “repent,” in its original meaning, actually means, “to change your mind” or “to think differently.” “Thinking differently,” rather than “wallowing in guilt,” is the definition of “repentance” I’d like us to keep in mind as we begin our journey through Lent, toward Easter.

In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to think differently about who we are, as human beings. This story, ostensibly about Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness, is also a story about all of us. The temptations that the devil puts before Jesus are not mainly about moral evil, per se, but the instinctive draw to identify with one part of our nature instead of the whole people we were created to be.

In the first temptation, the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Now, I think we can all agree there’s nothing morally wrong with making bread. After all, if Jesus had the power to do so, wouldn’t he use it to end world hunger? The deeper meaning of this temptation becomes clear when we see it as a symbol of the human instinct for survival.

According to evolutionary brain science, the basic survival instinct is located in the brain stem and cerebellum. This part of our brains, called “the reptilian brain,” evolved earlier than any other part. The reptilian brain is concerned with the three S’s: Safety, Sustenance, and Sex.

Safety is the fight or flight response. If you’re alone at night and hear a loud noise behind you, your stomach will probably jump. In that moment, adrenaline will start coursing through your body, preparing you to run fast or fight hard, depending on what the situation requires. You’ll be scanning the area for the cause of the noise because this is the instinct God gave you in order to keep yourself safe from danger.

Sustenance is the craving you have for sugars, fats, and salts. These items were rare in the time before McDonald’s existed, so our evolutionary ancestors developed a craving to consume as much of them as possible. This instinct kept them alive through the lean times, so they generously passed them down to us.

Sex, of course, is the way in which we pass our genetic material to the next generation. Without reproduction, a species is in danger of immediate extinction, so God gifted us with this natural desire in order to continue to the story of humanity for another generation.

Safety, sustenance, and sex are all very normal and natural parts of our humanity. But they, by themselves, cannot create the kind of abundant life that God intends for us. If we live only by the power of these basic instincts, we will quickly tear ourselves apart and damage our capacity for human flourishing, so God gave us additional instincts to hold our animal urges in check. This is why Jesus quotes the Torah, in response to the devil, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ “ He was saying that there is more to life than the gratification of our natural impulses.

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ “ This symbolizes the drive that humans have for affection and esteem.

The pinnacle of the Temple was the most public place in Judaism at that time. If Jesus performed a death-defying miracle in that place, the crowd would surely see it and give him their undivided attention, not to mention their admiration. In scientific terms, this is the social instinct, corresponding to the brain’s limbic system, which evolved tens of millions of years ago in the first mammals. This part of the brain holds our more basic instincts in check. For example, if I eat all the food without sharing, mate with whoever I want, or kill anyone who makes me angry, I run the risk of being kicked out of my family group. The social instinct balances out my selfishness and makes it possible for us to live in groups and families.

The problem is that this instinct, by itself, causes problems like jealousy, people-pleasing, and codependency. If we live our whole lives according to our need to be liked, we end up compromising on things that really matter and divide ourselves into tribes that battle for supremacy. There is more to life than being admired. This is why Jesus quotes the Torah a second time, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ “

In the final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. He said to Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” This is the temptation to power, which corresponds with the most recently evolved part of the human brain: the neocortex.

The neocortex is the computer part of the brain. This is where we do all the things we think of as “thinking.” We make calculations and predictions, envision hypothetical scenarios, and develop plans for action. Humans have an amazing ability, more than any other animal, to recognize patterns of cause and effect. We can formulate universal moral values that transcend our basic instincts and tribal loyalties. Through the power of reason, human beings have cured diseases, explored the solar system, and developed systems of political and economic organization that govern the whole planet.

But, here too, there is a dark side. Those same rational abilities have also given us the power to deceive ourselves, manipulate others, create weapons of mass destruction, and develop social systems that privilege the greed of the few over the needs of the many.

Jesus says “No” to all of that;
Jesus says “No” to racism and sexism;
Jesus says “No” to homophobia and transphobia;
Jesus says “No” to socialist oppression and capitalist exploitation;
Jesus says “No” to mass extinction;
Jesus says “No” to men who use their positions of power in order to take sexual advantage of the women who work for them;
Jesus says “No” to unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers;
Jesus says “No” to churches who tell their teenagers they are going to hell for being gay or trans;
Jesus says “No” to immigration systems that put children in cages;
Jesus says “No” to countries who build nuclear bombs when their schools can’t afford textbooks;
Jesus says “No” to a world where children die of malaria, for lack of a 25 cent vaccination.
Jesus says “No” to all of that.
Jesus says, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ “

All of these temptations lead us back to one question: “Who are you?” When the devil approaches Jesus with these temptations, he begins with a challenge, “If you are the Son of God…”

Bear in mind that, in the passage immediately before the one we read today, Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan. When “he came up from the water,” the Scriptures say, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ “

Jesus was able to resist the devil’s temptations to identify with his survival instincts, his need for social status, and his desire for power because he knew who he really was, as God’s beloved Son. The very same thing is true of you, today.

You, whoever you are, are the beloved child of God.
You are more than a bundle of cravings for rage, lust, and gluttony;
you are the beloved child of God.
You are more than your need for social esteem and affection;
you are the beloved child of God.
You are more than your desire for power and control;
you are the beloved child of God.

All of these are parts of you that deserve to be welcomed with compassion, but none of them gets to dominate the whole,
because you are more than these things;
you are the beloved child of God.

Any inner voice that tempts you to believe otherwise is the original liar from the pit of hell. Don’t listen to that voice. Listen instead to Jesus, who says, “You are the beloved child of God. Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

Going Backward is Not the Answer

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9.

Back when I was in the fourth grade, I had a great year. My teacher at school, Mrs. Gustafson, was amazing. I made friends with a new kid who had just emigrated from Poland. I really felt like I was on top of my schoolwork and I was actually enjoying my life, for once. But then, disaster struck.

The name of my particular disaster was “The Fifth Grade.” I didn’t like my new teacher. My friend from Poland got placed in another class. The schoolwork was way harder than it had been the year before. I was miserable.

But then, I had an absolutely genius idea. “If I’m not happy where I am,” I thought, “then I should go back to the last place where I was happy.” So, I went to see my school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold, to share my genius idea.

“I don’t think I’m ready for fifth grade,” I said, “so I think I need to go back to fourth grade and do it all over again.”

Mr. Arnold, if you can believe it, did not find my idea as brilliant as I did. In fact, he laughed so hard he almost fell out of his chair. I was puzzled.

“You’re not going back to fourth grade,” he said, “you’ve already done that. You did well. You graduated. And I hear you when you say that this year has been rough, but believe me when I tell you: you are ready for this challenge. Going backward is not the answer.”

Growing up is hard, but going backward is not the answer.

I want to invite you to think of a time in your life when you faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. What parts of you wished you could go back to the way things used to be? In what ways did you want to just give up on this new challenge and stick with the old problems that felt comfortable and familiar? How did you react when you realized that going backward was not an option, so the only thing to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other?

That’s how I imagine the early Christians felt in the time when Matthew wrote his gospel. The people to whom Matthew was writing were scared because they had just been excommunicated as heretics by the leaders of their religious tradition. Some of them probably wondered whether this whole “Jesus the Messiah” thing had been a big mistake and they should go back to practicing the faith of their ancestors, as it had been taught to them.

Matthew’s point, as you heard me say in my last few sermons, is to demonstrate how the movement that Jesus started stands in continuity with traditional Judaism. But he also points out the ways in which this Jesus movement is a step forward into a new way of understanding the faith of their ancestors.

The early Christians were branded as heretics because they had the audacity to proclaim they had experienced something, through this person Jesus, that had never been seen before. The God of their ancestors, they said, had somehow become embodied in a human being. In Christ, the immediate presence of God could be seen, heard, and felt. The early Jews and Christians had no theological category for this kind of experience. Some rejected it as heresy while others accepted it as mysterious truth.

The story of the Transfiguration, which we heard in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, tells us about a time when Jesus’ first followers get a brief glimpse of the divinity that flows through him. For just a moment, the veil of this world is pulled back and the disciples witness things as they really are. Through his conversation with Moses and Elijah, Jesus stands in dialogue with the Torah and prophets of Jewish tradition. By the light that radiates from within him, Jesus represents a new revelation of divine glory that leads the tradition into places it has never been before.

The early followers of Jesus realized that this new experience of God in Christ would certainly make people uncomfortable, but they also realized that going backward was not the answer. In this way, they were a bit like the famous scientist Galileo, who used his telescope to prove that the Earth is not the center of the universe. The ecclesiastical authorities in 1633 forced Galileo to sign an official denial of his findings, although the mounting evidence eventually led the Vatican to apologize and admit that Galileo had been right… in the year 1992.

New experiences can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable, when they go against our previously conceived notions of reality, but experience itself shows that, if we can open our minds, we will find ourselves in awe of an expanding universe whose creativity exceeds our wildest expectations. The scientific word for this is, “emergence.”

Physicists tells us that, in the first few seconds after the Big Bang, only the most basic elementary particles existed. Almost 400,000 years later, the first stable atoms began to form. Sometime after that, those atoms collided to form molecular bonds, making chemistry possible for the first time. 9 billion years after that, on this planet anyway, complex chemical reactions stabilized in a way that allowed single-celled life to form. This was the beginning of biology. And then, about a billion years ago, those single-celled organisms figured out how to work together so well that they formed complex beings with specialized nervous systems and brains. And then, in the last 2 million years, those brains became advanced enough to develop psychological self-awareness in the form of human beings.

With each new level of emergence, from physics to chemistry to biology to psychology, the universe gave birth to new ways of relating that were previously impossible and even inconceivable. No one could have predicted, at the beginning of time, how the elementary particles of the universe would one day take the shape of human beings with names like “Barrett” and “Karen.”

This is how the creativity of God works: Constantly leading us out of our narrow-but-familiar comfort zones and into new levels of experience. Faith, in this expanding and complexifying universe, is about trusting in the creative process, even when (especially when) our experience of that creative process challenges our preconceived notions about reality.

The first followers of Jesus understood this. They realized that their experience of divinity in the person of Christ would change their idea of God forever. They knew that this experience would get them excommunicated from their religious tradition. Yet, they continued to trust in their experience of Jesus because they knew, as Mr. Arnold once told me, that going backward is not the answer.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Arnold was right. Going back to fourth grade was not the answer for me. The rest of fifth grade continued to be pretty rough, but I got through it and kept moving forward. The years to come presented me with new challenges. Sometimes, I admit, I felt like giving up again but I kept putting one foot in front of the other and got through those challenges too. Along the way, I met new teachers I loved, made new friends, and got to learn things that set my mind and heart on fire in ways I would have missed, had I spent the rest of my life in the fourth grade.

When you look at your life, in what ways do you sometimes feel like going back to the way things used to be? What seemingly insurmountable challenges are in front of you today that make you want to give up and stick with the old and familiar ways of being? I won’t deny that it feels scary, because I sometimes feel scared about it too.

I want to invite you, as you face these challenges, to remember the words that my guidance counselor once told me: Going backward is not the answer. I want to encourage you with the image of Peter, James, and John with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. God revealed something new through Jesus that had never been seen before. It changed the world in ways that we still don’t fully understand. Keep trusting in this creative process and follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who leads you down this mountain and into a bigger world that shines a little brighter than it did before.

Not Dying, But Growing

This week’s sermon is on Matthew 5:13-20.

My name is Barrett and I am a Recovering Fundamentalist.

When I was a teenager and young adult, I became part of a religious subculture that prided itself on the virtue of absolute certainty. The Bible, so they thought, was meant to be taken literally and contained the answer to any question one could ask, regardless of the subject. Their interpretation of the Bible, so they told us, was the one-and-for-all absolutely correct interpretation. Anyone who questioned or disagreed with their understanding of the faith was surely a heretic, deceived by Satan, and bound to face divine punishment.

I bought into this ideology for a while. It was comforting, as a young person growing up in a large and complicated world, to have absolute certainty about what was true and right. It felt safe to be able to appeal to a trusted authority whenever I felt confused or conflicted about a situation I was facing. Whatever happened, I thought, I could comfort myself with the knowledge that I had held fast to the infallible standard of truth and morality, revealed from the very mouth of God.

But life, it seems, has a funny way of messing with your sense of certainty. When I grew up and went away to college and later seminary, I began to be exposed to facts about the world that called my certainty into question. It began slowly, as I learned things about science and other cultures. I saw incontrovertible evidence that the universe is more than six thousand years old and human beings had developed gradually from other forms of life. I met Christians who disagreed with my interpretation of the faith and learned about other religious traditions, but quickly discovered that these were not hell-bound heretics, but wonderful people who live good lives and just so happen to see things a little bit differently from me. Later, I learned that the Bible is not a monolithic book but a complicated library of many voices, all having a conversation about what matters most in life. Finally, I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong about many of the ideas that I had held onto so tightly. I realized that my comfortable and comforting certainty was actually quite harmful to myself and others.

On that day, I realized, I had begun to experience my first crisis of faith. I felt lost, betrayed, and forsaken. I wondered, “If I could be so wrong about one part of my faith, then who’s to say that the rest of it isn’t total bologna as well? Am I still a Christian? Do I even believe in God anymore?” These were live questions for me and the consequences felt very real. My faith had sustained me through all kinds of trials and tribulations, but now it felt like that faith was dying.

Have you ever found yourself in a mental or emotional place like this? Maybe, like me, it happened when you found yourself questioning the religious or political beliefs you had grown up espousing. Maybe, for you, it happened when a role or relationship, by which you had identified yourself, suddenly ended. Empty-nesters, divorcees, and retirees will all know what I am talking about here. As humans, we naturally identify with the most significant roles and relationships in our lives. Whenever we meet new people, we ask them about their job, spouse, or kids. We ask them where they grew up and what sports teams they root for. As we get to know them, we might learn more about their political and religious affiliations. As humans, we mix all these things together and say, “That’s who they are.” We might even mix them together for ourselves, look in the mirror, and say, “This is who I am.” So, it makes sense that, when one or more of these arbitrary categories is changed or challenged, our felt sense of identity begins to unravel. We take a second look in that mirror and ask, “Who am I, anyway?”

This state of affairs, while difficult, presents us with the most pregnant opportunity for spiritual growth that we may ever have.

The Christian Church, in its first century of existence, found itself in exactly that kind of situation. Matthew’s gospel, as you heard me say in last week’s sermon, was written with the explicit intent of demonstrating Christianity’s continuity with traditional Jewish religion. This is important, because Jesus never intended to found a new religion. He only ever thought of himself as a good Jewish boy, just as Martin Luther only ever thought of himself as a good Catholic (not a Protestant) and John Wesley only ever thought of himself as a good Anglican (not a Methodist). Jesus was Jewish. All of his Apostles were Jewish. So, it made sense, then, that the early Christian movement thought of itself as a Jewish movement. But then a few significant things happened that called their Jewish identity into question.

First of all, the early Church began accepting Gentiles (i.e. people of non-Jewish origin) into their membership without expecting them to convert to Judaism and observe Torah. This caused no small amount of controversy among the first Christians. Much of this fight is delineated in the pages of the New Testament. The Church was nearly split in half by this fight. Ss. Peter and Paul can be seen wrestling with the issue in their Epistles and in the book of Acts. But, as we know from history, the Church eventually decided to come down on the side of grace and inclusion. They could not deny the presence of the Spirit’s work among the Gentiles and they believed that their God was big enough to wrap those divine arms around the whole world.

This decision put those early Christians at odds with their fellow Jews. The traditional religious leaders accused them of diluting ancient bloodlines and assimilating to pagan cultural norms, all in the name of Jesus, who they had branded as a heretic, anyway. Christians, then, were summarily excommunicated from Jewish circles of fellowship.

As all of this was happening, St. Matthew was writing his gospel. Christians, especially Jewish Christians, were asking themselves, “Who are we? We followed this Jesus because we believe he is the promised Messiah of the Jewish people, but now those same people have told us we don’t count as ‘real Jews’ anymore. What do we do now?” These are questions that Matthew kept in mind as he was writing the gospel that bears his name. He wanted to make the point to his fellow Jewish Christians that Jesus, as well as the movement he started, stands in continuity with Judaism and not in opposition to it.

The gospel passage we read this morning highlights this effort on Matthew’s part. In verse 17, Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Torah or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” This verse captures the essence of Jesus’ attitude toward the religious tradition of his upbringing. Some of his opponents accused him of trying to destroy Jewish tradition; some antisemitic Christians throughout the centuries have sincerely wished he would do just that. But Jesus, in his usual way, manages to transcend both extremes by honoring his heritage and leading it forward, at the same time. In response to his opponents’ accusations of heresy, Jesus says to his followers, in verse 20, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

At first glance, this is a most shocking statement. The scribes were the most learned scholars of the Torah; the Pharisees were a populist group dedicated to strict observance of traditional morals and values. I like to call them, “The Upright Citizens’ Brigade.” These people were thought of as the paradigmatic examples of Jewish righteousness. How could anyone be more righteous than them? Jesus might just as well have said, “You need to be more Catholic than the Pope!”

And that, I think, is precisely the point. Jesus is ushering his followers into an experience that historians call a “paradigm shift.” He’s changing their point-of-view, at a fundamental level. He doesn’t want them to beat the scribes and Pharisees at their own game; he wants them to stop playing the game.

The kingdom of heaven, as you heard me say last week, is not some destination in the afterlife, but Jesus’ vision of the way this world ought to be. Jesus is saying, in effect, “In order to build the kind of world that we are trying to build here, you have to learn to think outside the boxes you’ve been given.”

To Jesus’ original listeners, this would have sounded like an impossible challenge, but to Matthew’s community of struggling Jewish Christians at the end of the first century, it would have felt like a breath of fresh air. Finally, as they heard these words from the mouth of their Savior, they could begin to form an identity of their own, with roots dug deep in traditional Judaism and branches stretching wide enough to give shade to the whole world. For the first time, perhaps, these Jewish Christians were beginning to get the notion that their faith was not dying, but growing.

That was the same notion I began to get on the far side of my journey away from Fundamentalism. To some in the communities of which I was formerly a part, I am now a heretic who has abandoned the faith once delivered to the saints. I no longer live with the comfortable certainty that my understanding of truth and righteousness is infallible for all time. Thanks to many wise mentors and the books they wrote, not least of which is The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, I am coming to believe in a God who is infinitely bigger and better than the narrow-minded bean-counter I had imagined before. My faith is learning to embrace doubt, not because it is dying, but because it is growing. When I look in the mirror today and ask, “Who am I, anyway?”, I can honestly answer, “I don’t know!” But this I believe: That faith is not about having all the right answers, but is able to thrive in the rich dark soil of doubt and failure; that I am not the first Christian to ponder these questions, because Jesus and the earliest Christians have laid them out for me; and that I am loved by a Love that will not let me go, today or ever.

How about you? What do you believe when the storms of life beach your ship of certainty on the far shores of doubt and failure? Who are you when the tattered rags of your roles and relationships are stripped away and you stand in broad daylight, wearing nothing but what the Good Lord gave you?

May we all come to rest in the uncomfortable silence after these questions. May we embrace the not-knowing and trust in mystery in which we live and move and have our being.

We Are That

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12.

Once upon a time, there was a community of acorns. They lived together, as acorns do, in the shade of a mighty oak tree. These were good little acorns and they wanted to be the best acorns they could be. So, they worked hard, took classes, and went to self-help seminars together. They polished their shells until they were sparkling bright. All in all, they were good little acorns who lived very respectable lives in the shade of that mighty old oak. Then, one day, another acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.” The acorns were all abuzz at this news. They wanted to hear what this new acorn had to say, because they wanted to be the best little acorns they could be. A hush fell over the crowd as they listened close. The new acorn took a breath, looked up at the tree, and then looked back at all of them. “WE,” the new acorn said, “are THAT.” And pointed up at the tree.

The other acorns were confused. They looked at each other and then back at the new acorn and said, “What?”

So, the new acorn said it again: “WE are THAT,” and pointed back up at the tree.

“That’s ridiculous,” the other acorns said, “that oak tree has got to be at least thirty feet tall. It has leaves and roots. The tree is the mother of all acorn life and a home for beasts and birds. It has rough bark around the outside while we have these beautiful smooth shells. How can WE be THAT?”

So, the new acorn explained, “Inside of us, deep in our hearts, there is a seed. If we crack open our shells and plant that seed in the ground, it will grow into a tree like this.”

“This is crazy talk,” they said, “and treasonous blasphemy! We are trying to be the best little acorns we can be! We have spent our whole lives working on our shells! We’ve made them shiny and beautiful! They are the very things that make us acorns! How dare you say that we should crack them open? You’re undermining the very foundation of our acorn society!”

The little acorns were very angry at the new acorn. They beat her up until they had smashed her shell to bits. Then they kicked her out of the nice little acorn community, far away from the shade of the mighty oak tree.

But then something amazing happened. The new acorn planted her seed into the ground. And there, far away from the shade of the original tree, she grew into another mighty oak. And underneath this new tree, there grew another community of acorns. These new acorns were also very good acorns who polished their shells and wanted to be the best acorns they could be, until one day when another new acorn fell down from the tree and said, “Friends, gather round! I have something very important to tell you.”

The end.

I tell you this fable, which I have adapted from Episcopal priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault, because I think it is a very good illustration of the truth that Jesus is trying to tell his disciples in today’s gospel.

This passage, which scholars have long referred to as “The Beatitudes” (which is a Latin word for “Blessings”), is among the most famous of Jesus’ sayings. The Beatitudes begin the three-chapter collection of Jesus’ teachings known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

In Matthew’s gospel, the Beatitudes mark the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the same way that the Ten Commandments marked the beginning of Moses’ revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Matthew’s gospel makes a special point of emphasizing how Jesus’ movement was continuous with traditional Judaism. Jesus, according to Matthew, is like “Moses 2.0,” bringing the revelation of God’s Torah to God’s people.

The Beatitudes themselves, like the Ten Commandments, are a literary masterpiece. We could easily do a whole series of sermons on each Beatitude, although our Lectionary doesn’t allow us the time to do that. Instead, what I would like to do today is talk about the first Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”) because the rest flow naturally from it.

I’ll start at the end, with the phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” This is a central idea in all of Jesus’ teaching. When we hear it though the filter of our modern American minds, it sounds like Jesus is talking about the afterlife. “The kingdom of heaven,” so we think, is where good people go when they die. Understood through this filter, it sounds like Jesus is saying, “People who are poor in this life should be happy, because they won’t be poor anymore when they die and go to heaven.” While I agree that poverty is not a concern in the afterlife, I don’t think this is the point that Jesus is trying to communicate to his disciples.

“Heaven,” in first century Judaism, was not a destination in the afterlife but a respectful way of referring to God. So, when Jesus says, “kingdom of heaven,” he really means, “kingdom of God.” A kingdom, as we all know, is any territory where a monarch lives and has authority. The place where God lives and has authority is in our hearts. This is why Jesus says, in Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

The kingdom of heaven is not a place in the afterlife, but a way of living in this world. The kingdom of heaven is the way this world ought to be, according to Jesus. Keep that in mind as we look at the rest of this first Beatitude.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Biblical scholars have spilled a lot of ink about this passage. They notice how, in Luke’s version, Jesus simply says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Some of them, especially those of a more left-wing ideology, make Jesus out to be a good Marxist, fighting for the rights of the downtrodden against their evil capitalist oppressors. Others, especially those of a more right-wing ideology, emphasize Matthew’s version, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” They say that “the poor in spirit” are those who have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, so their actual economic status does not matter. They think they can have material wealth and spiritual poverty at the same time. To be blunt, I think both of these interpretations are incomplete.

When I think of “poverty of spirit,” I think of the interpretation offered by Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine. The poor in spirit, according to Dr. Levine, are those who have the humility to admit they are the beneficiaries of abundant gifts and the generosity to pay those gifts forward to anyone in need. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our great American prophet, says in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Poverty of spirit is about knowing that there is no such thing as a “self-made person.” By a show of hands, who in this room can honestly say that they gave birth to themselves? No one. We were given birth by the labor of our mothers. In the same way, each of us is daily sustained by the free gifts of energy and nutrients from the Sun and the Earth.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is any place and time where people realize this basic fact of our existence and act accordingly.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, can be here and now.

The “kingdom of heaven,” as Jesus meant it, is the way things ought to be.

This, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

This world will be the way it ought to be when those who have much realize that everything they have is a gift, and the God of heaven commands them to share what they have with those who have not. This world will be the way it ought to be when, in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “Love is the way.”

“When love is the way,” he says, “No child will go to bed hungry ever again… poverty will become history… Earth will be a sanctuary… When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.”

My friends, I’m here to tell you that God’s kingdom will come, “on Earth as it is in Heaven,” when we live our lives according to the words that Jesus said. God’s kingdom will come when we become the kind of people that Jesus was.

This is the meaning of the parable of the acorns: Jesus came to show us that we are not self-made individuals, but mighty oak trees. We are capable of more life and growth than we could possibly imagine. If we can break through our fragile shells of status and privilege, we will discover within ourselves the “kingdom of God,” the life-giving power to make this world into the way it ought to be.

All we have to do is let go of our shallow and fragile egos and embrace our true identity as children of the living God. When we do that, we will understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”