By Manfredo Ferrari - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35010569

The Power of Humility

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical text.

A friend once told me, “You have to be careful what you pray for.”

If you pray for patience, God will make you wait for it. If you pray for a deeper understanding of God’s love, God will bring someone into your life who is difficult to love. And if you pray for humility, God will put you in a situation that you find humiliating.

Humility is probably the hardest thing to pray for and the hardest lesson to learn in the spiritual life. Those who have humility often don’t realize they have it. Truly humble people are more likely to be conscious of the many ways in which they fail to be humble.

Conversely, those who claim to have humility are often gravely mistaken. I don’t think there is anyone, other than Christ himself, who can rightly say, “I’m so humble!” Believing that you have humility is the first and greatest sign that you don’t have it. That’s what makes humility such a tricky virtue to cultivate.

St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of western monasticism, describes the virtue of humility using the image of Jacob’s ladder in the biblical book of Genesis. In the original vision, Jacob saw a ladder stretched between heaven and earth, on which angels were “descending and ascending”. St. Benedict took this image as a lesson in humility. He had this to say about it:

“…if we want to reach the highest summit of humility, if we desire to attain speedily that exaltation in heaven to which we climb by the humility of this present life, then by our ascending actions we must set up that ladder on which Jacob in a dream saw “angels descending and ascending” (Gen. 28:12). Without a doubt, this descent and ascent can signify only that we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility. Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts God will raise it to heaven. We may call our body and soul the sides of this ladder, into which our divine vocation has fitted the various steps of humility and discipline as we ascend.” (RB 7)

St. Benedict goes on from there to devote an entire chapter of his Rule for monasteries to the subject of humility. He outlines twelve steps along this metaphorical “ladder to heaven”. Time does not permit me to outline each of them here, but I leave you to look it up for yourself in the Rule of St. Benedict.

The subject of humility is an important one for all of us who live in a world and try to function in an economy that is built upon self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. We are told that if we don’t toot our own horns, no one else will. The key to success, we are told, is to ascend by ascending, even stepping over others along the way, if we feel it is necessary. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” we say, “and you’ve got to do unto others before they do unto you.”

Under such brutal values, it is the poor, the sick, the children, the elderly, and the different who get trampled upon. Those who adopt this blasphemous morality as their own cannot see any value in Christ’s teaching on humility. Humility, according to secular existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is “the morality of the weak.” Not surprisingly, Nietzsche is the same philosopher who famously declared, “God is dead.” The barbarous world we live in seems to have no place for the virtue of humility.

So, why is it then that Jesus, in today’s gospel, commends the virtue of humility so highly?

Christ says to his fellow guests at the party, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor… But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.”

At first glance, this comes across as a lesson in strategic etiquette, but a deeper look reveals a powerful truth that God has hidden in human hearts. The guest who takes the lowest place at the banquet draws out the natural compassion of the host. The host recognizes the injustice of the situation and acts quickly to rectify it. In doing so, the host reflects the image of Israel’s God, YHWH, who saw the oppression of the Israelites under Pharaoh’s genocidal tyranny. God then acted, through the hand of Moses, to liberate the Hebrews from slavery and escort them to the seat of honor that was prepared for them in the promised land of their ancestors. Like the host at the party, God saw the injustice of the situation and acted quickly to rectify it.

In the same way, we who act with justice and mercy toward the poor are also bearing witness to the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God, which has been planted in our hearts from eternity. This is why Jesus commands the host of the party, “[W]hen you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”.

In just a few short days, on September 4, Pope Francis will canonize the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta at a mass in Vatican City, officially recognizing her as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Like the host of the party in Jesus’ teaching, Mother Teresa took notice of the unjust suffering of her fellow human beings and acted quickly to set them in a place of honor. She cared for the poorest of the poor in one of the most challenging environments on earth. In her life, our elder sister in the faith embodied the instruction of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Like the guest at the party in Jesus’ story, she willingly took to the lowest place on earth, and so she is now being exalted in the Church. Her life has inspired the hearts of people the world over. Despite the brainwashing of this brutally selfish global culture, we cannot deny the odor of sanctity that comes from such humble compassion. We look at her and realize that Nietzsche was wrong: humility is not weak; it is the most powerful spiritual tool on earth.

As with all saints, Mother Teresa’s sanctity does not spring from her own heroism. She is holy because her humility echoes the humility we find in Christ himself. St. Paul writes of this humility in his letter to the Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

The humility of Mother Teresa is the humility of Christ. And in Christ, we discover that this humility is far from weak; indeed, it has the power to save the world. May our lives, like Mother Teresa’s, reflect the gentle power of Christ’s humility and compassion. May we, like the host of the party, act quickly to rectify injustice when we see it. May we, like the guests at the party, be willing to take the lowest in place in service to our world. May we resist the egotistical powers of this world that worship money, power, and violence as tools for self-aggrandizement. May we place our faith and hope in the humility of Christ, who died to save us and rose victorious over death. And may we, with Mother Teresa and all the saints, find in this humility the path to our own resurrection. Amen.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14736169

It’s Okay to be Uncomfortable

Click here to read the biblical text.

People have no idea what it’s like inside my head.

They look at my body, of course. It’s plain to see there’s something wrong with me. When I was a little girl, my parents were worried sick about me. They asked me all the time, “Why don’t you just stand up straight?” They consulted physicians, who looked me over from head to toe, but couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. As far as the doctors could tell, there was nothing medically wrong with me.

But without a clear diagnosis to work from, everyone assumed the problem was me. People would say things like, “Don’t slouch! Stop messing around and stand up straight! We know you can do it; the doctor said so! You’re just faking this illness for attention! Come on, just stand up straight already. You’re just not trying hard enough!”

But those were just the voices of other people. Even worse, SO much worse, were the voices I heard inside my own head: “You piece of garbage! You’re worthless! You’re hopeless! You deserve this! You should do the whole world a favor and just kill yourself right now!” They were SO LOUD and they never stopped, day or night. No matter what I did, even covering my ears with my hands, I couldn’t make them stop or get any quieter. Most days, I couldn’t even leave my house. All day long, I just sat in a corner with my head leaned up against the wall, singing to myself, just to have something other than the voices to listen to. It felt like a dead weight inside my chest, like someone had tied a heavy, invisible stone around my neck.

Once a week, on the Sabbath, my parents would force me to get up and leave the house. I felt so bad for them. Their hair had turned grey and their faces wrinkled with worry. They both had dark circles under their eyes from so many late nights when the voices wouldn’t let me get to sleep. I was almost twenty years old at this point. Any other “normal” daughter would have been married off by now, with a husband and children of her own to care for, but not me. They were getting on in years. Sometimes, I could hear them talking at night, worrying about what would become of me when they were gone. We had no other family. I would probably end up living on the street, where I certainly wouldn’t last long. Perhaps some of the neighbors would be kind enough to help me out from time to time?

The Sabbath was the one time each week when I would get out of the house, to go to synagogue. To be perfectly honest, I hated it. Since we were women, tradition said my mother and I had to stand at the edge while my father covered his head and went to the middle to pray with the men. I liked listening to the sound of their singing, but being around the other villagers was unbearable. Some people were kind: they would greet my mother and ask how I was doing this week. Others would look down at me with disgust, but most just politely ignored us. Just like I did at home, I would mostly crouch in the corner, leaning my head against the wall, and trying to make myself turn invisible.

One Sabbath, a traveling rabbi named Jesus visited our synagogue. People were saying lots of interesting things about him: that he was some kind of prophet, like the ones we read about in the Torah. As was customary, our rabbi invited him to preach and lead services that day. More people than usual came out to hear him. The synagogue was crowded, so I had an especially hard time finding a space against the wall were I could be.

As the congregation was gathering for worship, Jesus and I crossed paths at the synagogue door. I knew better than to speak to a man who wasn’t a member of my family, but I glanced up as he passed by, and we very briefly made eye contact. He gave me a smile and I quickly looked down again.

After the prayers, Jesus began to preach. One of the readings that morning was from the book of Isaiah (I heard somebody say that was Jesus’ favorite book to preach on). The reading said:

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday… if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth”.

Jesus’ sermon was all about the Sabbath. He said there were two reasons why it was so important. First of all, it was the day God rested after creating the heavens and the earth, so we too should rest from our labors on that day. But the second reason, he said, was because God freed our people from slavery in Egypt. Pharaoh worked our people to the bone, making us build his palaces and pyramids. We were nothing more than animals to him, but God saw our suffering and liberated us by the hand of Moses. We are human beings, made in God’s image and likeness. Because of that, each and every one of us has God-given dignity and should be treated as such. Keeping the Sabbath, Jesus said, helps us to remember that dignity. That one day a week, when we Jews rest from our work and gather together to study the Torah and pray, should remind us to treat each other with kindness and compassion on the other six days of the week. The best way to keep the Sabbath, he said, is to help our fellow human beings live lives with the full and free dignity that God intends for them.

Then he paused in his sermon for a moment. He looked up and said, “There was a woman I saw on my way to synagogue this morning. Where is she?” The people started looking around at each other and shrugging their shoulders. Which woman was he talking about? He said, “She’s bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.” Everybody knew he was talking about me.

I was terrified. My only goal in life was to pretend to be invisible, but now everyone was staring at me because of Jesus. Then he did something I’d never seen any rabbi do before: he called me over to the center of the synagogue. Didn’t he know that was against the rules? Only men were allowed in that part of the room. But Jesus didn’t seem to care about that. He wanted me to stand up next to him, as best as I could, at the front of the service.

I could tell the leaders of the synagogue were uneasy about this. They were looking back and forth at each other with angry eyes. People were shifting back and forth uncomfortably. Jesus ignored them and turned directly to me. He said to me, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” As he said this, he laid his hands gently on my head.

And suddenly, the most amazing thing happened: It got quiet. I mean, really, actually QUIET. And not just quiet in the room… for the first time since I could remember, I was quiet on the inside.

The voices had stopped. I could hear myself breathing and the pounding of my heart in my chest. The pain of that dead weight, the imaginary stone tied around my neck, was gone. When Jesus lifted his hands off my head, I felt lighter, like I could float right up to the ceiling. Almost without thinking, I leaned back and… and… and stood up straight.

There was an audible gasp from the congregation. Looking around at everyone in the room, I realized for the first time that I am actually quite tall. In fact, Jesus himself was actually a couple of inches shorter than I am. I didn’t expect that. He just looked up at me and smiled again.

I don’t know what possessed me in that moment, but I felt like I should do something. I’d spent my whole life in that synagogue, listening to the men chant and pray from the very spot where I was standing. Sometimes, I would sing their songs to myself at home, just to drown out the voices.

But now, with the voices gone, I could feel that song rising up within me again, like a kettle boiling over. But this time, it was a hymn of praise, not a plea of desperation. I began to chant:

“Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh haOlam.”

          “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

That was when the synagogue leaders really lost their temper. Not only was this visiting rabbi interrupting their service, but now he even had me, a woman, leading God’s praises in the place that was traditionally reserved only for men. Needless to say, I didn’t get to finish my hymn.

They jumped up and shouted, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But Jesus didn’t miss a beat. He wasn’t having any of their pious nonsense. He shouted right back at them, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Let me tell you, that shut them up real quick! After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

What Jesus did that day was not just for me; it was for everyone who lives with oppression and degradation of their God-given dignity. Jesus showed me that day that my life matters. Yes, even mine, which seemed to be so wasted and useless for so long.

Of course, every life matters to God, but God seems to have a special concern for those whose lives are degraded. It’s not that our lives matter more; it’s that we’ve been told so often that our lives matter less. That’s an error in judgment that God is eager to correct.

Our ancestors were made to believe that their lives mattered less than Egyptian lives because they were nothing more than Hebrew slaves, so God sent Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Hebrew lives matter!”

In my case, I believed that my life mattered less because I was a woman and because I lived with a chronic illness, so Jesus came to tell me, “Your life matters!”

This is God’s message to all who are poor and oppressed in this world. Wherever and whenever the God-given dignity of human life is threatened by the powers-that-be of this world, God intervenes with this message to the powerful: “These lives matter!”

Black lives matter. Women’s lives matter. Gay lives matter. Trans lives matter. Mentally ill lives matter. Disabled lives matter. Immigrant and refugee lives matter. It’s not that other lives don’t matter to God, but others haven’t been subjected to humiliation and violence in the same way that some of us have. We already know that those lives matter; we need to hear and know that our lives matter too.

It might be that hearing this makes you uncomfortable, just like Jesus healing me in the middle of a synagogue on the Sabbath made our leaders uncomfortable. I want you to know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Stay with that discomfort for a while. Don’t be too quick to speak up. Don’t interrupt my song of praise, even if it sounds angry and defiant. This is the song that Jesus gave me when he set me free and made me able to stand up straight for the first time in my life.

This is my song of freedom, I’m singing it for the whole world.

And believe it or not, I’m singing for you too.

 

By ESO/H. Drass et al. (http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1625a/) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Discovering Fire

Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest and brilliant scientist, once said:

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”

I begin with Fr. Teilhard’s words this morning because they remind me of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

At first glance, these words of Jesus seem very apocalyptic and destructive. It’s understandable that some people might interpret them in this way. After all, fire can be very destructive. However, it can also be creative.

Fire, in a contained explosion, ignites the engines of automobiles and rockets. Electricity is a kind of fire that powers most of the technology we take for granted. For our ancient human ancestors, fire was used to cook food and refine metal.

On a much larger scale, the fire of the sun gives light and heat to the earth, making life possible.

Finally, the very atoms of our bodies were formed by nuclear fusion in the fiery furnaces of distant stars. These stars later exploded in brilliant supernovae, spreading their elements across the galaxy until they coalesced again in the substance of this planet.

So yes, fire carries within itself the power to destroy, but it also has the power to create. This is the kind of fire that Fr. Teilhard is talking about when he says that humankind “shall have discovered fire” for a second time when we “harness for God the energies of love.” It is also the kind of fire that Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel.

Ever since the earliest days of the Church in the book of Acts, fire has been a prominent, recurring symbol of the Holy Spirit. God dwells within human hearts like a kind of fire, a divine energy that animates faith, hope, and love in the same way that the fire of an explosion propels a rocket into space. The fire of the Spirit has survived multiple, almost constant, attempts to snuff it out over the centuries. But persecution, manipulation, arguments, and sin have all failed to contain this explosion. The Jewish prophet Jeremiah described his inner experience of the Holy Spirit like this: “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:9)

The divine fire is unquenchable, it seems. It’s burning goes back 13.7 billion years, all the way to the moment of the Big Bang, when God ignited a spark that grew into the universe we know today. Like an Olympic torch, this same fire has been passed from star to star, galaxy to galaxy, sun to planet, and hearth to heart.

That same fire burns in you today. To be sure, human selfishness, ignorance, and sin have tried repeatedly to smother it in ash. At times, its light had grown so dim to our eyes, we thought it had died out completely. But all such attempts to quench this fire have been in vain. The fire that Christ kindled in his work of redemption is identical with the fire that exploded forth at creation. This fire burns in you today, God’s free gift to all that exists, and it unites your spirit with the creative energy of the cosmos in the Holy Spirit.

This is a powerful truth that takes root in our Christian hearts as we make regular use of the means of grace, especially Scripture and Sacrament. We need to stay connected to these things because they act like firewood in our souls. This is the fuel that Christ uses to bring the divine flame back to life in us when we have almost succeeded in stomping it out with our selfishness and cynicism.

All of this sounds rather nice. It would be all too easy to say that there is a bit of God’s fire in each of us and Jesus comes along to help us keep it going. But here’s the catch: in order to rekindle the divine fire in us, Jesus has to stir up our smoldering ashes. He digs deep down beneath the surface and turns everything upside-down so that the fire can find its way back to the surface again.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is intentionally stirring up the ashes in his listeners when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

This is a far cry from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” At Christmastime, we hail the baby Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” who proclaims “Goodwill to all.” At first glance, it seems like Jesus is contradicting himself in this passage, but he isn’t.

In order to rekindle the fire of divine love within us, Christ first has to clear away the ash. In many cases, the “ash” is a faulty way of thinking about and relating to one another.

We human beings have a tendency to divide ourselves into camps of various sorts, for various reasons. We are divided along lines such as race, class, gender, language, politics, nationality, and religion. We are trained from birth to identify with one or more of these categories and understand how those in the opposing categories are enemies. One group is “us” and the other is “them.” Our groups fight with one another to gain supremacy, especially in terms of power and money.

Jesus, as the Prince of Peace, wants all God’s children to live in harmony with one another; he wants us to recognize the common spiritual fire that has bound us together from the beginning of time.

But before this recognition can happen, Christ has to shine the light of truth on our idolatries and ideologies that lead us to ground our sense of identity in one or more of these categories and set ourselves up against those who are different from us.

This is the kind of “division” that Jesus brings to the world: he divides our True Self from our small ego. He teaches us how to detach from ultimate identification with some aspect of our circumstance or personality.

This division process is painful. It looks like treason from the perspective of those who continue to identify with these categories. This is why Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.”

Jesus caused quite a scandal in his day because his band of apostles included Levi, a tax collector who collaborated with the occupying Roman government against his own Jewish people, and Simon, a zealot who had dedicated his life to fighting the Roman occupation of Judea with acts of terror and violence (in many ways, he was like an Al Qaida or ISIS fighter). By all rights, these two men should have hated each other. But somehow, in the company of Jesus, these two men found the strength to transcend the categories that divide them.

This pattern repeated itself time and again among Jesus’ disciples. Not only did he reconcile members of opposing in-groups within Judaism, he also welcomed entire villages of Samaritans as those who believed in him. Not only that, but the early Church went so far as to include Gentiles as well as Jews in its membership. This was unheard of at the time.

It was so scandalous, the early Christians were forcefully exiled from the synagogues where they had previously worshiped. Christ’s all-inclusive message of peace, which transcends lines of race and nationality by the power of the Holy Spirit, sounded like treason and heresy to the powers that be. The peace of Christ became divisive, not because Jesus willed it, but because people were too wedded to their narrow ideological categories. Given the choice, the enemies of Christ would rather possess one small corner of a world divided than live together in a universe united.

It seems to me that little has changed in the two millennia between Jesus’ earthly ministry and ours. We continue to live in a world/country/state/city/church/family that is bitterly divided against itself along petty and selfish lines. We are taught to fear those who are different from us and hate those who are our enemies.

As Christians, we cannot afford to play these silly, destructive games. Through Christ, we have come to experience the great fire from the foundation of the universe, the Holy Spirit that pervades all creation.

Christ calls us today to live with this awareness of the great sacred fire, even though the majority of people around us doesn’t see or understand it. Our actions of grace and mercy may look like treason or heresy to those around us. We may find ourselves at odds with the members of our own family, but Christ calls us to a higher allegiance. It may be my patriotic duty as an American to cheer as bombs fall on the strongholds of ISIS, but it is my spiritual duty as a Christian to mourn the death of my enemies, brothers and sisters who were created in the image of God, just like me.

It seems ironic that our unity in Christ should put us at odds with our other allegiances in the world, but this is how it has been from the beginning. It is yet another paradox of the Christian faith that we are called to let stand. We cannot hope to understand or resolve the problem by human effort alone, but only as all of us come to recognize and honor the sacred fire that was kindled by Christ: the Holy Spirit that dwells in each of us.

Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From God, For All

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Let me tell you something about my brother: he’s a jerk. I mean, really. A world class jerk.

Everything in life has just been handed to him. He was always dad’s favorite: the eldest son, good looking, charming, and everything else you could want a son to be. Dad doted on him. He always bragged about him to his friends: “My son this… my son that…”

Well, what about me? Ain’t I his son, too? I’ve played second fiddle to my brother for my whole life. Both of us followed in Dad’s footsteps, taking over the family business. I work just as hard as he does, but he gets all the credit. He gets to be in charge and call all the shots.

But in these past few years, as Dad has gotten older and sicker, has my brother even lifted a finger to help take care of him? No. Not even once. That was my job.

I checked in on Dad every day. My wife went over to help Mom with the cooking and cleaning so she could be with Dad. And then, when the end came and Dad finally passed away, I was the one sitting by his bedside, holding his hand and saying prayers. My brother was off tending to the business. I had to send one of my kids to tell him that Dad had died.

At the funeral, he made a good show of grief and all the neighbors came by to comfort him. They talked about how proud my Dad was… of him. I got the obligatory handshakes and clichés like, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

But that’s not even the worst of it. After the funeral, when Dad’s estate was being settled, all of the inheritance went to him. Nothing was left for me or my family. Just him. Where was he when Dad got sick? Where was he when Dad died? Both of us run the family business, so why I didn’t I get at least a portion of the inheritance?

It was humiliating. I would be dependent on my jerk of an older brother for the rest of my life, without a nickel to my own name. I would live like a beggar, even though I work for a living.

I went to the village rabbi with this issue, but he wasn’t any help at all. He just quoted this rabbi and that rabbi, saying that oldest sons were entitled to the largest share of the family estate. It’s like they didn’t even care about what was right, only what was legal, according to the dictates of the Torah.

I had just about given up hope when I heard that this traveling rabbi named Jesus was coming to town. I thought to myself, “Aha! This guy can help me! This rabbi Jesus has a reputation for speaking his mind and telling it like it is. He stands up for the common people and fights for what is right.” Surely, I thought, he would be able to knock some sense into my brother and make him give me what’s coming to me.

So, Jesus came to town and it was amazing. He was healing people left and right. I saw things I had never seen before in my life. My brother was there. Jesus was preaching to the crowd about the justice and mercy of God. He said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

And I thought to myself, Yes! This is it! This is my golden opportunity! So I stood up and shouted, “Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance.”

And then Jesus just stopped. He looked at me, looked over at my brother, and then back at me again. I just stood there, like I was frozen. All of a sudden, I felt kind of small. You know what I mean?

And then Jesus said to me, “Mister, what makes you think it’s any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?” Turning to the crowd, he said, “Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”

And then he told us a story. It was about a rich man who owned a lot of property. For a minute, this made me really excited again because people like me knew all about these rich jerks. They made their money, not by hard work and sacrifice, but by exploiting the poverty of their fellow farmers who were down on their luck.

You see, if a farmer had a bad year, he would take out a loan from one of these big business moguls. As collateral, he would put up the only things he had to his name: his land and his body. If the next year was a good year, then everything was fine. But if it was another bad year for the harvest, the farmer would have to take out another loan. Eventually, the poor farmer would get so deep in debt, he could never hope to pay it off. The creditors would foreclose on the loan and the farmer would lose his land. If he was lucky, he could go back and work the land as a tenant, but all the profits would go to the creditor. If he was unlucky, the farmer and his family would become slaves. Either way, the end result was that the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer. The whole system was exploitative.

So, I was glad that Jesus started by talking about these rich jerks and how they took advantage of poor, working folk like me. I hoped my brother was listening.

And then Jesus continued:

The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

“Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

“That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

After that, Jesus went on to say some other things, but to be honest, I kind of tuned him out. Something about that story stuck with me. Actually, it made me uncomfortable (somebody told me later that Jesus has that effect on people a lot). I had a sneaking suspicion that Jesus wasn’t talking about my brother; he was talking about me.

It wasn’t so much what he said that bothered me; it was what he didn’t say. Maybe I’m reading too much between the lines on this, but it occurred to me that the rich farmer in the story never gave thanks to God for the big harvest he had just hauled in. He seemed to assume that this abundance of crops came from his own hand, as if he himself, and not God, had made the rain to fall and the sun to shine that year.

It reminded me of a passage from the Torah that we used to hear in synagogue services every year:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

The second thing that occurred to me from Jesus’ story is that the rich farmer seemed to want to hoard all of this wealth for himself and not share it with others. Didn’t he know that other people in his community, especially the families of those poor farmers he was exploiting, would probably go hungry that year? Didn’t he realize that God sends the rain and the sunshine on everyone so that so that all of us can enjoy the fruits of the earth together?

This reminded me of another passage of scripture we used to hear in synagogue: God spoke to our ancestor Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

God blesses us, not so that we can be rich and comfortable, but so that we can be a blessing to other people in need. This is what we should be thinking about, as God’s chosen people.

And then it hit me: I was like that rich farmer in the story. The rich farmer was me, not my brother. I came to see Jesus that day, not to bear witness to what God was doing in our community, but to get something for myself. I thought it was my responsibility to make my brother do what I wanted him to do.

Not only that, I didn’t really care about what happened to my brother or his family; I just wanted to have what was owed to me. I kind of forgot that he’s my brother. We’re part of the same family, so a blessing for one of us is really a blessing for both of us. And my rotten, selfish attitude was only making it less likely that I would benefit from this mutual blessing in the future.

I’ve got to say, I didn’t get what I came for when I met Jesus that day, but I did get something. His words reminded me of what is most important in life: that we are family. My brother and I are sons of the same Father, and that means something. And you know, if you think about it, all of us human beings are kind of like brothers and sisters. We are the children of God, our Father in heaven. And the blessings that God pours out upon the earth are meant to be shared by all, not just a few of us. I’m grateful to Jesus for showing me that.

Ever since that day, things have been a little bit different between my brother and me. Not dramatically different, but a little bit. I eventually let drop the whole thing about splitting the inheritance. To be fair to my brother, he’s been okay about the whole thing too. When we fell on some hard times with the family business, my brother dipped into his inheritance to help the whole family out, so that we wouldn’t have to go one of those loan sharks. We wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for him.

Don’t get me wrong: he can still be a jerk sometimes, but he’s my brother after all.

I went to Jesus that day because I wanted to be proven right. Instead, Jesus showed me how wrong I’d been. More than that, he showed me that there is more to life than what I can get out of it. He showed me that I am loved, that I am part of a family, God’s family that reaches around the entire earth. And God’s desire is that all the children of this family would share generously in the abundant blessings that have been poured out for all.

Monks of St. Gregory's Abbey, Three Rivers. Photo by J. Barrett Lee.

Singing the Hours: Musical Resources for Benedictine Daily Prayer

For many years since college, the staple of my private devotional life has been the Daily Office in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). I’ve sampled other prayer books and breviaries over the years, but nothing has come close to the BCP. Nothing, that is, until I discovered Benedictine Daily Prayer (BDP).

I fell in love with this particular breviary because of its close similarity to the Office as it recited at my home monastery, St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers. It offers seven offices daily, with a robust cycle of longer biblical readings at Vigils. Of all the prayer books currently on the market, this is the one that most closely resembles the Liturgy of the Hours as prescribed in the Rule of St. Benedict and the Thesaurus Liturgiae Horarum Monasticae. The editor of BDP, the Rev. Dr. Maxwell Johnson of the University of Notre Dame, has done an amazing job with this project. With the recent release of a revised edition, Dr. Johnson has even managed to improve on excellence. This volume is great for Benedictine oblates, monastic enthusiasts, or anyone else who is passionate about the Divine Office. Choosing between BDP and my long-beloved BCP has been a difficult challenge.

You can order a copy of BDP from the publisher by clicking here.

The biggest challenge with BDP is the lack of musical resources available for those, like me, who prefer to chant the Office. I have managed to piece together several helpful resources in this regard and would like to share them here. I would be remiss if I did not give credit to Dr. Johnson for recommending several of these resources to me.

The Mundelein Psalter <— Click here for link

This is a fantastic resource for chanting the Office. It was designed for chanting the Liturgy of the Hours for the Roman Catholic Church. There is a selection of lovely, simple psalm tones that are easily learned. There are hymn tunes from the Liber Usualis for most of the major office hymns. These could be easily adapted for the psalms and hymns in the BDP. Frankly, some of the hymn translations in the Mundelein Psalter are better than the ones in BDP. Additionally, there are tones for chanting the other parts of the office, like the opening versicle and doxology, the litany, and the Lord’s Prayer. I also really like that the editors printed the full text of the General Instruction for the Liturgy of the Hours in the front of the book. The website (linked above) has several useful resources for learning the chants. It should be noted that the music in the Mundelein Psalter is printed in Gregorian notation. This system is different from the modern, five-line staff, but can be easily learned and is actually more adaptable than modern notation. The learning curve for Gregorian notation is steep at first, but well worth the effort, especially for those who are serious about chanting the Divine Office in the monastic style.

There are two significant downsides to the Mundelein Psalter. First, it is quite expensive (about $50). Second, it is almost a full breviary in itself (for the Roman LOTH), so you get a lot of material you don’t need and will likely never use. That being said, if it fits your budget, the Mundelein Psalter is an excellent resource for music and instruction.

The Lumen Christi Hymnal

This smaller, less expensive volume is great for the hymns. Like the Mundelein Psalter, many of these hymn translations are superior to the ones printed in BDP. The tunes are straight out of the Liber Usualis and are printed in modern notation (unlike the Mundelein Psalter). Also, I particularly appreciate that the Lumen Christi Hymnal includes tones for the Marian Antiphons in Latin. These are a beautiful way to end Compline just before bed.

[On a personal note, my very Presbyterian wife has come to love the Marian Antiphons by osmosis. She is usually settling into bed as I sing Compline in our room. One of the highlights of her day is when I “sing her to sleep” in Latin.]

St. Meinrad Psalm Tones

Click here for the tones in Gregorian notation

Click here to see them in modern notation

The first, best thing about these tones is that they are available for free. You can’t beat that on a budget. For those who don’t want to shell out the money for the Mundelein Psalter, these can be printed and used easily with the hymn tunes from the Lumen Christi Hymnal. St. Meinrad’s Archabbey is one of the largest and best-known Benedictine communities in the United States. Their tones are simple and elegant. Unlike the traditional Gregorian psalm tones, the St. Meinrad tones have more than two lines. This may be off-putting to strict traditionalists, but I am finding they have an elegance of their own that blends well with Gregorian chant. In many ways, I prefer them to the traditional tones for use with BDP because the multi-syllabic intonations and cadences of the Gregorian tones often don’t fit into the shorter psalm lines of the adapted Grail Psalms used by BDP.

Theses are the musical resources I am most familiar with. All of them have worked well for me in chanting the Divine Office as laid out in Benedictine Daily Prayer. I sincerely hope this is useful for others on the path.

By Albertus teolog - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17310761

God Says Yes

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

My wife shared this poem with me several years ago and I would like to share it with you today:

Click here to read ‘God Says Yes To Me’ by Kaylin Haught.

What I love about this poem is its whimsical nature and almost cavalier approach to prayer.

Prayer is a major theme that appears in today’s readings.

We see it first in Abraham’s conversation with God about the fate of the city of Sodom. God declares that the city must be destroyed, on account of the wickedness of the people who live there. But Abraham, in an act of haggling worthy of a used car salesperson, manages to talk God down from total destruction to sparing the city if even ten righteous people could be found in it.

There are plenty of theological issues I could raise from this passage: What was so bad about Sodom that made God want to destroy it? What kind of God goes around destroying cities, anyway? These are great questions that deserve answers, but I’m not going to address them in this sermon today.

What I want to focus on is the conversation that takes place between God and Abraham. That’s all that prayer is, really: a conversation between God and people. And in this conversation, the main thing we observe is that God says Yes to Abraham, without fail, every time he asks. God says Yes.

I put it to you this morning that God says the same thing to you in prayer. God says Yes to you. Always.

I admit that this is a pretty bold claim to make, especially since there is no one among us who cannot remember an instance when we prayed fervently for something or someone, only to be disappointed as the situation did not turn out as we had hoped.

And we ask ourselves, “What happened? Did I not pray correctly? Why did God say No? Does God simply not exist?” All of these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask in the wake of disappointment, especially when it feels like God let us down at a time when we really, desperately needed help.

For me, that kind of deep disappointment with God came early in early 2010, when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a three-week-old baby named Madalyn. Her parents were good friends and dedicated church members. She was born several months too early, weighing a little over two pounds. Despite an extended stay in the NICU, her prognosis was good. My wife and I were visiting the hospital and checking in with the parents regularly. The whole church was praying fervently and Madalyn showed steady improvement. Then, in the middle of night, the hospital called the parents, saying that Madalyn wasn’t doing very well and they should get there immediately. They rushed over as fast as they could, and ran in to discover that their baby had died mere moments before they arrived.

Madalyn’s death got me asking all kinds of uncomfortable questions about God, faith, and prayer. I had to go back and rethink much of the theology I had learned in seminary. Specifically, I had to ask myself, “What is the purpose of prayer?”

It occurs to me that many people these days have one of two misconceptions about prayer.

On the one hand, there are many devout people of faith who regard prayer as a form of magic. They think that if we pray long enough, hard enough, or in the right way, we will receive the results we want. In the Christian tradition, we see this idea most commonly among the adherents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” I commend these believers for their conviction that faith can make a tangible difference in this world. However, there are not a few of them who resort to “blaming the victim” when situations don’t pan out as hoped. They say that the victims of tragedy must not have sufficient faith, or that they have some kind of hidden sin in their lives that calls for divine judgment in the form of ill-fortune. Adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are quick to cite numerous Bible verses in support of their ideology, but they often ignore the broader narrative of Scripture, in which God is working in Christ to reconcile the whole cosmos to Godself, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Moreover, they fail to notice that there is not one instance in the four gospels when Jesus turns away from a sick person in need because they are a “sinner” or “don’t have enough faith.” To the contrary, Jesus regularly enters into relationship with sinners and even heals the epileptic son of a father who openly admits his struggle with faith.

On the other hand, there are many secular people who assume that prayer is simply a psychological trick that religious people use to help themselves feel better in moments of crisis. I find this reductionist view equally unsatisfying. First of all, prayer often doesn’t work as a psychological placebo. There are times when I pray about a situation and don’t feel any better for it. Inner peace, it seems, is just as fleeting as circumstantial happiness. A cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals a prayer life that is intimately familiar with suffering. Sometimes, the psalmist praises God for deliverance from the problems of life, but sometimes, they cry out from the midst of the storm. Sometimes, the very act of crying out leads the psalmist to greater peace and faith, but sometimes, as in Psalm 88, the psalmist ends with the words, “Darkness is my only companion.” If prayer is nothing more than a psychological trick to conjure up inner tranquility, it is a lousy one. Why then have people the world over continued to offer prayer in good times and bad?

The purpose of prayer, as I have come to understand it, is this: Prayer brings us into a deeper relationship with God.

People, religious and secular alike, naturally share their joys and concerns with each other. This is how friendships are made. Intimacy requires trust, vulnerability, and non-judgmental love between friends.

In the Church, we do this sharing in the context of worship because we believe there is a third party present in the conversation, beyond the one who speaks and those who listen, and that is God. We share our lives with God, not to obtain any specific results or special favors, but so that our relationship with God might grow over time. Conversely, there is also a time in our service when God gets to share God’s joys and concerns with us: in the reading of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the Word. In this part of the liturgy, we stop talking and listen to what God has to say. In this way, our worship becomes a kind of back-and-forth conversation in which our relationship with God can grow.

The purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship with God. And it is this kind of prayer that God always answers with a resounding YES.

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. After teaching them the now-famous words of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says to them, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

There is an interesting detail in what Jesus says here, but it is lost to those of us who read the passage in English. In Greek, the language in which this gospel was written, the grammatical form of the verbs Ask, Search, and Knock is not that of a one-time event, but of a continual process. It would be more accurate to translate these words as “keep asking,” “keep searching,” and “keep knocking.” And the end-result of this process is that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, Jesus invites his followers, through prayer, to enter into an ongoing relationship with God, the end of which is the gift of the Holy Spirit: God’s own self, dwelling within us. This, my friends, is why we pray.

God is eager to be in a relationship with each of us. The act of prayer is nothing more or less than us reciprocating God’s desire. We bring to God the joys and concerns of our lives because they matter to us, and we matter to God. We bring to God the bigger problems of the world because the world matters to God, therefore it should matter to us as well. We pray because we want to grow closer in our relationship with God.

For those who would like to pray, but have trouble getting started, I can think of no better place to begin than with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in this passage. Sandy Lipsey and I noticed a couple of years ago that the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most universal elements of Christian worship. Not every church accepts the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, nor do they celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist in the same way. Not every church likes the same hymns or translations of the Bible, but every church looks at the Lord’s Prayer and says, “Yep. That’s a good one.”

If you want to start praying, start with that, at least once a day. You can also take a minute to name your personal joys and concerns of that day. For an expanded spiritual diet, try reading a psalm and a passage from the Bible. And, when all else is said and done, don’t be afraid to just sit in silence. One of the true marks of close friends is when they can just be together, enjoying each other’s company without a word being said. It is no different in the friendship between us and God.

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Eat This: Eucharist as the End of Consumerism

I noticed this week how the word “consume” appears several times in today’s Scripture readings. The first is in the gospel, just after Jesus’ disciples have been snubbed by the residents of a Samaritan village. They ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I imagine him giving them a look and huffing, “Seriously, you guys?”

The other appearance of the word “consume” is in the epistle, when St. Paul cautions the Galatian Christians, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

This recurrence of the word “consume” got me thinking about the culture we live in. We call it a “consumer economy” because we don’t produce much anymore. We consume things. Comedian Aziz Ansari points out the ridiculousness of this. Talking about a popular ice cream shop, he notes that they no longer serve in sizes Small, Medium, and Large. Instead, they have: Like It, Love It and Gotta Have It! That’s the kind of idolatrous thinking we’ve been brainwashed into believing in this addicted culture. We think the ultimate good can be measured by “More, more, more” for me, myself, and I. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

We don’t just relate to consumer goods and services this way. We do this with people too. We objectify each other. We treat each other like things instead of people. And once we do that, it is not long before we begin to consume each other in our lust for violence.

I think this is precisely what we see happening in today’s gospel. The disciples feel that they have been wronged by the people of this Samaritan village, so they react with a violent impulse that has been born out of years of prejudice and objectification of the Samaritan other: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus is having none of their racist nonsense. He rebukes them and moves on.

In the same way, Paul writes to the church in Galatia about the results they can expect if they continue to treat one another like objects. It’s quite a heavy list: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

In some ways, I find this list comforting because it sounds so familiar. I bet if you were to flip through the TV channels for ten minutes during prime time, you would find an example of everything on Paul’s list. America has built a very successful economy around it.

But Paul warns us that this way of life has consequences: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

The end result of the objectification of our fellow human beings in this consumer economy is that we will eventually, inevitably begin consuming (and being consumed by) one another. Left to our own devices and desires, we the members of the human race will sow the seeds of our own self-destruction. We, the consumers, will be consumed.

The good news is that God is not content to leave us to our own devices like that. God intervenes in the person of Jesus Christ. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God takes on flesh and dwells among us (“moves into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson says). Living among us, Jesus loves us and shows us that another way is possible. We do not have to consume and be consumed by one another.

And when we, the consumers, can stand to hear no more of this wisdom, we turn on Jesus in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up and silence forever this voice of truth. And Jesus, much to our surprise, offers himself willingly as the target and scapegoat for all our blind rage and violent hatred. He absorbs it into his body.

Jesus Christ did not have to die on that cross because of God’s wrath toward humanity; he died because of humanity’s wrath toward God. God didn’t need Jesus to suffer and die. We did. We couldn’t stand to believe that a love so holy and pure could exist, so we did everything in our power to silence him. And Jesus took it willingly.

On the night before he died, Jesus sat at table with his disciples. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper, he took the cup of wine and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ offers his broken flesh and spilled blood to be consumed by us in an act of ultimate, cannibalistic violence. When you think about it, it’s really offensive and gruesome that we do this.

Jesus took our sins upon himself by offering himself as the willing target for our rage. He died for our sins. He died because of our sins. In the Eucharist, Christ offers the divine Body and Blood to be consumed by us, so that our violent consumption of one another might stop forever. Christ says, “Eat this instead. Eat me!” Christ absorbs our violence into himself, so that the cycles of violence might end once and for all.

But that’s not all. The story doesn’t end there. There’s a Trojan horse in this epic tragedy.

Jesus didn’t stay dead. He couldn’t. The saving work of God wouldn’t be complete otherwise. We know that, on the third day after these things took place, Christ rose from the dead, triumphant over the powers of death and hell.

Jesus willingly absorbed our violence into himself and, by rising from the grave, proved that the love of God is stronger than the power of death. All the hate, violence, sin, and consuming selfishness in the world was not enough to keep Jesus in the grave.

This is why I believe that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how evil you’ve been, you cannot out-sin the love of God for you.

Whatever tomb you try to put Jesus into, he comes bursting out.

In the Eucharist, we consume the broken Body and drink shed Blood of Jesus. But the Trojan horse is this: you now have Jesus inside of you. The crucified and risen Lord of the universe is being absorbed by the cells of your body. His Blood now flows in your veins. The divine resurrection energy now electrifies your nervous system. As Paul writes in Romans 8:11, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.”

This changes everything. Not only has Jesus stopped the old cycle of violence by his death; he has begun a new cycle of life and peace within us, his people on earth, the Church. Remember what they say: “You are what you eat!” And so are we: we are the Body of Christ.

Christ’s resurrection calls the Church to become a new kind of community in the world. Our calling is to stand in solidarity with victims of violence and degradation wherever they may be found in the world. The “little ones” who are being consumed by the powers-that-be of this world are our brothers and sisters. We listen to their voices and work alongside them to create a community where people are not consumed, but all of us live out the call of God to the Jewish prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Here at North Church, we follow that calling, we build that kind of community by listening to the voices of people who live with mental illness. For us, there is no dividing line between Giver and Receiver. Every needy person among us has a gift and a ministry to offer; likewise, every donor, volunteer, and minister has a need: an empty space inside that cannot be filled with the consumer products this world has to offer. So, we work together, hand-in-hand, to build a new world right here, where every person has an opportunity to be seen, known, and loved for who they truly are: the Image of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Scandalous Gospel of Grace

IMG_0793Here is a recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Today we celebrated the 152nd anniversary of the founding of the congregation.

Today is also the day we moved into our new worship space at First Congregational Church. This was the last Presbyterian sermon to be preached from this historic pulpit. Photo of the procession by Edie Trent.

Click here to read the biblical text.