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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.

Nicholas the Wonderworker

No Easy Answers

I want to toss a couple of sentences your way and see if you can tell me where in the Bible they come from:

“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless and void…”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…”

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

How did you do?

If you know your stuff, you might have raised an eyebrow at those last two. They’re not actually from the Bible. The first is a line from the third verse of the most famous Christian hymn: Amazing Grace. The second is from the Nicene Creed, the most widely acknowledged statement of Christian faith, written in the early 4th century. Neither of them comes from the Bible itself, but most of us in this room would almost certainly honor these statements as true, maybe even sacred.

We Protestants in the Reformed tradition pride ourselves on having a biblical faith, but the fact of the matter is that the content of our faith goes beyond the Bible itself to include several golden nuggets of sacred tradition that were mined from the mountain of history and refined in the furnace of the Church universal.

This might sound like a shock at first, but it shouldn’t. Jesus told his disciples, quite explicitly, that this would be the case. Christ says, in today’s gospel, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

Jesus seems to have recognized that his Church would still have work to do when it came to hashing out the particulars of Christian doctrine after he was gone. He also recognized that we would need help in this process, which is why he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide us in the direction of truth.

We Presbyterians, who form part of the Reformed Protestant tradition, believe this is exactly what happened, but we also realize that being led by the Spirit often turns out to be much messier than we expected at first.

Take, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, which we are celebrating today. The Trinity is the Christian’s core concept of God. We believe in one God who exists as three distinct persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each person is divine, yet they are not three Gods, but one. How does that work? We have no idea. We call it a ‘mystery’, which is just a fancy way of saying we don’t know. The Church has decided she would prefer to stand in awe before the open question, rather than answer it with some kind of simplistic formula. We affirm that there is only one God, but this single Deity is also a Community: a Divine Ecosystem.

How did we come up with this idea? It is never explicitly laid out this way in the Bible. Nor was there ever an angel who floated down from heaven with the word ‘Trinity’ engraved on a stone tablet. We got this idea from the bishops of the early Church, who met together in community and debated the issue over a very long period of time (several hundred years, in fact).

It all came to a head in the 4th century at a meeting called the Council of Nicaea, presided over by Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. The debate was fierce. On one side was Bishop Nicholas from the town of Myra, who supported the doctrine of the Trinity: that Christ was fully divine and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. Later history would call him “St. Nicholas” and develop all kinds of legends that connect him to the holiday of Christmas. He didn’t actually live at the North Pole or fly around with reindeer, but he was based on a real person: St. Nicholas of Myra, who took part in the Council of Nicaea.

On the other side was the very popular priest Arius, who believed that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creations, existing even before the universe itself, but not entirely equal with God.

When Nicholas decided he had heard enough of his opponent’s arguments, he walked right up to Arius and slapped him clear across the face. When the other bishops immediately confronted Nicholas about this outburst, he replied that he saw the devil sitting on Arius’ shoulder and was simply trying to shoo him off. Unfortunately, they didn’t buy his excuse and Nicholas was ejected from the meeting.

Now, I’ve sat through some really tense church meetings, but I’ve never seen anything so bad as somebody getting cold-cocked by Santa Claus!

Most Christians today forget that there was a time when beliefs about the Trinity were divisive and controversial. They were unsure of what to believe. The heated arguments of bishops threatened to tear the Church apart. What kind of a future would there be for the Church if they couldn’t reach a conclusion about their most central beliefs? People were justifiably frightened.

But you know what? The Council of Nicaea eventually came to a resolution on that contentious issue. They produced a document outlining their position. As a result, we now have the doctrine of the Trinity permanently enshrined in the Nicene Creed, which we will recite later in this service. The Trinity has become so central to our faith, most Christians take it for granted.

Jesus was right: the Holy Spirit spoke through the Council of Nicaea and guided the Church “into all the truth,” but it wasn’t pretty. It was messy. It got ugly. It was difficult. But God still worked with it.

People tend to have this romanticized idea of divine guidance being like a light that shines down from heaven while choirs of angels sing, but most of the time, it’s not like that at all. Most of the time, people don’t know what God’s will is for sure until after the fact (sometimes centuries after). We get to look back and see how God led our ancestors in the faith. It all looks so clear and obvious for us, but we forget that it wasn’t so clear for them. These imperfect Christians had to do the best they could with what they had at the time. They thought about it. They prayed about it. They disagreed with each other. They fought about it. And in the end, they made a decision and took a step together, hoping it was the right decision and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide their feet while they ran this race. And today we call them saints.

The life of faith is no different for us today from what it was for those who lived long ago. We have no guiding light or heavenly voices to make life’s decisions easy for us. We do the best we can with what we have. We think. We pray. We argue. We act. Repeat.

Over the past year, this congregation has faced a series of difficult problems, for which there are no easy answers. We engaged in the New Beginnings assessment process that led us to face some uncomfortable facts about our congregation’s financial state. We reflected on our deepest beliefs about what we believe church is at its heart: that the Church is a community with a mission before it is a building. We made the bold decision to relocate in light of those deep beliefs, held up next to the facts of our current situation. And now, the time is approaching for us to act on this decision that was made by our members who participated in New Beginnings.

Over the next few weeks, leading up to our 152nd anniversary Sunday on June 12, we will be breaking camp here at 603 N Burdick Street and pitching our tent a few blocks away from here in the chapel of First Congregational Church on Bronson Park.

The session decided to pursue this space-sharing relationship with this congregation after a careful consideration of three potential sites in the North Side and Downtown neighborhoods. First Congregational Church seemed to us to be the best available option for partnership, based on practical concerns for space and money, but more importantly because it is a community that practices its ministry with a set of values that is remarkably similar to our own. Moreover, the people of First Congregational Church have treated the people of North Presbyterian Church with the utmost respect, as equal partners in ministry, throughout this process.

Many of you have asked me whether we will be accepted and treated kindly by this new host community. I can tell you now, with a very high degree of confidence, based on our interactions with them so far, that we will.

After much questioning, deliberation, prayer, listening to the members of this church, and consideration of available options, we, the members of session, are unanimous in our belief that this relocation to First Congregational Church is the call of the Holy Spirit for North Presbyterian Church at this time.

This has been a difficult decision for all of us. I dare not tell you that I know exactly how you feel, especially those of you who have worshiped in this space for many decades. Obviously, I do not feel that pain in the same way or to the same degree that you do. But as your pastor, I do feel it. I feel it because I care about you and your well-being matters to me. I have seen the pain in your eyes and heard it in your voices.

I have felt the pain of this transition in my own way as the work I am doing with you now has become very different from the work you called me here to do two and a half years ago. In addition to orchestrating this relocation and caring for grieving people in the midst of congregational redevelopment, I have also taken on responsibility for coordinating the Togetherness Group since late last fall. And, beginning last month, these increased responsibilities have come with a significant reduction in my work hours and salary.

I tell you this, not to arouse your pity, but to show you how I am feeling the pain of this transition with you, in my own way. My family and I are choosing to sacrifice for North Church because we believe the ministry we get to do here is worthwhile. We believe in you and this church, but even more, we believe in the Holy Spirit, who has called us to minister together in this place at this time.

I know that we will have much grieving and healing to do in the coming season; I plan to be here so that we can do that work together. I won’t give up on you and I pray you won’t give up on me either. I implore you not to give up on one another. And I charge you not to give up on the Holy Spirit, who “draws straight with crooked lines” and “guides you into all the truth.”

Our ancestors in the faith had no idea where or how the Spirit was leading them in their lives, just as we have no idea where or how the Spirit is leading us today. But we can look back and see how God was faithful to them then, so we can trust that God will be faithful to us now.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
to guide the future surely as the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Do you believe that today? If so, that’s a good start.
Let’s see where it goes from here.

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Moments of Clarity

Pentecost sermon from North Presbyterian

Click here to read the biblical text.

I have a close friend in Canada who lives with Schizophrenia. Several years ago, when he suffered his first major psychotic break, he was in pretty bad shape. In a delusional state, he walked several miles on foot from the town where he lived to the nearest major city.

Once there, he was tired and bored and wished he had something to read. Reaching into his pocket, he found a pamphlet of Christian literature. As he looked over it, he thought to himself, “This is what I need!” So, right there in the middle of the street, in downtown traffic as the horns of frustrated commuters surrounded him, he knelt down and prayed.

And as he prayed, something remarkable happened: he had a moment of clarity. He realized that something was wrong in his brain and he should go home and get help. So, he turned around and walked the many miles back to his house. When he got there, his mother was worried sick. The police had arrived and were trying to locate him. My friend walked through the front door and said to them, “Hi. I am a danger to myself and others. I need help. You should take me to the hospital.”

Today, I’m happy to report that my friend went to the hospital, stayed there, and got the help he needed. Today, he continues to lead a meaningful life with the help of medication and therapy. He went back to school, became a father, and is currently seeking ordination in his church.

And beautiful thing is how it all began with this brief moment of clarity in the middle of downtown traffic.

I begin with this story today because it is a perfect illustration of the biblical term prophecy.

Words like prophet and prophecy have been misinterpreted and misunderstood in Christian history. For many people, prophecy has become a kind of fortune-telling about the imminent end of the world. Popular authors scour the book of Revelation for clues about when and how Christ will return to earth. When many people think of prophets, they conjure up images of mysterious, occult figures like Nostradamus, who claim to have special, insider information about the end of days.

It will come as no surprise to most of you that I think these so-called “prophecies” are absolute and total bunk. Christians should pay no attention to them. I wholeheartedly affirm, along with the apostles and the historic Church, my belief in the second coming of Christ, the final judgment, and the resurrection of the dead (as we recite each week in the Creed), but I don’t dare to speculate about the details of when or how those events will happen.

When the disciples asked Jesus himself about these things, he responded in no uncertain terms, “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” If Christ himself doesn’t know when or how it will happen, I think the rest of us can absolve ourselves of the responsibility for figuring it out.

So then, prophecy, in the biblical sense, has nothing to do with predicting the end of the world. To the contrary, it has everything to do with interpreting the present.

This morning, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we read a story from the book of Acts where the Holy Spirit descends upon the gathered community of Jesus’ disciples after his resurrection and ascension. The majority of sermons on this passage focus on the first part of the story, where the really interesting and dramatic depiction of the Spirit’s arrival takes place. But I want to focus our attention this morning on the much-neglected second half of the story, where St. Peter stands up and interprets what is happening to the people around him. This part of the story is prophecy at its finest.

The events of that day were confusing, to say the least. There were reports of inexplicable wind and fire. People were suddenly able to speak fluently in previously unknown languages. The crowd didn’t know what to make of it. The most rational explanation was to dismiss the pandemonium as a whole lot of drunken nonsense.

But that’s when Peter got up and began to offer some perspective about what was going on. Like any good Presbyterian, he begins by setting these seemingly random events in the context of Scripture. Citing a passage from the book of Joel, Peter showed the crowd how it had always been part of God’s plan to “pour out [the] Spirit upon all flesh”: male and female, young and old, slave and free. We are, all of us together, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are all prophets.

Unfortunately, the lectionary cuts us off at this point, just as Peter’s sermon is getting started. If we were to keep reading, we would hear him shift the focus from Scripture to recent events. At that point, Jesus had only recently completed his earthly ministry with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his grandstanding in the temple, and a showdown with religious and political leaders that ended in Jesus’ execution. And then, as if the story was too good to end there, Jesus’ body suddenly disappeared. Rumors began circulating. Some said that Jesus had risen from the dead while others protested that his disciples had merely stolen his body and hidden it in order to make a stir.

Peter, inspired by the Spirit, spoke up in that moment and said to the crowd (about Jesus): “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

What Peter does here is tie together current events, recent history, and the biblical text with the cord of the Spirit. He showed them how everything that was happening around them was not in fact a series of random events, but the unfolding of the divine plan in history.

Peter interpreted current events to the people from a spiritual perspective. He brought clarity to their confusion and reality to their delusion. This is the work of prophecy in the world. It is a gift of the Spirit. And it continues to this day.

It continues in the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament. Every Sunday, before we read from the Scriptures, we say a Prayer for Illumination. This practice, introduced into our liturgy by the Reformer John Calvin, leads us to acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit’s insight in order to properly understand the Scriptures. The Bible was never intended to be an inerrant book of science or history, in the modern sense. Those Christians who treat it as such misunderstand the Bible’s purpose and true significance in the life of the Church today. Presbyterians believe the Scriptures to be the “authoritative witness” to the person Jesus Christ, who is the revelation of God to the world. We refer to the Scriptures as “the Word of the Lord” because we believe they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, therefore we depend upon the Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts as we read the text, so that we might hear God speaking to us today through these ancient words.

In a similar way, the Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer we say before receiving Communion, we recall the saving deeds of Christ and tell again the story of the Last Supper. Then we call upon the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and the physical elements of bread and wine, so that our celebration of this meal might be a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ. Unlike our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, we do not believe the elements are literally transformed into flesh and blood. But unlike many of our fellow Protestants, we also do not believe this Sacrament to be a mere memorial of past events. We believe Christ is really, spiritually present, therefore we need the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts, so that we can receive his Body and Blood by faith as we partake of the bread and wine.

These two ways, Word and Sacrament, are two of the main ways that the Holy Spirit’s ministry of prophecy continues in the Church today. Of course, they are by no means the only ways that the Spirit continues to work in the Church. I could keep going about Baptism, confirmation, ordination, reconciliation, marriage, anointing, music, prayer, or church government. All of these are ways that the Holy Spirit continues to work in the life of the Church, but we would be here all day if I went into detail about each of them.

The Holy Spirit works in our lives outside church as well. I already spoke about my friend’s “moment of clarity” in the midst of a psychotic break. Many others, especially those who are in recovery from addictions, can tell about similar moments when they decided it was time to get clean or sober. Most of them describe this moment as pure grace: that clarity came to them, not from them. They say it felt like something (or someone) was speaking to them, but without words. Not all of them are ready to believe that it was “God” (as we understand God) who spoke to them, but you can visit any Twelve Step recovery meeting in this town and find people there who say, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” They credit their ongoing recovery to the work of a Higher Power. I, personally, have no trouble affirming that this too is the work of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives.

The Holy Spirit is all around us and within us, continuing that ministry of prophecy today: gifting us with moments of clarity in the midst of our confusion. The Spirit is at work today in the pastor celebrating at the Communion table and is also at work in the alcoholic struggling for one more day of sobriety (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person). The Spirit is at work today in the friendly usher who joyfully greets worshipers on their way into church and is also at work in the sceptic who barely scraped together enough faith to make it to church this morning (and sometimes, the Spirit works both of those things at the same time, in the same person).

The Spirit is at work today, confronting us with moments of clarity and leading us to let go of our delusions. The Spirit is at work today, inviting us to follow where Jesus leads and to trust that our life (as individuals, the Church, and the world) is not a series of random events, but the unfolding story of God’s love for us.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, know this: the Spirit is at work in you today. Trust this and remember that you are loved.

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The Rhythm of Prayer

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

You can read the biblical text by clicking here.

I was speaking with Julie, our congregation’s organist, this week and she told me a story I hadn’t heard before. She said there was a Sunday, about twelve years ago, when she had a TIA during worship. For those (like me) who are uninitiated into the medical arts, a TIA is a very serious condition where the flow of blood is temporarily blocked to certain parts of the brain (I’ve heard it described as an “almost stroke”).

When the congregation realized what was happening, paramedics were called and came quickly. When they were finishing their work, Julie asked the congregation to sing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ as she was carried out:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

I think that was a perfect choice. Good call, Julie!

There, in that moment of great crisis and confusion, the church’s attention was drawn to prayer. And I am happy to report that Julie recovered fully from her TIA and returned to lead our music for another twelve years (and counting).

In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we read about another moment of crisis and confusion for the people of God. It was Sts. Paul and Silas in this case, who were on their way to prayer, when their day was interrupted by something unexpected.

An exploited woman (the text calls her a slave), who was forced to work as a fortune teller, crossed paths with Paul and Silas. She begins shouting about them to the crowd around her. We learn from the text that her fortune telling abilities were due to a demonic spirit that afflicted her.

After this went on for a while, Paul decided he needed to do something about the situation, so he turned around and performed an exorcism on the young woman.

That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. By freeing this young woman from the demon, Paul had disrupted the profit-making machinery used by her captors. He hit them right where it count: in the wallet. They were not happy.

They had Paul and Silas arrested and dragged into court for causing a disturbance. The judge sided with the business owners and ordered the two missionaries to be thrown into jail. And that’s exactly what happened to them… all because they were interrupted on their way to a worship service.

I think it’s safe to say that things couldn’t get much worse. They were locked up, for no good reason, in the most maximum-security part of the prison, with their feet in shackles. What was a Christian to do in such a situation?

Well, Paul and Silas show us exactly what to do by what they did next: the text tells us they were “praying and singing hymns to God.” That’s amazing.

Just like our friend Julie in her moment of need, they were singing:

What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

(NOTE: I realize it wasn’t that exact hymn, but it was probably something like it.)

When a more practically minded person would be planning an escape or a legal defense strategy, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.

And wait, there’s more!

There is a seldom-noticed detail in this text. Do you remember what Paul and Silas were doing before they were interrupted by the fortune teller? They were on their way to “the place of prayer.” For Paul and Silas, prayer was not just something they turned to in moments of desperation; it was a regular discipline that shaped the rhythm of their lives. They were on their way to prayer when disaster struck; after disaster struck, they returned to that same rhythm of prayer. I can understand now how Paul could write, in his letter to the Philippians:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

That kind of confidence is the fruit of a disciplined prayer life. No matter what else happens, Paul and Silas have committed themselves to the work of prayer. And that commitment has shaped the rest of their lives.

But wait, there’s more!

As Paul and Silas were praying, their circumstances started to change. There was an earthquake, the doors of the prison flew open, and the prisoners’ chains fell off. A lot of people like to say that prayer opens doors, but in this story, it happened quite literally.

This dramatic shift in circumstances led to an encounter with the jailer, who ended up becoming a Christian and being baptized into the Church with his whole family. That never would have happened, if it hadn’t been for the disastrous crisis that led to Paul and Silas being wrongfully locked up in jail.

God works in all things and all circumstances; prayer gives us eyes to see that.

You and I live in a chaotic world where it seems like anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Sometimes, it’s easy to feel like we are all alone in this world, like nobody is looking out for us, like our whole lives are just one big accident after another, like our only hope for survival is in our own wits and will.

That’s what it feels like in this world, sometimes. But I don’t think it’s true.

Prayer gives us eyes to see that we are not alone and life is not random. Prayer, when practiced as a regular spiritual discipline, gives us eyes to see that the events of our lives are part of the unfolding plan of God in the world. That is the power and the purpose of prayer.

Prayer is not magic; it’s not like wishing on a star; and it’s certainly not like a cosmic vending machine, where we put in a dollar and get back whatever we want. In that same vein, prayer is also not a psychological trick we use to make ourselves feel better during moments of crisis.

Prayer is none of these things. I know this because, sometimes, I pray and I don’t feel better inside. Sometimes, I pray about a situation and it still doesn’t work out the way I’d hoped. But that doesn’t mean my prayer failed.

What prayer does for me, when I practice it day in and day out, is help me see my life through a new set of eyes. Prayer helps me believe that I am not alone and my life is not random or meaningless. Prayer helps me trust that my life is part of God’s plan for the world. Prayer helps me keep my eyes open for the opportunities that God brings my way in the course of a day: opportunities to love, share, give, and receive.

I have faith that prayer changes things because I know that prayer changes me.

And I believe it can do the same for you.

I hope you already have a regular practice of prayer and meditation in your life. If not, I would invite you start one today. It can take many forms, depending on your personal temperament: formal or informal, alone or in groups, in the morning or at night (or both).

If you feel like you need help getting started, there are lots of wonderful resources out there in the form of prayer books and devotionals. My personal favorite is The Book of Common Prayer. Over the past year, several of us at North Church have used the devotional, Seize the Day with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you go to any new or used book store, you can find rows and rows of devotional books to help you get started. Pick one that looks interesting to you and try it for a while.

Some people prefer to use just a Bible or a hymnal. Read a passage. Sing a hymn. Reflect on what it means to you. Sit in silence for a while. Keep a journal. Offer to God your joys and concerns each day. If you don’t know what to say, you can never go wrong with the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

These are all just suggestions. Whatever you do, do it daily and be faithful. Work it into your life slowly. Watch for the little ways in which your life starts to change, not because your circumstances are changing, but because you are changing, ever so gradually, and beginning to see your life differently. That’s what prayer is all about. That’s the difference prayer can make.

That’s difference prayer has made (and is still making) in my life, and I pray the same will be true for you as well.

Andrej_Rublëv_-_Holy_Trinity_-_WGA20456

The Baptismal Covenant

Fr. Randall Warren drew our attention to the Baptismal Covenant during last Sunday’s sermon at St. Luke’s. You can read the Covenant by clicking here or by flipping to page 304 of the Book of Common Prayer (if you’re one of those old-fashioned people who still remember how books work). This brilliant summary of the Christian faith was born from the womb of liturgical renewal in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since its inclusion in the the 1979 Prayer Book, Episcopalians have “fallen in love with it,” according to Fr. Randall.

Reading and reflecting on the text later that day, it occurred to me that this brief Covenant provides a helpful starting point for thinking about the way the Church practices its mission in the world.

Do you believe in God the Father?
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?

We begin by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. This is our way of saying that faith begins, not with us, but in God. And God is not a monolithic entity but a community, a network of relationships, between divine persons (i.e. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) that we collectively refer to as the Trinity. This is how Christians are able to say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). A single person can be loving, in the adjectival sense, but Christians believe that God is love, in the active sense. God is relationship. To borrow a phrase, “God is a verb.” God happens.

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

The place where God happens is the Church.

Of course, the Church is not the only place where God happens. All communities and relationships reflect, to one degree or another, the relational nature of the Trinity: friends, families, societies, ecosystems, even the gravitational relationship that exists between planets and stars. God meets us in all of these places, but the Church is the particular community where human beings are invited into a special covenant relationship with each other and with the Triune God through the person Jesus Christ, who is present with us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Relationships are never easy. Relationships are raw. Intimacy strips away our fig leaves and exposes all our parts: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When we come into the Church, a network of relationships that spans all of time and space, and is itself enfolded into the network of relationships that is the Trinity, we come as we are, with all our baggage in hand.

Standing in the light of Christ’s perfect humanity, we are confronted with the fact that we, in our selfishness, behave in ways that are less than fully human and lead to broken relationships.

The good news is that God refuses to break up with us, even when we try to do so with God and each other. God is like a mother in a department store whose toddler is throwing a tempter tantrum. The child screams, “I hate you!” And God adjusts the purse strap on her shoulder, takes us by the hand, and says, “You can hate me if you want to, but I still love you. Come along now; it’s time to go home.”

Christ dares us to get honest about our shortcomings. Christ invites us to begin again… and again… and again, knowing we are bound to fail. Success is measured, not in how many times we fall down, but in how many times we get back up. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Recovery is about progress, not perfection.” Salvation is a journey, not a destination.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

The result of this continual falling down and getting back up is that we grow in confidence that we are fully loved and accepted, no matter what.

This is big news.

This is big news in a world where a person’s appearance and performance are analyzed and judged with ruthless scrutiny. This is big news in a world where the “worth” of a person or an ecosystem can be quantified and calculated with dollar signs. This is big news in a world that prizes whiteness, maleness, and straightness. This is big news in a world where “might makes right” and “the best defense is a good offense.”

The absolute and unconditional love of God is big news because it renders irrelevant all the noise of news broadcasts and the temptations of commercial advertisements in between. People who know they are loved don’t need those trappings. People who know they are loved don’t fear what others fear. People who know they are loved by God have found something worth dying for, and therefore have something to live for too.

Love changes everything. Love makes the world go round and turns it upside down. Love wins. This is big news. It’s worth sharing. It needs to be said. The rest of world needs to hear it.

The Church is a community of people who have been changed by God’s love and try, to the best of their limited ability, to embody that love in the way they treat others. Evangelism is a “show and tell” enterprise… in that order. We do our best to show love first, and when the world asks us why we love so radically, then (and only then) we have earned the right to talk about Jesus.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Some Christians have mistakenly conflated evangelism and proselytism. They think the proclamation of the good news means arguing with people until they see things from your point of view. They think their job is to bring Christ to the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that Christ is already present in the world. Christ is in that homeless person, that sex worker, that meth cook, that terrorist, that presidential candidate. Christ lives in them and loves them at the level of their true self, which is deeper than all their problems and insecurities. They don’t see it, most of the time, and neither does the rest of the world. That is why most people falsely identify with things that are less than their true selves: appearance, occupation, possessions, criminal record, diagnosis, disability, race, national origin, political party, etc.

What breaks the spell of these false selves is when we enter into a relationship with someone who treats us as though we are Christ because, at a certain level, that is exactly who we are. The role of the evangelist is to help us realize this truth in ourselves and live it out in relationship with others in the Church and the world. So, in the end, all evangelism is simply Christ loving Christ through Christ.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is what it looks like to seek and serve Christ in others, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, and to be the Church on Earth.

When we do this, we can expect the powers-that-be to get angry. Proclaiming the truth that God loves everyone completely, equally, and unconditionally is a direct affront to the lies they peddle. Bishop Gene Robinson once asked me, “If you aren’t getting in trouble because of your faith, is it really the Gospel you believe?”

Striving for justice and peace and respecting the dignity of every human being will undoubtedly put us at odds with this world system of domination and manipulation. When we march on the picket line, write to an elected official, volunteer at the shelter, let go of an old grudge, bring a casserole to a sick neighbor, or sit through another committee meeting, we are turning the world upside down.

The same holds true for those who teach, heal, practice law, raise kids, run for office, work the McDonald’s drive-thru, or greet customers at Wal-Mart. You are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world and the work you do, when undertaken with this Baptismal Covenant in mind, is the ministry of the gospel.

And here’s the really amazing thing: it works.

When we begin to practice these promises in our lives, the world will take notice.

People are spiritually hungry. They intuitively sense that something is wrong with the way things are, but have no idea how to remedy the situation. Sadly, centuries of Christian dogmatism and judgmentalism have led many to believe that the Church has nothing to contribute. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

The Church’s mission begins and ends in love because we believe that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16) Our Baptismal Covenant begins with the perfect love of the Triune God at the heart of reality and quickly ripples outward in concentric circles, embracing us, the Church, and the whole universe in the everlasting arms.

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

Teach You Everything, Remind You Of All

Lectio divina on the gospel for Easter 6, year C

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The best antidote to workaholism is a robust pneumatology.

(For those who don’t love big theology words as much as I do, pneumatology is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit)

The easiest, most cynical assumption I bring to a workday is the lie: “It’s all up to me.” Oh sure, I moan and groan under the “terrible burden” life has hoisted upon me, but I have dirty little secret: I actually love it. I am addicted to the idea that the earth would suddenly stop spinning, were I not there to turn the cranks.

In these workaholic moments, the first thing to suffer is my spiritual life. I leave off prayer or Bible study (as clergy, it’s my job to go to church).

This is all a grand delusion, of course. God doesn’t actually need my help to maintain the laws of physics. I have my parts to play in the unfolding cosmic drama: human, Christian, husband, father, son, brother, pastor, and friend… but Savior doesn’t appear anywhere on that list. It’s not my job to keep the planet spinning.

It’s the Spirit’s job, according to Jesus. The Spirit keeps me connected to all that has come before (reminding me of all that Jesus has said), and guides my steps into the future (teaches me everything, as I become able to hear it).

Saving the world is God’s job. I have a part to play, but I can only play that part if I stay in tune with the guiding Spirit. That’s what spiritual practice is all about.

I pause my busy-ness go to church, study the Scriptures, pray, and receive the Sacraments so that my eyes and ears can be open to what God is doing in the world. This is why the best thing I can do for my family, friends, church, and community is nurture my spiritual life by prayer, study, rest, and worship. The work to be done is also necessary, but it is secondary.

I am getting a crash course in this lesson this week as I am out of the office. Due to funding woes, my congregation had to reduce my pastoral terms of call to part-time status. The way we are managing the shift is that I will take one week off each month. This is my first week off. I am forced to stop working and do other things. For a workaholic, this is withdrawal.

Yet, the Spirit is at work: teaching and reminding. I am tending to home and relationships to a much greater degree. The people of the congregation are rising to lead ministry programs and worship in my absence. I imagine they are learning new things about themselves as well. New and sustainable patterns of collaborative ministry are emerging. Could it be that God’s purposes are being accomplished? Could it be that the Spirit is teaching and reminding us that the pastor is not the Savior?

Maybe it’s not all about me, after all?

Prayer

God, help me to take my part in your story, not your part in mine. Amen.

Still With You

Lectio divina on the gospel from Easter 6, year C

I have said these things to you while I am still with you.

When it comes to discussing religion in the public sphere, I’ve noticed that most conversations tend to drift toward the theoretical content of particular traditions. I get tripped up over the yea or nay related to specific doctrines of the faith:

Can one prove the existence of God? What is the nature of the afterlife? Do miracles happen? Is one religion inherently superior to another?

These questions are not unimportant, but I do myself a disservice when my discourse never moves beyond them. All theology is an attempt, on the part of human beings, to put into words the experience of the Sacred. Religious traditions have emerged around those expressions that have been most helpful to the life of a particular community. We preserve these expressions and pass them on to future generations, in hopes that our descendants won’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” spiritually speaking, and may even achieve greater things in the life of faith, accomplishments of which we ourselves are incapable.

But we should be careful to remember that these expressions are secondary. Jesus says “these things” (the content of his message) to his disciples “while I am still with you.” Experience precedes expression. And all Scriptures, Sacraments, doctrines, and rituals are meant to usher me into my own experience of the Sacred. If I miss that, I have missed the point entirely.

Prayer

God, open my ears to hear your message; open my eyes to see you in the world around me; open my hands to receive and to share; open my heart to be your home. Amen.