A Fresh Set of Eyes

Dr. Dave Wilson

Sermon on John 9:1-41.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than These

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Backward is Not the Answer

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Dying, But Growing

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

My name is Barrett and I am a Recovering Fundamentalist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Are That

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who we are / What binds us together

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints

Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in St. Joe’s, MI.

Ephesians 1:11-23

Most of us know what it’s like to be in the middle of a conflict.

At first, we might be in a little bit of denial about the whole thing. We say, “Meh, it’s no big deal.” We go for a walk, get a snack, maybe take a nap, and wake up feeling right as rain.

But sometimes, that’s not enough. We wake up and we’re still feeling mad about it. This is a good thing because anger, even though it doesn’t feel pleasant, is our brain’s way of telling us that something is important to us. For example, it’s easy to just let it go when some hothead cuts you off in traffic, but harder when your teenager tells you they want to drop out of high school. Anger is a healthy thing when it reminds us about what’s important, but not so healthy when it festers so long that it turns into resentment and contempt.

In order to stop that from happening, we need to sit down and have those difficult conversations about what really matters. We have to listen to each other’s point of view and try to negotiate a compromise. If that works, great! If not, it can leave feeling pretty hopeless. We throw our hands up and go, “Ugh! I guess that’s it. The yogurt has hit the fan and we’re all headed for Hades in a handbasket. Whaddyagunna do?”

And that, I think, is a very interesting question, if we ask it honestly. What are you going to do? That question, when asked honestly, leads us past the surface level of conflict, opens us up to new possibilities, and reminds us of what is most important: The mystery of who we really are and the reality that binds us together at the deepest level of our existence.

That mystery, that reality, is what the author of the epistle to the Ephesians is talking about in the Scripture reading we just heard.

At the end of the first century, the Church in Ephesus was in a pretty rough place. Only a few decades after its founding, it was already engulfed in a controversy that threatened to tear the community apart from the inside. The controversial issue, in that time and place, was the question of whether a person could really be a Christian without first becoming Jewish. It helps to remember that, at that point in history, Judaism and Christianity were not yet separate religions. Christianity started as a renewal movement within Judaism and only later took on a separate identity of its own.

On one side, conservatives were saying, “Listen! Jesus was Jewish. All of his apostles were Jewish. The Bible clearly states that the Jews are God’s chosen people. Therefore, if a person really wants to be a follower of the way of Jesus, they first have to convert to Judaism and follow the ways of the Torah.”

On the other side, the liberals were saying, “No way! Jesus was an enlightened being. He had no patience for your backward traditions. Therefore, we are going to purge the Church of all that superstitious nonsense and have a truly progressive spirituality.”

(By the way, does any of this sound familiar to anyone who has watched the news lately? It should. Two thousand years later, and we are still having the same fight.)

Enter the author of the Epistle to the Ephesians. This person, writing in the name of their mentor St. Paul, is trying to help the Christians in Ephesus figure out how to be the Church for the long haul. In the first generation after Jesus’ earthly ministry, it seemed to the Church like the end of days was imminent, so they didn’t put much thought into creating an institution that would help people follow Jesus for thousands of years to come. They sincerely believed, at that time, that sustainability was a non-issue. As time wore on, however, it slowly dawned on these Christians that they were going to have to hunker down and figure out a way to live as the people of Jesus in a world that wanted nothing to do with him. So, for the first time, these Christians are asking questions about how to live together as people from different social classes, ethnic groups, languages, ages, and genders. And all of this was happening at the same time as Christians everywhere were being excommunicated from traditional Jewish communities and actively persecuted by the Roman government. Needless to say, it was a very contentious and complicated time to be a Christian. (Much like today.)

In the moment of this letter, the author of Ephesians writes to that Church in the midst of apparent hopelessness, appealing to the deeper truth of who they really are and what really binds them together. The author tells them that they have an “inheritance,” a “destiny,” and “hope” that come from their faith in God. According to the passage we read tonight, the same divine energy that raised Christ from death to new life is now at work in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who follow the way of Jesus.

In some mysterious way that transcends rational understanding, the very lifeblood of Jesus now flows in our veins and we have become his hands and feet on this Earth. We are, all of us, essentially one person, and that person is not you or me, but Jesus Christ himself. Later in the epistle to the Ephesians, the author writes, concerning the controversy that was tearing their Church apart, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:14 NRSV)

Jesus Christ is who we are. All other identifying factors are secondary to that one truth.

The modern theologian who expressed this truth more beautifully than anyone was a French Jesuit priest named Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Fr. Teilhard, writing in the early twentieth century, lived his faith in a time that was every bit as fraught and contentious as the first century. He was a stretcher-bearer on the front lines of World War I. He was, in addition to his vocation as a priest, a paleontologist in a time when the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t yet sure what to think about the writings of Charles Darwin.

For Teilhard, there was no conflict between faith and science. He saw the whole history of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the formation of stars and planets, from the evolution of life to the emergence of human beings, all 13.8 billion years of cosmic history, as a single story of God’s creation and salvation.

Teilhard’s hope and vision was that, one day, all things would be part of the Body of Christ. By “all things,” he really did mean ALL. THINGS. When Teilhard imagined the Body of Christ, he wasn’t just thinking about all Christians, all humans, or all of planet Earth. He was thinking about the entire universe as the Body of Christ.

The Vatican of that time wasn’t quite ready for a cosmic vision as big as Teilhard’s. They censured his work and forbade him from teaching theology. Teilhard, as a good Jesuit, obeyed the order but continued to write in private. He entrusted his papers to a friend, who published them after his death.

Writing in his private journal, Teilhard struggled with the Vatican’s resistance to his ideas. He looked to God for assurance and prayed, “O God, if in my life I have not been wrong, allow me to die on Easter Sunday.” Shortly after writing that prayer, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin passed away on April 10, 1955… Easter Sunday.

I think Fr. Teilhard was right, and I think the author of the epistle to the Ephesians would agree with me. God is in the business of reconciliation, but not assimilation. God seeks unification, but without uniformity. We are one, not because of any shared ethnicity, nationality, party, class, or gender, but because God has made us one in Christ. The very lifeblood of the risen Christ flows in our veins, just as it has in all the saints of history, and still does in the atoms of the most distant galaxy. That is the faith that will give us the wisdom and the strength to navigate the many conflicts of our time as faithfully as the Ephesian Christians did in theirs. That is the truth about who we really are and the glue that will bind us together, both now and forevermore.


Newness of Life

Easter Vigil sermon.

The text is Romans 6:3-11

Dearly beloved, we gather together this evening to celebrate the mystery of resurrection.

The resurrection of Christ is the central event of the Christian faith. In the season of Easter, we remember how the disciples, in some way that defies rational explanation, experienced Jesus as alive after his crucifixion and death. Many historians over the past two millennia, secular and religious alike, have debated the evidence about what really happened on Easter. What they all agree on, however, is that something significant happened that set Christianity apart from other Messianic Jewish movements of the time (of which there were many) and that the unanimous agreement among the earliest Christians was that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Tonight, I will not presume to settle this longstanding debate about the historical facts. Such questions matter deeply, but I leave the resolution of factual questions to archaeologists, historians, and biblical scholars better equipped and better educated than myself. Christian faith in the resurrection is about more than just picking sides between competing sets of alternative facts.

Resurrection, as I said at the beginning, is a mystery. As such, it is more than an historical event that happened once upon a time in Jerusalem; it is an eternal event that is always happening, in every time and place. That is why I say that we have gathered to celebrate the mystery of resurrection, and not merely commemorate it.

When we celebrate something, we give honor to an event that is also an ongoing reality. When we gather together for a birthday or an anniversary, we don’t just remember a birth or a wedding, we celebrate the ongoing reality of a person or a marriage. The Church does the same thing in our celebration of the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. 

St. Paul elucidates this aspect of celebration in the passage we read tonight from his Letter to the Romans. Paul writes:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

For Paul, the mystery of the resurrection is an eternal event, in which we all participate. The ritual that makes this eternal event real to us is the Sacrament of Baptism. In Baptism, Paul says, we come to participate consciously in the death and resurrection of Christ. The significance of this conscious participation is primarily ethical, according to Paul. He says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Paul’s presentation of death and resurrection in Baptism is akin to philosopher John Hick’s description of the spiritual journey as “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness.” According to both Hick and Paul, the spiritual journey of death and resurrection is a paradigm shift of Copernican proportions, in which our fragile egos come to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. In the mystery of death and resurrection, we come to embrace the reality that our true selves are rooted and grounded in the sacred energy that is eternally giving birth to the cosmos. Our individual selves are temporary manifestations of that energy, like waves on the surface of an infinitely vast ocean. Our true life, as it were, “is hidden with Christ in God”(Colossians 3:3), and this eternal life is one over which death has no final victory.

Dearly beloved, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to a single event in first-century Judea, but has been unfolding from the beginning of time until now, and I have every reason to trust that it will continue to do so in perpetuity. Furthermore, the mystery of resurrection is not limited to Christians, humans, or even planet Earth, but is active in all corners of the universe simultaneously. 

I do not ask you to tonight to put blind faith in these statements, simply because they have been spoken from a pulpit. I invite you to examine the facts for yourselves.

Approximately sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid more than six miles wide slammed into Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The impact made a crater 110 miles wide and twelve miles deep, deposited a layer of iridium in soil around the planet, and set off our planet’s fifth mass extinction. Seventy-five percent of all life on the planet, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out by the environmental devastation unleashed by this impact.

There can be no debate about the profound destructiveness of this event, but there is a wonderful and creative aspect to the story that is often overlooked. During the time of the dinosaurs, mammals were small in size and few in number. Tiny shrew-like rodents huddled together in underground burrows in order to avoid the gargantuan lizards that dominated Earth’s surface. 

Unlike the reptiles, natural selection had gifted these little mammals with a powerful new tool in their brains, called “the limbic system.” The limbic system is the part of our brains where emotions are produced. It governs our social relationships and allows us to make more complex judgment calls than the basic survival instincts of our brain stem. Because of the limbic system, mammals were able to care for their young andform bonded family groups. Those little rodents were more to us than just vermin infesting the forest floor; they were our great-great-great grandparents.

When the dust finally settled after the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs, our mammalian ancestors cautiously emerged from their underground dens and began to explore the surface the Earth. In time, they evolved into primates with a highly developed neocortex (that’s the computer part of our brains) and, eventually, into humans. 

So, the asteroid impact that caused the death of the dinosaurs also led to the evolution of new forms of life. Because of our cuddly mammalian ancestors and their beautiful little limbic systems, this cataclysmic extinction event opened the door for deeper expressions of love than had ever existed before on planet Earth. And you, the people sitting in these pews tonight, are the direct descendants of those brave and loving creatures. 

Here, in the very fabric of our planet, we discover the mystery of resurrection at work on a timescale that predates the human by millions of years. There is also, in this discovery, a profound harmonization between the scientific story of nature and the biblical story of creation. Dr. Francis Collins writes, “God has now given us the intelligence and the opportunity to discover [God’s] methods… For me scientific discovery is also an occasion of worship” (Time Magazine, August 7, 2005).

Turning from the Christian story of Easter and the scientific story of creation, we can also findthe great mystery of resurrection at work in our lives today. In every life, it is said, a little rain (and not a few asteroids) must fall. Each of us endures moments (or seasons) of crisis, in which we die a little (or a lot) to one way of being and rise to another. Perhaps a job or a relationship has not turned out as expected; perhaps a diagnosis or accident has derailed one’s plans for the future; perhaps a person or community, in whom one had trusted, has utterly betrayed that trust. Even happy events, like weddings and graduations, can be occasions of death for one’s former way of life.

Like most parents, I can remember that there was once a time before I had children, but I no longer have any emotional access to that memory. Since becoming a father, my energy, my time, and (Lord knows) my money are no longer my own. Adapting Paul’s words to my present circumstances, I can definitively testify that the luxury of my formerly child-free life has been “buried with Christ by baptism into death,” but I can also testify that the experience of parenthood has opened my heart to greater depths of love and raised me to “newness of life” in ways that I could never have imagined. In my life as a father, and in my life as a Christian, I must come to admit that I am no longer the center of my own little world. Instead, I am but a speck of dust in company with my fellow specks, orbiting around a much greater center of our being. My self-centeredness has died and been resurrected as wonder and love on a cosmic scale.

This Easter, I invite you to consider the many deaths and resurrections you have endured in your life. I invite you to ask yourself: What are the cataclysms and crises that brought an end to an old way of life for you? What helped you make it through those days? What new insights and perspectives did you gain from those crises that you continue to carry to this day? Finally, looking at the present challenges in your life or the world around you, what new possibilities might be emerging from just below the surface?

As you ask yourself these questions, I pray that the answers you find and the meaning you create will lead you to “newness of life” in the mystery of resurrection. Whoever you are, whatever your personal beliefs or faith tradition may be, and in whatever way is most meaningful to you, may you journey alongside us Christians in the spirit of our Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”


In situ.

Nobody paying attention.

Those who should be


are not.


close at hand.

My name

echoing back

in a voice not mine.

Was it you?

It was not.

More lies.

Repeat the cycle,

again and again.

Getting restless.

I don’t even know


Frustration mounting.

Somebody say something.

A rare moment of insight.

That voice again.

Listening harder

for something

I don’t want to hear.

Reality speaks

without words

that will not go


This is no time

for prayers.




You need

to listen;

You say

you want to.

This is right;

This is real.

Just not

what I wanted to hear.

Trust me on this.

Becoming Love

Sermon I gave for Memorial Day weekend at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

A friend asked me this week, “What do you tell yourself when you are fearful of your own mortality and the fragility of your own life?” This is one of those questions that people ask you when they find out you’re a minister. (I suppose it’s an occupational hazard.) It’s an important question that gets at the heart of what drives people to religion and spirituality in our culture. 

I say, “in our culture,” because this is not the only question that has driven the spiritual quest in every place and time. The ancient Hebrews, for example, had no concept of an afterlife. Their primary religious question was not, “What will happen to me when I die?” but “What will happen to our people now?” The reward they conceived for obedience to the Torah of their ancestors was not a blissful afterlife for individuals in heaven, but a prosperous life for their community on Earth. Individual mortality was a given for them, but the survival of their people was of paramount importance. 

The Jewish concept of an afterlife developed over time and took several different forms before the beginning of the Common Era. Later Christian formulations evolved from those forms. Both traditions, to this day, maintain multiple views and opinions on the subject of the afterlife. 

Other spiritual traditions have their own opinions about what happens to people when they die. Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, both espouse a belief that people in the West call “reincarnation” (though a Tibetan Buddhist friend tells me that his tradition prefers to call it “rebirth”).

Some (though certainly not all) who claim no religious affiliation take a “that’s it” approach to the end of a person’s physical existence. “The body dies,” they say, “and then that’s it.Nothing else comes next.”

I will not be so bold as to attempt to resolve this important question for all of you today. One of the beautiful things about Unitarian Universalist communities is the theological diversity that exists among your membership. It would be a sacrilege to insult that diversity by imposing one particular interpretation above all others. What I purpose to do instead, in this sermon today, is to take an “at least” approach to questions about the afterlife. Whatever else life after death may (or may not) be, it is “at least” as much as what we know through science.

Let’s start with the following assertion: Reality is relational. At every conceivable level. Community is everything and everything is community.

This is a fact. We know this from our study of the universe. 

At the macroscopic level, planets and stars are drawn together by gravitational attraction to form solar systems and galaxies. 

At the microscopic level, we can observe those same gravitational forces drawing electrons, protons, and neutrons together to form atoms. Atoms bond to form molecules. Molecules form cells. Cells form organisms. Organisms form ecosystems.

At the level of human observation, gravity is the arm that Earth uses to hold us all close to her heart. 

Human beings and other animals experience a similar force of attraction that draws us together into families and communities for the purposes of survival and reproduction. When we experience this attraction to one another, and the conscious choice we bring to that attraction, we don’t call it gravity; we call it love.

In politics and economics, our choices to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and respect “the interdependent web of all existence” are themselves acts of love. To quote the present-day prophet Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” 

Even the individual “I” that I think of as “me” is, in truth, a community. My consciousness is an emergent property of the electrochemical relations between the cells of my body.Biologists refer to this as “the neural network.” The atoms that presently comprise my body were forged billions of years ago in the furnace of a long-dead star. The stars are my ancestors and are part of me today. As Carl Sagan was so fond of telling his audience, “We are star stuff.” After my biological life is over, the atoms of my body will disperse and go on to become part of someone else. From the cellular, to the social, to the solar levels, and everywhere in between, reality is relational.

The relational nature of reality is the story I’m telling myself” about life after death. Whatever else the afterlife might (or might not) mean, it means at least as much as this. How then do these thoughts about the relational nature of reality help us in our spiritual reflections about life after death?

First of all, I think the relational nature of reality gives us a way to get past the seemingly insurmountable differences we find between various theories of the afterlife. If reality is relational, then relationship is the ultimate source from which all beings derive their existence. If reality is relational, then equitable relationships (with ourselves, each other, and the planet) are the highest and most sacred goal that human beings could pursue. Terms like “most sacred” and “source of all being” are titles that people in some religions would apply to their concept of “God.” My favorite passage in the sacred texts of my own Christian tradition is 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This passage takes on new depths of meaning for me when I hold the phrase “God is love” next to “reality is relational.” A person need not be religious or believe in a personal deity to see the value in this interpretation.

When I die, my body will be recycled back into Earth. I will still be giving new life to other organisms long after I am gone. Those organisms too will eventually die and pass the gift of life to others, just as it was passed to us. The physical and chemical elements that currently empower my neural network will eventually disperse and enter into new relationships with other beings. The “I” that think of as “me” will one day become part of someone else. On that day, relationship will be all that is left of me. On that day, I will become love.

When I imagine death and reality in this relational way, I can see how people in some spiritual traditions could say that the dead have been “reborn” or “resurrected.” If the dead have indeed “become love,” I can understand how some might say that they now have “eternal life” with God and the saints. I can also see how it makes sense to believe that an individual’s personal identity ceases to exist when their brain and body stop functioning. When we imagine reality as relational, we gain the power to resolve the conflict between differing interpretations and religious traditions. We gain the power to hold all of them (and more) together in a unified and interrelated whole.

The second gift that relational nature of reality offers us is the power to have faith without superstition. A person need not believe in a personal God or an immortal soul to accept that reality is relational. If reality is relational, a naturalistic worldview need not necessitate the cynical belief that life is meaningless or hopeless. Indeed, a naturalist who understands the relational nature of reality may find it easier to grow a meaningful and hopeful life than a traditional theist who maintains belief in “God” and “soul” as isolated monads. Even the most ardent atheist can say a heartfelt “Amen!” to the Unitarian Universalist principles of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

This understanding of the relational nature of reality offers much to us, but it also asks much from us. It asks that we let go of our egocentric and anthropocentric ways of thinking and living. It asks that we stop centering ourselves in conversations and focus our attention on serving the common good. It asks us rememberthat the way we treat ourselves, our fellow humans, and ourplanet has more spiritual value than any religious dogma or spiritual platitude ever could. In the words of Jesus of Nazareth, the only way to truly love God is by loving your neighbor as yourself. The relational nature of reality asks us to “become love” while we are still alive and have the power of intentional choice. This, in the end, is the kind of life that matters most.

On this Memorial Day weekend, the people of this congregation have gathered to remember those who have come before us, those who have died, those who have “become love” in our midst. May our good memories of these people inspire us to become the hands and feet of love while we still have breath in our lungs. May our bad memories of these complex and imperfect people guide us to honor their legacy by doing better than they did. May we learn from their successes and failures. May we, by our own moral choices, claim our place in the cosmic network of relationships until that day when our biological functions cease and we ourselves “become love.”

Improvising a Life

It was my great privilege to be a guest speaker at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan this morning. I am so thankful to be able to celebrate with this lovely faith community and make lots of new friends!

The meditation on which the sermon is based is the following video by Abigail and Sean Bengson.
I highly recommend watching it before listening to or reading the sermon.
It will lift your spirits and provide context for my message.

Here is a video recording of the message.
I apologize for the scruffy sound of the microphone on my shirt.
I didn’t realize that was happening during the talk.
If you would rather read than listen, the typed manuscript is posted below.

As I begin, I would like to express my sincere thanks to several people for the opportunity to join you in celebration on this beautiful Sunday morning. I would like to thank your minister, the Rev. Gy Ludvig-McCartney, for inviting me to join you and share my thoughts with you today. Our thoughts are with Gy and their spouse Patti this morning. I would also like to thank your Director of Religious Education, Miriam Epskamp, for her kind and helpful guidance in helping me navigate the technical challenges of online church during a global pandemic. Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the lovely people of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Southwest Michigan, for your warm welcome into this sacred space and time on this first Sunday of the year 2021. It is a great honor to participate in your worship service and I hope to make an inspiring and informative contribution this morning.

I love the video of the ‘Keep Going On Song’ for several reasons. First of all, it sends a message of hope and compassion in a year when we sorely need it. It comes from fellow travelers who were struggling through 2020 just like the rest of us. They used their powers of creativity to bring a little more light and goodness to a world that was (and still is) feeling like a very dark and lonely place.

But more than that: I love this video as a musician. The way that the singer improvises around the chord progression and returns to the chorus is magnificent. There is an orderliness in the structure of the song, and there is also chaos in the improvisation. This song could never be sung the same way twice.

I would like to talk with you today about this unfolding interaction. When order and chaos come together, they form something that is neither one nor the other. Nor do they reach a compromise between the two extremes. What they form is something new that includes and transcends both order and chaos in their fullness. The word I would like to use for this new thing is creativity. And creativity is what I would like to talk about with you today.

Creativity, understood as an emergent property of the interaction between order and chaos, is fully present in the natural world. I can see it happening particularly in the process of biological evolution, which has been happening on this planet for the last 4.5 billion years, and is still continuing today.

As many of you grownups will remember from your high school biology classes, there are two main components to the engine of evolution. The first component is genetic mutation. This the chaotic part. A mutation is a copy error that occurs in our DNA during the process of cellular division (mitosis). Something in the code unexpectedly changes, which alters the way the new cell functions when the code is read. Often, these errors are harmful to the new cell, but every now and then, a mutation happens that is actually helpful.

Now, the question arises: How do our cells decide which mutations are helpful and which ones are harmful? Well, that’s where the second component of the evolutionary engine comes in.

Genetic mutations cause changes that give either an advantage or a disadvantage to an organism’s chances for survival in its environment. A mutation, for example, that allows a cell to digest a certain kind of food in an environment where that food source is abundant will have a survival advantage. In other words, the new cell that can digest the food is more likely to survive than the cells that cannot digest that food. When this new cell later divides into daughter cells, it passes on its mutation to the next generation. The other cells, meanwhile, are more likely to die before they can reproduce. The name that biologists have given to this process is natural selection.

Natural selection is the orderly component of the evolutionary engine. It takes the errors provided by genetic mutation and determines which ones will provide a survival advantage for the organism. The process itself may be blind, but it is certainly not random.

Critics of evolutionary theory have sometimes used an imaginary example to explain why they think a blind process could not produce the immense diversity and complexity of life that we have on this planet today.

“Imagine,” they say, “a monkey in front of a computer, randomly pushing keys on the keyboard. What are the odds that this monkey could accidentally produce a Shakespearean sonnet? The odds are infinitesimally small.”

The purpose of this thought experiment is usually to demonstrate the idea that something as beautiful and complex as a Shakespearean sonnet can only be produced by a conscious entity with the intelligence of William Shakespeare. “So,” they say, “there must be some kind of intelligent designer at work, consciously directing the process of evolution in ways that are not random or chaotic.” Most proponents of this intelligent design hypothesis use this thought experiment as an argument in favor of the existence of God.

But there is a key piece that intelligent design proponents leave out, and that key piece is natural selection. If we were to adapt the monkey/computer thought experiment to account for natural selection, we would have to add something like the following:

Imagine that there was some kind of system in place that rewarded the monkey with a banana each time it pressed the correct key in the correct order. Over time, the monkey would be able to realize and remember that pressing certain keys in a certain way gave that monkey an advantage. And now, imagine that there was some way to keep each correct letter on the computer screen while erasing the incorrect letters. Finally, imagine further that there were millions of monkeys working on this project at the same time, and each time a monkey anywhere pressed the correct key, the letter on the screen would be kept. Suddenly, it is not at all inconceivable that the monkeys might be able to produce a Shakespearean sonnet in a very short amount of time! And all this would happen without any of the monkeys being aware of the literary masterpiece they were creating. (See Endnote 1)

This is how the creative process of evolution works. It uses the interaction between chaos and order to improvise increasingly diverse and complex forms of life, up to and including you wonderful homo sapiens who have gathered together online to reflect on the meaning of life this Sunday morning.

Music and evolution are not the only places in the universe where chaos and order come together to improvise bonds of creativity. We humans, individually and collectively, have an opportunity to make our own unique contribution to the ongoing creativity of the universe.

You and I experience the interaction of chaos and order in our lives on a daily basis. The chaos has been particularly evident over the course of the year 2020. We are currently living through a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 2 million lives, so far. We have endured quarantine, lockdowns, and violent reactions against those lockdowns. Frontline medical workers, such as myself, have put our lives on the line to care for those who have contracted and sometimes died from COVID-19. We have all witnessed (and some of us have participated in) protests against acts of police brutality that disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. Many of our fellow citizens (including my wife) have been tear-gassed, beaten, and shot by the very officers we commission to keep us safe from unlawful acts of violence. We Americans have endured the spectacle of a particularly contentious presidential election and watched in horror as the legitimacy of that electoral process was called into question by those who have sworn to uphold it. The collective chaos in 2020 has indeed been particularly evident.

In the midst of chaos such as this, it is not uncommon for humans to grasp at straws for meaning. We say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.” The more religiously inclined among us might say, “God has a plan.” In the midst of chaos, many of us might ask, “Why is this happening,” or, “What is the meaning of life, anyway?”

I think we humans tend to ask these questions because we are afraid that the alternative to an orderly plan is a universe that is entirely chaotic and meaningless. We have already observed, however, that life is not entirely chaotic or orderly, but the product of a process that includes and transcends both chaos and order: the universe is a creative process. (See Endnote 2)

I would like to propose a new question this morning: What if the meaning of life is not something we find, but something we make?

The making of meaning is how we humans participate in the process of creativity. Things happen to us that seem chaotic: The lost job, the failed relationship, the missed opportunity, the unforeseen disaster, or the chance encounter. What is ultimately important about these events is not the events themselves, but the story we tell ourselves about them.

When a relationship ends, we can say to ourselves, “That’s just proof that I will never be loved in the way that I want to be,” or we can say, “I have made many mistakes in this relationship, but I will work on myself, learn from my mistakes, and act differently the next time I am in another relationship.” When a baby unexpectedly dies, we can say, “This is evidence that I am just not ready to be a parent,” or we can say, “I will join a support group to help other parents, who are enduring this inestimable loss, and make a way through the darkness of grief.” We cannot control what happens to us in life, but we can decide how we will respond to our chaotic circumstances.

When the unexpected happens, will I choose respond with faith or fear? Will that which does not kill me make me more cynical or more sensitive? Will I use my experience of pain to hurt or to help? The choice is up to us.

May the powers of creativity, compassion, and courage, which are already within you, be your guide, your strength, and your hope as you go out into the world. May each of you become meaning-makers in the midst of chaos, today and every day.

So say we all.


1. I adapted the extended metaphor of the monkeys at the computer from Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett.

2. I am indebted to Karl E. Peters for the conception of creative process as an interplay between chaos and order, especially in regards to genetic mutation and natural selection. See especially his book, Dancing with the Sacred: Evolution, Ecology, and God.