Checking Privilege Mindfully

It was my great honor to be invited by my dear friend, Rev. Rachel Lonberg, to preach this week at People’s Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Kalamazoo. The language and flow of this sermon are quite different from my usual practice, as I was speaking in a multi-faith context. I welcome the creative opportunity to express my values in a different way. Enjoy!

Breath is a funny thing. It happens all the time, whether we think about it or not. Our body simply knows how to do it. Most of the time, we take it for granted, even though it’s even more essential to life than food or water (or even iPhones or Facebook). But do we ever really pay attention to it?

I’d like to invite you to join me in a little experiment for a moment.

Try to sit up straight, as comfortably as you can, with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes if you like, but it’s not strictly necessary. Now, just pay attention to your breathing.

Don’t try to control or force it. This is not about deep breathing; just the regular rhythm that’s happening all the time. Imagine yourself riding your breath, as if you were a surfer on the ocean.

Notice the feeling of the air as it passes through your nostrils. Notice the movement of your chest or shoulders as the air fills your lungs. Notice the expanding of your abdomen as your diaphragm draws the atmosphere into your body.

Now, let’s just sit with that for a bit. Just keep riding the unconscious rhythm of your breathing.

After a while, you will probably begin to notice other things as well: little noises in the room, twitches or pains in your body, thoughts popping in and out of your head. These are all perfectly normal. Don’t judge them. Just keep gently bringing your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing. Let everything just happen. Don’t try to empty your mind or stop yourself from thinking. Just let the thoughts come and go. Imagine you’re sitting by the side of a river, just watching the boats go by, and each thought, sensation, or noise is just another little boat. Just watch it go by while your attention is on the river itself, and the river is your breath.

Just sit with that awareness for this moment.

When you’re ready, you can open your eyes again (if you had them closed). What did you notice about yourself during this exercise?

Some people describe themselves as feeling more relaxed peaceful. Some notice little irritations or discomfort in their bodies or environment. I often notice, just after opening my eyes again, that lights and colors seem brighter or more vivid than they did before.

What do you think would happen within you if you were to practice this for five minutes a day or longer, maybe even working up to twenty minutes?

A lot of research has gone into that very question over the past two decades. Many self-help books have been written about mindfulness or meditation. Studies have demonstrated that those who practice this exercise on a regular basis report decreased stress, anxiety, and emotional reactivity. At the same time, they report an increase in memory, focus, and cognitive flexibility. Therapists who practice mindfulness report an improvement in their counseling abilities.

I think all of these things are very good and true, but I also think there is a deeper significance to mindfulness practice that goes beyond the findings of clinical psychologists. Mindfulness, I think, brings us into a greater awareness of reality in the here and now.

The goal of mindfulness, as I understand it, is not to stop our thoughts and feelings, but to stop our identification with our thoughts and feelings. In an age where Twitter has reduced people to seething balls of opinions, mindfulness brings us back to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. Our True Self, if you will, has roots that go much deeper than the surface of our Ego. Mindfulness brings us into conscious awareness of that True Self.

Philosopher of religion John Hick points out that all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world bring their practitioners on a similar journey. This journey is conceived and expressed in different ways: Salvation, Enlightenment, Liberation, Recovery.

What they all have in common is that they present us with a problem and a solution. The journey on which they take us, according to Hick, is a journey from a self-centered way of living to a reality-centered way of living.

I would extend Hick’s observation beyond the bounds of traditional religious practice as well. We can see the same kind of journey taking place in the late medieval and early modern ages with the advent of the Scientific Revolution.

Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, in 1543 CE, published a manuscript On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. In this book, Copernicus set forth this radical idea that the sun was the center of the solar system, while the earth and other planets revolved around it. Now, this theory was not original to Copernicus; it had been formulated before by many different astronomers around the world. However, it was Copernicus who rediscovered the idea of a heliocentric solar system for Western Europe.

The Copernican model challenged the prevailing orthodox view at that time, which declared unequivocally that the earth was stationary, while everything else in the universe revolved around it. Copernicus’ views were ridiculed and rejected by powerful religious and political forces. These supposedly heretical ideas called into question the power of a social system that was upheld by politics and religion. The thing that caused Copernicus’ detractors to tremble in fear was the thought that they might not be the center of the universe, after all.

The Copernican Revolution and subsequent development of the Scientific Method represent the gradual eclipse of traditional doctrine by rational observation in the matters of the physical sciences. Reason has not replaced religion entirely, but has caused it to adapt and grow in new ways.

If we take John Hick’s model of spirituality as a journey from self-centered thinking to reality-centered thinking, we can accept the Copernican Revolution as a scientifically ‘religious’ event. We can also understand it in terms of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness practice brings us to the awareness that we are more than the sum of our thoughts. It shows us that we are not the center of the universe, but merely parts of a whole.

On the one hand, such a realization is threatening to any who identify themselves by their power, possessions, or privilege. On the other hand, it also has the potential to be profoundly liberating to those who are willing to open their minds.

Just think of the images that have been beamed back to Earth from the Hubble Space Telescope for the past three decades. These photographs are like sacred icons to me. In those galaxies and nebulae, I see a beauty that is so vast and so ancient that I seem like a speck of dust or a wisp of smoke in comparison. On the other hand, I realize that the same cosmic order that gave rise to that beauty exists also in the atoms of my own body. I am as much a part of them as they are of me. Together, we are the universe. Observing those images with my eyes and contemplating them with my brain, I feel both small and great at the same time. No matter what happens to me in this life, the beauty of the cosmic order will remain untouched and continue to give rise to new forms in the future. That is my basis for faith, hope, and love, and it feels like freedom.

There is freedom to be found in the practice of mindfulness, but it is far from obvious to those who persist in identifying with their egocentric thoughts and emotions. The past century has brought us an increasing (though still incomplete) awareness of the diversity and dignity of creation. This awareness has inspired some among us to stand up for equality and the rights of our fellow beings. The struggle for women’s suffrage and civil rights have given rise to movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter today.

We have made some progress, but our work has still just begun. Just as in Copernicus’ time, powerful forces are reacting strongly against the advancement of equality. As some step out and speak out for equality, there are others who decry their message as “a War on Christmas… a War on Traditional Marriage… a War on America… A War on White People… A War on Men…”

Those who have benefitted from an unfair distribution of power and resources are afraid that their loss of privileged status is an attack on their very identity and existence. In mindfulness terms, they are continuing to identify with socially constructed categories like race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, sexual orientation, or religion.

I say “they” but I really should say “we” because I stand before you today as a beneficiary of almost every possible category of privilege that can be identified. I am a white, middle-class, straight, cis-gendered, male, American, and Christian human being. The political and economic structures of this country were set up by people who look like me and for people who look like me. I receive an unfair amount of privilege over and against my fellow human beings, simply because I was lucky enough to be born this way. I speak this morning to anyone who shares my privilege in any of the categories I just named. Even as members of the species homo sapiens, we occupy a privileged position of power over the other species and environments of this planet. The United States espouses the philosophical ideals of equality, but too often fails to live up to them in practice. Our privilege is a crime against humanity and, in the language of the Christian religious tradition, a sin against God.

While we are not personally culpable for the misdeeds of past generations, we are nevertheless responsible for doing our part to reshape the present for the sake of future generations. The task before us is to “check our privilege” in our dealings and interactions with those who do not possess a fair share of power and resources at the table. Our threefold mission, like Copernicus, is to let go of false-yet-convenient models of the past, to realize that we are not the center of the universe, and to take our place as parts of a great and beautiful whole. We can never hope to make anything “great again” because reality itself has never ceased to be great, and never will be. Its greatness is simply there, to be observed. All we have to do is open our eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to become aware of it.

I believe that mindfulness meditation, like we have just practiced, is one tool that we can use in cultivating this awareness of our inherent greatness. We can check our privilege, not by flagellating ourselves in guilt for the sins of the past, but by being fully present in this moment with our fellow beings. We can check our privilege by showing up, being still, looking compassionately into one another’s eyes, and listening attentively to the pain that has been caused by centuries of oppression.

Over a century ago, the members of People’s Church did just that as they sat and listened to Sojourner Truth preach from the pulpit of this congregation. By practicing mindful awareness today, we will find ourselves once again in the great company of prophets like Nicolaus Copernicus and Sojourner Truth, that great communion of saints who have made the journey from self-centered living to reality-centered living. We cannot change the mistakes of the past, but we can check our privilege by practicing mindful awareness today and so lay the foundation for a better tomorrow.

May it be so. Amen.

Your Greatest Gift is You

Preaching on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI.

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

Your greatest gift to the world is you.

Do you hear me in that?

Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.

This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.

In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.

When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)

Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.

Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.

There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.

In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)

The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.

Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.

Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.

In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”

In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.

And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.

In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.

And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.

Fully Human

Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church of Paw Paw, MI.

Click here to read the biblical text.

There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.

The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”

The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.

These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”

From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”

Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”

According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.

So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?

Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.

God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.

But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.

But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.

After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.

These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.

These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.

All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.

We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).

This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.

The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.

Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.

Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.

Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”

Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”

To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.

By Waoceanu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

God Is Not A Vending Machine

Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church in Niles, Michigan.

The biblical text is Philippians 4:1-9. Click here to read it.

Every now and then, I come across an article online that describes a “scientific experiment” on the effects of prayer. Typically, these are conducted in a medical setting, where one group of patients has a group fervently praying for their recovery, while another group (called the “control group” in scientific circles) does not.

The “results” of these experiments tend to vary widely, depending on who is conducting or sponsoring the survey, but the central idea remains the same: if the recipients of prayer have a significantly higher rate or speed of recovery than those who were not prayed for, then religious people get excited that they have finally disproved the denouncements of atheists. If, on the other hand, there is no significant difference in recovery between the groups, secular humanists get excited that they have finally disproved the superstitious practices of people of faith.

One might think that I, as a member of the Christian clergy, would be rooting hard for the first result, but the truth is that I find both of these reactions equally unsatisfying. In fact, I find the entire idea behind this kind of experiment to be utterly absurd. I say this because I think experiments like this miss the whole point of what prayer actually is and what it is for.

This kind of test treats prayer as if it is a form of magic: effecting a favorable outcome of natural events through supernatural means. Even worse, it treats God like a cosmic vending machine: I put my money in the slot, press a button, and get the treat I want. I never even think about the vending machine unless I want something from it. Even then, I don’t think about the machine itself very much unless it breaks down, and fails to give me what I asked for. It’s fairly obvious that my relationship to a vending machine is inherently self-centered. And it’s not hard to see that a relationship to God in prayer, based on the same principle, is an inherently self-centered spirituality.

St. Paul talks about the subject of prayer quite a bit in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians. But first, a little bit of back story…

The passage begins with a reference to an interpersonal conflict that is going on in the Church in Philippi. The major players are Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent members of the Church. They have reached an impasse in an argument. We, the readers, know nothing of what this argument was about. It might have been a difference of opinion on some important theological or moral issue, or it might have been as petty as a spat over the next potluck. Pastoral experience has taught me repeatedly that church conflicts often run the gamut between these two extremes, though typically, the loudest fights tend to happen over the most trivial of issues.

We don’t know what the issue was in this particular case, but things had gotten bad enough that Paul had to get involved. What I find most interesting about his response is that he does not address the issue itself at all, but scoots past it to care for the souls of the people involved in the conflict.

Paul says to them, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase. On the surface, it looks like a general call for two people to find a way to agree with one another, but there is a deeper reference here as well. The words “same mind” should remind the readers of this letter of the same phrase, which appeared two chapters earlier:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What St. Paul is trying to do here is coax these Church members to think outside the box of their self-centered conflict and re-orient their lives around the Gospel. This is the central point of all Christian spirituality: to move us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living; to see ourselves and our lives through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul says it again in the passage we heard from today, urging the members of the Church to “help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. He sees these sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, not as opposing parties in a debate, but as co-laborers for the Gospel of Christ. The question, for Paul, is not “Who is wrong?” or “Who is right?” in this situation, but “Who are we in Christ?” Paul is encouraging his readers to look at their situation, not from a self-centered point of view, but from a God-centered point of view.

So, how do we do this? How do we shift from our usual, self-centered way of living to the God-centered way of living? How do we begin to look at ourselves, our lives, and each other through the all-encompassing lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

St. Paul tells us how, and this is where prayer comes in:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Here we can see Paul’s understanding of the purpose of prayer. Prayer, for St. Paul, is not about getting the things we want from the cosmic vending machine. Prayer takes the joys and concerns of our life and reorients our lives around the story of God’s creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

When we pray, our circumstances might very well change for the better, but that is not the ultimate purpose of prayer. Prayer changes us. Prayer leads us to look at our lives from a different point of view. Prayer leads us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living.

We practice this kind of prayer every Sunday in the liturgy. We are fed on a steady diet of Scripture and Sacrament, we name before God the various joys and concerns of our lives, we confess our failings and shortcomings, and we offer ourselves to the service of God in the world. But this is not just an activity for worship on Sunday. We need to be doing this every day in our own lives.

If you don’t have a regular spiritual practice outside of Sunday worship, I encourage you to start one. Take time every day to talk to God in prayer and listen to God in Scripture and silence.

There are many ways to do this. Devotional books and pamphlets abound, and they can be found online or in any bookstore. Personally, I use a more formal pattern of prayer called the Daily Office, which comes to us from the Benedictine monastic tradition. A form of the Daily Office can be found in The Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, which is published by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For those who are technologically inclined, there is an inexpensive app available for iPhones that follows this pattern. Just do a search for “PCUSA Daily Prayer” in the App Store. How you do it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it in some way that makes sense to you.

And I can tell you from firsthand experience that it works. Prayer works. It certainly has worked for me. It may or may not change my circumstances in the way that I want, but I know for a fact that prayer changes me, and I believe that prayer has the power to change you too.

My prayer for each and every one of you this morning is that you will find in this practice a new perspective on life, and that you will begin to view yourselves, your lives, and your world through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Wrestling With God

Today I am preaching and presiding over the Eucharist at Pennfield Presbyterian Church. Here is the sermon.

Click here to read the biblical text.

Back when I was in college, I had a pretty strict and narrow view of the Christian life. I thought that certain doctrines must be believed without question and certain moral precepts must be followed without deviation. If I followed these guidelines, or so I thought, life would inevitably work out well for me because I would be blessed by God.

All of this came to a screeching halt during my senior year, as I returned from a student mission trip to Eastern Europe. Just before I left, I was flirting rather intently with a lovely fellow student from my church, with whom I’d had on-again/off-again romance. I left for the trip high on cloud nine, thinking that we were finally about to get together for good. I thanked God for leading me to do things “the right way”: I was a serious student of the Bible, volunteering at my church, on the leadership team of my campus ministry, spending my spring break delivering presents to orphans in Romania, and about to begin a relationship with a wonderful person who I both respected and liked very much. I was doing and believing all the right things, therefore God was blessing me.

But life and relationships, as I have learned after a decade in ministry and marriage, are often much more complicated than that. I came back from that trip to find out she had met someone else over the break, had started dating him, and was moving to Mexico. This felt like a slap in the face at the time. What was the point of all that hard work if it didn’t lead to me being blessed in the way I want? I was utterly confused.

I’m not the only one who has had to deal with disappointment like that. A lot of people have very specific ideas about the spiritual life that don’t necessarily correspond to the way things actually are. People think that growing spiritually leads to material prosperity, inner peace, lessened doubts, better behavior, or harmony within the family unit.

As we should do with all things in life, I would like to test that hypothesis by holding it up to the light of Scripture.

In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, we get to spend time with one of my favorite people in the whole Bible: Jacob. God has been involved in Jacob’s life from the beginning. There were prophecies spoken about him while he was still in his mother’s womb. He was the heir of God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac. He was destined to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He had dramatic visions of angels going up and down between heaven and earth on a ladder. If anyone had a deep, spiritual connection with God, it was Jacob.

But does that also mean that Jacob had a smooth life, or that he was morally impeccable, or that he never struggled with doubt? Apparently not, according to the text of the Bible.

If we were to read the whole of Jacob’s story, we would see that he had a very complicated relationship with an overbearing and manipulative mother, a contentious relationship with his twin brother, and a tendency to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wanted in life.

Jacob’s miscreant ways eventually led him to go on the run as a fugitive, after cheating his brother out of his birthright. He ended up living and working in a foreign country, where he was lied to and manipulated to a strange double-marriage with two sisters and a house full of kids who fought even more than Jacob and his brother had.

After several years, Jacob was finally forced to return home when he found himself with nowhere else to go. He was still terrified that his brother might be out to get him, so he sends his whole family and everything he owns ahead of him as a bribe, in a desperate attempt to manipulate his way back into his brother’s good graces. And so it was that Jacob finally found himself alone and empty-handed on a cold, sleepless night in the desert.

That night in the desert, Scripture tells us, Jacob was wrestling with something. The identity of the one with whom he struggled is not at all clear. At first, the text says it is a man, though some have speculated that it might have been an angel. Modern psychologists might theorize that Jacob was wrestling with his own unconscious self. But ultimately, as we learn from Genesis, Jacob is really wrestling with God.

Even though he is exhausted and in pain, Jacob refuses to let go. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” he says. The strange figure asks Jacob his name and then gives him a new one: Israel, which means, “He wrestles with God.” Taken aback, Jacob asks the stranger his name, and the stranger responds cryptically, “Why is it that you ask my name?” and blesses him. The story ends with Jacob limping off into the rising sun: wounded and blessed at the same time, having glimpsed the face of a God whose name he didn’t even know.

I think it’s fairly plain to see, by this point, that Jacob’s special relationship with God did not in fact lead to inner peace, good behavior, or the absence of doubt. This is why I like Jacob so much: not because he was a hero, but because he wasn’t. Jacob’s messed-up life reminds me of my own. And it gives me great comfort to know that, if God wouldn’t give up on someone as flawed as Jacob, then God won’t give on me either.

Jacob’s new name, Israel, means “he wrestles with God.” This name has been given to God’s people in Scripture ever since. In the New Testament, the Apostle refers to the nascent Church as
“the new Israel.” We are the ones who wrestle with God. We, no less that Jacob, limp our way through life, simultaneously wounded and blessed.

Faith is a struggle for everyone. None of us lives a life that is free of problems, failure, and inconsistency. We have family drama, raging doubts, character flaws, and dashed hopes. We are flawed and finite creatures in desperate need of grace.

The good news is that we also have a God who is not unaccustomed to meeting sinners in the midst of their own self-made mess. The great story of Scripture is that God, when we humans had foolishly tried to become the masters of our own destiny and instead become slaves to forces beyond our control, became a man and came to wrestle with us in the darkness of this world.

This God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, went toe-to-toe with arrogant and hypocritical religious leaders. He smacked his forehead repeatedly at his blundering disciples. He was exhausted by the seemingly endless needs of sick and oppressed people who came begging for his help. Finally, he stood silent and defiant before the mighty judgment of imperial Rome, in the person of Pontius Pilate.

God’s wrestling with the world eventually led Jesus to the cross, where he refused to strike back, but instead absorbed the blows of human violence into his own body. His death ended the wrestling match between God and humanity. Selfish humanity, it seemed, had wrestled with God and won.

But therein lies the trick, you see. Scripture and tradition tell us that Christ descended into hell after his death and proceeded to rip the gates open from the inside, thereby freeing the souls who were trapped inside.

On the third day after these things took place, God raised Jesus from the dead, overcoming the power of death and hell forever.

Brothers and sisters, this is good news for us who struggle. Knowledge of God’s boundless grace gives us the strength to be gentle with ourselves in our own struggles with sin and doubt. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we finite creatures are constitutionally incapable of out-sinning God’s infinite love for us. All the might of our selfishness, violence, and hate cannot stem the tide of divine grace. God loves you and there is, quite frankly, nothing you can do about it.

God’s grace also gives us the ability to be patient with others who struggle with faith. If I accept that I am utterly imperfect, but loved by God anyway, then I can extend that same grace to my friends, neighbors, and enemies.

Friends, faith is not about getting it right. It’s not about having the answers, or being free of doubt, or living morally impeccable lives. None of us is perfect. Life isn’t perfect.

In the face of life’s imperfections, faith is an act of courage that we undertake with all the storms of fear still raging inside of us. Faith is the refusal to let go through long, sleepless nights. And in the end, faith is the slow, painful limp into the sunrise, blessed with a new identity and a glimpse at the face of a God whose name we don’t even know.

Nothing Can Separate Us

First time back in the pulpit in several months. Delivered this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, MI.

Click here to read the Lessons.

Back when I was working as a counselor for drug addicts in upstate New York, a client came to me one day with a question about spirituality. He was working the Twelve Steps program through Alcoholics Anonymous, which leans heavily on faith in High Power to help a person find sobriety. He had never thought much about God, but figured he should start by reading the Bible.

He asked me, “Where should I begin?”

And I responded, “Why not at the beginning? Start with the book of Genesis.”

“Why Genesis?” he asked.

And I told him, “Because it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gave up on them either!”

That really is my favorite part of the book of Genesis. In it, we hear the story of four generations from an extremely dysfunctional family. It’s full of deceit, betrayal, manipulation, sex, and violence. I sometimes read it and wonder whether Abraham and his descendants belong in the Bible or on some sleazy daytime talk show.

The picture we get in today’s first Lesson from Genesis is perfect example of that. Jacob is on the run as a fugitive from justice after cheating his brother out of his inheritance. He finds a home and goes to work for his mother’s relatives in a neighboring country. Jacob’s uncle, Laban, lies to him about his contract and changes the terms without telling him. The women in this story, Rachel, Leah, and Zilpah, are tossed around like pieces of property and never get to have a say in their own destiny. After the section we read today, Jacob goes on to do some pretty crafty lying himself. The whole situation is a mess!

And that’s the point, I think. By preserving this encounter in Scripture, God presents us with a messed up situation that bears an awful lot of resemblance to our own messy lives. None of us is perfect; none of us lives in circumstances that are ideal. We mere mortals struggle to make the best of things in life and often fall short of our highest aspirations.

But here’s the good news: God never gives up on us, either.

Just like Jacob in the book of Genesis, we are part of a much bigger story that both includes and transcends the messiness of our individual lives. There is a sacred mystery at work within us and among us: some might call it the hand of God.

St. Paul tells us as much in his letter to the Romans, which is our second Lesson this morning. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Later on, he continues, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The Apostle is bold in reminding us that our varied and scattered lives are part of an unfolding story that includes the entire universe and spans the whole of time, from the beginning to its end. In all of our struggles and temptations, we can trust that we are not alone. In the often painful and seemingly random events of our existence, we can trust that life is meaningful. We can trust this, Paul says, because there is One who has created us, loves us unconditionally, and will eventually weave the various threads into a single, unified, and beautiful whole. This is why Paul is so bold to declare:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In short, St. Paul is saying that life is meaningful because we are loved. You are loved. Sitting at your desk and stressed out of your mind, you are loved. Standing in a courtroom while a judge pronounces sentence, you are loved. Crouching in a foxhole while sustaining enemy fire, you are loved. Collapsing to the floor when you get a late-night phone call with awful news, you are loved. Lying in a hospital bed as a doctor says there is nothing more he can do, you are loved.

Love is God’s way of working in the world. That might not seem like much, but it changes everything. Jesus compared it to a seed in today’s Gospel: it starts small but grows into a place where others can make a home.

Even better, Jesus compares God’s work in the world to yeast microbes, which are too tiny and insignificant to be seen by the naked eye, but change the nature of bread. Leaven the dough with yeast, and everything rises.

That’s how God works in the world and in our lives: like yeast in the bread. Starting with a seemingly random collection of matter and energy, God adds something else, something living, to the mix and the whole thing rises. One might think the Almighty would impose the divine will on creation by force, but God chooses to work instead from within, using the smallest and most insignificant lifeforms in the cosmos: people.

When God set out to redeem the world from sin, God took on human flesh and lived among us in the form of a tiny baby, born to a pregnant teenager in what was basically the parking lot of a motel, in a backwater hick-town in an occupied territory of the most powerful country on earth at the time. Yet this seemingly insignificant baby, so the Church tells us, born to the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, is God Incarnate.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loved us, healed us, and taught us to love one another. When we refused to listen to Jesus’ message and turned to the power of state-sanctioned violence to shut him up, God absorbed all of our human hate into the Divine Body. And then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead in order to send us the unmistakable message: “My love is stronger than all of this. All your hate, all your violence, and all your power to deal death cannot stop the power of my love.”

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Love is stronger than death, and nothing we do, nothing life throws at us, can separate us from it. It is the free and unconditional gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is the Gospel. This is the good news of God in Christ. This is the message that we are called to proclaim to the ends of the earth: That there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.

Just as God did for us in Christ, we are called to embed ourselves in the chaos and messiness of life in this world. We are called to share this world’s pain, to take it into ourselves, and perhaps find a way to heal some of it in Christ’s Name.

The irony is that the work of the Church doesn’t happen in church, but out in the world. We are called to meet people where they are and demonstrate to them, in word and deed, that they are loved. That is what the Church is for. Everything we do is for the sake of that one, singular goal.

That is why this parish hired me as your Community Development Administrator. I can’t do this work for you, but I can facilitate, guide, and encourage you as you do it. That’s why I want to get to know you, listen to your ideas, and open doors wherever I can.

And I certainly hope that, as you do this work of the Church in the world, you will hear anew for yourself the good news that we proclaim to this messed-up world: that you are loved.

Amen.

Jesus Gets His Hands Dirty

Click here to read the biblical text

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.”
-Psalm 19:14

One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that, when you ask him a question, you almost never get the kind of answer you expected.  He has this way of turning questions on their head.  His response tends to shed more light on the person asking the question than it does on the issue at hand.  Such is the case in today’s gospel reading.

The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples encountering a blind man while they are in Jerusalem for a religious holiday.  As they pass by, one of them asks a question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years:  “What is the nature of suffering and evil?”

This question is especially troubling to those of us who believe in God.  People have come up with all kinds of theories that try to find an answer.  Some suggest that God is loving but not almighty.  In other words, God cares about suffering but cannot do anything about it.  Others say that God is almighty but not loving.  God could solve the world’s problems but just doesn’t care.  Finally, some suggest that God is both loving and almighty, but that all suffering is merely an illusion or a misunderstanding on our part.

For Jews in Jesus’ day, the most common answer was judicial.  They believed that everything happens for a reason.  If someone was happy, healthy, and prosperous, then that person was being blessed and rewarded by God.  If someone was suffering, then that person was being punished for their sins.  This judicial theory is probably what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Even though they had their own pet theory to explain why this person was suffering, it didn’t answer all their questions.  In fact, their pet theory left them with quite a dilemma.  You see, the man in question had been blind from birth.  There was no way he could have violated Jewish law before the onset of his blindness.  Therefore, God was either punishing this person for someone else’s sin or God was punishing this person for a sin that had not yet been committed.  Either way, God comes across as unfair.

Jesus doesn’t resolve this dilemma for them.  He lets it stand out like a hole in the middle of a donut.  He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Rather than taking a side in this debate, Jesus once again turns the entire question on its head.  He says, in effect, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  His response seems cryptic and mysterious because Jesus is answering the question they should have been asking all along.  He continues, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

What does that mean?  It means that Jesus is trying to shift their attention.  He’s saying, if you really want to look for God in the midst of these tragic situations, don’t waste your time looking at the cause of the pain; look instead at the response to the pain.  The most important thing, to Jesus, is that we be doing God’s work.  And what’s the very next thing he does?  The text says, “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes”.  In other words: Jesus got his hands dirty.  While other people were standing around and arguing about philosophy, Jesus was busy healing those who hurt most.

But the scene doesn’t stop there.  The recently-healed blind man quickly became the center of controversy in Jerusalem.  This time, the debate was all about whether Jesus had the proper credentials to work such a miracle.  Witnesses were called while scholars debated back and forth about the issue.  All the while, the healed person is stuck in the middle.  He doesn’t have any answers.  He was probably still using his brand new eyes to figure out the difference between red and blue.  When they push him, he says, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  He stays true to his experience and simply tells the world what happened to him.

Eventually, it becomes pretty clear to this guy that he is simply a pawn being used in someone else’s religious and political agenda.  What I like best about this guy is his moxy (chutzpah).  Once he realizes what’s going on, he’s not content to play his part and go home.  No, he stands up and gives them a piece of his mind.  In more ways than one, his eyes were open.  Better than anyone else in the room, this “ex-blind man” was seeing things clearly.  So he stands up to this room full of rabbis and tells them off!

Well, these rabbis weren’t used to being spoken to like that!  After hurling a few choice insults about the nature of this man’s parentage, they voted unanimously to kick him out of the synagogue.  He was anathema, excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, dishonorably discharged, and “don’t let the door hit you in the rump on your way out!”

So, there he was.  His situation seemed hopeless.  For years, he had been excluded from the life of his community because of his disability.  Now, he was kicked out and called a heretic.  What was he supposed to do now?  He probably felt further away from God than ever before.

I love that Jesus decides to show up again at this point in the story.  It says, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and… found him”.  Then Jesus affirms what the blind man had suspected all along: that he could “see” better than any of those rabbis and scholars.  In spite of their educated debate over this controversy, they had completely missed the point about what Jesus was doing.  But this blind man got it, and Jesus wanted to make sure that he knew it.  Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Once again, Jesus makes sure that those who fall through the cracks of controversy and debate find their honored place in heaven’s economy.  The pawns become the kings.  The victims become the heroes.  Jesus shows us that these suffering and forgotten people are the ones who matter most to God.

When I am forced to endure hard times in my life, or when I witness tragedy in the lives of others, I do not reach for a book that tries to explain away the problem of pain in philosophical or theological terms. I think instead of these words by the Rev. Fred Rogers, a fellow pastor in the Presbyterian Church, who you may know better as the long-time host of the TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

I think Mr. (Rev.) Rogers hits the nail right on the head with this one. When we go looking for God in the midst of suffering, whether it’s our own pain or the tragedy of an entire nation, let’s not get lost in philosophical debate over the causes.  Rather, let’s be the “helpers” who get our hands dirty in the work of healing.

That is, after all, how God responds to us in our suffering. When human beings brought themselves to the point of destruction by turning away from God and each other, God did not abandon us to reap the natural consequences of our sin. Instead, God took on flesh and dwelled among us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Jesus loved us and lived among us, as one of us, healing, forgiving, and restoring lives. Jesus got his hands dirty in the mess of our lives and our world. Even when we resisted his saving efforts to the point of killing him on the cross, Jesus still would not stop loving us. On the third day, he rose from the grave, conquering the power of sin, death, and hell, so that now, we who have been baptized in his name, filled with his Holy Spirit, and fed with his Body and Blood are sent out to get our hands dirty as Jesus’ hands and feet in the world today.

Let us go out to meet the hurting people of this world, not armed with arguments about the nature of evil, but equipped with the power to love and heal this broken world in the name of Jesus Christ our Savior.

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

Ephesians 3:20, 21

Bigger on the Inside

16804237_589992294532094_7234591692770521407_o
Thank you for everything, North Church!

My final sermon at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the service bulletin. Biblical readings included.

As many of you have got to know me over the past few years, one of the first things you must have realized is that I am a sci-fi geek. Among the many movies and TV shows I enjoy is the BBC series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who follows the adventures of an alien known only as “the Doctor” as he travels through time and space. The Doctor’s vessel for these travels is a ship called “the TARDIS”, which looks like a simple phone booth on the outside, but on the inside…

On the inside is a vast structure of control panels, rooms, hallways, and even a swimming pool. The running gag for all fifty years of the show’s history is the astonishment experienced by the Doctor’s human companions as they enter the TARDIS for the first time.

Invariably, the first, gasping words out of their mouths are, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

I love that line, as well as the wonderment that inspires it. For my fellow Christians, who also happen to be fans of the show, I like to say that this is a perfect description of the Church Catholic: It’s bigger on the inside.

From the outside, Christianity is just another of the world’s religions. Like all the others, we have rituals, sacred texts, spiritual practices, and a moral code. We have produced brilliant works of art, philosophy, philanthropy, and inspired workers for social change. It’s also true that we have blood on our hands: moments, sometimes even centuries, when we have sold our souls for power and money. We have hurt and killed in the name of our religion, much to the chagrin of our founder, I imagine.

In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth, when seen from the outside, looks a lot like another founder of the world’s religions. He is admired by many as one of the “great souls” of history. He was a teacher, moral philosopher, and revolutionary movement leader.

But Jesus, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, is much bigger on the inside.

Viewing Jesus from the inside, as Christians do, he is Divine. His whole being radiates with the essence and energies of God. When Christians look at Jesus, we see what it means to be fully human. Furthermore, we also find out who God is. And the main thing we learn about God by looking at Jesus is that “God is love.”

The Church also, like her Lord and Savior, is bigger on the inside. More than just a collection of individuals inspired by the two thousand year old teachings of an itinerant rabbi, we understand ourselves to be the very Body of Christ on earth: the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. We are baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit and knit together with bonds that are unbreakable, even by death. When we read the Bible, we don’t just study a historical record of events; we hear the Word of the Lord speaking to us today. When we share bread and wine in the Eucharist, we are spiritually fed at a table whose boundaries transcend all of time and space, and we are joined into one Body with all the saints of ages past and ages to come.

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples get their first glimpse into the mysterious reality that Jesus is bigger on the inside. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up Mount Tabor to pray. This event appears in Matthew’s gospel immediately after St. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Peter didn’t realize what he was saying at the time, but he is about to find out.

While they are praying, Jesus’ skin and clothes begin to shine with an otherworldly light. Suddenly, there appears next to him two major figures of Jewish history: Moses and Elijah. What’s happening in this moment is that the veil of this world is being pulled back, ever so slightly, and the disciples are seeing Jesus as he truly is, in his divinity. I imagine their astonishment in that moment being like that of the Doctor’s companions, who enter the TARDIS for the first time and exclaim, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

Moments of insight like this are rare, compared to the everyday experience of faith. They are precious, for that very reason. And they are a grace, coming suddenly or gradually over time, sometimes to those who have spent a lifetime exploring the faith and sometimes to those who are opening up to it for the first time. Authentic Christian faith does not depend on such experiences (in fact, many faithful Christians never have them), but they serve to bolster the faith of those who do.

For me, the enlightening epiphany of Christ’s divinity has emerged through the liturgy of the Church. As I recite the ancient prayers and creeds of our faith, as I open my mind to study the Scriptures and my hands to receive Communion, I often feel myself being “carried along” by the river of the Spirit. When I recite the Collect for Purity, the short prayer we often use at the beginning of worship (i.e. “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…”), I imagine my fellow priests and pastors, who have said that prayer for over a thousand years, standing behind me and adding their prayers to my own. It is a moment of transfiguration for me.

There was a time in my life when I struggled to find that experience of faith. Having been raised with a more strict form of biblical literalism in the church of my youth, I assumed that a true Christian must accept every word of the Bible as literally, historically, scientifically, and exclusively accurate. As I grew older and became more educated, I began to question many of the tenets of my faith. “If one part could be inaccurate,” I thought, “then why should I believe any of it?” It was a time of deep spiritual darkness and doubt for me. I wondered whether I could even call myself a Christian anymore, or if I really believed in God at all. I was looking at my faith “from the outside.”

Eventually, I decided to press on as a Christian, embracing doubt alongside faith. I saw myself as an enlightened revisionist. I believed, but I didn’t believe. I accepted it as mythology, rather than fact; poetic, rather than scientific. And I continued to engage with the faith through the liturgy.

But then something unexpected, and very interesting, happened: I had changed the way I was engaging with my faith through the liturgy, but quickly discovered that the liturgy was changing me. Reciting those ancient prayers and creeds, reading the Scriptures and receiving Communion each week, I felt like something (or someone) was waking up inside of me. I would catch myself talking to Jesus, just because I felt like it. I never went back to fundamentalism, but I had a very personal relationship with Jesus again. Not just a philosopher from two thousand years ago, but the risen Christ who lives in my heart by faith. For me, the liturgy of the Church is not just deadpan repetition, but a raft made by saints that carries me to Jesus on the river of the Spirit. It is an experience of transfiguration where I look around and go, “It’s bigger on the inside!”

The other place where I met Jesus again, for the first time, was in serving this congregation as pastor. From the outside, North looks like a small church with big problems. Money is often tight; attendance is lower than it used to be. But this congregation is also “bigger on the inside.”

Most congregations, when faced with financial difficulty, tend to take resources away from church programs and mission; anything to pay the pastor and keep the building. But that’s not what this church did: We cut back on everything but the ministry. We gave away our building to another branch of Christ’s Church that is serving the neighborhood in ways we could never dream of. This church knows what it really means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is not a building or a pastor. The Church is the Body of Christ. The Church is a community on a mission, and everything we do is in the service of that mission:

  • To love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength;
  • To love our neighbors as ourselves;
  • To go make disciples of all nations.

What makes North Church so special is that it should not be special at all. You are simply doing the things that all Christians should be doing: loving God, loving your neighbors, and being a witness to your community, especially those who are despised and rejected by the world. You are simply doing the things that Jesus did, and that’s what makes it so easy to see Jesus alive and at work in you.’

For three and a half years, I have been among you as one who is called “minister”, but it is you who have ministered to me. You showed me Jesus again, alive and at work in you. And for that, for the privilege of bearing witness to the presence of Christ in your midst, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And I leave you with these now-familiar words. If you remember only one thing from my time with you, let it be this:

I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

It’s Mine, And I Share It With You

Click here to read the bulletin. Readings included.

It amuses me sometimes when my kids really get into fighting over something at the house. I can pinpoint the exact moment in their epic struggle for justice when the tragic wail ascends to heaven over the unbearable tyranny that is being imposed upon them by their sibling. It’s usually over something electronic, like the computer or the television. Each of them is equally committed to their belief that the immutable laws of justice in the universe demand that they are the one who gets to claim ownership over the device in that moment. The outrage is so unbearable that the conflict sometimes comes to blows and an electronic device might go sailing across the room. And that’s usually when my wife or I decide that it’s time for a parent to intervene.

It reminds me of the times when my brother and I would get into similar battles as kids. It was the early 80s, so we didn’t have many electronics around the house, but kids never seem to have trouble finding things to squabble about. I remember one time as a five-year-old, in a fit of righteous indignation, I insisted that these toys were my toys, so I shouldn’t have to share them with my brother. And our quick-thinking mother came up with the perfect comeback: “No, they’re my toys, and I share them with you!”

I think sometimes that God wants to say the same thing to us grownups, when we bicker and fight over the things we think belong to us. People get so worked up about my house, my car, my money, my church, my country. I imagine God in those moments as the patient but stressed out mother, still in her bathrobe on a Saturday morning, shouting back her words of wisdom: “No, they’re mine, and I share them with you!”

The God we serve is a giving and forgiving God, but we humans, in our selfishness, often take that generosity for granted. We get all kinds of worked up over something that isn’t going right in our lives and quickly turn to shake our fist at the sky and shout, “Why, O God? Why?!!!” And when someone else, one of our brothers or sisters, comes along and asks something of us, we react as if some great injustice has been done to us. “Why should I have to give my spare change to that homeless person? This is my money; I worked for it!” And God says, “No, it’s my money, and I share it with you!”

We rarely stop to think about how much we’ve been given, and I don’t just mean material wealth. Think about sunlight. We remember from science class that stars shine by transforming matter into energy by way of nuclear fusion. I read a book recently that noted how our sun converts four million tons of its own matter into light energy every second. That light then travels 93 million miles to our planet, where it warms us in just the right amount to sustain life, and it does this for billions of years! Just think about that level of generosity and compare it to the paltry gesture of dropping a few coins into a hat for a fellow human being who has been standing out in that same hot sun all day.

We like to complain about the weather, how it’s always just a little too hot or a little too cold for our liking, but do we ever stop to think about the amazing and delicate balance that has kept life going and growing for all these millennia? Do we ever stop to give thanks for the wonder of it all? Or are we still too caught up in our own little tizzies about the next little thing that isn’t going quite right in our lives?

In today’s gospel, Jesus draws our attention to the great generosity of God that is constantly being poured out upon us, just as the sunlight is poured indiscriminately over the face of the earth. Jesus marvels at the way that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

And our God is so gracious and unassuming in this ministry, never waiting to be thanked before offering the gift. Like so many human parents, God’s hope is that we will one day realize how much we have been given and pay it back by paying it forward to others. Children often don’t appreciate how hard their parents work to provide for them. And the parents don’t ask for recognition. Our only hope is that our children will one day be parents themselves, and will work just as hard to provide the same kind of love and care for their children. Jesus shows us today that God hopes the same thing for us.

Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”.

It is a foregone conclusion that children tend to look like their parents. In a physical sense, they “bear the image” of the ones who made them. In the same way, each and every one of us is made “in the image and likeness” of our Father in heaven. Jesus asks us today to embrace that divine likeness in our own lives.

But something has to happen before we can begin that work in earnest. We need a Copernican Revolution of the soul.

Copernicus was a scientist in the middle ages who discovered that the earth was not the center of the universe. By careful observation, he figured out that our planet is traveling around the sun, not the other way around. This discovery sent shockwaves throughout the world. People’s whole conception of their lives was turned upside down. Church officials ranted and raved against Copernicus and his heretical ideas.

But history, as we know, proved Copernicus right. The earth is not the center of the universe. Ours is just one planet circling around a small star in a galaxy of billions of other stars, which is only one of billions of galaxies in the known universe. Copernicus’ idea caused a revolution in the scientific world, but it’s one that turned out to be true. And I thank God for Copernicus, because he has opened us up to discover so many more wonderful and useful things about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

In the same way, we humans today have once again fallen into the trap of believing that we are the center of the universe, while everything else simply revolves around us. In our sinfulness, we set ourselves up like little gods in life-or-death competition with all the other little gods around us. We battle each other for supremacy, screaming all the while, “It’s mine! It’s mine!”

But Jesus, our great Copernicus of the soul, comes alongside us to reveal the truth that makes us simultaneously smaller and bigger than we could have possibly imagined: We are not the center of the universe. We are not gods, but we bear the image of the God who says to us, “It’s mine, and I share it with you.” Jesus directs our attention to the bountiful generosity of God and invites us to participate in it, in our own small way.

Nowhere does Jesus embody this truth more fully than in his death and resurrection. In his passion, Jesus bore the sin of a world full of people who wanted to believe that they were the center of the universe. His Copernican Revolution of the soul was so dangerous to their agenda that they would stop at nothing to shut him up. And Jesus, ever the exasperated mother dealing with a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, willingly absorbed the full force of their hatred and violence. And he died there on that cross.

But then, in the greatest revolutionary moment in human history, he tore open the gates of hell and made death itself begin to work backwards. He rose from the grave, breathing peace to his betrayers and pronouncing, once and for all, that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39)

Friends, this is the good news in which we stand today: We are not the center of the universe. We are the recipients of God’s amazing grace and Christ’s self-giving generosity that turns the world upside down. This grace is offered freely for you and for all by the One who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

“It’s mine,” God says, “and I share it with you.”

Jesus invites us this morning to join his Copernican Revolution of the soul and return the favor of this grace, not by paying it back, but by paying it forward: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”.

And remember the words of the old gospel hymn:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven.
There is no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given.

For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful, we would gladly trust God’s Word,
and our lives reflect thanksgiving for the goodness of our Lord.