A Growing Thing

You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.

Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.

We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”

We like things that are big and fast.

I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.

In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.

For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.

Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:

The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.

The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”

This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”

Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.

This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”

Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.

The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.

In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”

Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”

What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.

In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.

Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

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

By Shakko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pranking the Devil

The biggest mistake contemporary believers often make when reflecting on the mysteries of the Christian faith is to relate to them, either as mere historical events that took place in the distant past, or else as mythical fables that never really took place at all.

This mistake keeps us tangled in the weeds of history, arguing about things that may or may not have happened as they are written and handed down to us today. Viewed through such a myopic lens, the Bible becomes either an infallible textbook in competition with the findings of modern science, or else a highly questionable compendium of ancient thought. The Sacraments become mere memorials that mark us as adherents to a particular religious tradition. The Church itself becomes just another dated institution, devoted to a particular set of dogmas and morals, and having no existence outside the buildings and budgets sustained by its members. Theologically, the imprisonment of the mysteries of the faith in cells of history or mythology leaves people of faith with no real choice except empty secularism, on the one hand, or radical fundamentalism, on the other. Either way, the dismissal of the Easter mystery causes us to miss out on the eternal power Christ’s resurrection has to transform our lives today, for this world and the next.

St. Paul shows us the way out of this intellectual quagmire in tonight’s reading from his epistle to the Romans. He asks the Roman Christians, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This is a brilliant question. Implied in it is the conviction that the death of Christ is not an historical event, but a present reality. The word baptize, used by Paul in this text, comes from the Greek word baptizo, which means “to immerse” as one would soak dishes in a sink or a baby in a bathtub. What Paul says here is that the Sacrament of Baptism, more than just a memorial of past events, “soaks” us in the ever-present reality of Christ’s death on the cross. The scattered fragments of our lives and deaths are gathered together and joined into one, through Christ’s life and death, in Baptism. This is an important truth to consider because it gets at the central mystery of the Christian faith and illuminates the central predicament of every human life on earth.

We humans live in a state of detachment from the world around us. When we are born on this planet, each of us begins the long process of dissociating our identity from our mothers and families. The goal of all childhood is to grow up and leave the nest in which we were raised. With the increased privilege of adulthood comes increased responsibility, and with that an increasing sense of isolation and loneliness.

We earn the right to become masters of our own destiny, only to discover early on that we are actually poor masters, indeed. We find ourselves driven by unconscious impulses in our own minds: rage, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, vanity, and arrogance. And then we discover that we are simultaneously trapped by those very same unconscious forces at work in the world around us. These forces lead to the inevitable breakdown in our relationships. We go on living lives of “quiet desperation” in isolation from one another, failing to understand what is truly going on within ourselves. St. Paul right names the cause of our predicament when he tells us that we are “enslaved to sin.”

Sin is something of a loaded term in today’s society, as it has been for millennia. Religious people are often quick to use that term when pointing out the faults of others, so the rest of the world has learned to tune out the message whenever “sin” is mentioned.

With that in mind, I intend to be very careful about how I use the term sin in this message. Put simply, sin is our address; it is where we live. Sin describes the state of broken relationships between each one of us and our neighbors around us, between our conscious thoughts and our unconscious motivations, and between our souls and our Creator. There is not a person in this room whose life is unaffected by this breakdown in relationships. We did not choose it, we do not want it, but we cannot get free of it. As St. Paul tells us, the present reality is that each and every one of us is “enslaved to sin.”

But this is not the whole story. Even though we find ourselves in a state of broken relationships, we also sense within ourselves a deep connection with each of these things. Our very existence depends upon our relationship with one another, our inner thoughts, nature, and God. The fact that we are aware of our predicament is the first step toward resolving it.

The Church teaches that God has become one with our human nature in Jesus Christ. The gap between divinity and humanity was first crossed at Christmas and continues throughout Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus opens eyes that are blind, ears that are deaf, and tongues whose songs of praise have never been heard. To the hungry, Jesus offers bread. To the lonely, Jesus offers welcome. To the guilty, Jesus offers amnesty. To the oppressed, Jesus offers freedom. To those who are dead, Jesus speaks wonderful words of life. All of these things Jesus did in his thirty-odd years on earth, and he does them still in our lives today.

One would think that people so bereft of the inner and outer necessities of life would gladly welcome such gifts from the Source of Life himself, but the stories of Holy Week demonstrate that this is not so. The revelation of pure divinity in a human life exposed the lies and the futility of our emotional programs for happiness that we construct for ourselves. Rather than risk the journey into freedom that God offers in Christ, the powers of this world reacted with swift vengeance to silence the voice of God-in-the-flesh. We learn again each Passion Sunday and Good Friday how this world-system treats those who challenge its power. Better a familiar slavery, they say, than an unknown freedom. The death of Christ on the cross was the sad-but-inevitable result of his life on earth. Yahweh told Moses at Sinai that no human could see the face of God and live, but our forebears declared the opposite to Jesus at Golgotha: that no God would be allowed to expose the true face of humanity and live. If this were any other story, it would end there as a cautionary tale about the fate of those who dare to challenge the way things are, but this is not just any other story; this is the Gospel.

What happens next makes highly appropriate the coincidence that Easter Sunday should happen to fall upon April Fools’ Day this year. The ancient fathers and mothers of the Church were fond of portraying the events of Holy Week and Easter as Christ’s elaborate practical joke on the devil. They chuckled as they told the story of how Christ tricked the devil into killing him and then sprang his trap, destroying death from the inside out, like a Trojan Horse that was ushered into the bowels of hell itself. St. John Chrysostom writes:

“Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.”

Easter is Christ’s April Fools’ prank on the devil. Just as Good Friday revealed how brutal we are, Easter Sunday reveals how we ridiculous we are. God, faced with human evil, is as patient, loving, and resolute as a mother faced with her toddler’s tantrum. Just as there is nothing a preschooler can do to lose his mother’s affection, so there is nothing we can do to out-sin the love of God.

Friends, this is good news for us as we begin our annual Easter celebration. Despite our best efforts, we have utterly failed in our effort to silence the voice of Love in the face of Jesus Christ. We did our worst, but all of it together was not enough to stifle the power of God’s love. Despite our best efforts, we are still loved. In the words of the ancient Easter Troparion:

 “Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and, upon those in the tomb,
bestowing life.”

Friends, these are not simply historical events that we remember tonight, nor are they mere mythology to stir our imaginations to good behavior. As Father Randall is fond of reminding us: “Christianity is not a religion about being good so Daddy will love you.” No, the mystery of Easter is a present reality in our lives today. As St. Paul told the Roman Christians, so he tells us today, “if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Baptism, like all the Sacraments, is a mystery that unites the scattered fragments of our lives to the one life of Christ. In Baptism, our old lives of sin are buried and we are raised to the new life that God intends for us. In Baptism, God’s love in Christ is made real to us. In Baptism, even our deaths take on meaning because they are vanquished by Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection.

Living as a Christian in the world today, I continually find that Jesus Christ gives me access to a dimension of reality that is not available to me through other, more rational means. Encountering the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the Church as unfathomable mysteries, I have discovered time and again that they are means of grace through which God continues to speak to me, day after day. In those all-too-frequent seasons when I labor under the burden of doubt or despair, it is you, the people of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who call me back with laughter and tears, with words of encouragement and challenge, to the one life of the risen Christ who still dwells in our midst.

Friends, I thank you for this gift and ask your fervent prayers for me, and I offer mine for you, as we journey together toward the discovery of all God offers us in Christ, both now and for eternity. Amen.

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.