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.

Level Ground: A Universalist Preaches on Hell

Click here to read the service bulletin, including biblical readings

I heard a remarkable story a few years ago, about a series of events that took place on and around September 11, 2001. Unlike many of the stories that captured our attention that week, this one went largely unnoticed at the time, and took place far away from the cities of New York and Washington.

Many of us remember that all airplanes were grounded for several days after the attacks. This created quite a crisis for those who happened to be traveling. Many planes were diverted away from landing at American airports, and landed instead in the tiny town of Gander, in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Waiting on the Tarmac for some kind of resolution, many were stuck on their planes for almost 24 hours.

Gander has a population of about 10,000 people. The number of passengers from 39 flights stranded there on September 11 was 6,500, well over half the size of the town. No one would have blamed the people of Gander if they had said, “Listen, we’re very sorry, but our town is just not set up to receive this many people at once.” But that’s not what happened…

The people of Gander opened their hearts and homes to the stranded travelers. They came with food, supplies, and offers of housing. The life of their town was disrupted for the next five days as citizens accommodated the needy travelers. They went out of their way and over the top to care for strangers in need.

Toward the end of their time in Gander, one of the stranded passengers had an idea. He spoke to his fellow passengers on Delta Flight 15 and took up a sizable collection. This money went to establish a university scholarship for the people of Gander as thanks for the generosity shown during a time of crisis. To this day, that scholarship continues to provide assistance for people of Gander to attend college and university.

There is nothing that binds people quite like coming through a crisis together. I hear this frequently from combat veterans and emergency responders. I have experienced it myself among my colleagues in ordained ministry. We may not have much else in common, but we share this one experience, and that binds us together as one forever.

In today’s gospel, Jesus describes a similar crisis that binds people together and erases the lines we tend to draw between ourselves in daily life.

We continue to hear from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount this week. The section we read today is called ‘the Antitheses’ because Jesus is reinterpreting many of the commonly known laws of the Jewish Torah. He follows a certain formula, starting with, “You have heard that it was said…” and ending with, “But I say to you…”

At first glance, it appears that Jesus is overturning the old commandments, but in reality, he is deepening them (or “fulfilling” them, to use his words). Specifically, he addresses the commandments surrounding murder, adultery, divorce, and swearing oaths.

Jesus invites his followers to move beyond keeping the letter of the law to examining the spirit of the law. He does this because we humans have a strong tendency toward self-justification in morality. We like to set ourselves against one another in battles for superiority. Our spiritual life is no exception.

Examining my life according to the Ten Commandments, it seems at first that I am doing pretty okay (sort of). Sure, I haven’t always told the truth, rested when I needed to, or been grateful for what I have. If my parents were here today, they could give several examples of times when I did not honor my mother and father. But I can honestly say that I’ve never worshiped a pagan deity, robbed a bank, murdered another human being, or cheated on my spouse. So, at first glance, I’m scoring about fifty or sixty percent on God’s ‘Top Ten List’ of commandments. But when I listen to Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel, my score drops dramatically.

I have never killed anyone, but I have harbored hatred and bitterness in my heart toward my fellow human beings from time to time. I have never committed outright adultery, but I have had a wandering eye and nursed unhealthy fantasies that would destroy my family, were I to act on them. I have never renounced the worship of God, but I have pledged my allegiance to things that are not God and allowed other concerns to take precedence over my baptismal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The same could be said by any of us, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.

What this means is that none of us has the right to set ourselves up as morally superior to another person. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)

An honest consideration of the spirit of the law reveals that everyone stands on level ground at the foot of the cross. As sinners, saved by grace, we simply have no time to stand around in judgment over one another. We are all going through this crisis together.

So, what then is this crisis that we find ourselves in?

Jesus tells us repeatedly in this passage: it is hell.

Jesus talks about the evil one and the fire of hell no less than four times in this short passage.

Now, many of you may find it odd that I bring this particular detail up. Many of you have heard me say, on numerous occasions, that I tend to lean toward the theology of universalism, meaning that I believe God will save all people in time. For me, the belief in universal salvation is not born out of political correctness, liberal idealism, or a desire to avoid the harsher parts of the Bible I don’t like. I have several sound biblical and philosophical reasons for believing this, mostly relating to the character of God. However, I recognize that not all Christians agree with me. In the history of the Church, faithful Christians have devised many different ideas and interpretations about who and how many people will be saved for eternity. In the end, the decision about that will be made by the only one who is qualified: God, who judges the world with absolute fairness and absolute mercy. Hence, it is not for human beings to set limits on how far the redemption won for us in Jesus Christ can extend.

I am a universalist, but that does not mean that I can simply ignore Christ’s teaching about the very real danger of sin and hell.

When Jesus talks about hell in today’s passage, the word he uses is Gehenna. This is a reference to a real, physical place: the Valley of Hinnom on the southwest side of Jerusalem. We read in 2 Chronicles that this is a place that ancient Israelites used for human sacrifice to the Canaanite god Moloch in Old Testament times. The descendants of these Israelites were horrified by what their ancestors had done there. They kept the site from being used for any other purpose. Like the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Nazis sent countless Jews to their death, Gehenna stood as a perpetual reminder to history of what must never be allowed to happen again. By Jesus’ day, it had become the city dump of Jerusalem, where people would bring their trash to be burned. The sin of Israel had caused the Valley of Hinnom to become a stinking, perpetually burning pile of garbage that was good for nothing else. Our English translations have rendered his word Gehenna as hell.

I see hell, not as something that God will do to us in the afterlife, but as something that we do to ourselves in this life. I have sat at the bedside of addicts going through the shivers of withdrawal, and it is hell. I have spoken with parents who have seen their children gunned down in front of them by police, and it is hell. I have been to the overcrowded orphanages of Romania, and it is hell. I have listened to LGBTQ youth left homeless by self-righteous parents and pastors, and it is hell.

Jesus directs our attention to Gehenna as a warning about the very real and observable consequences of sin. If we occupy our lives with the relentless pursuit of property, pleasure, and power, we put ourselves in danger of becoming something disgusting and worthless. We develop ingrown souls that don’t care about being part of God’s plan for the world. If I were to translate Jesus’ warning in modern terms, I would say that those who despise and degrade their fellow creatures are in danger of “the ovens of Auschwitz.” Even as a universalist, I would say to you this morning that hell is real and the dangers of sin are real. This is the common crisis in which we all find ourselves as human beings on planet Earth.

But God has not abandoned us in this crisis. Even though we have turned away from God, God has never turned away from us. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God took on flesh and dwelled among us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners. He healed the sick, opened blind eyes, and raised the dead. He challenged the status quo and called the people to move beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

When we humans, in our selfishness, could bear no longer to hear this message of grace and truth, we tried to silence Jesus by nailing him to the cross. But even then, after all hope was lost, the power of love overcame the love of power: God raised Jesus from the grave, in the words of an ancient Orthodox hymn, “Trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.”

This risen Jesus invites us now to respond in faith by coming to his table, to share his broken body and shed blood in the Eucharist, to become one with him in body and spirit, and one with each other in the common loaf and cup. In this Sacrament, we receive Christ into ourselves and look forward to the day when hell will be conquered and emptied forever, our sins and sadnesses will cease, and all people will be made one in Christ.

Like those stranded travelers on September 11, we are bound together by the common crisis we have endured, and look forward in hope to the common destiny that awaits us in Jesus.

Becoming What You Already Are

Click here to read the service bulletin

Have you ever looked in the mirror and been unhappy with what you see?

Most of us have, at some point or other. We’re unhappy with the way we look, or the clothes we wear, or the house we live in, or the life we’re living.

Advertising executives make a fortune by promoting and manipulating that impulse within us. If only we buy this product, they say, our unhappiness and self-doubt will simply fade away. With their help, they say, we can be as happy and beautiful as the people we see in TV commercials.

It’s all lies, of course. We all know that advertisers are really just trying to get us to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need in order to impress people we don’t like.

But here’s the thing: in order to effectively sell the lie, advertisers are preying upon a very real fear and very real desire that exist within each of us. The fear is that there is something wrong or missing inside of us, something that would make us profoundly happy, if only we had possession of it. The desire is the drive to be something other than who we are.

Want to look young and attractive forever? Buy this cream! Want to be an adventurous tough guy? Smoke the same cigarettes as the Marlboro man!

Religious advertisers have gotten in on this action too. Want to be free of that gnawing sense of guilt and loneliness? Join this church! Read this book! Attend this conference!

What all of the above have in common, from cigarettes to church conferences, is the claim to cure our sense of inner emptiness by way of some outside product. They claim that they can make us into something other than what we are. And it’s all a lie.

Christ, on the other hand, does the opposite. He offers us no quick-fix product or easy 3-step solution to our insecurities. On the contrary, Christ saves us by bringing us more deeply into who we already are.

In today’s gospel, Christ uses two images to describe this process: salt and light.

He begins by telling his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt, as we know, is a seasoning for food. We don’t typically eat it by itself; we put it on other things. It adds flavor. But what would happen if salt somehow lost its taste? Jesus tells us, “It is no longer good for anything”.

The second thing Christ tells his followers is, “You are the light of the world.” Light adds visibility to a dark room. If we hide it under a basket, we’ve lost the point of having light altogether. It belongs out in the open.

The common ground between salt and light is that they both add something to something else, whether it’s flavor to a meal or visibility to a room. Their presence deepens the experience of life. And they do this, not by becoming something else, but by being precisely what they are. Salt tastes salty by nature; light is bright by nature.

In the same way, Christ’s saving work in our lives is a process by which we gradually discover, embrace, and embody the image of God within us. The Christian saints of the East call this process ‘theosis’ or ‘divinization’.

According to Eastern Orthodox theologians, the ‘Image of God’ is who we really are inside. It is that part of our deepest selves that reflects something unique about God to the world. We humans can tarnish or cover this image by our sin, but we can never fully erase it.

The redemption won for us in Christ removes the dross of our sin, restores the flavor of our saltiness, and removes the basket from over our flame so that our inner light can be more clearly seen by the world. And this inner light is not our own, but only a reflection of God’s light, just as moonlight is a reflection of sunlight.

This is how Christ’s plan of salvation differs from that of advertising executives and Pharisees. The Pharisees were a religious group who promoted the product of biblical law as a way to change people into something other than what they are. The Pharisees said, “Come to us and follow our program, and you will be acceptable to God.”

They had a very public reputation for being very pious and righteous, so it must have been very disconcerting when Jesus said to his followers, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Who was more righteous than a Pharisee? Jesus might as well have said, “You have to be more Catholic than the Pope” or “climb higher than Mount Everest” to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such an order would have seemed hopeless to the average person.

And I think that’s exactly the point that Jesus was trying to get across. It is hopeless. You can’t get there from here. If you’re trying to win your way into God’s good graces by becoming something other than what you already are, the battle is already over and you’ve lost.

Ironically, the path to holiness leads, not farther away from sin, but deeper into it. We exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees by admitting that we can never live up to it. We ascend by descending. The first step toward finding a solution is facing the problem. The fulfillment of the law begins with our failure to uphold it.

This way of thinking runs counter to the logic of our consumer culture, which brainwashes us to run away and hide from our brokenness, fearing that we could never be loved if others knew what we really are.

The promise of Christ, the “double-dog-dare” of grace, is that there is indeed a light within you. A light that was placed there by God and shaped to reflect God’s own light in a way that is utterly unique in the world. This light is our true beauty, and we will not find it by running away from what we are. We find it by grace, which gives us the faith to remove the baskets from over our candles and “let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.”