By Albertus teolog - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17310761

God Says Yes

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

My wife shared this poem with me several years ago and I would like to share it with you today:

Click here to read ‘God Says Yes To Me’ by Kaylin Haught.

What I love about this poem is its whimsical nature and almost cavalier approach to prayer.

Prayer is a major theme that appears in today’s readings.

We see it first in Abraham’s conversation with God about the fate of the city of Sodom. God declares that the city must be destroyed, on account of the wickedness of the people who live there. But Abraham, in an act of haggling worthy of a used car salesperson, manages to talk God down from total destruction to sparing the city if even ten righteous people could be found in it.

There are plenty of theological issues I could raise from this passage: What was so bad about Sodom that made God want to destroy it? What kind of God goes around destroying cities, anyway? These are great questions that deserve answers, but I’m not going to address them in this sermon today.

What I want to focus on is the conversation that takes place between God and Abraham. That’s all that prayer is, really: a conversation between God and people. And in this conversation, the main thing we observe is that God says Yes to Abraham, without fail, every time he asks. God says Yes.

I put it to you this morning that God says the same thing to you in prayer. God says Yes to you. Always.

I admit that this is a pretty bold claim to make, especially since there is no one among us who cannot remember an instance when we prayed fervently for something or someone, only to be disappointed as the situation did not turn out as we had hoped.

And we ask ourselves, “What happened? Did I not pray correctly? Why did God say No? Does God simply not exist?” All of these are perfectly legitimate questions to ask in the wake of disappointment, especially when it feels like God let us down at a time when we really, desperately needed help.

For me, that kind of deep disappointment with God came early in early 2010, when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a three-week-old baby named Madalyn. Her parents were good friends and dedicated church members. She was born several months too early, weighing a little over two pounds. Despite an extended stay in the NICU, her prognosis was good. My wife and I were visiting the hospital and checking in with the parents regularly. The whole church was praying fervently and Madalyn showed steady improvement. Then, in the middle of night, the hospital called the parents, saying that Madalyn wasn’t doing very well and they should get there immediately. They rushed over as fast as they could, and ran in to discover that their baby had died mere moments before they arrived.

Madalyn’s death got me asking all kinds of uncomfortable questions about God, faith, and prayer. I had to go back and rethink much of the theology I had learned in seminary. Specifically, I had to ask myself, “What is the purpose of prayer?”

It occurs to me that many people these days have one of two misconceptions about prayer.

On the one hand, there are many devout people of faith who regard prayer as a form of magic. They think that if we pray long enough, hard enough, or in the right way, we will receive the results we want. In the Christian tradition, we see this idea most commonly among the adherents of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” I commend these believers for their conviction that faith can make a tangible difference in this world. However, there are not a few of them who resort to “blaming the victim” when situations don’t pan out as hoped. They say that the victims of tragedy must not have sufficient faith, or that they have some kind of hidden sin in their lives that calls for divine judgment in the form of ill-fortune. Adherents of the Prosperity Gospel are quick to cite numerous Bible verses in support of their ideology, but they often ignore the broader narrative of Scripture, in which God is working in Christ to reconcile the whole cosmos to Godself, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Moreover, they fail to notice that there is not one instance in the four gospels when Jesus turns away from a sick person in need because they are a “sinner” or “don’t have enough faith.” To the contrary, Jesus regularly enters into relationship with sinners and even heals the epileptic son of a father who openly admits his struggle with faith.

On the other hand, there are many secular people who assume that prayer is simply a psychological trick that religious people use to help themselves feel better in moments of crisis. I find this reductionist view equally unsatisfying. First of all, prayer often doesn’t work as a psychological placebo. There are times when I pray about a situation and don’t feel any better for it. Inner peace, it seems, is just as fleeting as circumstantial happiness. A cursory reading of the book of Psalms reveals a prayer life that is intimately familiar with suffering. Sometimes, the psalmist praises God for deliverance from the problems of life, but sometimes, they cry out from the midst of the storm. Sometimes, the very act of crying out leads the psalmist to greater peace and faith, but sometimes, as in Psalm 88, the psalmist ends with the words, “Darkness is my only companion.” If prayer is nothing more than a psychological trick to conjure up inner tranquility, it is a lousy one. Why then have people the world over continued to offer prayer in good times and bad?

The purpose of prayer, as I have come to understand it, is this: Prayer brings us into a deeper relationship with God.

People, religious and secular alike, naturally share their joys and concerns with each other. This is how friendships are made. Intimacy requires trust, vulnerability, and non-judgmental love between friends.

In the Church, we do this sharing in the context of worship because we believe there is a third party present in the conversation, beyond the one who speaks and those who listen, and that is God. We share our lives with God, not to obtain any specific results or special favors, but so that our relationship with God might grow over time. Conversely, there is also a time in our service when God gets to share God’s joys and concerns with us: in the reading of the Scriptures and the proclamation of the Word. In this part of the liturgy, we stop talking and listen to what God has to say. In this way, our worship becomes a kind of back-and-forth conversation in which our relationship with God can grow.

The purpose of prayer is to deepen our relationship with God. And it is this kind of prayer that God always answers with a resounding YES.

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. After teaching them the now-famous words of the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says to them, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

There is an interesting detail in what Jesus says here, but it is lost to those of us who read the passage in English. In Greek, the language in which this gospel was written, the grammatical form of the verbs Ask, Search, and Knock is not that of a one-time event, but of a continual process. It would be more accurate to translate these words as “keep asking,” “keep searching,” and “keep knocking.” And the end-result of this process is that God will “give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

In other words, Jesus invites his followers, through prayer, to enter into an ongoing relationship with God, the end of which is the gift of the Holy Spirit: God’s own self, dwelling within us. This, my friends, is why we pray.

God is eager to be in a relationship with each of us. The act of prayer is nothing more or less than us reciprocating God’s desire. We bring to God the joys and concerns of our lives because they matter to us, and we matter to God. We bring to God the bigger problems of the world because the world matters to God, therefore it should matter to us as well. We pray because we want to grow closer in our relationship with God.

For those who would like to pray, but have trouble getting started, I can think of no better place to begin than with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples in this passage. Sandy Lipsey and I noticed a couple of years ago that the Lord’s Prayer is one of the most universal elements of Christian worship. Not every church accepts the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, nor do they celebrate Baptism or the Eucharist in the same way. Not every church likes the same hymns or translations of the Bible, but every church looks at the Lord’s Prayer and says, “Yep. That’s a good one.”

If you want to start praying, start with that, at least once a day. You can also take a minute to name your personal joys and concerns of that day. For an expanded spiritual diet, try reading a psalm and a passage from the Bible. And, when all else is said and done, don’t be afraid to just sit in silence. One of the true marks of close friends is when they can just be together, enjoying each other’s company without a word being said. It is no different in the friendship between us and God.

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Eat This: Eucharist as the End of Consumerism

I noticed this week how the word “consume” appears several times in today’s Scripture readings. The first is in the gospel, just after Jesus’ disciples have been snubbed by the residents of a Samaritan village. They ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I imagine him giving them a look and huffing, “Seriously, you guys?”

The other appearance of the word “consume” is in the epistle, when St. Paul cautions the Galatian Christians, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

This recurrence of the word “consume” got me thinking about the culture we live in. We call it a “consumer economy” because we don’t produce much anymore. We consume things. Comedian Aziz Ansari points out the ridiculousness of this. Talking about a popular ice cream shop, he notes that they no longer serve in sizes Small, Medium, and Large. Instead, they have: Like It, Love It and Gotta Have It! That’s the kind of idolatrous thinking we’ve been brainwashed into believing in this addicted culture. We think the ultimate good can be measured by “More, more, more” for me, myself, and I. We know that money can’t buy happiness, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

We don’t just relate to consumer goods and services this way. We do this with people too. We objectify each other. We treat each other like things instead of people. And once we do that, it is not long before we begin to consume each other in our lust for violence.

I think this is precisely what we see happening in today’s gospel. The disciples feel that they have been wronged by the people of this Samaritan village, so they react with a violent impulse that has been born out of years of prejudice and objectification of the Samaritan other: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus is having none of their racist nonsense. He rebukes them and moves on.

In the same way, Paul writes to the church in Galatia about the results they can expect if they continue to treat one another like objects. It’s quite a heavy list: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

In some ways, I find this list comforting because it sounds so familiar. I bet if you were to flip through the TV channels for ten minutes during prime time, you would find an example of everything on Paul’s list. America has built a very successful economy around it.

But Paul warns us that this way of life has consequences: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

The end result of the objectification of our fellow human beings in this consumer economy is that we will eventually, inevitably begin consuming (and being consumed by) one another. Left to our own devices and desires, we the members of the human race will sow the seeds of our own self-destruction. We, the consumers, will be consumed.

The good news is that God is not content to leave us to our own devices like that. God intervenes in the person of Jesus Christ. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God takes on flesh and dwells among us (“moves into the neighborhood,” as Eugene Peterson says). Living among us, Jesus loves us and shows us that another way is possible. We do not have to consume and be consumed by one another.

And when we, the consumers, can stand to hear no more of this wisdom, we turn on Jesus in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up and silence forever this voice of truth. And Jesus, much to our surprise, offers himself willingly as the target and scapegoat for all our blind rage and violent hatred. He absorbs it into his body.

Jesus Christ did not have to die on that cross because of God’s wrath toward humanity; he died because of humanity’s wrath toward God. God didn’t need Jesus to suffer and die. We did. We couldn’t stand to believe that a love so holy and pure could exist, so we did everything in our power to silence him. And Jesus took it willingly.

On the night before he died, Jesus sat at table with his disciples. He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the same way, after supper, he took the cup of wine and said, “Drink this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ offers his broken flesh and spilled blood to be consumed by us in an act of ultimate, cannibalistic violence. When you think about it, it’s really offensive and gruesome that we do this.

Jesus took our sins upon himself by offering himself as the willing target for our rage. He died for our sins. He died because of our sins. In the Eucharist, Christ offers the divine Body and Blood to be consumed by us, so that our violent consumption of one another might stop forever. Christ says, “Eat this instead. Eat me!” Christ absorbs our violence into himself, so that the cycles of violence might end once and for all.

But that’s not all. The story doesn’t end there. There’s a Trojan horse in this epic tragedy.

Jesus didn’t stay dead. He couldn’t. The saving work of God wouldn’t be complete otherwise. We know that, on the third day after these things took place, Christ rose from the dead, triumphant over the powers of death and hell.

Jesus willingly absorbed our violence into himself and, by rising from the grave, proved that the love of God is stronger than the power of death. All the hate, violence, sin, and consuming selfishness in the world was not enough to keep Jesus in the grave.

This is why I believe that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or how evil you’ve been, you cannot out-sin the love of God for you.

Whatever tomb you try to put Jesus into, he comes bursting out.

In the Eucharist, we consume the broken Body and drink shed Blood of Jesus. But the Trojan horse is this: you now have Jesus inside of you. The crucified and risen Lord of the universe is being absorbed by the cells of your body. His Blood now flows in your veins. The divine resurrection energy now electrifies your nervous system. As Paul writes in Romans 8:11, “The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you.”

This changes everything. Not only has Jesus stopped the old cycle of violence by his death; he has begun a new cycle of life and peace within us, his people on earth, the Church. Remember what they say: “You are what you eat!” And so are we: we are the Body of Christ.

Christ’s resurrection calls the Church to become a new kind of community in the world. Our calling is to stand in solidarity with victims of violence and degradation wherever they may be found in the world. The “little ones” who are being consumed by the powers-that-be of this world are our brothers and sisters. We listen to their voices and work alongside them to create a community where people are not consumed, but all of us live out the call of God to the Jewish prophet Micah: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Here at North Church, we follow that calling, we build that kind of community by listening to the voices of people who live with mental illness. For us, there is no dividing line between Giver and Receiver. Every needy person among us has a gift and a ministry to offer; likewise, every donor, volunteer, and minister has a need: an empty space inside that cannot be filled with the consumer products this world has to offer. So, we work together, hand-in-hand, to build a new world right here, where every person has an opportunity to be seen, known, and loved for who they truly are: the Image of God, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Scandalous Gospel of Grace

IMG_0793Here is a recording of today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo.

Today we celebrated the 152nd anniversary of the founding of the congregation.

Today is also the day we moved into our new worship space at First Congregational Church. This was the last Presbyterian sermon to be preached from this historic pulpit. Photo of the procession by Edie Trent.

Click here to read the biblical text.

Nicholas the Wonderworker

No Easy Answers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moments of Clarity

Pentecost sermon from North Presbyterian

Click here to read the biblical text.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Unknown - Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10819672

True North

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

Click here to read the biblical passage.

Do you ever feel afraid that your life is going nowhere? Like maybe you’re all alone in this world and the universe is just a meaningless series of random accidents?

It’s a pretty common fear, actually. Human beings have achieved more, built more, and learned more in the past five centuries than we had in the preceding five millennia. In the span of the twentieth century alone, we invented flight, mass produced automobiles, cured diseases, split the atom, landed on the moon, and created the internet. I don’t mean to turn my nose up at the great pyramids of Giza, but even the most powerful Egyptian Pharaoh never fathomed the wonder of looking at cat pictures on Instagram.

There can be no question that we humans have pushed the boundaries of information and technology far beyond what our ancestors could have dreamed. One would think that, somewhere in this vast ocean of data we have collected, we must have surely discovered the secret to a happy and meaningful life. Sadly, the opposite seems to be true.

Our insatiable thirst for knowledge, while helpful in many respects, has had the unfortunate side-effect of eroding our shared sense of meaning. Other cultures, including our own before the modern era, have typically relied on traditional mythologies and religious rituals to help them weave the scattered fragments of their lives together into a unified whole. The cultural story helped people make sense of their individual stories. We, in twenty-first century North America, don’t have the benefit of a single cultural story that imbues our lives with meaning from womb to tomb. We are, as Walker Percy wrote, “lost in the cosmos.” We are adrift in a sea of information without any navigational tools to guide the way home. Under these circumstances, it is quite understandable for people to be afraid that their life is going nowhere and they are all alone in a random, meaningless universe.

But we Christians do not exist under those circumstances. We believe ourselves to be part of a unifying story that weaves the tattered fragments of life, the universe, and everything into a single tapestry that gets longer and longer each day as our individual threads are added to it.

The place where we find this story, this finely woven tapestry, is in the pages of the Bible. The Bible is not just a book; it is a library. It is a collection of legends, poems, memories, and letters that, when taken together, tell the story of our communal relationship with God through the ages. The Bible tells the Church’s family story. And in today’s reading from the book of Revelation, we get a powerful preview of how our family story ends. And here’s the funny thing: it ends in the same way that it began.

The very first book of the Bible is Genesis, which begins:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Compare that with the following from today’s reading, which appears at the end of Revelation (the last book of the Bible):

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”

The story begins with the creation of “the heavens and the earth” and ends with “a new heaven and a new earth.” St. John, the author of revelation, did this deliberately. He wants to show us that God’s creation of the world was not a one-time event; it is ongoing. The universe is still in the process of becoming what God intends it to be. In other words, God is not done with us yet.

Next, he tells us, “the sea was no more.” Why is that? Does God have something against the ocean itself? No. This is another parallel image from the first chapter of Genesis. In Genesis, immediately after the heavens and the earth, the very next thing we hear about is the sea. It says, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

For the ancient Israelites, “the sea” was a symbol of chaos and destruction. They believed it was the home of a monster called Leviathan, a creature so powerful and dangerous that only God could tame it. The sea, with its tsunamis and hurricanes, symbolically represented those forces of nature that threaten to undo the fragile project of human civilization. But God, they believed, was in the process of bringing order to chaos.

For the rest of the first chapter of Genesis, we read about God shaping the earth around the primordial ocean by the power of the Word. God speaks forth light, sky, land, and life. These things emerge out of the sea at God’s command.

Fast forward to today’s reading from Revelation 21 and we witness the completion of that work as John tells us, “the sea was no more.” God has finally tamed the destructive power of chaos, once and for all.

John goes on to describe what this looks like in great detail:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

If we were to keep reading into the next chapter of Revelation, we would get a detailed description of this city:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”

As for the inhabitants of this city, John writes:

“The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

And then, just to drive the point home even farther, that God’s ongoing work of creation from Genesis to Revelation constitutes one, unified story, we hear the voice from the throne say, “See, I am making all things new…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

God’s vision for the end of history is a garden city with open gates, a thriving, multicultural community of healing and peace.

What John is giving us in this lavish image is a vision of where our lives are going. We are not going nowhere; we are not all alone in a universe that just popped into existence as a random accident. We were meant to be here; we are part of God’s story. John gives us a preview of this story’s end so that we will not lose hope or abandon the faith in the meantime. “Stay with me,” he says in effect, “because I promise this is all going somewhere.”

I think we need to hear that good news today. In this life, when things don’t always work out according to our plans, we humans desperately want to believe that there is some kind of master plan somewhere. We are looking for order in the chaos. We are listening for God to speak into the darkness of our lives, “Let there be light.” The good news for us today is that God is indeed present and active, speaking light into darkness and shaping chaos into beauty. The story of God’s creation is ongoing and we are called to trust in it.

We don’t know the details of how and when this story will reach its climax and dénouement. Contrary to the popular opinions of some Christians, the book of Revelation is not road map for the end of the world; it is a compass pointing us toward the beginning of a new world.

Our task, as the Church, is to not give in to those demonic voices of cynicism and despair that tempt us to wonder whether our life is going nowhere. Our calling is to trust this vision of the multicultural garden city, take our place in God’s unfolding story, and follow the compass as it points us in the direction of True North.

The way will certainly be long and hard, but the destination is worth it. Keep going, and know that your life is not going nowhere and you do not walk alone. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes of the saints of old:

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.’

And God has prepared a place in that city for you, too. Keep going, and I’ll see you at home.

By Olaf Oliviero Riemer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25589754

Flipping the Script

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here for the scripture reading.

I got to do some traveling this week with a team that’s doing some research for our presbytery’s camping ministry. One of the places we visited, in addition to being a Christian summer camp, is also a wildlife refuge for injured animals.

As a staff member was showing us around, she introduced us to a male duck and told us that he is “fully imprinted.” Not being very knowledgeable about animals, I had to ask what that meant. She said that many animals, shortly after birth or hatching, form an identity bond with the first creature that cares for them (whatever the species). In this case, the duck in question was hatched and cared for by humans, not other ducks.

“So,” I then asked, “does that mean this duck thinks he’s a human?”

The staff member replied, “Yes, he does.” That’s what “fully imprinted” means.

I find this idea terribly fascinating: this duck had an early experience with humans, and that experience continues to shape his sense of identity today. Of course, he’s still a duck and not a human. He looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck… he’s a duck! But in his little duck brain, he looks at us and thinks to himself, “I am one of you.”

It’s not all that different for us humans, either. We, no less than that duck, have a tendency to build our idea of who we are based on past experiences. In this morning’s first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter meets a group of people who have done just that.

They were a community of widows living in the Israeli city of Joppa, on the coast. Widows in that culture were extremely vulnerable to poverty and exploitation, especially if they didn’t have living (male) relatives to take them in. The early Christian church became well-known for supporting these women and incorporating them into the life of the community. In the context of the church, these vulnerable women were able to band together, support one another, and take an active role in the ministry of the church. Some scholars speculate that this community of widows might have even served as a basis for the ministry of nuns and convents, which would appear much later in history.

The event that has prompted Peter’s visit to this community of widows is the death of one of their own. A woman named Tabitha, well-known as a seamstress, had become ill and died suddenly. Peter was invited to come and pay his respects.

What I find most fascinating about the story up to this point is that these widows form a community that has been brought together by their common experience of grief. Each of them has lost someone important to them, most likely a husband. They all know full-well what it means to say goodbye to a loved one. And here they are again: brought together by grief, and saying goodbye to one of their own.

Just like that duck I met this week, their past experiences (of grief and loss) has shaped the way they see themselves today. And this new experience (of losing Tabitha) only serves to confirm their sense of identity (as “losers”). They have come to see themselves as “the ones who lose people.”

Now, enter the Apostle Peter.

Peter was staying in the nearby town of Lydda and was invited to come and pay his respects after Tabitha died. Like most pastoral visits to bereaved people, Peter visits with the community and hears stories about Tabitha’s accomplishments. The biblical text doesn’t say, but maybe he brought a casserole? And, of course, like all pastors do on bereavement visits, he prayed.

And that’s when things got really interesting.

The text tells us that Peter “turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive.”

Through Peter, God has flipped the script for this community of widows. Experience had taught them to identify as “losers,” brought together by their common experience of death, but that’s not who they are anymore. Their identity is now rooted in something far deeper than death. As St. Paul says I his letter to the Colossians, their identity “is hidden in Christ with God.” They are Christians. They are the baptized. They are the ones who have passed through the waters of death and have been raised to new life in Christ by the power of the Spirit. That is who they are now, and nothing in all creation, not even the power of death itself, is able to shake them loose from that identity. This is the truth that Peter has come to proclaim to Tabitha’s companions.

It is also the truth that Christ is proclaiming to us today, through this text of scripture. Who we are is not confined to the sum of our parts or the sum of our past experiences. Like the women in this story, we too are the baptized, whose “life is hidden with Christ in God.”

This truth flies in the face of everything the world throws at us in this life.

This American culture we live in brainwashes us to identify with our money and our possessions, whether we are rich or poor. It also tempts us to identify with our accomplishments in life, be they many or few. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

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

That is who we are.

The people around us might try to pigeonhole, scapegoat, or oppress us because of our race, ethnicity, social class, national origin, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Some of us are excluded or made to feel less-than because of these things about ourselves that we did not choose and cannot change. They call us names that I dare not repeat in church because that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

That is who we are.

Past experience might tell us that we are “losers,” who will never fit in, and will never amount to anything in this life. But that is not who we are, as Christians. God tells us in the scriptures:

“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

That is who we are.

Past experience might tell us that we are unlovable, but God tells us, as God told Jesus at his baptism:

“You are my Son (or Daughter), the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Just like Peter with Tabitha’s companions, Christ stands among us today in Word and Sacrament, bringing new life where we had given up hope. We can no longer afford to identify ourselves with our past experiences, like that duck at the nature center. We have to find our identity with who we really are in Christ.

We are the baptized: those who have passed through the waters of death and been reborn to life in the Spirit. The waters of baptism have washed away every other name or label that we might be tempted to identify with. Now, there is only Christ. Paul writes, in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Through the sacrament of baptism, you have become the hands and feet of Jesus in this world. Baptism is not just a rite of initiation into church membership; it is also an ordination to ministry. Once we have realized the significance of our baptismal identity in Christ, we are sent out into the midst of the culture we live in. We are sent to expose the cultural lies that trick people into identifying with anything other than who we are in Christ.

Now, I want to ask you a serious question: Can we believe this for ourselves, as Christians? Can we believe it for ourselves, as the Church?

This is a challenging time to be a Christian in this culture. Most denominations and congregations, ourselves included, are facing a steep decline in membership, participation, and financial support. Many, like us, are facing the loss of our buildings and full-time clergy. The temptation for us, at this point in our shared experience, is to identify with these peripheral things. One video we watched in our Tuesday afternoon Bible study called them “the 3 B’s: Buildings, Budgets, and Behinds.” If those things are how we measure success, then we are no different from the culture around us. We are like the community of widows in Acts: huddled together around our shared experience of loss; pining after the good old days.

But the truth is that we are not those things. The truth, in this Easter season, is that Christ is risen and living among us today, breathing new life into us, flipping the script, and unraveling the twisted knots of death, so that we can begin to find our identity, not with our past experiences or present circumstances, but with Christ and Christ’s mission in the world.

And Christ’s mission is ever and always the same:

To proclaim to the ends of the earth, in word and deed, the good news that “I love you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Worship: What Is It Good For?

The text for this week’s sermon is John 12:1-8.

I love that 70s song by Edwin Starr that goes:

“WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”

I think that’s a great question to ask: What is it good for?

It’s a question I think we could easily ask of ourselves, simply by changing the first word:

Church… Faith… Prayer… Worship… What is it good for?

There are many who have asked that very question over the centuries, and not a few of them have come back with the same answer: Absolutely nothing!

Historically, one well-known philosopher who asked that question (and came up with the same answer) is Karl Marx, who co-wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. He wrote, quite famously:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Years later, the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin expanded on Marx’s idea by saying:

“Those who toil and live in want all their lives are taught by religion to be submissive and patient while here on earth, and to take comfort in the hope of a heavenly reward. But those who live by the labour of others are taught by religion to practise charity while on earth, thus offering them a very cheap way of justifying their entire existence as exploiters and selling them at a moderate price tickets to well-being in heaven. Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze, in which the slaves of capital drown their human image, their demand for a life more or less worthy of man.”

More recently, a group of three, young, Christian pastors have written a book called Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work. In this book, they say:

For many people, Christian discipleship is sleepwalking. We inhabit a world of dreams and imagination, of theology and interpretation, of jargon and tradition. Worship services follow the same pattern week after week, and we can just coast through. Christian leaders can, and do, phone it in. We stand, we sit, some of us kneel, we turn to face the cross, we bow our heads, we take a morsel of bread and a sip from a cup, and we proclaim our work done.

Now, what each of these authors is trying to say is that any religion, any church, or any spiritual practice that does not lead humanity toward a transformed world is good for absolutely nothing. That kind of religion is like a drug: it makes people feel good by numbing them to the pain of the world. People use that kind of faith as an escape. It’s a drug and it’s good for absolutely nothing. Marx and Lenin would say that it’s better to have no faith at all. And I agree with them… to a point.

To all of the above authors, I would say, “Yes, but..”

I would say “Yes” to Marx and Lenin because the kind of religion we learn from Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles is firmly based in God’s desire for a world that has been transformed for good. Nowhere in orthodox Christian theology do we find the notion that God doesn’t care about this world.

Instead, we hear God say through the prophet Amos:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In other words, God is sick and tired of their religion and wants them to work for justice instead. This is a profoundly biblical idea. Likewise, God says through the prophet Isaiah:

Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

In the Epistle of James in the New Testament, the apostle writes:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

So, this is where I say “Yes” to Lenin and Marx. If our Christian faith is just a way for us to escape the pain of life instead of working to make this world a better place, then our faith is just a drug that’s good for absolutely nothing. Better to have no faith at all, than that kind of faith.

However, my “Yes” to Marx and Lenin is not unqualified. It’s a “Yes, but…”

Yes, “faith without works is dead,” but empty escapism is not all there is to Christianity. As we have already observed, the core message of both Testaments in the Bible is the God who is “making all things new” in Christ. God’s dream is for “a new heaven and a new earth” and God has invited you and I to help make that dream come true by living our lives as “the hands and feet of Jesus” on earth today. The fact that some Christians have distorted or forgotten that fact does not negate its truth one iota. The solution to bad Christianity is not no Christianity, but better Christianity. That’s where Marx and Lenin go wrong.

In this morning’s gospel, Mary of Bethany, that wonderful mother of all contemplative saints, performs an extravagant act of beauty and service for Jesus. The text tells us she “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” We soon find out that this perfume was worth almost a year’s salary for the average working person.

Judas Iscariot, ever the practical Marxist, laments, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (NOTE: Of course, we also learn in the next sentence that Judas’ motive for saying this was somewhat less than pure.)

Judas saw Mary’s act of worship as nothing more than a giant waste of resources. Many critics continue to accuse Christians of the same thing today.

Why do we get up and go to church on Sunday? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that time volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter? Why wake up early for prayer and Bible study before work? Do we think our prayers will magically come true like wishes upon a star? Why practice Christian spirituality at all? Why not just work hard as an activist, fighting for peace and justice? Like Mary’s anointing of Jesus, isn’t it all just a big waste of precious resources?

I would say no, it’s not a waste, and here’s why:

The biblical text tells us that, after Mary had broken open this expensive jar and anointed Jesus with its contents, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

In other words, the act of worship transformed the place where it happened and, by extension, the people who witnessed it. Even Judas was affected.

In the same way, our worship transforms us. It empowers us to do the work of being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Without being taught by the Word of God in Scripture, it never would have occurred to us to look for the presence of Christ in “the least of these” and serve them as if they were Christ himself (as indeed they are, as Christ said). Without being fed by the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, it never would have occurred to us that our broken and suffering neighbors are actually our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the Body of Christ, who eat from the same bread and drink from the same cup as us. Without the experience of dying and rising with Christ in the Sacrament of Baptism, we would not have the courage to face death and risk our lives for the sake of what we believe is right. But we have all these lessons because we have received them through the symbols, myths, and rituals of the Christian tradition. These tools shape us, so that we can then go out and shape the world. Without them, many of us would be utterly incapable of making a positive difference.

That’s what St. Mary of Bethany understood and the Communists didn’t. Worship makes a difference. Marx and Lenin were right that faith is worthless if it doesn’t make a difference in way we live our lives in this world. But they were also wrong, because the Spirit-filled worship of God in Word and Sacrament has the power to transform us from the inside out and then send us out into the world, where we can be agents of transformation in the revolutionary coming of the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.