Your greatest gift to the world, the Church, or your family is you.
This is an important truth that we are in grave danger of losing in the world. We live in a world that measures the “worth” of human beings in terms of the money they earn, the possessions they own, the positions they hold, or the degrees on their wall.
In a negative sense, this world judges people based on categories like race, ethnicity, nationality, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We dismiss the ideas of our fellow human beings because they come from someone of a different political party or religious tradition. We project all our self-hatred and insecurity onto people who live with a disability, mental health diagnosis, or criminal record.
When we meet new people at cocktail parties, our first question is usually something like: “So, what do you do?” I would be far more interested to ask, “So, who are you, really? What makes you tick? What thrills/hurts you? What brings you enough hope to get out of bed in the morning?” (And that’s probably the reason why I don’t get invited to many cocktail parties…)
Truth is always inconvenient. Someone has said, “The truth will make you free, but not before it’s done with you.” As broken people living in a broken world, we are not predisposed to face the honest truth about who we really are. We are afraid that we are nobody, or that we are so ugly, stupid, and boring that no one could possibly love us, if they were to see us as we really are. So, we hide. We try to cover ourselves with the paltry fig leaves of our accomplishments and failures, thinking that we have successfully tricked the world into believing that this nobody is somebody, but secretly fearing that the truth about our inner nothingness might one day be found out.
Brothers and sisters, I come to you this morning with good news that these deep fears of ours are entirely unfounded. Beneath the tattered rags of the false identities we have constructed for ourselves is not an ugly emptiness, but the glory of the Divine Image that has been revealed and redeemed for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today the Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Name of our Lord. Today’s gospel recalls the eighth day after the Nativity, when the infant Messiah was brought to be initiated into the community of God’s chosen people through the rite of circumcision. Today is the day when the name of Jesus was first spoken out loud to the world.
There is tremendous power in a name. Names tell us something about who we are. Doctors put a lot of energy into diagnosis: accurately naming an illness in order to treat the patient. Parents know that if you raise a child, calling names like “bad, stupid, ugly, and worthless”, that child will grow up believing those things about him/herself and acting accordingly. In the Bible, names are of the utmost importance: the patriarch Jacob is given the new name Yisrael, meaning “he wrestles with God” after struggling all night for a blessing from an angel. Avraham, the exalted ancestor of Jews. Christians, and Muslims, is so-named because he is “the father of many nations.” Jesus names his disciple Petros because he is the “rock” upon which the Church will be built.
In today’s gospel, our Lord is given the name Jesus, Yeshua in Hebrew, which means “salvation, deliverance, or liberation” because he is destined to free God’s people from slavery to sin. The name of Jesus was not an arbitrary label attached to this person after-the-fact, but was first whispered into the Blessed Virgin Mary’s heart at the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel. At that time, the angel said of Jesus:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33 NRSV)
The Holy Name of our Lord is a statement about who Jesus is. Behind and beyond the rough exterior of an uneducated, working-class carpenter, born in the parking lot of a Motel 6, in a backwater town of an occupied country, deeper than all of that: we can see with the eyes of faith the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
As millennia have gone by, the Church has continued to ponder the full meaning of Jesus’ identity. Bishops and theologians have met repeatedly in great Councils, endlessly tossing the question back and forth while the answer eludes them. After two thousand years, all the Church can really say is that the mystery of Jesus’ identity is a question that can never be answered. He is fully human and fully divine in a way that transcends human understanding. Anytime people have stood up and claimed to have the final solution to this problem, the Church has been quick to tell them they are wrong. Christian orthodoxy is not a matter of holding tightly to unquestionable answers; Christian orthodoxy is a matter of standing in reverent awe before unanswerable questions.
Even after all these years, the unanswerable question of Jesus’ identity continues to haunt and bless the Church on earth. We can never claim to fully understand it, but we can give testimony to our experience of it. And we express this experience in poetry, story, ritual, and song: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, eternity has become embodied in time, heaven has taken up residence on earth, and divinity and humanity are now one.
Jesus reveals the mystery of his identity to us by entering into full solidarity with the human condition. In today’s gospel, Jesus enters into solidarity with the people of Israel through the rite of circumcision, which Jews today call a bris. The closest equivalent to this rite of initiation in the Christian tradition is the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus would also receive later in life, at the hands of his cousin John.
In baptism, we Christians receive our identity. That is, we learn who we really are in Christ. The water is an outward and visible sign of the washing away of the false identities we construct for ourselves. In the Church, we are no longer presidents or panhandlers, no longer grad students or gangstas, no longer trust-fund babies or crack babies, no longer doctors or drag queens. In baptism, all of these constructed identities are washed away: “We renounce them.”
In baptism, we are stripped of our fig leaves and stand naked before our Creator.
And this, brothers and sisters, is the Good News: that underneath the stained and tattered rags of ego is not the ugly nothingness we feared. In the moment of baptism, we stand beside the font, dripping and shivering like a toddler fresh out of the bathtub, and hear the voice from heaven saying to us what it said to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my Son (Daughter), the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
Brothers and sisters, this is the truth about who we really are. This is the truth that God reveals to us by taking on our humanity and dwelling among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I dare you today to allow this truth to soak into the marrow of your bones. Allow it to transform you from the inside out. Allow it to turn upside-down the way you look at the world.
In baptism, Jesus liberates us from all our false, constructed identities. If you wash away everything you have, every one of your accomplishments and failures, everything you’ve ever done, everything that’s ever been said about you, what would be left? Only a mysterious voice from heaven saying, “You are my Child, the Beloved.”
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Jesus gives us eyes to see it. Jesus gives us the ability to see ourselves and our world through the eyes of God. This is how St. Paul is able to say, in his second letter to the Church in Corinth:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh; even though we once knew Christ according to the flesh, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)
This is why we make the promise, in our Baptismal Covenant, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being”. We promise this because Christ is in all persons and every human being has an eternal dignity that deserves to be respected. You reflect the image and likeness of God in a way that is utterly unique, that has never been seen before in all of history, and never will be again. Without you, and without each and every person around you today, some small part of God would remain unknown forever.
And that is why I tell you today, brothers and sisters, that your greatest gift to the world is you.
There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.
The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”
The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.
These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.
In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.
Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”
From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”
Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”
According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.
So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?
Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.
God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.
But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.
But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.
After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.
These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.
These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.
All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.
We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).
This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.
The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.
The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.
Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.
Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.
Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”
Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”
To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.
This is now the umpteenth time I have tried to write this article and started over. It always ends up being too long, too abstract, or too complicated to communicate its message effectively. We’ll see if this one works, so here goes…
What I want to do here is set out, as plainly as possible, the convictions that led me to the point of being confirmed in The Episcopal Church. This is a risky career move for me. I have served as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for several years. Being confirmed by the bishop is regarded by the Presbyterian Book of Order as an “act of renunciation”, whereby my ordination in that denomination is rendered null and void. In other words, confirmation was a point of no return for me. If things didn’t work out, I could not simply turn around and seek another pastoral call in a Presbyterian congregation. Therefore, I had to be sure that this was the right move for me.
And I eventually came to the conclusion that it was.
My journey to The Episcopal Church began fifteen years ago, during my senior year at Appalachian State University. I had recently fallen out with the charismatic fellowship that I had attended through my undergrad years. I loved the immediate experience of the divine that the charismatic movement emphasizes, but became disillusioned with the theological narrowness and lack of scholarly depth I found there.
I knew I loved liturgical worship, based on my experience of the Jewish Siddur and semi-regular attendance at Roman Catholic Mass, but each of those traditions presented me with a theological gap I could not cross with integrity. Around that time, I picked up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer from a local religious bookstore and fell in love. I visited the local Episcopal parish and finally felt like I had found what I was looking for.
At this point, I had already set in motion my plans to attend an evangelical seminary in western Canada. While there, I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a woman who was preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Her little congregation welcomed me with open arms and quickly adopted me into the family. It wasn’t the church I had planned on joining, but I figured it was the best way to support my new wife in her ministry.
There’s a lot that I will skip over at this point, for the sake of brevity, but I eventually joined my wife in the Presbyterian ministry. I figured the Reformed tradition was “pretty close” to Anglicanism and intended to make the best of things as an unusually high church Presbyterian. The nineteenth century Mercersburg theologians, John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff, were most helpful to me in this endeavor. I considered Mercersburg theology my “Rosetta stone” for translating what I believe about the Gospel into terms that Reformed Protestants could understand. At the time, I thought the differences between Reformed and Anglican Christianity were mainly cosmetic and political in nature, but I eventually came to realize that those surface variations overlie two related-but-distinct theological structures in the hearts and minds of believers.
In academic terms, the primary difference between the Reformed and Anglican traditions is ecclesiological. Translation for those who speak plain English: Presbyterians and Episcopalians have very different ideas about the definition of the word Church.
To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a particular passage of Scripture that has great import for Reformed and Anglican Christians alike, but is interpreted in vastly different ways by each of the two traditions.
The passage in question is Matthew 16:13-20:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
Presbyterians and other Reformed Protestants come from a confessional tradition. Christians in the Reformed tradition believe that Simon Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the “rock” on which Christ builds his Church. The Church, according to Reformed theology, is the spiritual fellowship of all believers who make the same confession of faith in Jesus Christ and are thereby reborn to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, are adamant that the “rock” referred to in this passage is Peter himself, whose name translates literally as “rock”. They have gone so far as to carve the words of this passage into the dome above the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City: “TU ES PETRUS”. This passage forms the bedrock of Roman arguments for Apostolic Succession and Communion with the bishop of Rome as essential marks of the Catholic Church.
Anglicans, in true via media fashion, have declared that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer describes the apostolic nature of the Church as consisting of “the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (p.854). We affirm the importance of Peter’s confession, but also acknowledge that person-to-person fellowship with the apostles themselves (through their successors, the bishops) forms a vital part of our communion with the Catholic Church.
Concerning Peter himself, Anglicans see him as a spokesperson and stand-in for the rest of the apostles. We stand with Eastern Orthodox Christians and early patristic testimony that the bishop of Rome deserves a certain honor as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) in the collegial fellowship of bishops, but does not exercise “universal jurisdiction” over other dioceses or bear the charism of personal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.
For Anglicans, the importance of the episcopal office is firstly sacramental, not governmental. The bishop, as a successor to the apostles in college with other bishops, is a symbol of the unity of the Church across space and time. At confirmation, baptized believers make their public profession of faith in the presence of their bishop and receive the laying on of hands as a way of expressing the unity of the Catholic Church as God’s means for extending the kingdom of heaven on earth and transmitting the anointing of the Holy Spirit within the ecclesial community. For the same reason, bishops are further entrusted with the ministry of ordaining priests and deacons.
Anglicans, along with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, insist that exercise of episcopal ministry within the Church must be personal because God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ is likewise personal. About this personal quality, and its importance to the Christian gospel, I will say more in the next article…
Thanks so much for keeping up with me on this blog. I haven’t been very good about updating it this year, for reasons I will get into shortly. Today, I am resolving to begin again in this new season of life.
So, here’s the story:
It has been a year of dramatic, repeated, and painful transitions for me. In the last quarter of 2016, I reached the conclusion that I needed to leave my pastoral position at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I loved that congregation and they loved me back. Serving them was never easy, but those three years were the happiest of my life so far. The main reason for leaving was financial. The congregation was running out of money. Even though I kept accepting pay cuts, they were still allocating a higher and higher percentage of their budget to my salary. The situation was untenable and leaders, ordained and lay, were quickly burning out. After much thought, prayer, and consult, I decided that leaving was the right thing to do.
One bright spot in this transition is that I decided to take the opportunity to join The Episcopal Church. This is something that has been in my heart for the last fifteen years. I “married into” the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I have served for several years, and have happily pastored two fantastic congregations with them. I have been honored to serve at my presbyteries and the General Assembly. My decision to leave has nothing to do with conflict or disappointment with that denomination. I leave with only gratitude in my heart for the PC(USA) and the wonderful people who worship and serve there. The issue is that my core theological framework has always been Anglican, which is related to (but also distinct from) the Reformed tradition. There are certain theological convictions that I have come to hold dearly, for which there is simply no room in Reformed thought. More on those in a future article.
In March of this year, I started a new job in Community Development & Parish Administration at an Episcopal parish in nearby Battle Creek. This was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. For the first time, I was working as a staff member at a larger congregation, I was getting an immersive experience of daily life and ministry in The Episcopal Church, and I was seeing congregational life from an entirely new perspective. I learned more about finance and administration in seven months than I had in my entire life to that point. I got to do intensive research on church growth and discovered, to my great surprise, that there is actually some really fantastic research on the subject.
But all was not well. In the space of a few months, it became clear that the parish needed a trained and experienced bookkeeper more than it needed a community development person. My gifts and skills make me ideal for the latter, but I struggled to keep up with the former. The rector was concerned about parish finances, I was miserable, and my family was worried about me. I was not a good fit for the position and the position was not a good fit for me. Once again, leaving seemed like the right thing to do.
I struggle to convey just how disheartening it is to realize, twice in one year, that the church where you work is better off without you. Imagine the scene in Isaiah 6, when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”
Now, imagine if God were to respond, “Thanks, but no thanks.” That’s pretty much what it feels like.
Since the end of September, I have been unemployed. I had a couple of irons in the fire, even an offer to teach college again, but those have fallen through.
Not all has been doom and gloom, though. I am investing all of my time and energy into my primary vocation as husband and father. I take care of the family and the house. I have had more time for my children than I have in years. The house looks better than it has in a long time. I am eating healthier and running six miles a week. I’m even learning how to cook, and discovering that I’m pretty good at it!
I am also looking forward to my confirmation in a week and a half. In that moment, when the bishop lays hands on my head, I will cease to be a Presbyterian pastor and will become an Episcopal layperson. This is the point of no return: my Presbyterian ordination will be nullified without any guarantee of ordination as an Episcopal priest. Imagine a circus act where an acrobat has to let go of one trapeze before the next one arrives. It’s a terrifying prospect, but it seems like the right thing to do. Here’s why I think so:
When I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, I was asked the following question:
“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture calls us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”
If asked today, I would have to answer that question in the negative. My study of the early Church fathers and mothers has brought me to a fundamentally different understanding of the Church than the one expressed in the writings of John Calvin, the Westminster Catechism, or even the lovely Confession of 1967. There is much in these works that is good, but the differences between their ecclesiology and mine are substantial enough that continued service as a Presbyterian pastor would be a compromise of integrity. I will write more on this later.
At least six months after my confirmation, according to canon law, I can begin the process of discernment for the priesthood. The process can be expedited (at the bishop’s discretion) for those who were previously ordained in another tradition, but formation will still take several years, and there are no guarantees.
Some have suggested that I not take the risk to my career, but I think it would be the height of hypocrisy and cowardice if I were to claim to believe certain things about the apostolic nature of the Church and the authority of bishops, but refuse to reexamine my personal sense of call in the light of what I have come to believe. If am truly called to the priesthood, God will make the way clear. If not, some other ministry will emerge.
In the meantime, these new circumstances afford me an opportunity to live more deeply into the Benedictine principles that have given my life structure for the past several years. St. Benedict teaches that God is to be found in the most ordinary places and activities. Each day, I pray as many of the liturgical hours as possible and try to center my direction of the household on humility, gentleness, consistency, flexibility, hospitality, and sensitivity to others’ needs in my endeavor “to be loved rather than feared.” (RB 64:15)
I don’t know what the future will bring, but I can honestly say that I don’t hate what I am doing right now. I am finally coming home to The Episcopal Church. Tending the hearth is the single biggest contribution I can make to our family life, even more than a steady paycheck. Who knows whether my example might even present a helpful antidote to the toxic masculinity that is running rampant through our society right now?
My most pressing concern for the moment is whether this arrangement will be fiscally sustainable for us. I am prepared to take on part-time work, probably in retail, if we get desperate for cash.
In the long term, I hope I get the opportunity to make use of my ministry gifts in some meaningful way, whether I am ordained or not. Until then: Ora et Labora.
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 samemind 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.
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.
I’m not wanting to be rude or put anyone off by this statement. And this doesn’t come out of any recent personal issue or encounter. And this is certainly not some sort of passive-aggressive way to get a point across to someone I’m reluctant to talk to in person. That would just be bad behavior.
But this is a consistent point of confusion for many, and so I think it deserves a little blog article, and discussion if you wish.
Your pastor is not your friend.
It’s hard, because they feel like they are.
And this is not a hard and fast rule, by the way. Some pastors do make a friend in the congregation, someone they can absolutely be themselves with.
But that needs to be rare. It may not always be rare…and then things get fuzzy…but I believe it *needs* to be rare, for you…
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.