Your Greatest Gift is You

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

Click here to read Luke 2:15-21

Your greatest gift to the world is you.

Do you hear me in that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing the Keys

One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.

When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.

Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.

This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”

These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”

To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.

There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.

Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.

Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).

Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.

Telling Stories

This week’s sermon from North Presbyterian, Kalamazoo.

Click here to read the biblical text

Sermon text

One of the funnest (and funniest) parts of Thanksgiving dinner is when family and friends start sharing stories around the table. They often start with something like, “Remember that time Uncle Harvey…”

In our family, my wife and I have one that we never get tired of telling the kids. It’s the classic story of “How I met your mother… twice.”

I first met Sarah at a student conference in western North Carolina in the summer of 1999. We had a nice chat on a group hike, established that we had a mutual friend, shook hands, and parted ways. Four years later, I was getting onto a bus in Vancouver, Canada, having just moved there to begin seminary. The woman across the row from me struck up a conversation. We had a nice chat, established a mutual friend, and… suddenly both of us had a major case of déjà vu.

As it turns out, she was the very same person I had talked to four years prior. When life gives you a second chance like that, you take it. We began dating less than a month later and married before the end of graduate school.

People love to tell family stories like this, especially during the holidays, because they help to give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. In a world that often seems so random and out-of-control, these stories give us a hunch that there is some other Will working itself out through our existence. They remind us that we are not alone in this universe and that life itself is meaningful and good. We never get tired of telling or hearing them.

Of course, these stories don’t just exist in our families. They are a major reason why we come to church. The Bible itself, even though it is a collection of many different stories, tells one Big Story that continues to shape and change our lives today.

The biblical story is that the infinitely loving God of the universe created the world and called it Good. When we humans, in our selfishness, turned away from God and each other and fell into slavery to sin, God did not abandon us. After centuries of reaching out to us through prophets and sages, God took on flesh and came to dwell among us in the person Jesus Christ. When we refused to listen to Jesus and tried to silence him by the violence of crucifixion and death, God summarily rejected our rejection by raising Jesus from the grave. Now, we who are baptized into Christ share the healing power of his resurrection and function with the world as his Body, his hands and feet, on earth until he comes again in glory. On that day, the dead will rise and the whole creation will be made new, as God originally intended, and governed with divine justice and mercy.

This is the story we Christians tell ourselves each Sunday in church. We hear it in the Scriptures and see it in the Sacraments. We leave the liturgy each week, fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, and are sent out into the world to be the Body of Christ. It cannot be understated just how important that mission is in this world, where life often seems so empty and meaningless.

Jesus talks about this Christian story in today’s gospel reading. Like any good story, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Today, Jesus is talking to us about the ending.

He starts by undermining two thousand years of Christian speculation about the end of the world. Look in the Religion section of any bookstore, and you will find multiple books claiming to have figured out the scoop on when and how the end times will take place. But Jesus says in this passage, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

St. John Chrysostom, a bishop in the early Church, agrees with Jesus on this. He wrote that human beings “should not seek to learn what angels do not know.” Jesus does not give his followers any “insider information” on the end of the world. What he asks of them is far more difficult.

What Jesus asks of Christians is that we “stay awake” and “be ready” for history to reach its conclusion. This is important. Life on this planet often feels chaotic, empty, and meaningless. To the eyes of a person without faith, it seems like a random series of events that are just happening. Without a sense of purpose in life, we are wont to slip into a mindless pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of fear.

In Jesus’ mind, this state of existence is not unlike the condition of the world immediately before the great flood of Noah. He says, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Another way of saying this is that it was “business as usual” for everyone until the moment when the rain began to fall. They were so caught up in their little plans and schemes, they didn’t realize that God’s great story was in the process of unfolding all around them. When the moment of truth came, they were not ready.

Jesus reminds us that the world does not revolve around us. The universe will not stop its ordinary operation to accommodate our plans, however great we think they may be.

The good news is that God has an even greater plan, and we are invited to play a part in it. Jesus invites us today to reorient our lives around God’s vision for the world. God’s dream is to renew the face of the earth so that it reflects the harmonious beauty that God intended for it to have at the beginning. God dreams of a world where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, strangers are welcome, and sinners are forgiven. Jesus often referred to God’s dream as “the kingdom of heaven”. It is the one thing around which he oriented his entire life and ministry.

The work of the kingdom of heaven has been going on since the dawn of time. It began in earnest with the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It continues today through Christ’s Body on earth, the Church, and will draw to a conclusion at some unknown point in the future. It is God’s dream and Jesus is inviting us to be a part of it. We come to church each week and tell each other these stories in order to be reminded that this universe is no accident, and our lives are no random series of events.

This week, we begin the liturgical season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate that beloved moment in God’s story when Jesus Christ, the Word of God, “took on flesh and dwelled among us.” But it is also a time when we look forward to Christ’s second coming at the conclusion of history. It is a time when we are invited to reorient our lives around the divine vision of a renewed creation, the vision for which Jesus lived, died, and lives again in us.

In this coming holiday season, let us not get caught up in our cultural patterns of materialism and greed. Let us also avoid the backward-looking nostalgia for the “good old days” of Christmases past. Let us instead look within and around us for the work that Christ is giving us to do in this world today. Finally, let us look forward to the day when God’s story finishes with a happy ending and all of creation joins in the song of unending praise to its Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Let us pray.

“O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife, and discord cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.” Amen.

Peace! Be Still!

Mark 4:35-41
Lectio Divina

35On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

Jesus, help us to hear and heed your call to do great things: Help us to leave familiar shores behind and cross into the unknown territories with you.

36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.

Jesus, help us to take you as you are and accept life on life’s terms. Save us from our own delusions and dreams.

Other boats were with him.

Jesus, everyone we meet is fighting a secret battle. Though we may often feel alone, we are never alone. You are with us always, and you also give us the gift of each other. Help us to reach out and ask for help when we need it.

37A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

Jesus, blowing wind and living water are common symbols for your Holy Spirit. Sometimes, you do things that are inconvenient for us and lead us into situations where we would rather not go. Help us to trust you, even when the wind and the waves threaten to break our little boats. And when these boats finally sink, show us how to walk on water.

38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion;

Jesus, you show us that faith sometimes looks like sleep, that the most convincing speech is silence, and that stillness is the most effective course of action. Help us to rest in you, as in the eye of the storm.

and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Jesus, we are so prone to panic that we forget who we are and who you are. Forgive us when we malign your character and strike the rocks to which we should speak. Help us to see that you do not actually care about the fate of our little, inconsequential boats, our false selves, our ego-attachments. SOS, Jesus: Save our souls, our true selves, and bring us safe and sound to the place you have prepared for us, where you are working in us greater things than we can ask or imagine.

39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!”

Jesus, I wonder whether you are speaking to my circumstances or to me? Sometimes you calm the storm and sometimes you calm your child.

Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

Jesus, you speak your Word into the substance of the universe and creation takes on the qualities you carry within yourself: Shalom, Stillness. Speak, not only to the winds and waves of my life, but to me also. Make me more like you. Let me be the change I wish to see in the world.

40He said to them, “Why are you afraid?

Jesus, you are the great diagnostician. Your incisive questions cut to the heart of the matter and expose the sicknesses within us. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. You ask us these questions, not because you require information, but so that we might see ourselves more clearly. Help us to explore these difficult questions with you, that we might gain wisdom and insight. May your questions show us how our attachment to (and identification with) these little boats is keeping us from the peace we so desperately cry for.

Have you still no faith?”

Jesus, your questions are the surgeon’s scalpel. You cut straight to the heart of the matter. We are too caught up and identified with things that are not us. In spite of all the time we have spent sitting at your feet, we still have no faith. We still have no clue who you are, and therefore, we haven’t the faintest idea who we are.

41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Jesus, sometimes the beginning of faith looks like a really good question. Lead us, by the power of your infuriating sleepiness and the cutting of your questions, to ask better questions. Instead of “Do you not care?” let us ask, “Who then is this?” And may your silent response be all the answer we need.

Not Even One Stone

I delivered this sermon this morning just after announcing to the congregation our session’s decision to leave our building and move our church’s ministry to a new physical location after almost a century at the corner of Burdick & Ransom. I don’t think it was a coincidence that today’s gospel reading in the lectionary is the story of Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Some weeks, the Holy Spirit makes more work for me…

The text is Mark 13:1-8.

If you knew that you only had a week, month, or year to live, how would you choose to spend that time? What do you want your life to stand for? When other people look back at your life, what would you want them to remember about you? These are the questions that a wise person asks in the face of mortality.

The truly wise among us realize that life cannot last forever, therefore the truly wise among us also realize that each life must be lived for something larger than itself. Every mortal life, it seems, is a means to an end.

Each of us has probably known, met, or heard about at least one person who made his or her mortal life meaningful by dedicating it to something larger than himself or herself. We tend to respect or admire such people when we meet them. Their examples might even inspire us to look more deeply at our own lives, face our mortality in new ways, and discover meaningful possibilities within us that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s a beautiful thing when that happens.

As it is with individuals, so it is with groups of people. These groups might last much longer than we do, but they too will one day fade from existence. Families are mortal. Surnames and lineages come to an end through a lack of offspring. Churches and other faith communities are mortal. There comes a point when dwindling membership and a lack of funds causes an institution to close its doors. Nations are mortal. The Roman Empire was once the dominant superpower in the world, unlike anything else that had come before it. Where is the great Roman Empire today? Buried under the rubble of history and preserved in ruins frequented by tourists in Bermuda shorts. Finally, even the planets and stars are mortal. One day, our very own sun will burn up all of its hydrogen fuel and explode into a violent supernova, momentarily becoming the brightest star in some distant sky.

If coming to grips with our own individual mortality is difficult, accepting the mortality of families, churches, species, and stars feels almost impossible. Yet, the same truth applies to these larger mortal beings that first applied to mortal human beings: it is in facing mortality that we find meaning.

Let’s look at this idea in relation to this morning’s reading from Mark’s gospel. The story opens as Jesus and his disciples are leaving the great Jerusalem temple, the epicenter of Jewish worship in the first century CE. Jesus, as usual, is storming out in a huff after yet another fight with the established religious authorities.

It’s at this point that Jesus’ disciples, in their usual tactless and somewhat dimwitted manner, decide to stop and admire the lovely architecture of this religious icon and national monument of Judaism. They say of the temple, “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

Jesus is unimpressed. He says, “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

He’s talking about mortality of the temple: this central symbol of religious and national identity for the Jewish people. They were under the impression that this sacred building would stand forever under divine protection. For them, the temple was immortal. It was an end in itself as a center of worship. The idea had never occurred to them that it might not be there one day.

As it turns out, Jesus’ prediction was spot-on. The Jerusalem temple, like any human being, was mortal. It was eventually burned to the ground by the Romans during an uprising in the year 70 CE. It was never rebuilt. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred places in Islamic religion.

The destruction of the temple was unthinkable to the average Jew, but to Jesus it was inevitable. The wisdom of Jesus did not stop with an awareness of his own individual mortality, but extended to embrace the mortal and finite nature of all things. Just as it was for individuals, so it is for temples, religions, countries, species, planets, and stars: to face mortality is to find meaning.

If our great struggle in life is limited to ensuring the continued existence of particular people, places, institutions, or things, then we have already doomed ourselves to failure. Nothing lasts forever. We need to accept that. What Jesus said about the Jerusalem temple, we could say about anything: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.” All things are mortal.

The sooner we realize this truth, the sooner we can get on with the business of asking the really important questions about existence in reality. Concerning our individual selves, we can ask: “What am I living for? What will people remember about me when I’m gone? What will be my lasting contribution to the world around me or the universe as a whole? What is the meaning of my life?”

The day will come when we, along with our families, our church, and our country, will only exist as a chapter in a history book. Accepting the inevitability of this fact, we need to ask ourselves: “When that day comes, what will we want that chapter say?”

As a congregation, we’ve been asking ourselves some very hard questions this year. We’ve been participating together in the New Beginnings assessment and discernment process. Throughout this process, the biggest and most pressing question we’ve had to ask ourselves is: “What is the church?”

Is the church a building? Is it an institution?

Or is it a community of people on a mission? A community of people, called together by Jesus Christ, living together in Christ, and following Christ into the world to live that mission?

Our final answer has been that third option: the church is a community of people on a mission.

Because we believe this, we have been able to make a bold new decision this week. We have decided to leave the building where we have worshiped for almost a century in order to continue the ministry of our church in a new location. The session, the presbytery, and I are currently working together on the details, and we will call a congregational meeting in a few weeks to let you know what the plan is.

This new move is not a death, but a resurrection.

We are not doing this because the church is dying; we are doing this because Jesus is alive.

We are honoring the heritage of the ministry that has been passed down to us, not by preserving it, but by continuing it.

We are doing this because:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon [us],
because the Lord has anointed [us].
He has sent [us] to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We are doing this because Jesus said:

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

Our ancestors in the faith (and in this church) believed this, I believe it, and the session believes it. Brothers and sisters, do you believe it?

Let’s go follow Jesus.

Bartimaeus’ Empowerment

Image
William Blake [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s gospel reading from the Daily Lectionary introduces us to Bartimaeus, a blind panhandler healed by Jesus in the final days before his crucifixion (Mark10:46-52). When he heard that Jesus was passing by, Bartimaeus started raising his voice, calling upon Jesus to do that which he was meant to do as King David’s anointed heir: liberate his people from oppression. The Temporarily Able-Bodied (TAB) people in the crowd wished this disabled nuisance and general drain-on-the-economy would just shut up and go back to being invisible.

But Jesus, for his part, stopped the parade and listened to the shouts that everyone else wished they weren’t hearing. Begrudgingly, the general public acknowledged to Bartimaeus that his appeal for freedom had been heard.

And when Bartimaeus finally did gain an audience with David’s heir, what happened? One would think that the chosen liberator would know exactly what to do on behalf of an uneducated societal reject. However, that’s not the route that Jesus took:

The Liberator wanted to hear Bartimaeus speak for himself.

Instead of prescribing, Jesus asked what he could do to help. And when the big, miraculous moment came, the Liberator refused to take credit. Instead, Jesus chalked up Bartimaeus’ newfound wellness to that which was already within him.

What kind of anointed Liberator is this?

Are we seeing clearly?

Redefining Success

Image
Károly Ferenczy [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

What would you say are the marks of a successful church?

Here are some of my ideas for North Church:

  • We’re going to court some billionaire investors. Not donors, but investors. We want to incentivize their giving by promising a lucrative return. Once we have their money, we’re going to make use of it.

  • First of all, because we need to keep them happy (so they’ll keep sending us money), we’re going to turn our upstairs balcony into a skybox where our wealthiest members can observe the service in comfort, with leather recliners and a full wait staff serving champagne and caviar.

  • For our music ministry, we’re going to hire a full-time, paid, professionally trained choir (we already have the best organist in Michigan, so we won’t need a new one of those). Our contemporary worship team will get brand new, state-of-the-art AV equipment.

  • We’re going to get TV cameras so our service can be broadcast live via satellite around the world.

  • We’ll get paid endorsements from celebrities like Derek Jeter (add Christina Hendricks and George Clooney for sex appeal), who will tell everybody how great North Church is.

  • And finally, we’ll need to protect all this new stuff, so we’ll need to get a security force to guard the church. And I’m not thinking just some smiling, helpful rentacops either… I’m talking about SWAT team gear with assault rifles: I want such an overwhelming display of power that nobody will even THINK about messing with our church.

If we had all of those things (i.e. money, fame, and power), we would be a successful church, right? Wrong.

Blessedness

Jesus’ definition of the word success is different from the one accepted by the rest of the world. The world has a very self-centered definition of success, but Jesus presents us with a God-centered definition of success. The word he uses is blessed, which can also mean successful or lucky when you take away the spiritual side of it. That word blessed, by the way, comes from the Latin beatus and is where we get get the word Beatitude from. Blessedness, from the God-centered perspective of Jesus, is quite different from the world’s self-centered idea of success.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The world sees wealth as a sign of success: the Armani tux, the Vera Wang dress, the Italian sports car, the yacht, and the mansion. The world looks at people who have those things and calls them successful/lucky.But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdoms of this world (governments, corporations, institutions) cater to the desires of the haves, but the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ vision of an ideal society) will serve the needs of the have-nots. On the day when God’s dream for this world comes true, no more will Senators and CEOs vote to give themselves raises and go on vacation while the people whose jobs they cut sleep in shelters and line up outside soup kitchens. That’s not going to happen anymore.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The world looks at people who seem to be happy and calls them “successful.” Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the one day a year when people watch TV just as much for the commercials as they watch it for the program. How many people plugging products in those commercials will be average-looking folks, looking bored, and saying, “Meh, I guess this product is okay…”? Not very many, I think. TV commercials are full of beautiful, smiling people who are excited to tell you all about how a particular cleaning solution changed their lives forever. They want us to believe that we’ll be as beautiful and happy as they are if only we buy what they’re selling. The world says that happy people are successful people, but Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus invites us to not buy into that “cult of happiness.” Jesus doesn’t want us to turn away from the pain of this world, he wants us to look at it and do something about it. That’s what compassion is: Showing up with food or clothes, visiting the shelter, the drop-in, the hospital bed, the courtroom, and the prison cell. That’s the kind of love Jesus showed us and it’s the kind of love he wants us to show others. Wherever there’s pain, there’s Jesus, so that’s where we should be too.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The world says that successful people are tough-minded alpha-dogs who stand their ground and don’t compromise. Those are the big-shots who end up in running the show. The world puts them in charge of things. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek (i.e. gentle, flexible), for they will inherit the earth.” I like this one because I read a book by a couple of biologists last year that talks about how competition is not the only driving force behind evolution. They make the case that cooperation plays just as big a role in the ongoing development of life. When God’s dream for this world comes true, the ones in charge will be the ones who know how to work well with others and value relationships more than ideologies.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

The world believes that truly successful people lack for nothing. They have everything they could ever want. They benefit from the way things are. Insulated by wealth and power, they don’t sense the urgency of the situation or feel the need to challenge the system. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (i.e. justice, fairness), for they will be filled.” That last part is especially ominous because history has shown, time and again, that poor people will not stay quiet and submissive forever. If the leaders will not change the system, the people will change the leaders. Jesus has been proven right more than once: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

The world says that successful people know how to give as good as they get. If you hit them, they hit you back. They make an example of you so that others know not to mess with them. That’s the politics of power. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Real power, according to Jesus, comes from knowing that you could rip your enemies to shreds but choosing not to. What’s more is that mercy is contagious: it comes back to you. It stops the cycle of violence from going around and around and escalating until the situation is out of control. The United States and the Soviet Union spend the latter half of the twentieth century with nuclear missiles pointed at each other in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). But then the Cold War ended, not with a mushroom cloud, but with a party: people singing and dancing as the Berlin Wall came down. The doctrine of MAD-ness did neither side any good in the end.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

The world says that successful people are savvy: they know how to read between the lines and close the deal. They’re street-smart; they have guile. Successful people know how the game is played and stay two steps ahead of the competition. These savvy, successful people are sure to see great big dividends on their investments. But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Savvy, street-smart people see the world for what they can get out of it, but they’re missing a whole other dimension of reality. Those who see the world like Jesus does get to see the hand of God at work in creation. These blessed folks know that they’re not alone and that life has meaning. I like to compare this one to the scene in Star Wars when Han Solo is laughing at Luke Skywalker as he trains to be a Jedi Knight. Luke says, “You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Han replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen *anything* to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything. ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls *my* destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Han is savvy but Luke is pure in heart. Luke is learning how to see the world through a different set of eyes and so, as Obi-Wan Kenobi said about him, he’s taking his “first steps into a larger world.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

The world defines success by winning. Whether it’s trophies on the shelf or notches on the bedpost, the world wants to know about your conquests. This was especially true in ancient Rome, where the empire was built on the doctrine of Pax Romana: world peace through global conquest. They believed that Roman order would prevail over the barbarians of the world by the mighty hand of Caesar. And Caesar himself was worshiped and given a very special title: “The Son of God,” Sol Invictus, “the Unconquerable Sun.” But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers (not the conquerors), for they will be called children (lit. ‘sons’) of God.”

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Finally, the world says that respect is a measure of success. They say a good name is as good as gold. If people listen to what you say, you’re successful. If you get invited to the White House to advise the President on a matter, you’re successful. The world says it’s good to be admired and respected. Those who possess the kingdoms of this world are accorded respect, whether they deserve it or not. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice the parallel with the first beatitude. God’s ideal world belongs to the have-nots, the disrespected, the ones without a voice, and those who suffer and die for standing up and speaking out for what’s right. When God’s dream for this world comes true, these are the people we’ll be listening to, not the flattering bootlickers who only tell powerful leaders what they want to hear. We need people of conscience who will “speak the truth in love” to the powerful ones in charge. That’s what prophets do, but they’re almost never listened to or given the respect they deserve. Nevertheless, Jesus calls them “blessed” and commands us to keep doing it.

Conclusion

Jesus redefines success. He takes the world’s self-centered idea of success and replaces it with his own God-centered idea of blessedness. In the mind of Christ, success is not a blessing and blessing does not look like success. God’s blessing is upon the poor and oppressed peoples of this world, the ones without a voice, the ones who weep in the night, and the ones who are literally starving for change. God’s blessing is upon the gentle, the compassionate, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.God’s blessing is upon those who face the pain of this world and do what they can to make a difference. God’s blessing is upon those who are a blessing. And so it is that I say to you:

May God bless you and make you a blessing, this day and every day. AMEN.

Making Friends With Witches

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Photo by Shahmai Network. http://www.shahmai.org/

 

I just read an article about a fascinating guy, but I’m not going to link to it, seeing how it comes from one of the extremist publications of the religious right.  However, the subject of the article (who is blasted therein) seems like a pretty stand up dude.  His name is Phil Wyman and he’s a pastor in Salem, Mass who was expelled from a Pentecostal denomination for building a ministry with the expressed goal to “make friends with witches and atheists.”

Here’s what Pastor Phil has to say for himself:

“We did something few other Christians in the world were doing… We loved the witches and they loved us back.”

He doesn’t try to convert Wiccans to Christianity because:

“Theology doesn’t work like that. I don’t think I have the capability of converting anyone… I don’t look at the Christian salvation thing as a sales pitch. That’s God’s job. I talk about practical things. Why can’t I just have a regular relationship and talk about the Red Sox?”

Also, he sets up confessional booths on Halloween, but with a twist:

“We didn’t have them confess to us, but rather, we confessed the sins of the Church and apologized for hideous things that had happened, not only down through history but in recent times… That was evidence that we cared.”

Like Pastor Phil, I am one who has repeatedly found himself in committed professional and personal relationships with atheists and pagans.  I have worked hard to win their respect as a Christian who will listen to reason with compassion.  The resulting friendships have been some of the longest and richest of my life.  I have tried to be more Christ-like than Christian and often discovered Christ in them, even though our ideological boundaries don’t line up like one would expect.

In the Bible, Jesus often called his friends and followers to travel beyond the pale of established religion and morality.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners, he touched the untouchable, he traveled through enemy Samaritan territory and gratefully received their hospitality, and he found more faith in one (pagan) Roman centurion than he had seen in all of Israel. 

Jesus was never one to circle his theological wagons.  He never deemed orthodoxy worthy of defense.  He taught that love is the greatest commandment and the quality of one’s religion equals the quality of one’s relationships.

Let’s (Not) Make a Deal

Do you ever feel like everyone wants a piece of you and maybe there’s not enough to go around?

You and I live in a transactional society where everything is quid pro quo: there’s no such thing as a free lunch, you get what you pay for, and you pay for what you get.  This, obviously, is how we do business: a product or service is offered at a fair price that both parties agree on, the exchange takes place, and both parties go their separate ways.  Ostensibly, this is also how we do government: public officials are elected to their positions for a term of service wherein they are authorized to exercise a certain amount of political power over the populace in exchange for their promise to protect the well-being of those they serve.

So, in sectors public and private, our society runs on the idea of transactions.  Life, it seems, is one big game of Let’s Make a Deal.  There are some people who find that thought appealing.  Ayn Rand, for example, is a Russian philosopher whose work is often read and quoted admiringly by members of the so-called Tea Party movement.  She believed that people are selfish by nature and self-interest is the only correct way to make decisions in life.  Charity, compassion, goodness, love, and God are all ridiculous ideas, according to Ayn Rand.  For her, self-interest is the only good and life is one big business transaction.

Personally, I would have a hard time living my life that way.  Business transactions are necessary, useful, and good for those times in which they are appropriate, but they become toxic when the principle of self-interested exchange is applied to the whole of life.  There are times in life when we are called upon to make sacrifices for which we will reap no material reward.  Likewise, we would not be who we are, what we are, and where we are today if it hadn’t been for others who sacrificed for us and gave freely without any thought of seeing a return on their investment.

At the end of the day, when my energy is spent from all my wheeling and dealing, I need to know that I can lean on something deeper and more meaningful than a contract drawn-up in the name of mutual self-interest; I need to lean on some everlasting arms; I need to know that the amazing grace that has brought me safe thus far, through many dangers, toils, and snares, will also lead me home; I need to feel that the house of my soul is built, not on the shifting sands of self-interest, but on the solid rock of Love that is without condition, proviso, or exception.

In our gospel reading this morning, Zacchaeus found that kind of Love, or more accurately: Love found him.  Zacchaeus, we know, was a tax collector.  We talked about them last week.  Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in ancient Israel.  First of all, they were traitors: Jews working for the occupying Roman government.  Second of all, they were liars: they overcharged people on their taxes and kept the extra for themselves.  So, it would have been quite a shocking moment to Rabbi Jesus’ devoutly Jewish audience when he singled out the local tax collector in his search for a place to stay.

This gesture from Jesus was a bold, symbolic statement.  Sharing someone’s home in that culture meant that both parties welcomed and accepted each other as family, without question.  Zacchaeus had done nothing in the way of belief or behavior to deserve such public affirmation from Jesus.  Those respectable folks in the crowd probably wondered whether Jesus realized the kind of message he was sending.  How were sinners like Zacchaeus ever supposed to learn their lesson if they didn’t experience the full sting of rejection from God-fearing society?

That’s the way their minds worked: they had a transactional relationship with their religion.  They gave obedience to the laws of the Torah in exchange for inclusion in the life of society.  They were shocked and offended at the thought that Jesus, as a rabbi and potentially the Messiah, might offer such a radical gesture of acceptance without first requiring that Zacchaeus repent of his old, scandalous ways.

But Jesus doesn’t ask that of Zacchaeus.  He commits an act of civil disobedience and direct action against the morals and values of his culture: Jesus offers acceptance first.  He asks nothing of Zacchaeus.  There is no transaction happening here, no business deal. 

This flies in the face of most traditional religious wisdom (Jewish and Christian), which says that repentance comes first, then forgiveness.  Most folks think that God needs people to do, say, or think certain things before they can reap the rewards of heaven, eternal life, or acceptance in the church community.  However, Jesus seems to take the opposite approach in this passage.  He doesn’t ask Zacchaeus about how many times he’s been to synagogue in the last year, he doesn’t ask about which commandments he had broken or whether he was sorry, Jesus doesn’t even ask whether Zaccheaus believed in him as the Son of God and Messiah.  Jesus simply accepts him as he is.

The amazing thing is that this makes all the difference.  In the light of such unconditional love, which he had probably never experienced before in his entire life, Zacchaeus becomes a changed man.  Something about that kind of grace made him want to pay it forward and pass it on.  Jesus accomplished in one gesture of grace what so many others couldn’t do through years of judgment.

Can you imagine what it would be like if we ran our churches this way?

When I talk to people who don’t come to church about why they’re not interested in Christianity, they often (but not always) express some kind of faith in God and respect for Jesus, but most of them say that they are turned off by hypocritical Christians who are judgmental toward those who don’t believe or behave like them.  In our culture so full of business transactions at every level, people are longing to experience a God and a church who will love them unconditionally and accept them as they are.

This, more than anything else, is the greatest gift we have to offer the world as Christians.  We can follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Jesus, who wasn’t afraid to rise above the culture wars of his day and even go beyond the letter of the Bible in the name of love.  Christ’s is a love that will not wait for you to get your act together and will not let you go once it gets hold of you.  In contrast to conventional, transactional religious wisdom, the deep, deep love of Jesus offers grace and acceptance first, only then does it call forth transformation from within.

When that change comes, it will not look like simple observance of a set of commandments.  Like Zacchaeus, your life will begin to overflow with the kind of radical grace and generosity that was once shown to you and you will make your way out into the world, proclaiming the good news to everyone you encounter: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

Humility, Community, and Jesus

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Jesus called his disciples to humility and littleness.  He called them to become like small children, not to seek to prove that they were in the right and that others were wrong.  He called them to be with the poor, those without a voice, and through them to live in communion with him, just as he lived in communion with the Father.  Pride destroys community; humility helps to build it up.  Humility means seeing in the beauty of others the gift of God; it means recognizing the darkness in ourselves, the self-satisfaction behind our good deeds, our longing to take first place.  It means recognizing that we need Jesus to free us from this pride that is inside all of us. 

Humility means accepting our place in the body of a community and respecting the place of others.  It means obeying others and serving them.  Humility means recognizing the importance of doing small things for the community.  Humility also means having the courage of one’s convictions and being fully responsible so that the community can be more loving and true.

By being in communion with Jesus, who is gentle and humble of heart, we can be freed of our tendencies to judge and condemn others, and live humbly with the humble and build with them places of peace and love, places of hope in a wounded world.

-Jean Vanier, The Heart of L’Arche, p.68-69