One of Us

sermon – what if god was one of us?

When Rev. Rachel invited me to speak this morning, she jokingly said that I could be her “token Christian” and talk about Jesus. So, that’s what I intend to do today.

In a Unitarian Universalist context, it would be easy to talk about Jesus as a teacher of wisdom or the leader of a movement, but I decided to take a slightly more interesting path and talk about one of the distinctive theological principles of the Christian spiritual tradition: the divinity of Christ.

Before I jump into this subject, I think a certain disclaimer is in order. Something I have long admired about you, my Unitarian Universalist friends, is the way that you create a safe haven for so many people who struggle with and/or experience exclusion from other religious communities. This “love beyond belief” is an amazing gift that you offer to the interfaith community, and I heartily thank you for it. The fact is not lost on me that many who find their way to a Unitarian Universalist congregation come as religious refugees from Christianity, the very tradition I represent here today. I stand before you with a sorrowful awareness that Christians have deeply wounded some of you in the name of Jesus. Speaking as a Christian, I am ashamed and angry at these injustices that continue to be heaped upon others in the name of my religion. The greatest threat to Christianity in the world today is not Islam, secular humanism, or Communism, but Christians who refuse to practice the principle of unconditional love taught by our Lord and Savior.

For many of you, it is entirely possible that the path of healing is dependent on this faith community, where the acceptance of traditional Christian dogma is not a requirement for membership. I want to reassure you, at the outset of this talk, that this cherished aspect of your church is not about to change. I am not here this morning to convert or convince anyone toward any doctrinal position, Christian or otherwise. What I intend to do today is explore one way that the Christian spiritual tradition might be able to provide useful tools in the joint, interfaith cause of justice and compassion in this world. I hope these words of mine will be helpful to people from any or no religious background, including Unitarian Universalism.

In the song we just listened to, Joan Osborne asks a significant question: “What if God was one of us?” This is the very question Christians have been asking for almost two thousand years. Since the beginning of our movement, we have sought to take the idea of the Divine out of the heavens and give it flesh and blood on earth. In the theological language of our tradition, we call this attempt the mystery of the Incarnation.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is more than just an historic teacher and leader. Whether or not we take literally the biblical claims about his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is, for Christians, the eternally living embodiment of the Divine. Christians call him “God incarnate,” which literally translates as “God in-the-flesh.”

One of the most well-known titles for Jesus in the Bible and early Church is Son of God. This Messianic title, far from being a commentary on the historical Jesus’ parentage, is a statement about who Jesus is and what he reveals to us. Christians call Jesus the “Son of God” in the same way that others might look at a child and see reflections of the parent in that child’s face or personality. When I look at my seven-year-old’s features, I see my father-in-law staring back at me. When I hear my nine-year-old shout, “Look at me!” during a performance, I say to myself, “She is her mother’s daughter!” In the same way, Christians look into the loving eyes of Jesus and understand what God must be like. That is why we call him the Son of God.

This, I think, is the unique contribution that Christianity can make to interfaith dialogue: We find God in a person. Other religions encounter the Divine in sacred books and rituals. The prophet Muhammad (pboh) was the vessel through which the Qur’an was revealed; the Buddha taught the Eightfold Path; Lao Tzu wrote the Tao Te Ching. But Christianity is unique among the world’s religions insofar as we believe that Jesus Christ was not simply God’s messenger, but also the message itself.

Why is it important that Christians find God in a person? It’s important because you relate differently to a person than you do to a text or ritual. You can agree or disagree with a text; you can observe a ritual or not; but a person must be loved in an intimate way. I married my wife in a ritual; I abide by the limits set by the rules of monogamy; but the real substance of our marriage is in the love that is shared between us, as persons.

It is the same for Christians in our spirituality: we look into the eyes of a person and find there the embodiment of everything that is good and true. We look at Jesus of Nazareth and find in him the meaning of life.

One does not need to be a Christian, or even believe in God, to benefit from this kind of spiritual practice. Jesus himself never criticized someone for their theology, but thanked them for their trust. In the words of Jesus himself, the true measure of our faith is not in our religious observance, but in the way we treat one another.

Jesus’ followers once asked him,

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?

And Jesus said to them, in Matthew 25:40 (look it up): “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.”

Later in the New Testament, Jesus’ biological brother James, a bishop in the early Church, said to his congregation:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (James 2:14-17, 18b NRSV).

Christians believe the meaning of life was revealed through a person, therefore real people out to matter to us; Christians believe God took on material flesh, therefore matter ought to matter to us. Jesus taught us that the way we treat one another is a reflection of the way we treat God, therefore we are honor-bound to show our neighbors the kind of respect and sacredness we would show to God’s own self.

I would invite you this morning to turn to the person next to you, whether that person is your spouse, or a stranger, or anything in between. Look deeply into that person’s eyes. Try to imagine in that person what the early Christians saw in Jesus Christ. See in your neighbor’s eyes the meaning of life itself. Try to see in them everything that is good, or noble, or true. Continuing to look into that person’s eyes, hear in your ears the great wisdom of Jesus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).”

Friends, this is the great contribution that Christianity can make to the world around us, whether people follow the Christian religion or not: that God (or the meaning of life) can be found in people. Each of us carries a spark of the Divine within us, and therefore deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.

As a Christian, I look at the seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism and find in them a helpful guide for living the faith that Jesus taught:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, I hope that you are able to leave this place today and find in the eyes of your fellow human beings the source of goodness, truth, and meaning for life. I hope that our time together today has inspired you to treat your fellow “strangers on the bus” with all the respect and dignity they deserve. And finally, if you can accept the term (in whatever way makes sense to you), I hope you have found the faith to answer Joan Osborne’s question in the affirmative: “Yes, God is one of us.”

Fully Human

Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church of Paw Paw, MI.

Click here to read the biblical text.

There are two great mysteries that are central to the Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us from the Apostles. As mysteries of the faith, they cannot be proved by philosophical reasoning, but can be experienced directly and expressed through intuition and imagination in the stories and practices of our tradition.

The first is the mystery of the Trinity: we believe in one God who exists co-eternally as three persons, traditionally referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The main thing we learn from the mystery of the Trinity is that God is relational. God exists, not as a monolithic object in space, but as network of relationships between individual persons. It would not be too much to say that God is a relationship. This is how Christians are able to say, in the words of 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God, and God abides in them.”

The second great mystery is the mystery of the Incarnation, which we are gearing up to celebrate during Advent and Christmas. Christians believe, in the words of John 1:14, that God “became flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ. In other words, God is one of us. Jesus Christ, according to the Church, is both fully human and fully divine, at the same time. According to the mystery of the Incarnation, everything Jesus is, God is. Jesus Christ reveals the Divine to us. If we want to understand what God is like, we look at the human person Jesus.

These two mysteries, the Trinity and the Incarnation, are central to the Christian faith. They are also central to understanding today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In this passage of Scripture, Jesus tells us a story of the Final Judgment. At the end of the age, the Son of Man (literally “the Human One”, Jesus’ favorite title for himself) will come to Earth in all his glory and divide the people of the world into two groups. One group, whom he calls “sheep”, and another, called “goats”. The “sheep” will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” while the “goats” will “depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

The basis for this final judgment, contrary to what we tend to hear from popular “evangelists” in the media, is not a test of theological doctrine or church attendance, nor is it a question of whether one has received the Sacraments of the Church or “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” The basis of this final judgment, according to Jesus himself in Matthew 25, is how we treated the most vulnerable people among us in this life.

Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

With a look of confusion on their faces, the righteous ask when it was that they did all these things, and Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

What Jesus says here is firmly rooted in the central mystery of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

From the mystery of the Incarnation, we learn that God is fully human, so Jesus asks us, “Are you fully human?”

From the mystery of the Trinity, we learn that God is relational, so Jesus asks us, “Are you relational?”

Much of the imagery that Jesus uses in this story comes from chapter 7 in the book of the prophet Daniel, in the Hebrew Scriptures. In that chapter, Daniel has a vision of four empires, which he envisions as vicious monsters that destroy and devour people with their violence. But then, Daniel says, “I saw one like a human being (literally “a Son of Man”…get it?) coming with the clouds of heaven.” And this “Son of Man” will repeal and replace the monstrous empires with the kingdom of heaven-on-earth. And Daniel says, “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away.”

According to Jesus and Daniel, this is God’s ultimate vision for the human species: for a truly human kingdom to replace the monsters and empires that have the power on earth for now.

So, how did we get into this sad state of affairs? What happened?

Well, the Gospel tells us that our Triune, relational God created a relational universe and invited human beings to take our part in harmonious relation to the whole of creation, but we were not satisfied with this gift. We humans wanted to be the center of our own little worlds. We were ambitious to become gods, but became monsters instead. We destroyed and devoured one another in our lust for power, and set up exploitative systems that oppress our fellow creatures in the name of “law and order”.

God kept trying to reach out to us, to show us that there is another way, but we were unwilling to listen. So, God “took on flesh and lived among us” in the person Jesus Christ, showing us that to be fully human is to be fully divine. Jesus loved us, bringing healing, wisdom, and forgiveness into our midst.

But we were still unwilling to listen. Clinging to our old delusions of grandeur, we rejected Jesus and turned on him with all the monstrous might of imperial power. We crucified and killed this God-made-flesh in a final, desperate attempt to shut him up.

But Jesus wouldn’t take No for an answer: he rose from the grave on Easter morning, conquering the power of death and hell, and declaring peace and forgiveness to his deniers and betrayers.

After his resurrection, Jesus gathered his community of followers once again and breathed into their hearts the Holy Spirit, the very presence and power of God. Jesus made the Apostles into little incarnations of the Divine.

These Apostles were sent out to say and do the same things that Jesus said and did: gathering communities of lost and broken people, blessing the little ones, teaching, healing, forgiving; baptizing, confirming, and ordaining, human beings to be the hands and feet of God in the world.

These gathered communities, the Church, gradually spread and grew to the ends of the earth, continuing the Apostles’ mission, right up to this very day in Paw Paw, Michigan, where we have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit as the apostolic people of God in this place and time.

All of us have come here today to hear God’s Word and be fed with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, to give thanks, to pray, to give, and to be sent back out into the world, that we might take our part in the advancing kingdom of heaven on earth, saying and doing the very same things Jesus said and did when he walked among us in the flesh.

We are called upon today to live as citizens of the kingdom of the One who is fully human (and therefore fully divine).

This kingdom of heaven-on-earth is advancing here and now, just as Jesus and Daniel said it would. The kingdom’s advance is not always readily apparent, but it is real. In every age, women and men have risen up to demonstrate to the monstrous empires of this world the truth that there is another way to be human. We call these people “Saints”. But saints are nothing more than further examples of what life in this world could be, if we would but set aside our selfish, ego-driven agendas and pledge allegiance to God’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

The marching orders of Jesus, our commander-in-chief, are clear: Feed the hungry, slake thirst, welcome foreigners, care for the sick, and visit incarcerated criminals.

The quality of our spirituality (and our divinity) is measured, not by our religious observance or theology, but by the quality of our relationships with hurting, broken, and vulnerable human beings, without stopping to ask whether they are worthy. This is what it means to live in this world as citizens of the kingdom of the truly human one, the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, which is our clear and present hope.

Jesus asks these things of us, not because they work as effective policy in this world, but because they are right. Jesus asks these things of us because they make real to us the presence and power of our fully human and relational God. As a bonus, this strategy happens to make God real to others, as well.

Jesus asks these things of us because the kingdom of heaven is real and advancing across the broken terrain of this Earth. In every age, the saints of God have taken their place in this kingdom, living on Earth as if they were already in Heaven. Today, we are invited to take our place in this kingdom as well.

Our God is relational, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you relational?”

Our God is fully human, therefore Jesus’ question to us is: “Are you fully human?”

To the extent that we can answer Yes to those questions, we can honestly say that we are living in the kingdom of heaven-on-earth, and we are finally fulfilling humanity’s oldest and greatest ambition: To become divine.

The Adoration of the Outsiders

Eliza_Codex_24_Ethiopian_Biblical_Manuscript_a
Ethiopian Biblical Manuscript. Public Domain. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

A few years ago, there was a big to-do about this book (and subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. I won’t get into the particulars of the plot, suffice to say that it provoked a lot of big, emotional reactions from people everywhere.

On the one hand, a lot of church-folks were offended by the ideas it presented, which didn’t exactly mesh with what we had learned as kids in Sunday School. On the other hand, a lot of folks from outside the church were really excited about the book because they thought it revealed a picture of Jesus that was bigger than the one presented by traditional Christianity.

I even had one friend who said, “I knew it! The Vatican has known about this stuff all along, they’ve just kept it hidden and locked up in some secret vault so that the rest of us won’t find out about it.”

Well, I don’t think I’d put much stock in that particular theory… or in the book’s ideas about the historical Jesus (The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction after all), but I do find the whole phenomenon extremely fascinating from a sociological point of view.

During the peak of the book’s popularity, Jesus Christ was once again on the cover of popular, secular magazines. Books were being written (and read) about him. For a brief cultural moment (and not for the first or the last time), everyone was talking about who Jesus is and what he means to the world. It was a really interesting thing to behold.

And here’s what stood out to me in that conversation:

People feel drawn to Jesus. They want to be connected to him somehow, even if they never darken the door of a church or call themselves Christians. Jesus means a lot to people. There are few, even in the non-religious world, who speak negatively about Jesus or the things he said and did. Most secular criticism is directed, not at Jesus himself, but at us Christians (and what we have done in his name).

In this morning’s gospel reading, we read about a group of people, the wise men, who also felt drawn to Jesus. Like the readers of The Da Vinci Code, these people came to encounter him from outside the bounds of conventional, orthodox, institutional religion.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

To begin with, these wise men were not Jewish. The text of Matthew’s gospel simply says they were “from the east”, which probably means they came from Persia (the part of the world we now know as Iraq and Iran). They wouldn’t have known anything about the Bible or Jewish customs. They had probably never been to a synagogue service in their life.

So then, how did they come to be aware of this miraculous birth?

“For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

They were astrologers. They studied the stars and interpreted their movements as messages from heaven. We have astrologers today who do similar work, but most of it is for entertainment via 1-900 numbers. In the ancient world, astrology was generally accepted as a form of science. Kings and generals would have depended on the predictions of astrologers for guidance.

The message these particular astrologers were discerning from the stars was that something significant was happening in the Jewish homeland. A royal baby was being born. Matthew doesn’t say why, but something in these astrologers’ hearts was stirred enough that they felt compelled to go and pay their respects to the new baby.

So, they did what any reasonable person would do: bring gifts of congratulations to the royal palace in the capital city: Jerusalem. These wise men, Persian astrologers, felt drawn to Jesus, even though they had no idea where to go or what to do when they got there.

King Herod and the Jewish leaders, on the other hand, didn’t fare much better. Even though the astrologers had gotten a little turned around, at least they were aware that something important had happened. The astrologers’ arrival woke the Jewish leaders up to what they had forgotten or neglected in the midst of their own self-important agendas.

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”

The astrologers’ questions sent the theologians and seminary professors scrambling for answers. As it turned out, the answer they were looking for was in a tiny, little, forgotten village:

“They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

The arrival of these outsiders and their questions woke the Jewish religious scholars up to those parts of their own country and their own faith that they had neglected for too long. At this point, Herod and the religious leaders have an opportunity before them. Their eyes have been opened to the Messiah’s birth. They now have the chance to step outside their own selfish, little worlds and become part of what God is doing on earth. Is that what they do?

“Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.”

Instead, there is a reactionary pushback against this news of the Messiah’s birth. The powerful ones are secretly plotting and scheming, not so that they can be part of what God is doing in the world, but so that they can keep their power and maintain their privileged positions in Israel. Those who have power want to keep it, even if that means going against the very essence of what defines them as a people. They would do anything, even kill the Messiah, to maintain their illusion of power and control.

Herod is so delusional, so drunk with power, that he even starts ordering these foreign wise men around like they were his own subjects or property:

“Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.””

The irony here is that he is the one who is dependent on them. He would have no knowledge of this situation if it wasn’t for their pagan, foreign practice of astrology. Yet the wise men are the ones who respond with open hearts and minds. They came to pay their respects because they felt drawn by the heavens. All these secret, back-door deals combined with biblical hermeneutics and seminary professors probably seemed pretty strange to them. In the end, it seems like they (rightfully) disregarded everything Herod and the religious scholars had just taught them:

“When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

Does the text say that the wise men set out to follow the biblical scholars theologically correct directions? Or does it say that they went back to following what they already knew?

The answer is the latter, of course. The wise men basically took the Bible and theological training and threw it out the window. They didn’t know about all that Jewish stuff, nor did they want to. They knew about stars. So, when they set out again (probably more confused than when they arrived), they went back to working with what they knew.

One might think that such pagan backsliding would lead the wise men down the path of sin and deception. Surely, they would be lost forever in the desert, never to find the newborn king.

But that’s not what happened. The text tells us that the star “stopped over the place where the child was.” Get this: by following what they knew, they ended up exactly where they were supposed to be.

They set out on this journey in search of Jesus, and lo and behold: they found him (in spite of the so-called ‘advice’ given by powerful figures and religious leaders). And what was their reaction when they found him?

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Their hearts were more open than the hearts of those who had spent their lives studying this stuff.

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Despite their unorthodox methods and status as religious outsiders, the wise men ended up exactly where they were supposed to be: with Jesus. Their faith did not look anything like conventional Jewish faith, but it proved to be more real and more authentic than the faith of those people who were supposed to have all the answers.

I wonder whether the same thing might be true in the world today?

It seems to me, based on what I saw during The Da Vinci Code’s popularity, that there are a lot of people in this world who feel drawn to Jesus, but want nothing to do with the church or institutional Christianity. To be honest, I can’t blame them. We Christians have a lot to repent for when it comes to representing Jesus to the world. We have often attached his name to our own projects and agendas, but rarely have we acted in a way that is consistent with his Spirit. I think that is what it really means to “Take the Lord’s name in vain”: When we talk about him, but don’t act like him.

Meanwhile, those wise souls who are diligently searching for truth and love in Jesus are driven to look elsewhere because the church has done such a poor job of pointing the way to him. In those circumstances, I am not at all surprised that God is willing to reach out take hold of people’s hearts using things like astrology, science, philosophy, or other religions. I have met atheists who have a closer relationship with God than some Christians (even though the atheists would never use that name: God).

The good news in this is that God is willing to reach out to us human beings using any means necessary. As my seminary roommate was fond of saying, “God will broadcast on any antenna you put up.” Only God knows those hearts that truly seek after God. And, as Jesus himself promised: “Those who seek will find”… he never says they have to seek God in a particular way.

The challenge given to us then is this:

Are we open to what God is doing in the world? Are we open to the fact that God might show up in the least expected way, or in the least expected place? When we encounter others who might be seeking God in ways that seem foreign or unorthodox to us, do we have the faith to trust that God is working in their lives (as well as ours) to bring us all to that place where we can worship Jesus together?

Just like the wise men, these outsiders have precious gifts to bring to the table. Will we work with them and help them to open their treasure chests so that these gifts can be offered to Jesus and shared with the world?

God is inviting us Christians to open our hearts, minds, arms, and doors to those outsiders to the faith who bring unconventional gifts to the table and seek God in unorthodox ways. The question that God sets before us is not “Do we approve of them (or their strange methods)?” or even “Do we welcome/accept/tolerate them in our midst?”

The question is: “Will we travel to Bethlehem with them?”

Will we seek Jesus together as companions in life’s journey? Someone else’s journey might not look exactly like yours and that’s okay. Will we be open to the gifts that others bring to the table? Will we let those gifts challenge our structures of privilege and power? Will we let them change the way we think about church and “the way it’s always been” or the way we think it should be done?

These outsiders come to us, not because we have something they need, but because God has led them to us and called all of us to seek Christ together.

So then: Let’s get going.

Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Deeper Yes

I find it to be a matter of common sense that you and I live in a fragmented world. We’re divided and scattered. Relationships are broken: between nations and neighbors, between races and religions, between partners and parties. Why, we’re even fragmented within ourselves: doing what we don’t want to do and unable to do what we most deeply want to do, as we heard St. Paul say in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. We’re fragmented. Things are complicated. We don’t quite know what to make of it. We’re lost and we need to find our way again. We need to get our bearings, so to speak. We need context: we need to understand where it is that we are, how we got here, and how we can get to where we ought to be as individuals, as families, as communities, and as nations. This is the state of our generation on planet earth: fragmented, lost, Paul calls us “wretched.”

Into this maelstrom, enter Jesus. To quote Paul once again: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And Jesus shows up in our gospel reading this morning with his usual wit and insight that cuts to the core of who we are and lays our souls bare for the healing. Here, Christ the great physician (Doctor Jesus) is practicing a kind of spiritual surgery in order to get inside us and expose what we are so that we might become what we ought to be.

And his surgeon’s tools, the scalpel and forceps he uses to simultaneously wound and heal his patients, are twofold: Questions and Stories. Anytime Jesus asks a question or says “Let me tell you a story…” smart people will head for the hills because they know it isn’t going to be pretty. And in today’s passage, Jesus does both. He asks his listeners, “To what will I compare this generation?”

He’s making a comparison: using the rhetorical art of analogy to provide insight and context. He’s showing us how to recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that we have become so unconsciously accustomed to by force of repetition and reinforcement by societal values.
And here is his comparison: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”.

Children sitting in the marketplaces. Can you imagine anything more out of place? What if the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street had an annual “Bring your kids to work Day”? What would it be like to have kids playing games and chasing each other around the trading floor? What would it be like to have a bunch of whiny babies throwing temper tantrums on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? It would be chaotic and disruptive. They would constantly be under foot. Nothing could get done.

“Children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”. According to Jesus, that’s the fragmented state we’re in as individuals and as a society. We’re tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way, and disrupting the divine plan with all sorts of mindless chaos and petty selfishness.

Jesus said that we’re “calling out to one another.” What is it that we’re calling out? “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”.
That’s an interesting one to me, especially in this consumerist, hedonistic, entertainment-addicted society. The world is always “playing the flute for us” in one way or another, isn’t it? We are bombarded with advertisements from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night. Every single product and service promises a long and happy life, but none can actually deliver on that guarantee. Sensationalist media headlines are specifically designed to get our attention and provoke a reaction from us. They force our emotions out of us by making each new experience faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, or more intense than the last one. They keep us on the hook. The world plays the flute and we are expected to dance like puppets.

What else are we, as a society of “children in the marketplace” calling out to each other? “We wailed, and you did not mourn.”

This one is the mirror image of the last disruptive cry. Once again, the world is trying to provoke a reaction from us, trying to throw us off of our spiritual center of gravity. But this time, they’re using pain instead of pleasure, the stick instead of the carrot. If you follow current events (from either the right or the left), you’re probably familiar with this “wailing” tactic: there’s no such thing as a small problem in Washington. When is the last time you can remember either Republicans or Democrats sitting down together around a piece of proposed legislation and saying, “I guess we have a few minor disagreements about this bill” or “I’m sure we can figure out some kind of compromise”? Does that ever happen? No. Every little problem is an apocalyptic crises. Every opponent is a demon and every ally is an angel. It’s all just another form of sensationalism and manipulation.

When the world isn’t playing the flute for us, it’s wailing at us. It wants to provoke a reaction in us so that we’ll keep on playing these little games and sending our money to the big shots on Wall Street, or in Washington, or in Hollywood. Their game is simple: if we play, they win.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t play. That’s what Jesus said. He said: “John came neither eating nor drinking”.
Here Jesus is speaking, of course, of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John was a prophet: the greatest of prophet who ever lived, according to Jesus. John was kind of like a monk: he lived a very simple, ascetic life in the desert and people would come to be baptized and listen to him teach.

The thing about John the Baptist is that he didn’t play the world’s game. He said “No” to the flutes and “No” to the wailing. He didn’t participate. He boycotted. He was a resistor. He was a fiery preacher who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He criticized the religious establishment and he called out political leaders.

And what did the dominant powers-that-be do to him? They demonized him. They arrested him. In the end, they killed him.

His experience reminds me of the Civil Rights movement: people marching in the streets, speaking truth to power, boycotting the bus system, sitting in at lunch counters. They said “No” to racism, segregation, and inequality. Like John, many were arrested and some were killed. They too were demonized with the worst possible insult one could think of in the 50s and 60s: “Communist.”

If St. John the Baptist had lived during the 1960s, they would have called him a Communist too. John said “No” to the world’s childish games and they said, “He has a demon.”

Saying “No” is an important step in the prophetic ministry. We have to do it if we ever hope to regain our moral and spiritual footing in this life. We have to say “No” to what the world is offering in order to say a deeper “Yes” to what God is offering us instead. And what is that deep “Yes” that we are called to say with our whole hearts?

Jesus shows us: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Notice the dichotomy with John’s ministry: “John came neither eating nor drinking” (he said “No”) but “The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself, it really just means “human being”) came eating and drinking” (Jesus is saying “Yes”).

Jesus, if you remember, got his start by working with John in his ministry. John baptized Jesus and Jesus’ message, in the early days of his ministry, is almost indistinguishable from John’s: Both of them baptized people and told them to “repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

But then a shift began to happen after John was arrested and killed. Jesus branched out on his own and took the movement in a new direction. As John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.”

Rather than disengaging from society and staying out in the desert, Jesus ventured back into the city streets. He got involved in people’s lives, loving without judgment. He scandalized the dominant powers of this world in a different way: by practicing such open acceptance, he defied their nicely defined ideological categories and the boxes into which they so conveniently put people and God.

As a result, they reduced him to the lowest common denominator and called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Ironically, they couldn’t be more right. The reality of God’s love in Christ was far deeper and broader than they could imagine. Jesus envisioned a community where all people would be welcome at heaven’s table, not just those who passed theological or ethical muster. This was more than the powers of this world could handle. They just couldn’t imagine sharing heaven with such pathetic riff-raff.

During this time, the disciple’s eyes were gradually opened to the truth that this Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Church, after reflecting on this reality for centuries, came to affirm that Christ is both “fully human” and “fully divine”. The theological term for this is Incarnation – the belief that God has taken on flesh, that through Christ, God is present with us in the very stuff of this universe. Therefore, the stuff of this universe is sacred. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source from which all things come and the Destiny toward which all things are going.

In Christ, the universe itself finds healing and wholeness. Our broken world is fragmented no more. We are free to eat and drink once again, having overcome the clatter of this world’s childish wailing and flute-playing. We are now able to approach life with new eyes, the eyes of faith, strengthened by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, which point us back to the deeper truth of hidden wholeness beneath the fragmented surface of the world. All things come from Christ and return to Christ by way of Christ.

With that knowledge, we are able to put our worried minds at ease and our weary souls at rest, as Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Church, Interrupted

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When you come to church, what kinds of things do you expect to do?

Sing hymns? Say prayers? Read from the Bible? Hear a sermon? Receive Communion?

In our denomination’s Book of Order (part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church), we have a list of ‘the Elements of Worship’ and they are:

  • Prayer,
  • the reading and proclaiming of Scripture,
  • Baptism,
  • the Lord’s Supper,
  • Self-offering, and
  • Relating to each other and the world.

All of these things are pretty normal things to have happen during church services. We’ve come to expect them. If there was a church somewhere that said, “We’re not going to pray or read the Bible anymore during our services,” we would wonder about that church (*Side Note: I’m particularly delighted to see that more and more Protestants are including the Eucharist in their list of things that are central to Christian worship).

If there was a church somewhere that didn’t do any of the above things, most of us would probably want to ask, “What then, makes this gathering a Christian church?”

It might be a perfectly good social group, activist organization, or educational institution, but most of us would have a hard time seeing it as a church (as people typically understand the term) unless there was some part of its communal life that was specifically devoted to worship.

It was that way in the ancient world too. People in that culture expected certain elements to be part of their worship experience. One of those elements was sacrifice.

It was widely believed in the ancient world that deities fed off of the sacrifices offered by the people. These sacrifices could be things like bread, wine, animals, or even people. The general idea was: the more precious the thing sacrificed, the more pleased the deity would be. If you really wanted to get on a particular deity’s good side, you sacrificed something really valuable to you. In return, that deity would then grant you favors related to his or her sphere of influence (e.g. fertility, harvest, war, etc.).

To the ancient mind, that’s just how religion worked. They could no more imagine worship without sacrifice than we could imagine a church service without hymns.

Human sacrifice, in particular, was just one of those accepted elements of worship. It sounds horrifying to our 21st century ears, but the idea that God would ask someone to sacrifice their firstborn child was not all that unusual for people in Abraham’s culture. That’s why we don’t hear Abraham raising a fuss when God asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac in this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Asking for the life of his firstborn would have sounded like a perfectly normal request for God to make.

Yet, this is a very shocking passage, to ancient ears as well as our own. The shock, for Abraham and the early Jews, was not that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but that God would stop the sacrifice from happening at the last second.

“Wait a minute,” they would have said, “do you mean to tell me that God didn’t want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in the end? Do you mean to tell me that God actually interrupted the sacrifice and asked for a ram instead? What kind of God would do such a thing?!

It would have been amazing and unheard of for them. It would have upset all their conventional religious ideas in favor of something new that had never been seen before. People in that culture might have even had a hard time imagining how such a religion would work; for them, it would be like church without hymns, or prayers, or the Bible, or Communion: it just wouldn’t feel like church.

Abraham stood at the forefront of a revolution: a radical shift in his culture’s understanding of God. His God would no longer demand human blood in exchange for favors. Only animals would be sacrificed from that point on. This move was a step in a particular direction.

Later on, the early Christians would do away with the practice of animal sacrifice as well, proclaiming that the death of Jesus had put an end to the need for sacrifice altogether. That was a step.

In the sixteenth century, our Protestant ancestors, Martin Luther and John Calvin (among others), started another revolution when they proclaimed that membership in the Church of Christ depended on one’s personal faith, rather than loyalty to the Pope. As we already know, this idea blew people’s minds and shattered their cultural expectations of what church was all about. That was another step.

All of this leads me to wonder: What is our revolution? In what ways is God calling us to be radicals? How will history look back at us and say, “Wow, those really stood at the forefront of a new understanding of God/church/religion”?

Let me be clear that I really do believe they will. I really do think that we live at one of those turning points in history: one of those moments that influences the shape of things to come for centuries. Just like the ancient and medieval ages before it, our modern world is now coming to an end. We’re entering what many academics are calling the postmodern era of history.

As we make this shift and the world is changing around us, we Christians are asking some pretty big questions about things like church, God, and religion. Some of us are questioning old patterns and forms of worship; some of us are questioning old dogmas and concepts of God that were based in assumptions about the universe that people in the 21st century no longer hold; at the end of the iconoclastic modern era, some of us are returning to more ancient and medieval practices with a new set of spiritual eyes. Most of these questions are bound to make us uncomfortable. Like most of our ancestors who lived at similar turning-points of history, people in the postmodern world will probably end up keeping some things from the past while they change other things. That’s just the way life works: nothing stays the same forever, and nothing is totally independent of that which came before it.

Time will not permit for me to talk about all the different questions and changes that might be coming our way in the near-future (I highly recommend the books of theologians like Stanley Grenz and Brian D. McLaren, if you yourself are interested), but there is one current shift that I would like to briefly touch on:

The Christian Church, ever since the days of the Roman emperor Constantine in the 4th century, has long been at the center of Western European and North American society. Even where Christianity wasn’t established as the official state religion, the church (as an institution) nevertheless enjoyed the benefits that come with considerable money and power. Church membership was culturally expected as part of what it meant to be a person of a particular nationality (e.g. English, Italian, or American).

In the past half-century, all of that has begun to change. Our society is becoming more secular. People no longer assume that their neighbors go to church anymore. Neither our pews nor our offering plates are as full as they used to be. The Church has gone from being at the center of society to being out on the edge. Christianity exists in the margins of society at this point in history.

Many people are saddened or even frightened by this shift. Looking at the empty buildings and smaller budgets, they long for the “good old days” when the Church was more culturally central and enjoyed the money and power that came with such privileged status. Some folks even think they might be able to re-create that imaginary Golden Age, if only their church had the right kind of pastor or Sunday School program.

But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Just like Abraham, Jesus, and Calvin, I think we’re living in a time when ideas about God and Church are changing on a radical level. The Church of the future will look very different from the Church of the past.

I see Christianity becoming a religion that exists at the margins, made up of people who live at the margins. I see us becoming a Church of the poor, for the poor, and by the poor: a home for the homeless, a family for the outcast, friends of sinners, a community of prophets that critiques the values of the dominant culture instead of underwriting them.

When I imagine the future, I see a Church full of people like Abraham, who was so open to hearing God’s voice that he was able to stop the sacrifice of his son Isaac at the last possible second. He looked instead at the ram caught in the thicket and imagined, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a new way of doing things, a new way of practicing religion, a new way of being Church, and a new way of understanding God that had never been conceived before.

I believe that we, at North Church, already have a head-start on that future. We are already a small church of the poor that exists on the edge of society. I believe we have something special to offer our brothers and sisters in the mainline churches. We are showing them where they are going. In our life together, we are living proof that the future is not all doom and gloom, but light and hope as the Church-at-large returns with its whole to heart, not to the good old days of money and power, but to that which really makes us the Church: our passionate love for God and one another in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Well in the Desert

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Have you ever experienced rejection?

If you’ve ever been a sixth-grader at a school dance, chances are you have.

“Eww, I’m not gonna dance with you, you dweeb!”

It’s a hard thing to go through, especially when you’re a kid. Those painful memories stay with you forever. Those of us who have kids of our own or care for other people’s kids know that crestfallen look in their eyes when they come home from school. We remember what it was like to be that age and experience rejection. It’s like our body still remembers the feeling of that knot in the stomach. We didn’t know how to fix it then and we don’t know how to fix it now. The best that any of us can say is that, by the grace of God, we got through it. So, when we see the kids we care about going through it right now, our heart goes out to them. Knowing that we don’t have any way to fix it (or even answers as to why it’s happening), all we can do when we see that look in their eyes is put our arms around them and say, “I’m so sorry.” We know that it’s just puppy love, but it’s real to the puppy. We know that our love for them can’t take away the shame of rejection, but we hope that somehow, it will help them get through it.

If we’re honest, we grown-ups can admit that we still feel that same pain sometimes. It might not come from the same sources (e.g. a twelve-year-old calling me a dweeb today will not phase me much), but there are certain things that other people can say or do that take us right back to feeling like that sixth grader at the middle school dance. It’s like the worst kind of time-travel. People can say things to us like: “I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with you… We don’t feel like you are a good fit for this position… Not tonight, I have a headache.”

It hurts, doesn’t it? And even though we are now adults facing adult situations, the pain we feel is still rooted in that childhood experience of rejection. Our brains may know the difference, but our bodies and our hearts do not. That old pain is still with us: the pain of not being chosen or wanted.

In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, two of the Bible’s most famous underdogs. They were two people who understood better than most what rejection feels like; what it feels like to be “not chosen” in ways that really matter.

Hagar and Ishmael are not “main characters” in the biblical story by any stretch of the imagination. They are the supporting cast, they are “extras” in someone else’s story. In this part of the book of Genesis, Sarah and Abraham are the main characters; they are God’s “chosen people.” God appeared to Abraham and said to him, “You shall be called the father of many nations. I will bless you and make you a blessing to all the nations of the world.”

Now, there was a problem with this arrangement because Abraham and his wife Sarah were already too old to have kids. And Sarah, being a very rational and practical person, came up with a solution: “I have this slave-girl, Hagar. She’s young enough to bear children. Here, Abraham, you go ahead and have a baby with her, so that God’s promise can come true.”

And this is where things get complicated. At this point, the biblical story almost starts to look like a “reality TV” show. Jealousy and rivalry set in quickly. Hagar and Sarah never seem to get along after this point.

First, Hagar does have a baby with Abraham and names him Ishmael. And Sarah is jealous of Hagar for this. Later on, after Sarah does have a baby against all conceivable odds, she decides that she doesn’t need Hagar anymore, so she tells Abraham to break up with Hagar and send her packing.

It’s interesting to note that Hagar never has a say in anything that happens to her. She is Sarah’s slave: an object who just gets passed around and used like a piece of property that can then be disposed of when she is no longer needed. Sarah and Abraham were the chosen people, but Hagar and Ishmael were leftovers… afterthoughts.

Sarah comes across as pretty heartless in this passage. Abraham fares a little better, but not much. The text says that he is “distressed” (we might say “stressed out”) by Sarah’s demands. After all, Ishmael is his firstborn son. He loads them up with as many supplies as they can carry, but it’s not much: a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. And then he sends them out into the desert, knowing that he will never see them again and they will most likely die there.

Out in the desert, Hagar’s water runs out pretty quickly. And here she is: all alone in the desert with a baby and no water. She’s been used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of her.

She keeps going for a little while: as long as she can, which is obviously not long in a place like that. But eventually her strength gives out. She knows what will happen next: she and her son will die out here and their bones will probably never be found.

If there is anyone in this story who is lower-down and worse off than Hagar, it’s Ishmael. He is just a baby at this point. He owes his very existence to this twisted situation. He didn’t ask for any of this. You could say that he never even had a decent shot at life. The playing field of opportunity was never really level for him. And now, because Sarah and Abraham, God’s chosen people, were acting so petty and hard-hearted, he was going to die.

This is where Hagar reaches her breaking point. She can’t go on, so she gives up and throws in the towel. Above all, she can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she abandons him: she sets him down under a bush and walks away. She can hear him crying behind her, but she won’t turn around. It’s too late for them. It’s over.

And then… in that moment… the moment after all hope is lost, hope finally begins to dawn. That’s when God finally decides to show up in this morbid scene: not alongside the chosen people, but with the rejected ones; not in the city or the camp, but out in the desert; not with the rugged, faithful, positive-thinking overcomers who soldier on no matter what, but with those who have given up and given in to the worst parts of their humanity. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is only for those who hold on for ten minutes after all hope is gone that hope begins to dawn.”

God shows up in the least likely places. In this story, there is a definite hierarchy among characters: At the top there is Sarah, who just doesn’t care. Next you have Abraham, who is caught in the middle of his two wives and sons. The text tells us that he is “distressed” by what is happening. After that, you have Hagar, who is rejected, abandoned, and heartbroken. And finally, at the very bottom, there is Ishmael, who never asked for any of this. This baby is going to die because God’s chosen people are too hard-hearted to see past their own petty issues. (Sounds like the Church sometimes, doesn’t it?)

And where is God in all this? Sitting on heaven’s throne, objectively evaluating the situation? Does God make excuses for the chosen people, justifying their selfishness, no matter what the cost?

Whose voice does God listen to in the end? Not Sarah’s, not Abraham’s, not the chosen people’s, not even poor Hagar’s. Genesis tells us that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Ishmael. The voice that mattered least. The voice that no one else wanted to hear (not even his own mother, in the end). Ishmael was the least of the least in this situation, the one who even the rejects rejected. He didn’t even have words to form, much less a theology for calling out to God and arranging salvation. The only thing that came out of him was the wordless wail of a child who has just been abandoned by his mother.

Rejection. Ultimate rejection which, in his case, meant certain death. And God heard the voice of the boy. God shows up where the pain is greatest and the hope is gone. In spite of the sacred covenant established with Abraham and continued through Isaac and Sarah, God cannot help but reach out to be with these forgotten folk, particularly this baby boy.

God speaks to Hagar his mother and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m listening. Go, pick up your son and hold him close, because this kid has a future. I will make a great nation of him.”

And then, according to the text of Genesis, God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw something: a well of water in the desert. Not just a bottle, like Abraham had given her, but a full-on well where she and her son could drink and drink to their hearts’ content.

According to the text and history, God made good on that promise to Hagar and Ishmael. They learned how to survive out in the desert. They made a life for themselves. Ishmael grew up, got married, and became a great bow-hunter.

He even became “a great nation,” as God promised he would: our Muslim neighbors trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, just as Jews and Christians trace their lineage through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah.

What I take away from this story is God’s special love for the least of the least of the least. God really does seem to have a thing for underdogs. Church teaching has historically referred to this as “the preferential option for the poor.”

God is not neutral or objective when it comes to injustice. God sides with the poor and powerless people of the earth in their suffering. It’s not that God loves some people more than others; it’s that some people need God’s love more than others. God stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world, therefore we, as God’s people are called to do the same.

I believe the Church is called to be a safe haven for our outcast sisters and brothers. We’ve all heard stories of faith communities rejecting certain people, sending them packing, or kicking them out for one reason or another, perhaps sending them off with a single bottle of water to sustain their faith in the spiritual deserts of this world…

I believe the Church’s call in those moments is to be present with those rejected people, like Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Rather than turning our heads and walking away because we can’t bear to see their suffering, I believe we are called to hold each other close in the darkest hours, to open the eyes that are blind, and inspire our hurting neighbors to believe in a future for themselves that they would not even dare to imagine.

We are not meant to pass out little bottles of water and then send people on their way. We care called to be that well in the desert, where exhausted travelers and fellow rejects can find rest and build a new life together out of the ashes of their rejection.

This is the kind of ministry that North Church has been doing for over a generation. We are the well in the desert. We stand together today, poised at the brink of an unknown-but-promising future, facing new challenges, ready to pursue new opportunities, and certain of this: that God is with us. We know this because we are the poor, we are the homeless, we are the addicts, we are the disabled, we are the mentally ill, we are often overlooked and outcast, we are the freaks and the geeks, we are the queer, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are the rejected ones: and that’s where God lives. Amen.

Calling All Prophets

https://i1.wp.com/cruzblanca.org/hermanoleon/sem/a/pasq/pentecostes/pentec14.jpg

Have you ever been a part of something that didn’t exactly go according to plan?

Unless you live under a rock, chances are you have. Sometimes it’s fun, like when you come home from work on your birthday and all your friends jump out and say, “Surprise!” Sometimes it’s scary, like when you get that phone call with someone saying, “There’s been an accident.” Sometimes it’s a mixture of both exciting and scary, like when your wife says, “Honey, I know we weren’t planning on this for another year, but I just took a test and it says I’m pregnant.”

No matter what the circumstances are, whether it’s good or bad, no matter how well we’ve planned it out, it seems like life is always find a way to hit us with something unexpected. In fact, that’s the number one piece of advice I have for couples preparing for their wedding day: “The secret to the perfect wedding day is imperfection. Expect the unexpected. Something, somewhere will not go according to plan, so make up your mind now to just accept it when it happens.” As they said in Britain during World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.”

In theological circles, we like to quote an old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell him your plans.”

God seems to have a flair for the unexpected. Take, for example, our reading this morning from the Torah, the book of Numbers: It begins with Moses doing a very Presbyterian thing: electing and ordaining elders to help govern God’s people. And in good Presbyterian form, everything was being done “decently and in order.” The elders were called, chosen, and set apart for the work of ministry. These elders became mouthpieces of the Holy Spirit. Just like Moses, they proclaimed God’s word to the people. Just then, as this solemn ordination service was still going on, someone comes running up to the tent where they were meeting.

It was a teenager from the camp, a member of the next generation of Israelites. The biblical text doesn’t say much about who this teenager was, but I like to imagine him as a kind of punk: maybe the elders gave him the stink-eye because his robes were too short and his hair was too long. Maybe some of them had caught him smoking behind the camel-pen or writing graffiti that said “MOSES SUCKETH!” on the side of people’s tents. And all of a sudden, here he was: barging in to interrupt a solemn ordination service! My guess is that the elders were not amused…

But this wasn’t just any other punk kid, he was the voice of the next generation of Israelites. And he came with an announcement: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

According to the story, there were two guys who were supposed to be there at the ordination, but weren’t. Eldad and Medad had stayed behind in the camp. The Bible doesn’t say why (maybe, like so many of our elders, they had already been recruited to organize the post-ordination church supper). For whatever reason, Eldad and Medad weren’t at the ceremony with Moses and the others, but that didn’t stop God from making things happen in their lives.

I find that very interesting: God’s will for Eldad and Medad did not depend on them being in the right place at the right time. The Holy Spirit was able to work in them and through them, no matter where they were. God loves working outside the box.

And how did God let Moses and the elders know that this extraordinary activity was going on in the camp? By sending one of the youth: the voice of the next generation. This young person’s job was to point the finger back at what God was doing in unexpected ways and unexpected places. We know from the text that some of the elders were struggling with what they heard. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, had a particularly hard time with it. He said, “Moses, stop this! We’ve got to shut this new thing down before it undermines our God-given authority!” We can’t really blame Joshua for what he was trying to do. He was trying to protect what had been entrusted to him by God. He was being smart.

But Moses, on the other hand, was more wise than smart. He was listening with the ears of his heart and heard something that Joshua didn’t. He said to Joshua, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the spirit on them!” He recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the camp, even though it didn’t conform to his own expectations. Moses realized that God’s ultimate goal was to empower all people to be mouthpieces for the Divine, not just one or a few special chosen heroes: “Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God would put the Spirit on them!”

Generations later, another prophet named Joel would echo this same hunch in his writing: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

The fulfillment of this prophecy, the coming-true of this dream, is what we celebrate today on the Feast of Pentecost: the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on all flesh and all people became prophets – young and old, men and women, great and small. On this day, we are reminded that our God and the God of our ancestors has always been comfortable with thinking outside the box and coloring outside the lines.

On this day, we are also celebrating the anniversary of a time when another youth (four of them, actually) left the comfort of the camp and challenged the elders and leaders of the church with the news that God was at work in some unexpected ways.

In 1864, Eliza Valentine, with her friends Bertha Hilbert, Ada Haley, and Helen Reid (all of them 14 year-old girls) swiped some songbooks from the Sunday School room of First Presbyterian Church and, without telling their parents or their pastor, went and started a Sunday School class for kids living in what was then the woods north of downtown Kalamazoo.

This little adventure continued unnoticed for some time until the Superintendent of the Sunday School noticed that his songbooks kept going missing every Sunday afternoon and returning by evening. When he followed the girls to find out what was going on, he was shocked to discover an active Sunday School class of 30 kids being conducted outside in the woods, with planks placed over logs and stumps for seating. Now, the Superintendent could have done like Joshua and had the whole unauthorized project shut down on the spot, but he didn’t. Instead, he and the pastor, with the elders of the church, took the wiser path like Moses. They recognized the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided to support it.

Funds came in from the grown-ups of the church to support the newly dubbed ‘Mission Woods Sunday School’. They were soon able to procure a building and move their work indoors when the weather got cold. In time, the adults of the church started helping out and the parents of the neighborhood kids started coming as well. Pretty soon, a full-fledged congregation was in the works and by 1878 they were ready to call their first pastor. North Presbyterian Church was born! These girls, like that youth in the book of Numbers, pointed their elders to the truth that God was at work in some very unusual-but-exciting ways. The elders and pastor, like Moses, recognized it as the work of the Holy Spirit, blessed it, and supported it. Once again, the prophecy came true that God likes to color outside the lines, that the Holy Spirit speaks through all God’s people, and that even our young sons and daughters can be prophets.

This is no less true in our day than it was in 1864 or in the time of Moses. The same Holy Spirit that lived and moved in them is now living and moving in us. We are the prophets. Many of you here today have spent much of your lives in institutions like hospitals or group homes. Due to a diagnosis of mental illness, you’ve had to sacrifice your autonomy and sometimes even your dignity. You’ve probably been told, and maybe even started to believe, that you’re a charity case and therefore your voice doesn’t count. It might even feel easier sometimes to quiet down and just go along with whatever program your doctor or caseworker is prescribing, even if you have questions about it or different ideas about what might be right for you. You might even forget that God gave you a voice, but the Good News for you today is that you do have one. God has put the Holy Spirit on you and called you to be a prophet.

In the same way, it would also be easy for us to fall into that same trap as a parish. We’re small in number, many of our members are on a fixed income, therefore we don’t have a lot of money. Our operating budget depends on financial support from other churches in our presbytery. It would be easy for us to see ourselves as a charity case, but we’re not. We are prophets. And I believe that God has called us to prophesy to the other churches in the Body of Christ.

And here’s how:

It’s no secret that mainline Protestant churches in America have been declining in number, money, and influence for the past 50 years. Gone are the days of packed parking lots and overflowing Sunday School rooms. We no longer live in a society where we can assume that our neighbors go to church. This reality makes a lot of people nervous. They say that the church is dying, that God has abandoned our church, or that our church has abandoned God. Some say that Christianity’s day has come and gone, and that our religion will now fade into the shadows of history and mythology. But I don’t think any of those things are true.

Yes, it’s true that the church is shrinking, but I don’t think we’re dying at all. Jesus himself said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”

I believe God is pruning us, as the Church, so that we might be more spiritually fruitful in generations to come. The Church of the next generation will not be an institution will massive buildings and budgets. The Christianity of the future will no longer be the civil religion of the American empire. We will no longer be beholden to the golden calves of money and power. We will be a community of prophets: committed believers who stand in solidarity with the “least of these” – the poor and oppressed peoples of the earth, the marginalized, the outcast, the scapegoats, the persecuted, and the forgotten. The Church of the future will once again follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, who walks the streets of this world, where hurting hearts cry out for healing and hungry souls cry out for bread. Christ is present there, and it is there that the Church will find him again.

Just like he said to us in his first sermon at Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” If that’s what the Holy Spirit did when she came upon Jesus, then we can expect the same thing to happen when she lands on his Church today. I look forward to that.

Here at North Church, I believe that we have a head start in that process. Ever since the days of Eliza Valentine, we have known what it means to have faith in the power of Almighty God over the power of the almighty dollar. We are already a community of people out on the edge, where those who have no place else to go can find a welcome, a home, and a sanctuary.

The rest of the church supports our ministry, not because we’re a bunch of charity cases, but because they recognize the work of the Spirit among us in this way. They realize that this ministry is too important to let die. They know that they will soon need in their churches what we have already discovered here. They need us, just as much as we need them. As it says in our New Testament reading, there are many gifts, but only one Spirit. I believe our gift, as North Church, is the gift of prophecy. We are speaking forth the Word of God and showing the rest of the Church what the future will be. Let us speak gently, boldly, and with all the faith, hope, and love that the Spirit of Christ inspires in our hearts.

Let us prophesy and tell the world the truth that has brought us together again and again, Sunday after Sunday for the last 150 years, and brings us together again this morning:

That I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Be blessed and be a blessing!

Come to the Table: The Body of Christ

ImageAnd Then it Hit Me…

If someone was to walk up right now and randomly punch me in the arm, the first question I would think to ask is, “Ow! Why did you just hit me?”

Me. “Why did you hit me?”

Notice that I didn’t ask, “Why did you hit my arm?” That wouldn’t even occur to me. If that person was to say, “I didn’t hit you, I just hit your arm,” I would think that person was crazy. My arm is a part of me. When someone hurts a part of my body, they are hurting me. I know that instinctually. I could never think of it in any other way.

My arms and my legs form part of the same body. It’s the same with you and me. We are parts of the same body as well: the Body of Christ. Whatever affects one of us, affects all of us. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt. This is the truth we’re telling today.

Series Recap

Today marks the fourth in our five-week Lenten series on the sacrament of the Eucharist. On the first week, we talked about what it means when we say that the Eucharist is a “symbol.” On the second week, we reflected on the Eucharist as a remembrance of past events. Last week and this week, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Next week, we’ll wrap it up by talking about the Eucharist as an anticipation of the future.

For now, we’re talking about the Eucharist as a present reality. Last week, we looked at the vertical aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as spiritual nourishment. Today, we’re looking at the horizontal aspect of that reality: the Eucharist as Communion. As we partake of the one bread and the one cup, we are being reminded that we are members of one body: the Body of Christ.

A Church in Crisis

I’d like to tell you the story of a church I heard about a while back. This church was located in a large, wealthy, cosmopolitan city. They were a pretty successful church, by most accounts. They were young, having been planted in the last generation or so, but had been around long enough that their founding pastor had moved on and they had recently called a new pastor. This new pastor was also young, charismatic, and highly skilled at his job. He was known far and wide as an excellent preacher and folks just loved to listen to his sermons. The church had experienced a period of intense growth, numerically speaking. They now had some prominent, wealthy givers in the congregation. Spiritually speaking, this church was a place where many people had experienced the power of God touching their lives in a deep, personal, and meaningful way.

Sounds pretty good, right? But all was not well.

This church had everything going for it, but it was extremely dysfunctional beneath the surface. Internally, they were all split up into factions over silly stuff. For example, some folks liked the new pastor, some liked the old one better, and others were getting all excited about this other pastor they had heard about from friends out-of-town. There were differences in theology and worship-styles that were tearing the church apart. In order to appease the wealthy new members, they intentionally started holding services at a time when they knew it would be more difficult for some of the poorer church members to get off work. When they did manage to get there, the church was arranged so that the wealthiest members had a special VIP section where they were allowed to sit and worship, while the lower-income members who were coming straight from work had to sit in the back and only got to eat leftovers from the church’s potluck supper. To make matters worse, there was a family in the church that was caught up in a pretty serious crisis, but the pastor and the elders were so caught up in dealing with the quarreling factions that this family’s problems were being ignored and they weren’t getting the kind of pastoral care they needed. That’s pretty messed up, right?

Things got so bad at this church that they had to call in an outside consultant to help them fix these problems. As it turns out, that consultant turned out to be none other than their former pastor, the one who first started this congregation and knew them all very well. Given the deep trust and relationship that they already had with him, this pastor decided not to mince words and cut straight to the heart of the matter: he showed them that their problem was not with their location, their demographic, their pastor, or the depth of their spiritual experience. No, their problem was in the way they treated each other. No matter how many other signs of success they might possess, a church just isn’t church unless its members love each other as if they were parts of the same body. That’s what a Christian church is: the Body of Christ. Any congregation that doesn’t live that truth as its raison d’etre is not really a church in the eyes of God. Those are some harsh words, eh?

Corinthian Communion

Well, it’s time for me to pull back the curtain and reveal this church’s name. It’s not a congregation from our area, our denomination, or even our era of history (although it could easily be all three). The church I’ve been describing is the church in Corinth that St. Paul wrote to in the middle of the first century CE. Paul was that founding pastor who was called in to help fix this mess the Corinthian Christians had got themselves into.

In today’s New Testament reading, we get a snippet of Pastor Paul’s first round of advice to the Corinthians. He’s offering them some constructive criticism about the way they celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist.

His words are harsh: he tells them that their Communion services do more harm than good. In fact, it doesn’t even really count as the Lord’s Supper because they are eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord in an “unworthy manner”.

What does that mean? It’s not a problem with the ritual they use, nor is Paul upset over their theological interpretation of what is happening to the bread and wine in said ritual. No, Paul’s problem has to do with the way they treat each other as they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. In other words, their dysfunctional relationships are what render the sacrament invalid, not their rituals or their theology.

As I mentioned above, the Corinthian Christians were doing church in a way that made it difficult for the poorer members of the community to participate in worship. Their celebration of the Eucharist took place as part of a full meal where people were divided according to social class and status. The wealthy members would eat together in one room and get the choicest food, while the poorest Christians would get whatever was left over. Their feast was reinforcing the kind of social barriers that Christ had worked so hard to break down. In Paul’s eyes, this exclusive practice was a slap in the face to the gospel itself. Any Communion service celebrated in such a way could never be a true sharing in the Body and the Blood of Christ.

Discerning the Body

Pastor Paul’s advice to this wayward congregation is simple: “Discern the body.” For him, that does not mean “look within yourself” to decide whether or not you are morally worthy of receiving the sacrament. Likewise, “discerning the body” does not mean looking at the elements of bread and wine, as if something magical were about to happen to them. For Paul, “discerning the body” means looking around, at the other faces in the room, the people coming to Communion with you. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are members of one body: the Body of Christ. Our sharing of the one bread and the one cup reflects that reality. Likewise, our celebration of this unifying sacrament should change the way we relate to one another, outside church as well as inside. The Eucharist bestows upon us a serious commitment and responsibility: each of us is our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. This sacrament should remind us that we are all vitally connected to one another and are therefore responsible for each other’s well-being. When we realize this truth and embody it in our lives, we begin to look like the kind of church that Paul (and Jesus) had in mind.

Forgetting What Matters

I saw a headline in the news this week that reminded me of this truth. A certain faith-based international relief organization called World Vision made a change in its hiring policy that made many of its donors uncomfortable. They announced that, for the purposes of hiring and bestowing spousal benefits upon employees, World Vision would recognize legal marriages between two people of the same gender.

There was a fierce and sudden outcry among several prominent conservative Christian leaders in this country. Many of World Vision’s donors immediately pulled their financial support from the organization. These donors, of course, have a right to not support a charitable organization whose practices do not line up with their conscience and personal beliefs.

However, there is another element to this story. World Vision’s primary support is built on a sponsorship model, meaning that individual donors make a commitment to sponsor a particular child in a third world country for about $40 a month. Their money goes to feed, clothe, educate, and give health care to that child. Over time, a relationship develops between these kids and theirs sponsors as letters are written back and forth. A deep sense of spiritual connection is nurtured across the barriers of culture, distance, and poverty. This is the kind of Communion that Paul was hoping to see in the Corinthian church.

But last week at World Vision, when these outraged Christians raised a voice of protest against a policy change they disagreed with, they didn’t write letters or try to negotiate with the board of directors. Instead, they went straight for the jugular by cancelling their sponsorship of particular children. They cut off the support that makes the difference between life and death for some of these children. According to World Vision’s director, the number of canceled sponsorships was “less than 5,000” (but I presume that to mean it was more than 4,000).

These angry Christians decided that keeping married gay and lesbian people out of their “personal bubble” was more important than the lives of these particular children, with whom they had a relationship and to whom they had made a personal commitment. They used the lives of these children as leverage for their personal agenda.

I believe Pastor Paul would have some choice words for the Christians who did this: “They have failed to discern the Body of Christ.” They have forgotten what is most important, what Communion is all about, and what it means to be the Body of Christ. Just as Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, he would say again: “Being a Christian is not about having an airtight theology, a superior spiritual experience, or ensuring that one’s faction emerges victorious in whatever conflict happens to be engulfing the church at the moment. The mark of an authentic Christian faith is in the way we care for one another. Do we treat each other like members of one body? Do we love one another as Christ loves us?” In their opposition to marriage between people of the same gender, these angry Christians (the ones who pulled their sponsorship of World Vision kids) have lost touch with the deeper Communion that connects us to one another and makes us morally responsible for one another as members of the Body of Christ. And it is children who are now paying the price for that forgetting with their lives.

Restoring Communion

The Eucharist reminds us of this forgotten truth. When our own personal agendas and prejudices threaten to divide us into tribes of culture warriors in the perennial battle of Us vs. Them, the Eucharist has the power (if we let it) to bring us back into Communion with one another, where our eyes, minds, and hearts can be re-opened to the truth that binds us together at the deepest level: we are members of one body—the Body of Christ.

When we realize that truth and embrace it with our whole being, then we the Church will truly begin to act like the Body of Christ on earth and we will more faithfully fulfill our Christian calling.

St. Teresa of Avila (14th Century Mystic)

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Come to the Table: Bread of Life

ImageMaslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Do you have a favorite food?  What makes it your favorite?  When you choose it over other foods, are you simply satisfying your body’s need for nourishment, or are you feeding something else inside you?  Any edible substance can keep us from starving to death, but our favorite foods also feed our needs for comfort, for variety, and for pleasure.

We humans have all kinds of needs (hungers) and just as many different ways of meeting those needs (feeding those hungers).  There was a 20th century psychologist named Abraham Maslow who specialized in studying human needs.  He developed a very famous, pyramid-shaped chart called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  On this chart, Maslow outlined the different kinds of needs that people have to get met in order to be healthy human beings.

On the first, lowest level, are our Physiological needs.  These are our basic needs for things like food, water, air, and sleep.  Without these things, we physically die, so it’s easy to see how they are genuine needs.

The same is true for the next level, which has to do with our need for Safety.  Without shelter from the elements, protection from threats, and reliable access to resources, our physical well-being will likewise be threatened, just as much as if we were deprived of water or air.

After that, we start to get into a little more abstract territory because the next three levels have to do with our emotional needs.  Our biological existence is not likely to be threatened if we don’t get these needs met, but they are still needs.  And it’s fair to say that something inside of us suffers and dies when these emotional needs aren’t met.

The first of these emotional needs is our need for Belonging.  Human beings need love, intimacy, friendship, and family.  We are social creatures who have evolved to be connected to one another.  We meet this need most often through group-identification: membership in a family, church, club, or movement.  When this need goes unmet, loneliness begins to set in.  We begin to feel unloved and unlovable.  Over time, a person’s social skills begin to break down (or never develop): their ability to relate to others becomes diminished.  This is the saddest part of all because this is where the disease of loneliness becomes a vicious cycle: loneliness impairs one’s ability to relate to others, which causes more loneliness, etc.  What is needed at this point is for some person(s) to reach out and break the cycle of loneliness, but they have to be willing to work with those whose social skills are impaired.  It takes no less than an act of grace.

North Church’s primary outreach ministry, the Togetherness Group, was designed specifically around this need for Belonging.  There are plenty of places in Kalamazoo where people with mental illness can go to obtain food, shelter, or medicine, but so very few places like the Togetherness Group, where we can come to just be together and have fun.

Our next emotional need on Maslow’s list is the need for Esteem.  People need to feel valuable, that they’re good at something.  We need to have respect in the eyes of others.  Nobody likes to feel like a charity case; everyone has a gift to give.

Finally is our need for Self-Actualization.  As the old Army commercial says, we need to “be all that we can be.”  Humans need to feel like they are fulfilling their potential in some way: as an athlete, inventor, parent, etc.  We need to accomplish something significant in some way.

So, that’s the Hierarchy of Needs, as Maslow first wrote about it.  It seems comprehensive enough.  It accurately describes the various kinds of needs (hungers) that human beings try to meet (feed) in various ways.  It’s been a trusted guide for therapists and social workers for decades.

Tiger Woods

But if Maslow was right, and this guide is comprehensive of human need, then how do we explain the kind of major public meltdowns that so many accomplished celebrities seem to go through?  I’m thinking particularly of Tiger Woods, although I’m not trying to pick on him.  Tiger is one of the most accomplished golfers in the history of the sport.  He achieved unprecedented levels of success very early in his career. 

It’s easy to see where Tiger falls in Maslow’s hierarchy: he obviously lacked for nothing Physiologically.  He could buy whatever necessities or luxuries his heart desired.  As for Safety, his “shelter from the elements” cost $39 million and was located on an exclusive, upscale island in Florida. I have little doubt that his body guards did their duty in protecting him from other dangers.

What about his emotional needs?  When it comes to Belonging, Tiger was married to a supermodel and they had a family together.  As for Esteem, he was known and admired all over the world.  And for Self-Actualization, he had achieved greatness as a record-breaking golfer.  By Maslow’s standards, Tiger Woods had it made.

But then, in 2009, it all seemed to come crashing down for him overnight.  Rumors broke about extramarital affairs.  That same week, Tiger left his house at 2:30 in the morning and tried (unsuccessfully) to drive down his street, crashing his SUV into a fire hydrant, a tree, and multiple hedgerows before he gave up and his wife helped him out of the car.  A short time later, Tiger admitted to the infidelity, went on an indefinite hiatus from professional golf, and was soon divorced from his wife.  Sports companies pulled their sponsorships and stopped asking for his endorsement.  It took years for his career to recover.

What happened?  This is what Tiger himself had to say: “I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to… I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them. I was wrong. I was foolish.” 

It seems that Maslow must have overlooked something.  In spite of all his needs being met, there was still something missing in Tiger, some inner hunger that wasn’t being fed by anything on Maslow’s chart.

Self-Transcendence

Well, before we leave Maslow, I want to give him credit for one last thing: At the end of his career, he realized that something was missing.  He tried to add it to his famous chart, but the old one was already too well-established and in-use by psychologists.  That unaccounted-for need, according to Maslow, is the need for Self-Transcendence: the need to be part of something larger than oneself, something meaningful, something that gives life itself a purpose.  That’s what Tiger was lacking. 

The 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal called it “the God-shaped hole” inside every human being.  It is the deep hunger we carry within us.  Nothing we own or accomplish for ourselves can ever fill it.  Our consumerist culture doesn’t know what to do with that.  It’s got products or programs to fill every other need we can imagine.  Whatever you need… “There’s an app for that!”  But for this “God-shaped hole”, there is no product you can buy, no program you can get with, no club you can join, and no diploma you can earn.

Jesus

This need for Self-Transcendence, this God-shaped hole, this deep hunger for that which gives life ultimate meaning is the hunger Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel reading when he speaks of himself as “the bread of life.”  For almost two thousand years and counting, Christians have found in this person Jesus the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my life?”  The answer we find is: “To follow this person and do as he does: to love the world, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to open blind eyes and deaf ears, to set the captive free, to forgive the sinner, to welcome the outcast, and to give one’s life for the sake of the world.” 

We discover the meaning of life and satisfy our need for Self-Transcendence when we discover that life is no longer just about us and our needs.  And Jesus shows us the way.

Eucharist

In the Eucharist, this truth is brought home to us in the most direct and visceral way.  It is a ritual meal where our most basic hunger for physical sustenance is fed by bread and wine.  But Jesus invites us to look past the surface and see with the eyes of our hearts that this is the “true food” that satisfies our deepest hunger with the eternal, loving life-energy of Christ’s own self. 

“This is my body,” Christ says, “Eat your fill and never be hungry again.”

“This is my blood,” Christ says, “Drink deeply and never be thirsty again.”

When we say “Yes” to the invitation to participate in this meal and come to the table of Christ, we are saying:

“Yes, Jesus.  I am hungry.  I am starving with a hunger that this world’s products and programs cannot satisfy.  Help me satisfy my deepest need by realizing that life is not about getting my needs met.  Feed me with your Bread of Life.   Fill me.  Let my body be your body.  Let your blood flow in my veins.  Make me like you and send me back out to feed a hungry world in your name.  Amen.”