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.”

There is a Vastness…

Paternoster

There is a vastness,
beauty,
and logic
in the cosmos
that defies imagination.
I stand in awe
before it
and within it.

Something inside me
yearns
for the same greatness,
beauty,
and logic
to be made real
and observable
in my short life
on this tiny planet.

All I have,
and all I am,
is a product
of this vastness,
and beauty,
and logic.

It sustains me,
even when I forget
and take it for granted.
Perhaps then,
I can find the strength
to let go
of resentment
when others forget
and take me for granted
as well.

I remember this
in moments of peace,
that I might remember it
in days of stress,
and thus be freed
from anxiety:

This vastness,
beauty,
and logic
does not come from me,
did not begin with me,
and will not end with me.

It never has,
and never will.

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.

“As the Waters Cover the Sea”

This is an odd turn of phrase that appears in today’s first reading from the Daily Lectionary.

The full sentence is:

But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.

It strikes me as odd because it is the very nature of the sea to be covered with water. Without water, the sea would simply be a valley or a large hole in the ground.

In the same way, God is the very nature of the universe itself. Theologian Paul Tillich referred to God as “the Ground of Being”. St. Thomas Aquinas similarly wrote that it is more appropriate to say that God is “existence” than that God is an object that “exists”.

As a self-described panentheist (not to be confused with pantheism), I would agree with Tillich and Aquinas. Here is how I would say it: God is in all things because, more accurately, all things exist in God.

One of my favorite images of God is the pregnant mother. God creates the universe, distinct but not entirely separate from God. The universe is growing within the divine womb.

When a baby grows inside of her mother, it would not be inaccurate to say that her mother is her whole world. Ask a fetus, “Where is Mom?” And the child would answer (if she could), “Mom is everywhere.”

Does this mean that the mother only exists within the child or the womb that carries her? No, that would be an incomplete statement (although it is certainly reflective of the child’s limited experience). It would be more accurate to say the opposite: That the child exists within her mother, who loves her and sustains her growth.

I believe the same to be true of our relationship to God.

We are not wrong to say that “God is everywhere.” In a sense, we are also justified, based on our limited experience, in saying that “God is in all things.” But I tend to believe the opposite, that “All things exist in God,” just as a fetus grows in her mother’s womb.

This, I think, is at the root of Habakkuk’s vision that the divine shekhinah covers the earth “as the waters cover the sea.” This is the fetus waxing eloquent about the mother.

Even more interesting is the context in which this revelation arises.

If the universe exists within the Divine womb, then it must certainly be a troubled pregnancy. The prophet describes a world gone awry, rife with social stratification where the rich have isolated themselves from the poverty they create by their indulgence:

Alas for you who get evil gain for your houses, setting your nest on high to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.

The entire economic system is founded on violence and indulgence:

Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!

He describes it as an act of rape:

Alas for you who make your neighbors drink, pouring out your wrath until they are drunk, in order to gaze on their nakedness!

The destruction extends even to the earth itself. The prophet warns of mass extinction emerging from human exploitation of the environment:

For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you; the destruction of the animals will terrify you– because of human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them.

Yet, the central truth remains: That the universe exists within the Divine womb.

We have only forgotten it. Unable to see the mother’s face directly, we have decided that we homo sapiens are the be-all, end-all of existence. We have decided that this womb, the amniotic fluid, the umbilical cord, and our magnificent selves are the product of some unknown, random accident.

Believing ourselves to be the only intelligence in the cosmos, we try to set ourselves in the place of God, and quickly discover that we are bad at the job. Destruction ensues.

Habakkuk invites us to return to our roots by way of contemplation. He writes:

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Again:

For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

And finally:

But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!

The prophet interrupts his descriptions of violence with repeated calls to “watch” and “wait” in silence. The dual-practice of prayer and meditation empowers us to disconnect from the mindless flow of chaos around us and see reality more clearly.

A fighting couple stop their arguing momentarily to take a deep breath, and suddenly the situation becomes clearer.

Gandhi famously said that, if only one percent of the world’s population would meditate, there would be peace on earth.

The practice of contemplative spirituality might not change the world directly, but it does change those who practice it. It changes our perspective and relationship to the world. It frees us from the endless cycles of violence so that we (as Gandhi also said) can “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Contemplation reconnects us to the Ground of Being. It increases our conscious awareness of the Divine presence, which “covers the earth as the waters cover the sea.”

This deepened relationship with God is the fruit of contemplative prayer. It is what the prophet refers to as “the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.”

“The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him!”

What Do You Get For Someone Who Has Everything?

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 10:17-31.

What kind of gift do you get for the person who has everything?

I did some Google research on that very question this week, and here are a few of the ideas I came across:

  • A wine rack made out of snow skis.
  • A corkscrew that looks like a fish.
  • Cufflinks that look like glasses.
  • A beer holder for your bike.
  • A snowball slingshot.
  • A pillow that functions as a working remote control.
  • A robotic exoskeleton.
  • A hovercraft.
  • Contact lenses that project TV directly onto your eyeballs.
  • A belly button brush (I don’t want to know).
  • Anonymous business cards you can leave on people’s windshields to complain about their parking.

You and I live in a highly consumeristic society. We want everything to be “Bigger! Better! Faster! More!” We are constantly inundated with messages trying to sell us stuff. One study declared that the average American is exposed to 247 advertisements a day. We are told that our spouses will love us more if we buy them diamonds; we will become better basketball players with the right kind of shoes; we will appear sophisticated if we drive the right kind of car; and (my personal favorite) we will become “the most interesting man in the world” if we drink the right kind of beer. We are locked into the ridiculous habit of “spending money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s a ridiculous cycle that all of us are caught up in. We need to be reminded of its ridiculousness from time to time, for the sole reason that no one has ever seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul. You can’t take it with you. There has to be more to the meaning of life than the acquisition of “stuff.”

Unfortunately, we’ve been so shaped by our consumer society that we’ve forgotten how to think outside the box of “getting more stuff.” We’ve even applied the principle to our religious life.

We’ve been trained to think that spirituality, salvation, or enlightenment are all about gaining something for ourselves: knowledge, wisdom, inner peace, mystical experiences, etc. And we think we can earn the rights to this consumer product through religious observance, correct theology, or moral fortitude.

We have been trained to interact with God in the same way that we might interact with a clerk at 7-11: approach the counter, exchange payment, receive desired product. The problem with this is that the kind of relationship that God wants to have with us goes far deeper than the kind of momentary interaction we have with clerks at the store, where neither party is likely to remember the other person’s name by the end of the day. God wants more than that (from us and for us). But in order to get us into that kind of relationship, God has to shake us out of our consumer-capitalist mindset.

That is exactly what Jesus is trying to do with the rich man in today’s gospel.

The story begins with the rich man approaching Jesus with a question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

And that’s our first indicator, right there: the little word do. He assumes that there is an exchange that needs to take place. He intends to do something for God, and then receive something else (i.e. eternal life) from God in return for his payment of doing. We soon learn that this particular person is already quite wealthy (he is “the man who has everything”), and as such has learned to interpret his entire life in terms of economic exchange (even his relationship with God). He is approaching God with a proposal for a business transaction and nothing more.

But Jesus responds, not by imparting some new knowledge to this man, but by appealing to what he already knows: “You know the commandments,” he says, and then proceeds to recite several of the Big Ten from the book of Exodus.

The rich man is clearly unimpressed. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “I know all that stuff already. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. But else needs to happen? I feel like there’s something more to life, something I’m missing, so I want to make a deal with you, Jesus, and obtain whatever it is that I am lacking.”

So there it is. Jesus is now faced with the question: What do you get for the man who has everything?

And this is Jesus’ answer: Nothing. Jesus gives him Nothing.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t give him anything; it’s that Jesus gives this man the gift of Nothing.

Jesus says to the man, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

In other words, he says, “Take all your possessions and the mindset that comes with them, take all your merit badges and accomplishments, take your experiences, take your trophies and diplomas down from the wall, take your preconceived notions about God, take your politics, your religion, your economics, take it all, and let it all go.” And he says that same thing to us today.

The best those things can do is feed our ego, which is a false conception of who we are. Our true self, the deepest part of us that is made “in the image and likeness of God” lies far deeper than those things. And we can only discover that true self by letting go of these other things in our lives that tempt us to identify with them.

Many of us, including the rich man in this story, are too frightened to embark on this journey of discovery. We are afraid that, if we let go of all these other identifiers, we might discover that there is no true self underneath the piles of “stuff” we have accumulated over the course of a lifetime. We think those “things” are us. We say, “I am the person who does this; I am the person who owns that; I am the person who is this.” We hold onto these false idols and identify with them because we are scared that, deep down, there is no Great “I Am” holding it all together. So we think it’s up to us. And too many of us go to our graves, kicking and screaming, and defending our little patch of earth until our hearts stop beating.

But here’s the thing: We’re wrong about all that. In spite of our deepest fears, there is a Great I Am who is deeper still (“Closer to us than our own hearts,” as St. Augustine says).

The rich man in today’s gospel, for whatever reason, was unable to let go and join Jesus on this journey of discovery. He wasn’t able to accept the gift of Nothing from Jesus. He walked away sad, still identifying himself with the “stuff” that he thought was his. But there have been others along the way who have accepted Jesus’ gift of Nothing.

Most notably, there is St. Paul the Apostle, who wrote much of the New Testament. He, like the rich man, had amassed a great treasury of accomplishments in the name of patriotism and religion. He lists them in his letter to the Philippians:

“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

These are things that Paul used to identify himself and uphold his little false ego-self. But then something happened to him: he had a blinding encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. And this was the result, after his conversion:

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him”

St. Paul received Jesus’ gift of Nothing and was transformed by it. He discovered the truth: that there is a Great I Am at the heart of all things. The true self that Paul discovered was not another ego like the one he had constructed, but the Spirit of Christ himself. He writes in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

This is the goal of all Christian spirituality: not a list of religious accomplishments, but a letting go of all these things so that we can receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing and so discover our true identity in Christ.

One of my favorite authors, Fr. Richard Rohr, calls this “the Spirituality of Subtraction.” It’s not about gaining more experiences or accomplishments. It’s about letting go of those objects, experiences, and accomplishments we think we own.

What does this look like when we live it out? How do we measure Nothing? How do we chart our success in the art of letting go?

The only answer I can even begin to imagine for that question is this:

We achieve success by accepting failure. That’s the only way to make spiritual progress in the Christian life. We learn to accept ourselves (maybe even love ourselves) with all of our faults and limitations. When we fail or fall, we laugh at ourselves, rather than beat ourselves up.

The theologian Paul Tillich said it like this:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

This is what we call “grace.” This is what it means to receive Jesus’ gift of Nothing. And when we can do this (i.e. achieve success by accepting failure), a most amazing thing happens: our acceptance of ourselves and our failures starts to spill over toward acceptance of other people and their failures. Grace is contagious.

And here’s the really neat thing: in the end, it changes the way we understand God. As we open our hearts to grace, we gradually stop imagining God as the angry judge in the sky who makes impossible demands on us for the sake of religious observance, moral fortitude, or theological accuracy. We begin to see God as Jesus saw God: the Giver of Grace, the Giver of Nothing, the Great I Am beneath and beyond our false little ego.

And with that in mind, we can step back out into this world with full assurance of that which we affirm every Sunday:

That God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

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.

Doubting Thomas

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg
Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubting_Thomas#mediaviewer/File:Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas.jpg

Religion, for me, has always been an exercise in pain management.

And faith has always been a struggle.

My friends and family all must have the spiritual gift of patience, seeing how they’ve walked with me through each new crisis of faith and theological discovery: Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Universalist, Liberal, Benedictine… it seems like I’m always dipping my toes into another tributary of the great Christian river. I’ve never quite felt at home.

As such, I feel like today is a holiday for Christians like me: the Feast of St. Thomas. Thomas, colloquially referred to as ‘Doubting Thomas’, is famous for his struggle with faith after the resurrection: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

But just as surely as he lagged behind his fellow apostles in believing the truth of the resurrection, he also charged ahead of them when it came to confessing the divinity of Christ: he was the first to address Jesus as “My Lord and my God!”

In my experience, a faith that is open to struggle often ends up being deeper and wider than a faith that simply accepts what it is given without question. I wonder whether Thomas would have had his insight into Christ’s divinity had it not been for his struggle with Christ’s resurrection?

For people like Thomas and me, faith is always an open-hearted struggle, not because we are stiff-necked unbelievers, but because we so desperately want to see Jesus.

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 Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.