Surprised by Grace

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

One of the more intriguing shows on television right now is The Good Place. In the first episode, Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in the afterlife and is informed she is in “The Good Place,” a utopian paradise into which only the most righteous individuals are admitted. Before long, however, she realizes that she is the wrong Eleanor Shellstrop: the one who actually belonged in the Good Place was a human rights activist during her time on earth; in her own estimation, the one who actually made it was “a selfish dirtbag from Arizona.” Predictably, Eleanor determines to keep her head down and pretend that she belongs, so as not to be sent to the Bad Place. As you can imagine, this situation yields a number of opportunities for comedy and raises some interesting moral questions, the most obvious of which is: what would we do if we were placed in a similar situation? I like to think of myself as an honest person: if the server at a restaurant forgets to charge me for something I ordered, I almost always call it to his attention. What happens, however, when the stakes are substantially higher? What happens when being honest costs us, not an order of chicken wings, but our very sense of self? I suspect that most of us would be inclined to follow her lead, concealing our suspicion that we simply do not belong.

Over the last three weeks, we have heard a series of related parables from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel: the parable of the wise and foolish maidens, the parable of the talents, and the parable of the sheep and the goats. On their face, these parables appear to be cautionary tales about responsibility and preparedness. The overriding message seems to be that we should avoid ending up like those bridesmaids who forgot to bring extra oil or the slave who buried his master’s talent in the ground. One could view this morning’s text through a similar lens: we need to avoid ending up like those people who failed to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and welcome the stranger. The underlying message of these parables appears to be this: at the end there will be those who are prepared and those who are not, and we should do as much as we can to be numbered in the first group, since those in the second group are in big trouble. As harsh as it can be, this interpretation has an appealing quality, because it assumes that our efforts to make our way through the world will be rewarded. If we prepare diligently, risk appropriately, and show some compassion every once in awhile, we will be successful in this life and in the life to come. If you think about it, this jibes pretty well with the way our faith is understood by shows like The Good Place. In the popular imagination, the Christian life is basically about holding ourselves to exacting standards in order to attain a heavenly reward.

The problem with this interpretation is that it misses the deeper point of these parables, and of the Christian faith in general. Under the surface, these parables have very little to do with preparedness. The key to understanding this chapter of Matthew’s gospel comes when the righteous, having been told that they would inherit the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world, respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food…or naked and gave you clothing?” If this series of parables is actually about preparedness, this exchange would look very different: the king would say to those at his right hand “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.” And in this alternate version, the righteous would say, “Yeah that sounds about right!” Instead, we find that the righteous are not only ignorant of their righteousness, they are so surprised to be included among the sheep that they ask for documentation; they imply the king has made a mistake. Eleanor Shellstrop would have been furious; if you find that an error has been made in your favor, you do not call attention to the error! Yet, this unexpected moment is the key to understanding not only this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but the entirety of Jesus’ ministry.

It is tempting to read Matthew’s gospel as an account of Jesus establishing a new religious tradition, one that replaces justice with mercy by substituting one set of requirements for another. It would be easy to read this morning’s parable through this lens: to assume that God’s favor is contingent not on following the Jewish Law, but on caring for the least of these. The problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the fact that the righteous were surprised by their inclusion in the life of the kingdom. More than anything else, the surprise of those at the king’s right hand reveals that this fundamental truth: there is nothing we can do to guarantee our place in the kingdom. This series of parables is the climax of an argument that Matthew has been making since the Sermon on the Mount: despite any pretensions we may have, we are unable to save ourselves. Now, this may not seem like the most relevant conclusion, since I suspect that there are not too many of us who worry extensively about our eternal destiny. But this message applies to our daily experience of the world. Even as we blindly pursue success or notoriety, Jesus reveals there is nothing we can accomplish that will truly set us apart from others. Believe it or not, this is good news. In fact, this is the very heart of the Christian faith. Recognizing that we can’t save ourselves disrupts our compulsion to conceal our true selves and frees us to take our inevitable failures not as measures of our worth, but as opportunities to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. This, by the way, is why stewardship is such a crucial component of the Christian life: giving allows us to recognize that even our hard-earned money, the ultimate marker of worldly success, is not going to save us. Moreover, realizing there is nothing we can do to save ourselves allows us to be honest about our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that there are times that we too are numbered among the “least of these.” No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all muddling our way through life, stumbling upon triumphs and tragedies along the way.

Right after this parable, Matthew begins his account of the passion, which at its heart is a grim reminder of what human beings are capable of. When given a clear choice, God’s people rejected God, proving their inability to save themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus went willingly to the cross and redeemed their betrayal in the Resurrection. Ultimately, this is what it means to acknowledge the kingship of Christ. It is about putting our lives in the proper perspective, recognizing that Christ reigns even in the midst of our foolish decisions and deliberations. The Christian faith is not about performance, nor is it about appearing to belong; it is about acknowledging our dependence on a grace that takes us by surprise.

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Hypocrisy

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan introduced the world to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, a training exercise designed for cadets at the Starfleet Academy. In the simulation, a disabled civilian ship, the Kobayashi Maru, is stranded near the Klingon neutral zone (Klingons are the bad guys in Star Trek). The cadet has to decide whether to rescue the ship and risk a confrontation with the Klingon Empire or respect the fragile peace between the Klingons and the Federation and let the crew of the Kobayashi Maru perish in deep space. Now, for those of you who are not Star Trek fans, the only really important thing to know is that the Kobayashi Maru is explicitly designed to be a no-win scenario; it’s meant to assess a cadet’s discipline and character when facing an impossible situation. There is, however, one cadet who successfully completed the Kobayashi Maru scenario. If you know anything about Star Trek, you won’t be surprised to discover that it was James T. Kirk, the maverick captain of the starship Enterprise and protagonist of the original series. He reprogrammed the computer so it would be possible to beat the simulation. Though he technically cheated, Kirk defended himself by claiming he didn’t believe in no-win situations.

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus also refuses to accept a no-win situation. The passage we heard from Matthew’s gospel has a deceptively straightforward quality, but there is great subtlety and depth in this interaction between Jesus and Pharisees. To begin with, the question of whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor was far from a frivolous concern. In fact, this issue cut to the very heart of the religious and political assumptions of first-century Judaism. The religious authorities noted that paying taxes to the emperor violated at least two of the ten commandments: it not only required taxpayers to make use of a graven image, it also forced them to give homage to the emperor, who considered himself a god. Under the Law of Moses, in other words, paying taxes was tantamount to idolatry. Moreover, the Roman Empire was hated by the Jewish populace. Paying taxes was seen by some revolutionary zealots as a tacit endorsement of a brutal occupying power. At the same time, the only thing that prevented the Romans from bringing ruin down upon Jerusalem and the rest of Judea was the fact that the people paid the tribute required of them. The question that is brought to Jesus, in other words, was the Kobayashi Maru of first century Judaism: paying taxes represented a complicated ethical dilemma, one that could stymie even the sharpest intellect.

In response to this Gordian knot of religious and political nuance, Jesus does not offer a carefully worded opinion. Instead, he challenges the very premise of the question. He does this by saying that the Pharisees and their allies are hypocrites. This is not terribly surprising. Jesus calls people hypocrites a lot in Matthew’s gospel. In fact, Matthew uses the word more than any of the other New Testament writers combined. Calling someone a hypocrite is a powerful indictment, in part because it entails minimal risk. Accusing someone of hypocrisy doesn’t require us to share their moral vision or even to have a particular moral vision. All it needs is a vague belief that people ought to act in accordance with their own stated moral principles. We can remove ourselves from the equation and claim that we are blameless, even as we accuse others of failing to live up to the values they champion.

Jesus turns the definition of hypocrisy on its head. For Jesus, hypocrisy is not failing to live up to our own moral standards; true hypocrisy is allowing ourselves to be defined by human standards in the first place. The reason that Jesus does not provide a carefully worded answer to the question of the religious authorities is that he completely rejects the terms of the debate. For him, asking if paying taxes to the emperor violated the Jewish Law ascribed to the emperor authority that properly belonged to God. Indeed, Jesus could have put his position in this way: “Caesar isn’t God; why are you treating him like he is? Why are you giving him power over you that he does not have?” The instruction to give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is actually a way of dismissing the emperor’s power altogether. As far as Jesus is concerned, the emperor has mistakenly chosen to honor his own flawed humanity and earthly power. Jesus challenges us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. For Jesus, we are hypocrites when we forget who we are; when we fail to remember that, despite our flawed humanity, we bear the image of God, something no human being or earthly power can take away from us.

Last Sunday, the actress Alyssa Milano posted the following on social media: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Millions of people took this suggestion. It felt like every woman I knew posted #MeToo. Some shared wrenching stories of abuse, while others left the two words as a concise testament to the ways they had been made to feel worthless. The more #MeToos I read, the more I began to consider the ways I had been complicit in these stories of harassment and assault. To be honest, my initial, visceral reaction was to wonder how many of these were overreactions or misunderstandings. This response, however, represents the same hypocrisy displayed by the religious authorities in their interaction with Jesus: the hypocrisy of ascribing transcendent value to human standards: standards like “everybody does it” or “that’s just so and so being so and so.” Indeed, the whole #MeToo movement exposed our hypocritical failure to honor the image of God in ourselves and others. Our faith calls us to give to God the things that are God’s: to honor those who bear the image of God by acknowledging their pain and refusing to make excuses for those who have taken advantage of them. At the same time, honoring the image of God requires us to hope for the possibility of redemption: to acknowledge that through Jesus Christ, God has wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. Our faith invites us to recognize that even when our sin or the sin of others prevents us from remembering it, we continue to bear the image of God. The ultimate message of the gospel is this: even when confronted with abusive forces that try to convince us that we are worthless, we must not forget who we are and whose we are.

Senseless

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I woke up on Monday morning to the news that 59 people had been murdered and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas last Sunday night. Like many of you, I was horrified and grief-stricken; I found myself weeping in my car as I listened to reports about the massacre. As troubled as I was by the news itself, I was just as dismayed by the way people reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t that anyone said anything particularly offensive or insensitive; it was that the reaction was so predictable. On Monday night, the late night comedy hosts “got real” in their opening monologues. By Tuesday, some politicians were insisting that it was not the time to discuss gun control while others were insisting that it was. On Wednesday, news outlets posted the article they always publish when mass shootings occur. By Thursday, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Even the reaction of the church felt like it was following a grim routine. At Redeemer, we tolled the bells, just as we did after the Pulse nightclub, just as we did after Sandy Hook. It was as if everyone had been assigned a role in some grotesque drama designed to help us make sense of the fact that 59 more people were dead.

In some ways, this isn’t all that surprising. After all, we often turn to familiar narratives to comfort us when we are grieving. We look for ways to distract ourselves from the pain we feel when we realize what human beings are capable of doing to one another. We try to make sense of these tragedies, even though we know in our hearts that they are senseless.

Paul certainly understood this impulse to make sense of the world. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that he once found meaning by positioning himself within the story and traditions of Israel. By his own account, Paul was completely devoted to the Jewish tradition. He asserts that he was “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.” It might be tempting to gloss over these verses as just another list in Paul’s letters, but that fails to recognize the value Paul placed on these identity markers. They represented his pedigree: the fact that he came from the right family and did everything that was expected of him. More importantly, these defining characteristics helped Paul know exactly who he was and what God expected him to do. If Paul wanted to understand his place in the world, all he had to do was consider his identity as an Israelite. Paul’s birth allowed him to tap into a heritage and a shared narrative that gave his life meaning. Paul was “confident in the flesh” because his religious identity helped him to make sense of the world.

For this reason, it is nothing short of remarkable that Paul goes on to write, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” It’s not as though Paul was looking for a change when he became an apostle. Paul didn’t hit rock bottom before his conversion. He was an influential man who understood his place in the world better than most. And yet, Paul regards this identity as something to be cast aside. In fact, he describes that which he once held most dear a term that, literally translated, means “dung.” Paul is not demeaning his tradition of origin; he is simply demonstrating that his experience of Christ has completely overshadowed what he once prized. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” is replaced by a confidence that “Christ Jesus has made him his own.” This kind of transformation demanded a great deal of philosophical courage. Paul’s conversion obliged him to abandon a tradition that helped him make sense of the world and embrace a worldview in which things were far less certain. Such a radical shift would have required something earth shattering, a fundamental reordering of the world as Paul knew it.

Ultimately, it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that caused Paul to reevaluate the way he understood the world. For Paul, the resurrection is not an isolated incident. It is not just some miraculous event that proves how special Jesus was. Rather, the resurrection represents a fundamental shift in the ordering of things. Paul reasons that if the power of death has been nullified for even one individual, it must, by necessity, be nullified for everyone. The normal pattern has been disrupted: death is no longer the end of the story. The implications of this are profound. It means that life, once destined to end, now has a meaning that transcends every narrative we use to explain the world. The resurrection, in other words, invites us to adopt an entirely new perspective on reality. It challenges us to recognize with Paul that the world has been fundamentally transformed by Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

In times like these, we often ask our faith to help us make sense of the world. We ask “why?” and expect Scripture or the Church to provide a clear answer and a clear path forward. The Christian faith, however, is not prescriptive. The Bible is much less concerned with how we act than it is with God’s action in the world. Moreover, our faith cannot make sense of that which is fundamentally senseless. In fact, our desire to find a reason for this tragedy prevents us from truly wrestling with the reality of what happened. What the Christian faith does provide in times like these is something much more valuable: an opportunity to reevaluate our perspective. Rather than helping us make sense of the world, our faith challenges us to look at the world differently. It asks us to adopt an attitude shaped by the resurrection. This can be a terrifying prospect, because it requires us to critically examine and sometimes abandon that which we hold most dear: whether it is the narratives that give us comfort when tragedy strikes or our inviolable assumptions about security and personal freedom. Nothing can be off the table when we adopt a perspective shaped by the resurrection, because nothing is unaffected by God’s undoing of death.

The only way we can adopt this perspective is if we share Paul’s confidence that “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” The only way we can honestly face a senseless and uncertain world is if we put our trust in the Providence of God. In our darkest moments, the gospel calls us to remember this fundamental truth of our faith: no matter what happens, we belong to God.

Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.

Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted. With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable. As a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it. If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him. If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, Jesus seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like this. We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community. There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues. In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can move on with our lives and live in harmony. But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel. But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles. Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.” Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

Heritage

Sermon on Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to a recording of this sermon here.

The Federal gunline at Malvern Hill, the battle where my ancestor was killed.

Milton Hyman Boullemet served as a private in the 3rd Alabama Volunteer Regiment and was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill during the Civil War. He also happened to be an ancestor of mine (my great, great, great, great uncle to be precise). When I was a child, one of my relatives compiled the letters he wrote home to his parents during the war and distributed the collection to members of the family. As a student of history, I was pleased to have this volume on my shelf, but I never took the time to read it until a few weeks ago. For the most part, Milton’s letters are fairly standard wartime correspondence: he reports on the weather, complains about “muddy coffee and stale bread,” and asks after his family. At the same time, there are elements of these letters that are downright shocking. For instance, Milton uses racial epithets casually, as if he doesn’t realize what he is saying, which may very well be the case. Moreover, I was dismayed to read that when it came to the Confederacy, Milton was a true believer. Though he was from the merchant class and had little personal investment in the institution of slavery, he regarded the South’s war effort as holy cause. One could rationalize that he believed he was defending his home or that he simply got caught up in the spirit of the times, but the fact remains that an ancestor of mine fought and died to preserve the right to own other people.

Our lectionary this morning appears to provide two distinct, even competing visions of the Christian life. In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus articulates the profound cost of discipleship: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is dramatic, sacrificial language; the implication is that a truly meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ requires us to abandon everything we hold dear and give up our lives for the sake of the gospel. There’s a nobility in this vision of the Christian life. In fact, it is consistent with some of humanity’s oldest stories: we have always admired those who leave everything behind and devote themselves to a glorious cause. Certainly, this is one of the reasons my Uncle Milton volunteered to fight for the Confederacy. Now, this story has a shadow side: single-minded devotion to anything can lead to division, where we reject those who either aren’t committed to our cause or aren’t committed enough. But it’s easy to rationalize that this is just part of the sacrifice that we are called to make as Christians. In the end, the most important thing is how we have committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus.

The passage we heard from Romans seems to describe the Christian life in ways that are diametrically opposed to this sweeping, sacrificial vision. Instead of a call to martyrdom, Paul offers a series of straightforward and, frankly bland exhortations: “serve the Lord,” “persevere in prayer,” “contribute to the needs of the saints,” and so on. Paul seems less interested in the cost of discipleship than he is in the cost of maintaining the church. It appears that this passage bolsters the familiar narrative that Paul essentially co-opted the message of Jesus for his own purposes. Even if we don’t take it that far, this passage from Romans feels conventional, while the section from Matthew’s gospel feels revolutionary. Paul’s advice seems more focused on behaving correctly than on being who God has called us to be.

This is only a reasonable interpretation if we ignore Paul’s final exhortation: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This concluding remark places the entire passage within a larger context. Paul is not offering practical instructions about life in the church; he is articulating how to overcome the evil powers of this world. It’s noteworthy that Paul argues the way to overcome evil is by nurturing community: rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, and outdoing one another in showing honor. Paul does not mention taking sides, digging in our heels, or shouting down the opposition. Paradoxically, he implies that overcoming evil is about transcending our divisions and striving to remain in relationship no matter what. In many ways, this vision of the Christian life is just as radical as the one outlined in Matthew’s gospel. While not a call to die for a glorious cause, Paul’s vision is more comprehensive: we are called to live out the gospel every day of our lives. Instead of a momentary, passionate decision, this vision invites a patient commitment to transformation. Moreover, it requires us to trust not in what we can do to advance our cause, but in the grace of God. This is precisely the same point that Jesus makes when he describes what it means to take up one’s cross. When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he is suggesting that our lives find their meaning, not in anything we accomplish, not in our sacrifice, but in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

In 1862, the year my Uncle Milton was killed in battle, the Episcopal Church held its General Convention in New York City. Though the Civil War was raging, the Convention kept to its usual business as much as possible. In its account of the proceedings, the New York Times reported “it was resolved…that all vacant seats of Dioceses not represented should be assigned to the delegates present.” While this seems like an insignificant piece of parliamentary minutia, it actually speaks volumes. Those “dioceses not present” were the ones in states actively rebelling against the union over the issue of slavery. Remarkably, General Convention made the decision that these rebels would simply be marked absent; it was assumed they would return. Indeed, two bishops from dioceses in the Confederacy were warmly welcomed when they arrived at General Convention in 1865. This is a distinct contrast with many other denominations, which split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War era. We can certainly criticize General Convention for not taking a more righteous stand against the injustice of slavery. And yet, we must also acknowledge that this was an earnest attempt by these representatives “to overcome evil with good,” to stay in relationship no matter what.

More than anything else, this kind of response requires the humility to recognize that sin is never somebody else’s problem. This brings me back to my Uncle Milton. As much as I would like to disavow him completely, he is part of my heritage. I had an ancestor who fought for the right to own people. This is part of who I am, and it is important I acknowledge that it is shameful, as much as I would like to deny it. And yet, if the gospel teaches us anything, it is that we are defined not by what we or our ancestors have done, but by what God has done for us, for all of us. For this reason, the Christian response to hate and bigotry cannot be to destroy those who would advocate such things; it must be to preach repentance even as we acknowledge our own sinfulness, all while putting our trust in the boundless grace of God. This is the “true religion” our Collect refers to: the ability to trust the power of God’s grace to transcend our divisions and transform our lives.

Coming to Terms with Loss

Sermon on Isaiah 55:10-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. You can listen to this sermon here.

Artwork by Jon Muth

A few weeks ago, on the morning of her third birthday party, my eldest daughter asked me to push her in the swing under the back deck at my in-laws’ house. As she swung back and forth, she asked me to sing a song to her, so I chose one of her favorites: Peter, Paul, and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Before too long, I began to weep. While this is not all that surprising to anyone who knows me well, it usually takes a little more to make me cry. For some reason, this moment was particularly powerful. It might have been the beautiful way she sang along. It might have been the fact that my little girl is growing up. But I suspect that my emotions actually came from a deeper place. When you get right down to it, “Puff, the Magic Dragon” is not just a whimsical children’s song, and it’s certainly not an allegory for drug use, as some have speculated. Ultimately, this song about a boy and his dragon is a profound meditation on loss. Now, I can already imagine some of your objections: “Come on David: not everything is a ‘profound meditation on something.’ Sometimes a song is just a song.” A close examination of the lyrics, however, reveals that there is something deeper happening in the land of Honalee. While the first verses describe Puff and Jackie Paper traveling on a boat with billowed sail and frolicking in the autumn mists, the final verses paint a darker picture: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little girls and boys. Painted wings and giants’ rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened: Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar…Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave; so Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave.” That’s the end of the song. Though the chorus repeats one more time, it’s in the past tense: “Puff, the Magic Dragon lived by the sea.” This whimsical children’s song reveals a stark truth about the human experience: eventually, we will lose everything we have in this life. In the end, there is nothing that will remain.

The easiest way to deal with this realization is simply to deny it. Case in point: when I was a kid, I had a children’s album recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary (it was called Peter, Paul, and Mommy, which I thought was pretty clever at the time). When the folk trio performed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” they tried to negate any of the song’s unhappy implications by shouting “present tense” during the final chorus. Those listening to this amended version of the song were meant to assume that Puff’s grief over Jackie Paper is momentary. I’ll admit, this approach has an appealing quality. After all, why would we dwell on loss if it’s just going to depress us? Of course, if we simply deny the reality of loss, a time will come when we will be utterly devastated by it: we’ll sustain a life-altering injury, get fired from our dream job, or deal with the death of someone we love. A priest I know once presided at the funeral of a man whose thirty year old grandson wailed, “What am I going to do now” as his grandfather was buried. Though we can’t know what was happening in this young man’s head, I suspect that he had simply denied the reality of loss for his entire life, only to be forced to confront it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

If we choose not to deny the reality of loss, we are faced with a stark choice, one that leads to two utterly distinct ways of experiencing the world. On one hand, recognizing that we will lose everything we have in this life can lead us to ignore the possibility of transcendence, to focus exclusively on the present moment. After all, if nothing will remain, why should we be preoccupied with what will come after us? Obviously, this way of thinking is inherently selfish, but it also has a seductive logic. If I subscribe to this worldview, my life has a clear purpose: to do whatever it takes to satisfy my desires. I don’t have to worry about discerning my vocation or trying to make something of myself; I don’t have to worry about speaking the truth or being honorable; I don’t even have to worry about being faithful to those who depend on me; everything can be subordinated to my immediate needs, because nothing is going to last anyway. It’s the same logic that led the Epicureans to say, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” But this approach, if taken to its logical extreme, leads inexorably to nihilism. If everything in life is only useful for satisfying our immediate desires, then nothing actually matters, nothing has value, nothing is worth anything. In this worldview, everything we do is ultimately for naught, a condition that forces us into despair.

On the other hand is the vision of life offered by the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was no stranger to loss. He wrote to a people in exile, a people who had been removed from their homeland and isolated from everything they held dear. If anyone had reason to despair, it would have been Isaiah and his people. Yet, time and again, Isaiah refuses to give in to despair and offers his people comfort. We see the reason for the prophet’s confidence in this morning’s reading, when Isaiah gives his people this word from the Lord: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Even in the face of devastating loss, Isaiah trusted that God would keep God’s promises, that God’s word would not return to him empty. This is an astonishing statement, because it so precisely opposes a nihilistic worldview: since God’s word will not return to him empty, everything matters. God neither creates nor redeems in vain. There is nothing and no one that can legitimately be dismissed; our lives have value, even though we know that they will come to an end someday.

Nothing embodies this more clearly than the resurrection. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ, God’s Word made flesh, was vindicated even after he suffered the loss of everything. In the resurrection, Jesus Christ embodied Isaiah’s prophecy. When we are faced with the reality of of loss, we have two distinct options: we can either give into despair and live as though nothing in our life matters, or we can share in Christ’s victory over death and trust that, in the end, God’s word will not return to him empty.