Narcissism

Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39 offered to the people of Trinity Church in Albany, TX on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

imgresSince moving to Texas, I have become fascinated by the life and career of Lyndon Johnson, who is easily one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.  Johnson was known for his drive, ambition, and his thirst for power.  One of his most conspicuous traits, however, was his narcissism; he needed to be the center of attention wherever he happened to be.  Of course, we tend to expect this from successful politicians; they are used to being fawned upon and adored by those around them.  But Lyndon Johnson possessed this narcissistic personality even when he was a poor boy with few prospects in the Texas hill country.  Even at an early age, Lyndon insisted that the world had to revolve around him.  Johnson’s most thorough biographer notes that when he played baseball with his friends as a child, Lyndon would insist on pitching.  If his friends refused or demanded that one of them have a turn, Lyndon would take his ball and go home, leaving his companions stranded and unable to play.  Even as a young boy, Lyndon Johnson insisted that nothing could happen without his involvement.

We might criticize our 36th president for this self-centeredness, but if we’re honest, I think all of us can exhibit this narcissistic personality from time to time.  While very few of us insist on being adored by those who surround us, we all tend to imagine that we are the center of the universe in some way.  We focus only on things that impact our lives, we forget to pay attention to news from the other side of the world, and we are surprised when those closest to us change without our apparent influence.  How many of us have seen a young relative who has grown up significantly and thought to ourselves, “How did she get so tall?  I never said she was allowed to do that!”  How many of us have done something embarrassing in public and worried about what other people were thinking, not realizing that everyone else is so self-involved that they probably haven’t even noticed us?  I imagine that there are times when all of us pretend that the world stops spinning when we are not around, when we are convinced that we are indispensable, when we are tempted to take our ball and go home when things don’t go our way.

Today, we begin the season after Pentecost, what one friend of mine refers to as “the dog days of discipleship.”  We have just finished tracing the journey from Advent to Trinity Sunday, meditating on the significant moments from the life of Jesus.  The season after Pentecost is an opportunity to really dig into some of the great stories of the Old Testament and explore some of the challenging teachings of the New Testament.  And our lectionary began the season after Pentecost with a bang.  We heard the soap opera-worthy story of Hagar being expelled from Abraham’s household by her jealous mistress.  We heard Paul remind us that baptism is less about washing and more about drowning.  And we heard the hard teaching from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus tells us that he did not come to bring peace to the earth.  These are all fascinating, but because it flies in the face of our expectations, I want us to take a closer look at the gospel lesson.

Jesus sending the 12The passage we read today comes from the portion of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is sending out his disciples to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God.  In the passages immediately before the one we read today, Jesus gives his disciples instructions about what they should carry, who they should travel with, and how they should introduce themselves to new communities.  As far as we can tell, Jesus does not expect things to go well.  He specifically instructs his disciples about what to do if people do not show them hospitality.  He tells them that they will probably be dragged before the authorities for their evangelization.  He even gives them the specific warning that they should be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”  To put it mildly, being a disciple is clearly not an easy gig.  This is the background for today’s reading.  Jesus appears to be comforting his followers by telling them they know everything they need to know as they go off into the world.  At the same time, he is warning them that the message of the gospel has the potential to alienate disciples from their friends and families.  In all likelihood, this was a reality that the people of Matthew’s community were dealing with; they were finding themselves estranged from their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and other members of their household on account of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  So, on one level, Jesus is responding to this concern.  He seems to be saying, “Listen, the message of the gospel is going to make people uncomfortable, even people in your own household.  It may even divide your family.  You need to decide where your true allegiance lies.”  Jesus even goes so far as to use the metaphor of a sword to describe the family strife the gospel can bring.  It’s an intense moment, because it challenges our expectations of a Jesus who is meek and mild.

But why is it that we expect a Jesus who is meek and mild?  Yes, he talks about peace and yes, he shows forgiveness to those who have transgressed.  But if you think about it, meek people rarely challenge us and rarely expect us to make changes in our lives.  Yet, Jesus does this constantly.  He forces us to examine our lives and make often significant transformations.  One of the reasons we tend to think of Jesus as meek and mild is because he is easier to control, easier to pigeonhole, easier to ignore.  It would be easy for us to ignore what Jesus is saying this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  Many of us grew up in families where everyone at least nominally affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Looking at our situation, it would be easy to assume that Jesus has nothing to say to us in this passage.  If we were to say that, however, we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus is warning against in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

The most striking element of this chapter is how it breaks down the expectations of the disciples.  At the beginning, Jesus gives his followers “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”  Jesus, in other words, gives his disciples the same authority that he himself possesses.  He leads them to think that they are spiritual rock stars.  Jesus then tells the disciples that in spite of their power, they will probably not be rejected for their message about the kingdom of God.   In the passage we read today, Jesus tells his followers that they will most likely be threatened with death, but not to worry, because God also pays attention to birds.  Jesus goes on to explain that the ministry of the disciples will cause familial strife before concluding with this ominous-sounding statement: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

imgresThis passage is striking because of how thoroughly it breaks down the ego of the disciples.  Jesus begins by imbuing his followers with power and authority and then proceeds to explain to them in detail that they are not the center of the universe, that life is not all about them.  Jesus explains that there will be places where they are not accepted; he explains that their own families will potentially move on without them; he even explains that sparrows are as worthy of God’s attention as they are.  Jesus impels the disciples to examine their lives and recognize that the world does not revolve around them, that they are not the most important people in the world, that they have the same value as everyone else.  In spite of their status as disciples of Jesus and in spite of their charismatic authority, the disciples have no right to pick up their ball and leave when things don’t go their way, because life is not ultimately about them.  In the end, this is what Jesus is talking about when he says that “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  While this statement clearly has the undertones of martyrdom, Jesus is also suggesting that those who lose their attachment to self-centeredness and ego will find a much larger life, one in which they are connected to everyone in a profound and meaningful way.

In some ways, this interpretation makes this hard teaching even more difficult.  If this passage were simply about being alienated from our families for our beliefs, we could take solace in our self-righteousness and continue to believe that we are the most important person in the world.  But if this passage illustrates the simple reality that life exists apart from us, it is one of the most challenging teachings in the New Testament.  We tend to believe that whatever we experience is the best: that our country is superior to every other country, that our time is more advanced than any other time, that our interests are more important than the interests of the environment, that our worldview is the most enlightened.  But when we acknowledge the simple truth made plain in this gospel passage, we are forced to recognize that there are other people in this world who are as valuable and as beloved as we are.  And while this may seem problematic at first, it is, in fact, incredibly liberating.  We do not have to pretend that we are indispensable, because we are not.  We do not have to pretend that everything depends on us, because it does not.  We do not have to imagine that we are the most important person in the world, because we are not.  Life does not center around us; it is grounded in the God who redeemed his entire creation through Jesus Christ.  May God give us the grace to recognize that we are as beloved by God as everyone else in this world.

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Who We are Meant to Be

Sermon on Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

As many of you know, my wife and I are cat people.  We have two adorable kitties that give us an incredible amount of joy, even though they can frustrate us at times.  Neither of us grew up with animals in the house; our foray into pet guardianship began when my wife somewhat arbitrarily decided to adopt a cat from the animal shelter in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  Gradually, we became so enamored of Winnie (who is named for Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire) that we decided she needed a feline companion.  This led us to adopt Abby (named for her hometown of Abilene) from a parishioner’s backyard.  We are, to put it mildly, smitten.

imagesNow, when some people find out that we are cat people, they are inclined to explain that cats aren’t nearly as cute and cuddly and innocent as we think they are, that they are, in fact, “evil.”  Now, I’m not particularly disposed to use the word “evil” for human beings, let alone animals that presumably have a limited understanding of morality.  Nevertheless these feline detractors will enumerate the reasons that, in their mind, cats are selfish, duplicitous, and unworthy of our affection.  For instance, they will explain that when cats nuzzle you, they aren’t showing affection, but are actually claiming you as their property.  Being a devoted cat guardian, I am familiar with this behavior and I’m fine with it.  Cats are territorial; they mark the things they want in their lives, whether they are scratching posts, food bowls, doorframes, or their human guardians.  But what really bugs me is what the anti-cat party thinks is the most damning evidence against cats.  They explain that unlike dogs, cats do not do anything useful.  Now, I love dogs, but dogs are bred to do useful things like retrieve and point and follow scents.  Cats weren’t bred to do any of these things.  As a civilization, we decided to keep cats around because they hunted and killed disease-carrying pests.  We developed a symbiotic relationship with these animals, benefiting from their natural instincts.  The anti-cat folks, in other words, tend not to like cats because they are not enough like dogs, and I don’t think that’s fair.  They need to be reminded that cats are not dogs, and that that’s okay.  We can’t fault these creatures for doing what they have evolved to do; we should celebrate cats and dogs and other animals for being what they are meant to be.

imgresToday is Trinity Sunday.  In the words of our Collect, it is the day we are called “to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of God’s divine Majesty to worship the Unity.”  Put another way, it is the day we are reminded that as Christians, we have a truly unique understanding of monotheism.  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that though God is one and there is but one God, God is made known to us as three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Now, if this sounds wacky to you, you are not alone.  Adherents of other monotheistic traditions like Judaism or Islam smile to themselves whenever they hear us talk about the Trinity and claim to be monotheists.  Skeptics roll their eyes when Christians talk about the Trinity, thinking that we simply cannot count.  Even some traditions that claim Jesus Christ have eschewed the doctrine of the Trinity: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus was adopted as God’s son and is not part of the Godhead, while Mormons believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinct godlike figures.  Since its inception, in other words, the doctrine of the Trinity has been one of the more challenging elements of the Christian faith.

One of the reasons the Trinity is so difficult for us to understand is that we have to deal with a substantial language barrier.  The Church fathers who first articulated Trinitarian doctrine used the Latin word personae to describe the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  While “persons” is an accurate translation of this word, personae refers less to individual people and more to the ways that we experience people, kind of like the English derivative “persona.”  In fact, another way to translate personae is “masks.”  The early Church, in other words, was saying that we experience God in three very particular ways: as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit.  Now, we are currently bordering on heresy; the Early Church would never say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were mere masks of God.  Then again, when you talk about the Trinity for any length of time, you are almost always bordering on heresy.  In any case, this leads us to wonder: what was it that led the Early Church to affirm that we experience God in these very particular ways?  Why didn’t they simply say that God manifests God’s self in a variety of different fashions and leave it at that?  After all, the word “Trinity” never appears in Scripture and the references to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are few and far between.  What was it that made the Church fathers reconsider the very nature of monotheism?

Part of the rationale is for this change is made clear in our gospel reading for today.  Matthew tells us that after his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples on the mountaintop, where he gives them the Great Commission.  Of course, he tells his followers to make disciples by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but this is not the most important Trinitarian moment in this passage.  That comes two verses before, when the evangelist tells us that the disciples worshiped Jesus.  To our ears, this does not sound weird; Christians have been worshiping Jesus for almost two thousand years.  For devout first-century Jews, however, this was an astonishing statement.  One of the foundational confessions of the Jewish faith is the Shema, the affirmation that God is one and is the only one worthy of worship.  But for these disciples of Jesus, something had happened to persuade them that Jesus Christ was also worthy of worship, that Jesus Christ manifested the presence of God.  The Early Church saw this trend among the earliest followers of Jesus, saw that they recognized the presence of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and began to wonder how exactly this was possible.  They began to wonder if Jesus Christ was somehow also God.

imgresBut perhaps the most compelling rationale for the doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the creation account from Genesis.  We are intimately familiar with this story: God speaks into the empty void and calls creation into existence.  The author of Genesis tells us that a wind from God swept over the waters of chaos prior to God saying “Let there be light.”  In Hebrew, the word for “wind” is ruah, same as the word for “Sprit.”  In other words, even before creation began, the Spirit was present in the chaos.  But this is not the reason the creation account points to the Trinity.  That comes later, six days later according to Genesis, when God looks around and says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”  Theologians have wrestled with what it means to be made in the image of God for generations.  Does this statement in the creation account mean that God looks like a human being or does it mean something else?  Artists throughout history have interpreted this statement somewhat literally: God is depicted in many great works of art as a bearded man (just think of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).  To my mind, however, when the Genesis account tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” there is something deeper at play, something that I believe the Early Church recognized.  In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of Adam.  But in the first chapter, God creates woman and man at the same time.  God creates a micro-community of human beings, as if to say, “Human beings are meant to be in relationship with one another.”  I suspect that the Early Church looked at this story and said, “That must be what the image of God is.  If God created human beings to be in community, then community must exist at the very heart of God.”

Ultimately, this is why we take a Sunday every year to remember the doctrine of the Trinity.  It’s not so we can brush up on our fourth century theology.  Trinity Sunday is an opportunity to remember the divine community that grounds our very being, to remember that relationship exists at the very heart of God.  We celebrate the Trinity every year to remember that we are created in the image of that God, to remember that we are meant to be in relationship with one another.  The Trinity, in other words, reminds us who we are meant to be.  And just as cat detractors need to be reminded that it’s okay for cats to be cats, we need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, because it is so easy to forget.  We live in an age when abusing strangers anonymously behind the keys of a message board has become commonplace.  We live in an age when selfishness seems to be the order of the day.  We live in an age when we are too scared to admit we are vulnerable and so we wallow in loneliness, uncertainty, and despair.  The Trinity is a reminder that we are not meant to go through this life alone.  The divine community is a reminder that we are called to share what we have with others who have been created in God’s image.  The relationship at the heart of God is a reminder that we are called to see ourselves, to see God in those who are different from us.  As we gather in community this Trinity Sunday, I pray that we will reach out to those in our midst and those outside of these walls as we celebrate who we have been created to be.

Comeback

Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.