The Grandeur of God

Sermon on John 6:1-21 (and Ephesians 3:14-21) offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

There is an interesting tension among the various accounts of the event we heard about in our gospel reading this morning. As you probably remember, the feeding of the multitude is one of the handful of events that is recorded by all four evangelists. While most of the differences in the accounts are superficial (e.g., which disciples played important roles, where the bread and fish came from, the relative cost of feeding the crowd), there is one disparity that seems worthy of investigation. In the synoptic gospels (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the evangelists tell us that the impromptu wilderness picnic came to an end after “all ate and were filled.” John, on the other hand, tells us that the disciples collected the leftovers after those in the crowd “were satisfied,” or “when they had enough” in another translation. This is a subtle, but significant distinction, one that is illustrated by a former supervisor of mine, who would describe restaurants with buffets not as “all you can eat,” but “all you care to eat.” This subtle shift meant that the objective of eating out was not to consume everything that wasn’t nailed down, but to eat enough. In the synoptic gospels, it appears that the multitude ate until they could not eat anymore; while the crowd in John’s gospel seems to have exhibited a little more moderation. Frankly, this difference wouldn’t be quite as significant if it weren’t for the fact that fullness is such an important theme in John’s gospel. In the very first chapter, John writes of Jesus: “from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” In other words, of all the evangelists, we would expect John to be the one who told us that the crowds “ate and were filled.” Yet, when the crowds by the Sea of Tiberias come face to face with Jesus, the one “in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” their response is to take only what they need.

This detail can lead us to think of God as a cosmic vending machine: God is there to provide a little bit of comfort when we are desperate, a little encouragement when we are in need of validation, or a little food when we are hungry. Apart from this, God isn’t terribly relevant to our day to day experience. Of course, this is how many people experienced Jesus: they were looking for him to address their immediate individual needs (e.g., “heal my daughter,” “cure my leprosy,” “mediate this dispute”). In the meantime, Jesus seemed to have another agenda entirely. This dynamic is at play in today’s gospel reading. Jesus was offering something that the gathered multitude couldn’t possibly fathom. They ate until they were satisfied, but there was so much more that was available to them. They couldn’t see beyond their individual desires and parochial concerns: they simply couldn’t apprehend the fullness of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

There are strains of Christianity that claim to apprehend this fullness. While called by many names, this tradition is broadly known as the “prosperity gospel.” The central assumption of the prosperity gospel is that “God will give you your heart’s desires: money in the bank, a healthy body, a thriving family, and boundless happiness.” Kate Bowler is a professor of church history at Duke University who wrote her doctoral dissertation about the prosperity gospel. When she began the project, she thought she was writing about a movement that was foreign to her experience. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that someone who grew up among Mennonites in Manitoba would have put much stock in the grandiose claims of the prosperity gospel. Yet the more Bowler studied the movement, the more she realized the prosperity gospel is not primarily about Bentleys, private jets, and multimillion dollar homes, despite the habits and preferences of its most famous preachers. Rather, Bowler came to recognize that most of the people who subscribed to the prosperity gospel were looking for “an escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets.” The prosperity gospel offers a seductively clear explanation for these problems. According to the straightforward logic of the prosperity gospel, the only reason one could possibly be excluded from the abundant promises of God is that one lacks faith, that one fails to apprehend what God is offering. When the problem is so simply stated, the solution is just as simple: be more faithful. As Bowler points out, “the moral and logical flaws in this theology are all too evident; it explains away misfortune as something that can and ought to be held at bay through faith and prayer.” Yet she also concedes that, despite her theological sophistication, there were ways that she was also in thrall to the prosperity gospel. As Bowler put it: “I felt the lure of the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes. No matter how many times I rolled my eyes at the creed’s outrageous certainties, I craved them just the same.”

This became most apparent to her when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in her thirties. As she pondered her situation (a happily married new mother who had just gotten her dream job), Bowler realized that she had assumed cancer was something that happened to other people, that her life was, in her words, “something [she] could mold, or at least correct with a surge of determination.” If we’re honest, I think we all feel this way to a certain extent. While I doubt that there are few people in this room who would claim to be adherents of the prosperity gospel, I suspect there is something familiar about its logic. When we hear that someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, our first impulse is often to wonder what about their life had led to this calamity: had they failed to take care of themselves in some way? More importantly, are we leading a healthier lifestyle? We seek to explain misfortune, failing to recognize that sometimes, there is no explanation.

Here is where the gospel really speaks. Here is where the fullness that is revealed in Jesus Christ becomes completely and desperately relevant. The message of the gospel is not that things will go our way if we are faithful enough. At its heart, the gospel invites us to recognize that we, who are created and redeemed by God, are part of something much larger than ourselves, that our lives have meaning no matter what calamities befall us, that we are the Lord’s whether we live or die. Moreover, the gospel requires us to adopt a larger perspective on creation and acknowledge the ways we are connected, not only to our fellow human beings, but to the entire cosmic order.

Our faith attempts to express the infinite in finite terms. Conversely, the dominant voices in our culture these days tend to use the most grandiose terms possible for matters that are insignificant, even petty in the grand scheme of things. We must do our level best to counteract these impulses. We must, in the words of our Collect, “pass through things temporal,” and “lose not the things eternal.” If we take our faith seriously, then we must recognize its grandeur, the ways it lifts our hearts above our individual desires and parochial concerns and fills us with all the fullness of God.

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I want to know what Love is…

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Among scholars, the letter to the Ephesians is one of those biblical books that you either love or you hate. Certain commentators simply can’t get enough of it, suggesting that it is the paragon of epistles that articulates a soaring vision of what Church is called to be. Other interpreters are less complimentary, arguing that the text is overblown and lacks the apostolic clarity of other New Testament letters. If I’m honest, I tend to sympathize with this latter opinion. Ephesians is adjective-happy and sounds like it was written with a thesaurus at hand. Just listen to passage we heard this morning, which mentions both “the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” and “the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Phrases like this lack authenticity: the letter seems to be written the way one is supposed to write, rather than with a clear voice. More significantly, at least from our perspective, the author of Ephesians makes an enormous assumption about the way we understand God when he refers to Jesus Christ as “the Beloved.” This is not language we are accustomed to these days. Many of us would probably hesitate to refer to our spouses as “the Beloved,” at least in public. Calling someone “the Beloved” means that person is worthy of our love. But frankly, the concept of love has been so thoroughly sentimentalized that the notion of loving God feels downright foreign. So, what does it mean to love God?

One of the reasons the concept of love can be hard to grasp is that our culture tends to equate “love” with “affection.” Love is a romantic gesture, a tender hug, or a pledge of fidelity. It’s a little strange to apply this notion of what love is to our relationship with God (“giving God a hug” is kind of a bizarre image). In reality, however, love has less to do with affection and more to do with the way we order experience of the world. If we love someone, we have made room for them in our lives. Generally, we will not make room for another person in our lives for very long unless we believe they have also made room for us. The same is true of our love for God. Loving God with our whole heart, mind, and strength means that we have devoted time and space within our lives to our relationship with God. Significantly, loving God also requires us to believe that God loves us. This, of course, invites us to wonder what this means. What does it mean to believe that God loves us? This, as it turns out, is a more complicated question.

Last week, I was stopped at a light in North Philadelphia with my windows down. There was a guy going from car to car asking drivers if they could help him out. When he got to me, he asked if I had any food, and I told him, “No,” but that I could give him a couple of bucks. As I handed him the cash, he noticed my clerical collar and said, “Next time, I’ll ask you about my salvation.” I wasn’t quite prepared for this, but managed to say, “God loves you very much,” before the light turned green. He glanced at the crumpled bills in his hand, announced, “I believe that now,” and walked to the next car. Apparently, that’s all it took. All he needed was two dollars to believe that God loved him. As absurd as this statement was, however, I suspect that few of us have given significantly more thought to what it means for God to love us. We tend to take the fact that God loves us for granted, which is surely one of the reasons it was the first thing I thought to say to this guy. But the reality is that believing God loves us demands that we adopt certain perspective on the world, a perspective we are not usually inclined to engage. Invariably, when we talk about the love of God, the word “unconditional” comes up. God loves us without condition. This is one of the articles of faith that is dearest to us. It is difficult to appreciate the nature of “unconditional love” without first reflecting on what conditions there could be. The passage from Ephesians we heard this morning implies that the fruit of God’s love is the “forgiveness of our tresspasses.” In another place, Paul makes the connection between forgiveness and love explicit when he writes when he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Indeed, this may be the central assumption of the Christian faith: God loves us despite our sins. Appreciating the love of God, in other words, requires us to recognize our sinful nature. Here’s the thing, though: do we really believe that we are sinners?

For the most part, sin feels like an outdated and outmoded concept that has little to do with the way we live today. The idea that we should be concerned about violating some abstract code of behavior is almost insulting. After all, when you get down to it, most people are good. Most people are just trying to get through life and do what makes them happy without hurting anybody. And yet, we know from experience that, despite our best efforts to make sure that no one is hurt by our actions, we frequently benefit, directly or indirectly, from activities that cause others pain. Now, we could dismiss this realization and argue that it’s not our fault, but this doesn’t prevent wrong from being done. We could try to boycott every system that causes people pain, but we would quickly find ourselves with few, if any, places to engage. The more one thinks about it, the more paralyzed one feels. This, ultimately, is what sin is. Sin is the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we are complicit in a widespread failure to honor God’s creation. At baptism, we renounce the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. Before we can renounce them, however, we have to acknowledge they exist. We have to acknowledge that we are in thrall to forces that are beyond our control or our comprehension, that there are moments when, despite our best intentions, we corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But here is the gospel: even though we have all sinned and have all fallen short of the glory of God, God loves us anyway.

A love like this invites a response. When we both apprehend the magnitude and the inevitability of sin and understand that God loves us despite that sin, then calling God “the Beloved” no longer seems like such a stretch. Moreover, the recognition that we are all sinners increases our capacity for compassion. It is much harder to condemn others for their misdeeds when we appreciate our own susceptibility to sin. Ultimately, this is what it means to love God: to make room in our lives, not only for God, but for those other sinners whom God loves.

I’m not okay; you’re not okay”

Sermon on Mark 6:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

In the first episode of Mad Men, AMC’s long-running drama about 1960s advertising executives, the protagonist makes the following observation about the nature of their work: “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? … It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” There’s a profound irony to this statement, especially since the rest of the show is devoted to the various ways that the characters in the series are not okay. Indeed, everyone seems plagued by a deep sense of despair, even as they project to the world that everything is under control. This desire for reassurance did not originate on Madison Avenue. Human beings have always sought confirmation that whatever they are doing is acceptable.

This deeply human impulse is in the background of the reading we just heard from Mark’s gospel. This passage arguably describes one of the more relatable incidents in the life of Jesus. Returning home after leaving the nest and discovering that the people you left behind aren’t all that impressed with you is a rite of passage. Indeed, Jesus’ observation that “prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown” feels roughly equivalent to that well-worn bromide: “you can’t go home again.” Despite its innate familiarity, there is also something mystifying about this moment in the life of Jesus, especially in the way that Mark records it. The gospels according to Matthew and Luke both include versions of this incident. In Luke’s account, the crowd is initially impressed with Jesus, but turns on him when he suggests that Gentiles might be equal to Jews in the eyes of God. Matthew’s account is closer to the one we heard this morning, though the crowd’s main objection is that they don’t understand how Jesus could presume to speak with authority, since they know his family and where he came from. Mark, on the other hand, offers minimal explanation as to why the people who grew up with Jesus take offense at him. We’re told nothing about the substance or the form of what Jesus said on that sabbath day. Now, it could be that this is an oversight on the part of Mark’s gospel. Mark, after all, is economical with his words. Perhaps we’re meant to extrapolate from the other gospels and assume that Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 and announced that the Scripture had been fulfilled. I wonder, however, if there is a deeper and, frankly, a more unsettling reason Mark tells us so little about what Jesus said that day, one that is illustrated in the way that Jesus sends out the twelve immediately after the incident in Nazareth. When Jesus commissions the disciples, he doesn’t even offer vague instructions about what they should say. Instead, he spends most his time preparing them for the possibility, and in fact the likelihood, that they will be rebuffed: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you,” he counsels, “as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” In other words, going out in the name of Jesus sets one up for rejection. There doesn’t seem to be any ideological reason for this. Mark tells us nothing about the political content of what Jesus said in that synagogue in Nazareth; the fact that Jesus spoke at all was enough for those closest to him to reject him. Just so we’re clear, the word we translate as “take offense” is about more than being offended. It denotes categorical separation; in fact, it is the same word Jesus uses when says that all will become deserters when he is handed over to be crucified. This unsettling passage is a reminder that the gospel is not always received with enthusiasm.

The reason for this, the reason that Jesus was rejected for simply opening his mouth, is that his message so often failed to conform to people’s expectations. People were looking to Jesus for reassurance, for a sense that their best efforts were good enough, for confirmation that they were okay. This isn’t the first or the last example of Jesus failing to meet these expectations. The gospels provide numerous examples of people trying to get Jesus to confirm that their way of looking at the world is the right one. Think of all the people who probe Jesus with questions in order to get him to betray his political biases. It probably goes without saying that these efforts were fruitless. No one successfully pinned Jesus down during his lifetime, but that hasn’t prevented us from trying to do so ever since. As an example, I’d point to a quotation that circulates on social media every so often. I’ve seen it in several forms, but the gist is something like this: “Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary who hung around with lepers, hookers, and crooks; was anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer; but never mentioned abortion or birth control, never called the poor lazy, never asked a leper for a copay; and was a long-haired, brown-skinned, homeless, community-organizing, Middle Eastern Jew.” It’s pretty clear that whoever wrote this is portraying Jesus as an advocate for a particular worldview, one that presumably dovetails nicely with the author’s ideological assumptions. While there is nothing technically incorrect about this statement, it doesn’t offer the whole picture. As a colleague of mine observed, one could just as easily write, “Jesus was a rural born, pro-Israel nationalist who dined with rich people and government bureaucrats; told off-color jokes about foreigners; and said poverty was incurable. He advocated rigorous religious observance and personal responsibility. He never mentioned civil rights, feminism, or equal pay, and never advocated for government intervention in business or social issues.” There is also nothing incorrect about this statement.

What do we make of this discrepancy? Is Jesus a two-faced flip-flopper who will say anything to get ahead? Leaving aside the fact that Jesus’ ministry ended in crucifixion and death (which is about as far away from “getting ahead” as one can get), looking to Jesus for a political platform misses the point of his life and ministry. First of all, the obsession with absolute ideological consistency is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of ideas. More significantly, the animating force behind the life and ministry of Jesus transcends ideology. Jesus was not terribly interested in the politics of his day, because he knew that politics come and go. Jesus was not a martyr for a cause, because he understood that people eventually lose interest in causes. Jesus’ purpose was to reveal that God’s will is to reconcile everyone to God. This simple, yet powerful mission is inherently disruptive, because it challenges our innate tribalism, our sense that it is God’s will for our team to win. The moment we think God is on our side is the moment that God will confound our expectations. Jesus is rejected at Nazareth because he refuses to allow the expectations of those around him to interrupt God’s mission of reconciliation. The mission of Jesus was not to tell us all that we are okay. The mission of Jesus was not to confirm our biases. The mission of Jesus is to transform the world through a knowledge that God’s love for creation transcends our narrow understanding of it.