The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Witnesses

imagesToday is the day that the Episcopal Church commemorates the martyrdom of Constance and her companions.  Constance was the Superior of the Sisters of St. Mary in Memphis, TN, an order founded in conjunction with that city’s Cathedral and a parochial girl’s school.  The Church, however, commemorates her life not for her academic or liturgical pursuits, but for her response to tragedy.

In 1878, Memphis was ravaged by Yellow Fever, the third such outbreak in ten years.  St. Mary’s Cathedral was located at the epicenter of the epidemic, and while tens of thousands of people fled the city to escape the disease, Constance and her companions remained behind to care for the sick and give comfort to the dying.  All but two of the workers succumbed to Yellow Fever and died.  They are now remembered as “the Martyrs of Memphis” and have memorials dedicated to them at Elmwood Cemetery and St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The gospel lesson appointed for the commemoration of Constance and her companions is John 12:24-28, a passage that is appointed for the feast days of several other martyrs.  The words of this passage are familiar: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  When read in the context of martyrdom, the interpretation of this verse seems obvious: if you are faced with the possibility of dying for your faith, you should take it, because the reward will be eternal life.  This is, however, a rather simplistic and probably erroneous way to read the words of Jesus in John’s gospel.  For John, “eternal life” refers not primarily to “life in heaven” or even “life after death,” but rather to “the eternal kind of life,” a life shaped by an awareness of eternity.  Jesus is saying that if we cling to the notion that our life, that our happiness, that our comfort is the most important thing in the world, than we will lose our ability to focus on the larger realities of life.  If, on the other hand, we realize that we are called to give of ourselves, to “lose” our lives for others, then we can live a life that is shaped by an awareness of eternity.

fever-elmwood-marker_smallThe word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and it occurs to me that this is precisely what Constance and her companions did.  Even as a community was ravaged by disease, these martyrs stood by the beds of those who were suffering and bore witness to their humanity.  These martyrs stood in a makeshift hospital and bore witness to the fact that God was present in that place.  These martyrs stood by the beds of the dying and bore witness to the fact that they were loved.

And in this sense, we can all be martyrs.  As our brothers and sisters in poverty struggle to make ends meet, we can bear witness to their humanity.  As war and disease  ravage parts of this world, we can bear witness to the presence of God among us.  As we come face to face with those who have been rejected by society, we can bear witness to the fact that they are loved.  When we bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, we are empowered to live an eternal kind of life as we lose ourselves in service to others.

Campfires, Bells, and Living the Resurrection Life

Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest for the Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014.

UnknownA few months ago, the curate at Heavenly Rest and I took about a dozen youth to a ranch for a weekend of fun and spiritual formation. In spite of my initial apprehensions about the experience, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my ministry at Heavenly Rest. We had some incredibly powerful conversations and uncovered some extraordinary spiritual insights that would have been advanced even for a group of mature adults. But my favorite moment of the weekend took place on Saturday night. We were all worn out from a long day: we had discussed Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, hiked through the mud (I only just cleaned off my boots), and participated in a pretty emotional healing service. I assumed that our charges would want to turn in early and watch a movie, but instead we gathered around a fire that had been built a few hours before. After stoking it back to life, we began to tell stories. In this age when kids are supposedly more interested in their smartphones than anything else, a group of teenagers sat in rapt attention as we exchanged stories about ghosts and goblins. For the most part, these were the campfire stories that you and I grew up with; they followed a very particular formula that we adapted to the circumstances. All of them ended with a twist or a jump scare or a “But he had been dead the whole time!” No matter how frightening, in other words, we expected that final scare. We knew what was going to happen next. We knew how these stories were going to end.

Tonight, we too gathered in darkness around a fire and we too told each other familiar stories. In some ways, these stories are similar to those that we told around the campfire. They are so familiar to us that we anticipate what happens next; we know how they are going to end. And yet, at the same time, we must recognize how radical these stories really are. As our prayer book puts it, these stories are “the record of God’s saving deeds in history”; they are part of the larger story of how God “saved his people in ages past.” While we know how these stories end, in other words, they do not end they way they are supposed to end. These stories run contrary to the way the world works. Life is not supposed to come from nothing. Oppressed people are not supposed to be released from slavery. The poor are not supposed to feast at the same banquet as the rich. All of these stories point to a God who will not accept the status quo, a God who refuses to be complicit in oppression, a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, a God who shows us what the world can be.

No story embodies the unexpected nature of God’s love better than the story of the empty tomb. Over the past week, we have heard the familiar story. Jesus, a rabbi and healer, enters Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. While he’s there, he raises eyebrows by disrupting the Temple economy. The Roman occupiers and religious leaders agree that he is a dangerous rabble rouser and decide to execute him. After he is betrayed by a disciple and abandoned by his friends, Jesus is handed over to die a criminal’s death. Taken down from the cross, he is placed in a nearby borrowed tomb so that his remaining disciples can go home to observe the Sabbath. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ devoted disciples, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arrive at the tomb to finish what was left undone, to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. But when they arrive, they are told, “He is not here, for he has been raised.” After the long saga of Jesus’ passion and death, the women who come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus are told that he is no longer there.

Even if the story ended there, even if Jesus never appeared to his disciples, it would represent a shocking turn of events. According to the way the world works, those who challenge the authorities are punished, the oppressed are rarely vindicated, and those who are abandoned by their friends die alone. This all happened to Jesus. And yet, according to the way the world works, the dead are supposed to stay dead. Those who have been executed are supposed to remain in their graves. The world is supposed to forget those who died the deaths of criminals. The empty tomb disrupts this conventional wisdom. The empty tomb forces the disciples to embrace the possibility of Resurrection. The empty tomb challenges the status quo and points toward a God who interrupts this world with a love that raises the dead to life. It’s no wonder Matthew tells us there was an earthquake when the women arrived at the tomb; he could not imagine it any other way. Just as earthquakes take us by surprise and throw us off balance, the Resurrection shocks us out of our complacency and forces us to look at the world in a new way.

In many ways, the Resurrection is the most challenging aspect of the Christian faith. On one level, this is related to whether we are able to believe extraordinary things. Let’s be honest: the Resurrection is difficult to believe. As far as we know, people do not come back from the dead. The conventional wisdom that crucified Jesus remains to this day. The dead stay dead; that’s the way the world works. But remember that this is also how the world worked for the disciples. People did not come back from the dead with regularity during the first century. The likelihood of the Resurrection was just as small then as it is today. A few verses after what we heard this evening, Matthew even tells us that some of the disciples continued to doubt, that they were simply incapable of embracing the possibility of Jesus’ Resurrection. But in spite of all of this, that early morning two thousand years ago caused the disciples of Jesus to change the way they looked at the world. The empty tomb caused them to reshape the way they understood their relationship with God and with one another.

It is at this, much deeper level that the Resurrection truly challenges us. Trusting the Resurrection is not just about believing that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Trusting the Resurrection is about believing that Resurrection and renewal possible in our life and the life of the world. Too often, we are plagued by the notion that we are hamstrung by fate or destiny, that our lot in life is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Too often, we are convinced that reconciliation between adversaries is impossible, that old hatreds never die. Too often, we affirm that the powers of this world have already won, that we are mere pawns in a game that is beyond our control. Yet the Resurrection calls us to recognize that our lives are filled with possibility. The Resurrection calls us to recognize that the only thing required for reconciliation is relationship. The Resurrection calls us to affirm to the principalities of this world that their power is fleeting and that true victory belongs to God. In the words of that hymn we heard at the beginning of this service, we are called to recognize that the Resurrection puts wickedness to flight, casts out pride and hatred, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. Trusting in the Resurrection means turning away from despair and living our lives with hope.

imagesIn the kitchen of the house where I grew up, there are bells hanging from the window locks. For 364 days of the year, these bells remain in their places, gathering dust and occasionally prompting the odd question from a curious visitor. But on Holy Saturday at about 4:00 in the afternoon, my father, my brother, my grandmother, and I gather up these bells and carry them into the living room. There, my father cues up an old record of the choir of Saint Stanislaus (his childhood church) singing Polish liturgical songs. We listen as the choir sings about Jesus’ temptation, passion, and death. Then, just after an old priest warbles a sentence about the Resurrection, we start ringing those bells as loudly as we can as the choir sings the Polish version of “Jesus Christ is risen today.” As you can imagine, it makes a terrific noise, one that generally impels my mother to go outside. The ringing overwhelms any conversation; it even drowns out the voices of the choir on that old record. The ringing of those bells interrupts our day, casts out all other distractions, and makes us completely present to the reality of the empty tomb. In so many ways, this is exactly how we are meant to understand the Resurrection. Just as those bells interrupt our day, the empty tomb interrupts the status quo and forces us to look at the world in a new way. Just as those bells cast out all other distractions, the Resurrection casts out despair and insists that we live our lives with hope. Just as those bells momentarily make us live completely in the present, the Resurrection requires us to shape our lives in light of the empty tomb. Ultimately, the Resurrection reminds us that we are part of God’s story, the story of a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, the story of a God who shows us what the world can be.

Stories

Forrest Gump was on television the other day.

forrest-4For those of you who don’t remember, Forrest Gump chronicles the life of a man from Alabama who manages to be present for every significant event of the 1960s and 70s.  He serves in the Vietnam War, participates in the Olympics, and is responsible for catching the burglars at the Watergate Hotel.  Forrest narrates these events as he sits at a bus stop in Savannah, and he shares the stories of his life with his fellow passengers in the most matter-of-fact way possible.  It gradually becomes clear that these stories shape the way that Forrest looks at the world and define his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his beloved Jenny.  He derives meaning from these stories because they remind him who he is.

In a similar way, the Jewish Sabbath always begins with the telling of stories.  Every Sabbath includes the same words: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord your God is one.”  The people gathered around that table tell the story of their relationship with God.  They tell the story of God’s faithfulness to their people in ages past and remind themselves that God is faithful to them through the changes and chances of their own lives.

This is why the gospels tell us that the disciples are in such a hurry to entomb the body of Jesus.  According to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Jesus in a nearby tomb simply because it is conveniently located.  They do this so that they can return to their homes in time to observe the Sabbath, so that they can return to their homes to tell the story of God’s faithfulness, so that they can be reminded that God is faithful even through the changes and chances of their lives.  There is something very powerful about this.  Even though Jesus Christ had been betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, his disciples reminded themselves that God had been faithful to them in ages past.  Even though their world had been shaken to its core, the disciples renewed their trust in the faithfulness of God.

There are times that all of us feel betrayed, abandoned, and rejected.  There are times that all of us doubt the presence of God among us.  But this Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the face of these challenges, we are called to tell the story of our relationship with God.  We are called to renew our trust in the God who is faithful to us even when our whole world has collapsed around us.  We are called to be faithful to a God who is faithful to us even to the point of death.

Faithfulness

As I was driving home from our Good Friday services this afternoon, I caught the tail end of a sports radio talk show that I listen to on a regular basis.  The hosts had apparently exhausted their sports-related talking points and were discussing their plans for the weekend.  One mentioned that in honor of Easter, he had planned to do some community service, but, finding the process of signing up for a project too daunting, had abandoned those plans.  Oddly, his partner praised him for his generosity, even though he was no longer planning to do anything.  At first, I could not understand this exchange.  I didn’t understand why the one host talked about his failed community service plans or why the other host thought that his willingness even to think about doing community service was praiseworthy.  As I thought about it a little more, however, I realized that most people listening to the program probably identified completely with the conversation.  As a rule, human beings are full of good intentions, and as a rule, we like to be praised for our good intentions.  Whether it is going to the gym or giving money to public radio or volunteering for a local service organization or calling our parents on a regular basis or telling our spouse we love them every day, we always say that we are going to do good, that we are going to put the effort into making a difference in our community.  But, invariably, life gets in the way.  We run out of time because we have to work late.  We run out of money because we have to bring the car into the shop.  We run out of patience because we are in a bad mood.  Inevitably, our plans crumble around us and we fail to do what we said we would do.  This is one of the undeniable realities of the human experience: try as we might, it very difficult for us to be faithful to our good intentions.

On Good Friday, the Church has always emphasized the centrality of the cross to the Christian faith.  Few texts embody the Church’s understanding of the cross better than this verse from Venantius Fortunatus’ “Sing my tongue, the glorious battle”:

Faithful cross among all others: the one noble tree.  Its branches offer nothing in foliage, fruit, or blossom.  Yet sweet wood and sweet iron sustain sweet weight.

crucifixion_iconThe first adjective used to describe the cross, and by extension the one who was crucified on the cross, is “faithful.”  Perhaps the most important thing we affirm about Jesus’ experience of his Passion is his faithfulness, his obedience even to death on a cross, his willingness to do what he said he was going to do.  Jesus Christ did not succumb to the very human tendency to look for excuses or be derailed by doubt.  In spite of the abandonment of his disciples, in spite of his betrayal, in spite of his own self-doubt, Jesus marched inexorably toward the cross, because that is what he said he was going to do.  Through Christ’s example, we can trust that we can be faithful to God and one another even in the most challenging and overwhelming circumstances of our lives.  We can be faithful because in his death on Calvary, Jesus Christ revealed that God will be faithful to us.  More than anything else, the “goodness” of this Friday is intimately tied to the faithfulness of a God who is with us even when we come face to face with death.

Phone Call

I got an unusual phone call yesterday.

imagesOf course, in my line of work, most of the random phone calls that I receive are unusual in some way.  On occasion, people I have never met will leave messages on my voice mail asking questions ranging from my thoughts about to Scripture to my opinion on the godlessness of the latest Hollywood blockbuster.  I love responding to these messages, because I am always fascinated to hear people wrestle with their faith.  Needless to say, I am also entertained by people’s creative and often surprising interpretations of Scripture and theology.

The call I responded to yesterday started out like any of these other phone calls.  A woman left a message wondering where to find the story of Easter in the Bible.  Thinking it might be a quick conversation, I dialed the number and prepared to give her a simple answer to what I thought was a simple question.  But, when I tried to give her the simple answer (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20, in case you’re curious), she said “I don’t have a Bible with me.”  It quickly became clear that the call was not what I had expected.  The woman proceeded to ask me, not about Easter, but about Maundy Thursday.  She kept asking, “Why did Jesus have the Last Supper with his disciples?”  I tried to explain the liturgical, theological, and historical significance of the Church’s Eucharistic celebration, but it wasn’t making sense to her.  It seemed that I wasn’t going to be able to help her.

But when I was about to end the phone call, to tell her that I had to attend to other matters, she asked very cautiously, “Do you think that God loves me?”  Oh.  Suddenly I realized that this woman did not call the church to find out where the story of Easter is or why Jesus instituted the Lord’s supper.  She called because she had come to doubt that she was in relationship with God.  While I could have responded to her with Scripture passages and theological treatises, I called her by name and said simply, “Yes.  I know God loves you.”  And then an amazing thing happened.  Through her tears of joy, she professed that she understood everything that had mystified her only a few minutes before.  The stories of Easter and the Last Supper suddenly made sense because she had been reminded that God loved her.

Ultimately, this is what we are called to remember this evening as we celebrate Maundy Thursday.  We remember that Jesus Christ took bread and wine, called them his body and blood, and gave them to his disciples, essentially telling them, “I love you so much that I have given myself to you, not only in this bread and wine, but also in my very body.”  None of our celebrations this week make any sense unless they remind us of God’s deep and transforming love for the world.  I pray that as we enter the next three days, we will remember that love which transforms us and helps us make sense of who we are.

Fear

PrintA few months ago, I was eating a disappointing breakfast sandwich  in a restaurant at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when I overheard a group of people mention the word “theology.”  Being a sucker for theological inquiry, I slowed my chewing and listened a little more closely.  To my surprise, the group was not discussing Athanasius or Thomas Aquinas (the fact that this surprised me tells you a lot about who I am), but rather the Illuminati and their sinister plot to take over the world.  For those of you who are not up to date on your conspiracy theories, the Illuminati are supposedly a secret cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals bent on world domination.  While this narrative is boilerplate for any self-respecting conspiracy theorist, I was curious to hear it framed in terms of Christian theology.  The group of people I heard talking in the airport apparently believed that the Illuminati’s secret control of the world was part of God’s plan to bring the world to an end.  Several members of the group repeatedly said things like, “God has already set the plan in motion” and “It’s only a matter of time.”  When I decided I could no longer remain in the same room without holding my tongue, I abandoned my sandwich and wandered to my gate.

Though I was initially surprised by this marriage of old-school conspiracy theories to dispensationalist theology, it occurs to me that these worldviews have similar perspectives.  Those who subscribe to both of these worldviews are convinced that someone else is in complete control of the world, that there is nothing they can do to influence the course of history.  In both of these worldviews, the only solution is enlightenment; the only way we can deal with our lack of control is to realize that we have no control, to realize that the puppet strings are being held by someone else.  And I think that both of these worldviews stem primarily from fear of the unknown.  The only way some people can deal with the very human fear of uncertainty is to deny that anything is uncertain.  If it’s all part of the plan, and they realize that it’s all part of the plan, then they can take solace in their enlightened understanding of the world.  Both conspiracy theories and dispensationalist theologies, in other words, can be sources of profound comfort.

Yet, by denying the reality of uncertainty, these worldviews fail to help people deal with reality.  Not only that, the idea that God has set a definite plan in motion is not terribly Scriptural.  As I mentioned yesterday, one of the central affirmations of Christian theology is that we have free will, that we have a choice to be in relationship with God.  In fact, St. Paul argues that our reconciliation to God occurs because of Christ’s faithful obedience, because of Christ’s exercise of his freedom.  Faithfulness, therefore, is not about being certain about what is going to happen next, it is about trusting that God will be faithful to us even when we don’t know what is going to happen next.  Faithfulness is not about believing that God is controlling every aspect of our lives, it is about trusting that God is with us as we move through this life.  As you walk the way of the cross during Holy Week, I pray that you will be comforted by the fact that God is with you even in the midst of uncertainty.