Winning, Losing, and Becoming Saints

Sermon on Luke 6:20-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

cubsIt finally happened. After 108 heartbreaking seasons, the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions. When the Cubs were last champions of baseball, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were major geopolitical powers. The first Model Ts had just begun rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines in Detroit. In the 108 years between Cub championships, Pluto was discovered and subsequently lost its planetary status. Even the venerable tradition of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch didn’t begin until almost thirty years after the Cubs’ most recent title. In other words, it has been a very long time since the Cubs were winners.

Despite their long history as baseball’s loveable losers, the Cubs were actually favored to win it all since spring training. Between a potent offense, a lights out pitching staff, a savvy front office, and a sagacious coaching staff, Chicago was the team to beat this year. Indeed, they dominated the competition, winning 103 games during the regular season. Nevertheless, more than a few people considered the Cubs underdogs as they entered the postseason. Despite their dominance during the regular season, many wondered whether the Cubs could overcome their long history of losing. This is to be expected in baseball. The fact is that the worst teams win games from time to time; the best teams occasionally suffer a loss. As a result, baseball fans are required to be comfortable with failure. They can’t get too exercised about wins or losses. Baseball teaches its fans to take winning and losing in stride. More than any other sport, baseball recognizes that both winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

The Beatitudes in the gospel according to Luke provide a sharp contrast to their more famous cousins in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew records eight “blessed are” statements. Luke, on the other hand, balances four blessings with four corresponding woes. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus declaims, but “woe to you who are rich.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, but woe to you who are full.” Luke’s point seems obvious: those in the first group are in good shape; those in the second group have work to do. To co opt the language of the day: those in the first group are saints; those in the second group, not so much.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial detail in Luke’s narrative. In his list of blessings and woes, Jesus uses the word “now” half the time. Moreover, there is a precise rhetorical symmetry between the blessings and the woes. Not only are there exactly four of each, they are set up in direct contradistinction to one another: blessed are you who are hungry now; woe to you who are full now; blessed are you who are weeping now; woe to you who are laughing now. While this temporal detail may not seem all that significant, it is actually the lens through which we are meant to read Luke’s Beatitudes. As we noticed a moment ago, our first inclination is to assume that each blessing and each woe describes an existential condition: there are those who are hungry and will remain hungry, and there are those who are full and will remain full. By adding the word “now,” however, Luke signals that these conditions are actually temporary: those who weep will someday laugh, while those who laugh will someday weep. These beatitudes, in other words, are not a catalog of who’s blessed and who’s cursed, who’s in and who’s out. When read together, they provide an honest description of the human condition. Jesus tells those who are listening that if they feel poor, they shouldn’t get down on themselves too much because a day will come when they will feel rich. Meanwhile, those who feel rich shouldn’t get too cocky because a day will come when they will feel poor. In his Sermon on the Plain, Jesus articulates what baseball fans understand implicitly: winning and losing are fundamental to the human experience.

Now if this is where Jesus concluded, Luke’s Beatitudes would not be terribly unique or all that earth shattering. In fact, they would fit very nicely into the traditions of Zen Buddhism, which encourages adherents not to get too excited about positive experiences or too depressed about negative ones. But Jesus doesn’t end with this this list. In fact, Jesus makes a crucial rhetorical turn. After describing how winning and losing are part of the human experience, he offers a corrective: “but I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus outlines the stark inevitabilities of the human condition, the weeping and laughing, the hunger and satisfaction, the winning and losing, and then shows us how to transcend them. To be frank, the way Jesus recommends transcending the endless cycle of winning and losing looks an awful lot like losing: loving your enemies? doing good to those who hate you? turning the other cheek? Jesus must think we’re a bunch of saps! Yet there is a crucial difference between losing because of circumstance, losing because someone got the best of you, and losing because you have chosen a different path altogether. That’s exactly what Jesus offers. Jesus invites us to live as though binary categories he describes don’t matter. Instead of being imprisoned by the uncertainties and vagaries of the human experience, Jesus encourages us to take control of our lives by surrendering control to God. Jesus calls us to transcend the binary categories of this world with a third way, a way that’s not about winning or losing, but is shaped by a profound sense that we belong to God no matter what.

This past Friday night, the 233rd Convention of the Diocese of Pennsylvania gathered for Eucharist at the Cathedral. richard_hookerAmong many other things, we commemorated the life of Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian who lived during the late 17th century. In the face of the bitter controversy between those English Christians who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and those whose allegiance belonged to the Reformed theologies of Luther and Calvin, it was Hooker who conceived of the Anglican middle way, a sense that the Church of England could embrace both the catholic and reformed religion. Hooker believed the Anglican vision could transcend binary categories. In the words of the collect for his feast day, Hooker was given grace to “maintain the middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” This is the third way that Jesus describes in Luke’s gospel. This third way is not about splitting the difference or making the best of a bad situation. It is about transcending binary categories altogether. It is about lifting our hearts above the bitter controversy and tribal allegiances that are so destructive of our common life. Jesus calls us to reject and transcend every binary category: rich and poor, winner and loser, even life and death. The path to sainthood, (the path that Anna is embarking on this morning), the path that we are called to walk, is about recognizing that winning and losing do not matter and understanding the only thing that matters is that we belong to God.

Kids these days…

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Over the last few years, what one might call the “kids these days” genre has proliferated on the internet. It seems that every few weeks, there is a new article, video, or blog post that decries the entitlement, ingratitude, or laziness of the younger generations. While some of these raise legitimate concerns about how young people are interacting with the world, the vast majority have a tedious and scolding quality. For one, these manifestos often fail to describe reality. The best example of this is the frequent complaint that “kids these days don’t read anymore,” when the younger generations actually read more words more frequently than anyone in human history. Moreover, these complaints about the self-centeredness of “kids these days” are, ironically, awfully self-centered. The fact that individuals armed with nothing but an internet connection and an opinion can presume to lecture an entire generation of people for their perceived failures is a sure sign of narcissism. Of course, it’s not the inaccuracy or the egotism of these complaints that make them problematic. It is their assumption that any shift in the way we experience the world is automatically wrong. While we may rightly remember the “good old days” with fondness, nostalgia is often a way of avoiding the uncomfortable truth that we are called to conversion. Indeed, our eagerness to criticize “kids these days” may well be a sign of our refusal to do the work of self-examination.

It would appear that Jesus has adopted a “kids these days” attitude in today’s gospel reading. After only one of the ten lepers he heals returns to give thanks, Jesus complains, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?” Jesus seems to be channeling Miss Manners, or Emily Post, or a parent dutifully encouraging her child to write a thank you note to his great aunt. “Kids these days never say thank you anymore,” we might imagine him writing on his Facebook page. It seems that Jesus has a clear expectation of what one should do when one is cleansed from leprosy.


codexaureus_cleansing_of_the_ten_lepers

As a matter of fact, the Jewish Law had a clear expectation of what one should do when one was cleansed from leprosy, which was to be examined by a priest at the Temple and make an offering to God. Under the Law, a priest was the only person with the authority to declare that a person no longer had leprosy. So when these ten lepers go to show themselves to the priest, they are headed off to get their clean bill of health. This was much more than a formality. According to Leviticus, those who had leprosy were required to wear torn clothes, let their hair be disheveled, live outside the city walls, and cry out, “Unclean, unclean” as people walked by. People with leprosy were utterly excluded from society. The only way they could be reintegrated into the community is if an agent of the Temple pronounced that they no longer had the skin disease. It’s no wonder that the lepers whom Jesus healed made a beeline for the Temple; they were thrilled that they were all about to get their lives back and return to the community.

Well, almost all. Luke tells us that the leper who prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him was a Samaritan. This is not an insignificant detail. We all know that Jews and Samaritans have a long history of not getting along. To the Jewish people, Samaritans were covenant outsiders: they did not share the promise Abraham and were not numbered among God’s chosen people. In practical terms, this meant that Samaritans were discouraged from having table fellowship with Jews, and, more importantly, were not allowed in the Temple. As the other nine lepers trot off to receive their clean bill of health and return to society, in other words, this Samaritan realizes that he will remain excluded from the community. Since he is unable to show himself to the priest, he returns to Jesus to thank him for making him clean, even though he can never be considered clean according to the Temple tradition.

The Samaritan’s quandary makes Jesus’ concluding declaration profoundly resonant: “Your faith has made you well.” Versions of this statement are repeated so often in the gospels that it is easy to lose sight of its impact. But it is important for us to recognize how revolutionary this proclamation is. In this statement, Jesus fundamentally rejects the authority of the Temple system. Jesus implies that belonging to the people of God is not contingent on the accident of our birth or our adherence to a tradition or the mediation of a religious authority. Instead, Jesus insists that we belong to God on the basis of faith.

We tend to misunderstand what this means. In the popular imagination, “faith” is usually synonymous with “belief.” If “faith” is just “belief,” however, it assumes that our membership in the community is somehow predicated on our affirmation of God’s existence. This doesn’t seem to be what is happening in the passage we heard from Luke’s gospel. The lepers do not make a statement of belief before they are cleansed. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus, it is not to say, “I see now that you are the Messiah.” Rather, it is to offer thanksgiving and, more importantly, to recognize what God has done in his life. There are many places in the New Testament where faith refers not to belief, but to what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul suggests that it is Christ’s faith, his faithful obedience to God’s purpose, that saves us. When Jesus tells this Samaritan, “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus is referring to the Samaritan’s recognition that he had been transformed by God. This moment of recognition is nothing less than conversion. While the other lepers went off to be declared clean according to society’s standards, the Samaritan realized that he was defined, no longer by what society valued, but by the grace of God made known in Jesus Christ.

boton_me_gusta-svg
Life is about more than this.

This invites us to do the hard and important work of self-examination and conversion. It’s awfully easy to assume that our faith is portable, a tool that we can pull out when we need encouragement, but can otherwise keep in storage. When faith is relegated to this utilitarian status, we can continue to live as though we are defined by what society values: how much money we make or how many degrees we have or how many people follow us on Facebook. When we understand faith as something that informs and enlivens everything we do, however, we experience the same conversion the Samaritan experiences. More than anything else, conversion is a shift in our perspective. It is a recognition that we are defined not by what society values, but by the grace of God, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. This recognition empowers us to change the way we experience the world: to put away resentment and entitlement, to give up our nostalgic desire to go back to the “good old days,” and to live our lives animated by a profound sense of gratitude, a faithful acknowledgement that everything in our life is a gift from God.

Winners and Losers

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite my deep love of baseball, I have never been any good at it. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that when I was a little leaguer, I had the ignominious distinction of striking out in T-Ball. Just to be clear, I had three opportunities to hit a stationary ball off a tee, and I missed every time. Needless to say, no one was particularly surprised when I abandoned the baseball diamond for the choir stall. Before hanging up my cleats, I attended our team’s end-of-season awards banquet at a local Italian restaurant. Even though I was objectively the worst player on the team, I received a trophy. In fact, everybody received a trophy at that banquet. Even if we rode the bench the entire season, missed every game, or struck out for every at bat, each of us would receive a gilded plastic baseball player mounted on a scrap of marble.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but those trophies were part of a larger conversation about how we as a society encourage our children. As early as 1992, Newsweek ran an article lamenting the hypocrisy of what the author described as “trophy syndrome.” If anything, this conversation has become more contentious over the last decades. Advocates for rewarding participation claim that the practice encourages cooperation, builds self esteem, and fosters psychological health.Screen-Shot-2015-10-12-at-11.57.58-AM Meanwhile, opponents argue that the participation trophy discourages competition and fails to prepare people for the realities of the world. One recent article casually notes that “inflated self-esteem has been found in criminals, junkies, and bullies,” apparently implying that giving a child a participation trophy will lead her to a life of crime. Other commentators are more measured, but no less insistent: “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner,” writes one critic. “It just isn’t true.” Ultimately, this is what the critique of participation trophy syndrome boils down to: if there are to be winners, there must in turn be losers. To put it another way: if everyone is special, then no one is.

This morning’s gospel reading makes an important contribution to this conversation. Though this passage seems pretty simple at first, a closer look reveals that this moment in Luke’s gospel is anything but straightforward. In particular, the dispute between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue speaks to the very heart of our faith. The controversy begins when Jesus heals on the sabbath. As we know, the Jewish Law prohibits performing any kind of work on the seventh day of the week. Jesus violates this injunction when he heals a woman of her infirmity. The leader of the synagogue’s indignance is palpable: “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he charges, “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” While this might seem unnecessarily callous and finicky, his point is actually motivated by a combination of compassion and respect for tradition. The leader of the synagogue certainly wants this woman to be healed, but he also wants his people to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. The sabbath is one of the ways that the Jewish people know who they are; they are the people who stop every six days and recognize that they are not the masters of the universe. They are a people who have a healthy understanding of their place in creation. Jesus seems to be disregarding this beautiful tradition for the sake of a fleeting gesture.

Characteristically, Jesus’ response to his opponents is both unapologetic and somewhat unexpected. He refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. But he also declines to make the case that the rules about sabbath are outmoded and irrelevant, as we might expect. Instead, Jesus notes that even the Law permits some work to be done on the sabbath: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Even under the most stringent sabbath regulations, this was a perfectly acceptable thing to do, something this synagogue crowd would have understood. Jesus argues that the same logic applies to this “daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.” Jesus insists that she shouldn’t have to suffer for even one more day. In some ways, this moment is merely an expression of one of Jesus’ more memorable aphorisms: the sabbath was made for people and not people for the sabbath.

Ultimately, however, this is not an argument about the finer points of sabbath observance. The leader of the synagogue is not primarily interested whether the healing of this woman qualifies as an exception to sabbath regulations; his primary concern is about dispensing with the commandments for the sake of just one person. healing_smJesus could have healed this woman any other day of the week; he could have remained in town another day or arrived early. Instead, Jesus heals this woman, this daughter of Abraham from this bondage on the sabbath. What made her so special? More to the point, what made Jesus so special that he could deliberately and provocatively undermine the fourth commandment? This moment in Luke’s gospel exposes one of the most challenging elements of the Christian faith, what some have called “scandal of particularity.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes the gospel known through particular people. He heals the sick, restores sight to the blind, and even raises the dead, but there plenty of sick, blind, and dead people who remain that way. Why does Jesus heal this person and not that person? Though some have attempted to offer explanations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the way Jesus chooses who will experience the healing power of God.

Paradoxically, this is good news. The religious authorities wanted to know what made this woman so special that she should be healed on the sabbath. By freeing her from her bondage, Jesus provides a stunning and resounding answer: nothing. There is nothing that made her worthy of being healed on the sabbath. It was God’s grace, made known through Jesus Christ, that freed her from bondage. The religious authorities saw the healing of this woman in terms of winning and losing. If she was a winner, did that make them losers? By healing this unworthy, un-special woman, Jesus makes an astonishing claim: we are all losers. We are all unworthy. There is nothing that makes us special. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. And here’s the extraordinary thing: since none of us is special, since there is nothing we can do or have done to merit God’s grace, all of us are equally deserving of God’s grace. The critic who suggested we have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner had it exactly right, because none of us is winner. There can be no losers in the kingdom of God because we are all losers.

Our culture tends to make success a measure of our worth. Those who win, those who come in first, those who prove themselves to be special are accorded a superhuman status. Our fascination with elite Olympic athletes is proof enough of this phenomenon. But those who win are equally susceptible to failure. They are plagued by flaws and inadequacies, and a day will come when they will lose. The gospel refuses to equate success and worthiness. In fact, the gospel dispenses with the very concepts of success and worthiness. None of us is worthy of redemption; we are all equally dependent on the grace and mercy of God. In the end, all of the trophies we receive are meaningless; the only thing that truly matters is the extraordinary gift of God’s grace.

Drowning out the Noise

Sermon on Hosea 1:2-10 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Casablanca, Michael Curtiz’ 1942 film about war and romance, may be the most quotable of all time. Every scene seems to contain at least one memorable line, from “Here’s looking at you, kid,” to “We’ll always have Paris.” In a film full of incredible scenes, one scene in particular stands out for what it expresses with almost no dialogue at all. During the scene in question, Victor Laszlo, an idealistic freedom fighter played by Paul Henreid, and Rick Blaine, a cynical expatriate played by Humphrey Bogart, are discussing the merits of resisting the forces of tyranny. Their conversation is interrupted by Nazi officers singing a German patriotic anthem. Laszlo indignantly strides over to the house orchestra and instructs the bandleader to play “La Marseillaise.” The band obliges, and everyone in the cafe stands and sings. Before too long, the singing of the German officers is drowned out by the triumphant strains of the French national anthem. It’s a stirring scene, and it’s especially powerful when you consider the fact that Casablanca was released in 1942, long before Allied victory in the Second World War was assured. This scene held out hope that the chaos and darkness of the world could be overcome, that we could raise our voices in song and drown out the noise of tyranny and oppression.

Yet that is not the most powerful part of this scene. Just before the orchestra begins playing the French national anthem, the bandleader looks to Rick for approval. Until this moment in the film, Rick has been the ultimate pragmatist; earlier in the movie, he excuses himself from a political conversation by saying, “Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.” But, when the bandleader looks to Rick for guidance, Rick nods ever so slightly. If you aren’t paying attention, you’d almost miss it. Yet, that almost imperceptible nod signals a fundamental change in Rick’s character. It is the turning point in the story, the moment Rick’s perspective shifts from that of a pragmatist to that of an idealist, from self-interested cynic to altruistic hero.

A similar shift in perspective colors our reading from the prophet Hosea this morning. Hosea’s words are initially striking for their anger. In some ways, we expect this from prophets. All the Hebrew prophets have moments when they rail against the faithlessness and sinfulness of their people. Hosea’s anger, however, is unique for its uninhibited, no holds barred ferocity. The first verses of the book contain a withering indictment of Israel’s faithlessness. The prophet writes with a pointed rage that dispenses with social niceties: “The land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD.” Hosea goes on to insist that God’s wrath will be complete and merciless: God will “put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel” and “will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them.” Hosea goes so far as to claim that Israel has abdicated its role as God’s chosen people, that God’s people have nullified their covenant with God. His rant concludes with a devastating proclamation from the LORD: “You are not my people, and I am not your God.”

Though this language is uncomfortable, it is consistent with Hosea’s vocation. While “prophet” tends to be synonymous with “seer” in our language, the primary role of the Hebrew prophets was not to predict the future. It was, instead, to tell God’s people that continuing their current trajectory would yield exactly the results they would expect. In other words, the vocation of the Hebrew prophets was to tell people they would have to lie in the bed they had made for themselves. The people of Israel had made quite a bed for themselves: they refused to follow God’s commandments, they failed to act with righteousness toward the marginalized, and they persisted in worshiping idols instead of the one true God. The punishments that Hosea describes are simply the just requirements prescribed by the Law. The collapse of Israelite society is evidence of God’s righteous judgment. As far as Hosea is concerned, his people are getting exactly what they deserve for violating their covenant with God. Israel had repeatedly failed to hold up its end of the bargain, and God was finally fed up.

And yet, that is not where Hosea concludes. This chapter ends with a surprising and subtle shift. In fact, if you weren’t paying attention, you might even miss it. After a blistering litany of condemnations, the prophet writes, “Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’” Though this rhetorical turn is almost imperceptible, it is of enormous consequence. Hosea effectively nullifies the condemnation he pronounced in the preceding verses. Hosea insists that God’s love cannot be erased by the failures of God’s people. This is not an isolated moment. Several chapters later, the prophet offers these words from God: “How can I give you up?…O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal.” Even the noise of Israel’s persistent disobedience is drowned out by the urgent song of God’s grace and love. In the face of Israel’s inevitable and well-deserved condemnation, God offers a categorical “yet.”

One could say that “yet” is the biggest little word in the Bible. It is the word that promises hope when all hope seems lost. It is the word that affirms that God’s covenant with us cannot be nullified by our unfaithfulness. It is the word that raised Jesus Christ from the dead and defeated the powers of sin and death. It is a word that signals a fundamental change in the way we understand our relationship with God. God’s love is not contingent on our ability to follow God’s commandments; in fact, God’s love is not contingent on anything. Instead, God’s love is rooted in the fact that God is God and no mortal, that God will be who God will be. Hosea’s “yet” signals that even the deepest human frailty can be quenched by the even deeper well of God’s grace.

Though we understand the centrality of grace in theory, it is hard for us to put this knowledge into practice. This is especially true when we bear witness to the calamities that have been afflicting the world over the past several months. We tend to feel that we need an answer to all of the problems that plague us before we bother with the question of grace. What we fail to understand is that grace is an answer to these challenges. Grace is an antidote to the chaos and darkness of the world, because it empowers us to shift our perspective. Grace enables us to claim joy in every circumstance, at all times and in all places (always and everywhere). While this shift may be subtle, even imperceptible, it makes all the difference in the world. In the face of the deepest human frailty, we are called offer Hosea’s “yet,” and proclaim the unfathomable depth of God’s grace and love. We are called to sing of God’s faithfulness, trusting that our song can drown out the noise.

God’s Economy

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite its rich cultural heritage, the city of Boston has very few iconic songs. Cities like New York can claim an enviable discography that includes the likes of Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, and Jay-Z. Meanwhile, many of the songs about Boston are written by a punk rock band called The Dropkick Murphys, and they feature lots of screaming. Perhaps the best-loved Boston anthem was recorded by a group called the Standells in 1966. Even though the group was from California, this song has become the quintessential Boston song: it’s played at the end of winning Red Sox and Bruins games and has been honored by the Massachusetts legislature. You would probably expect this beloved song to pay homage to some honorable figure or moment from Boston’s storied past, like Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party. But the song is actually called “Dirty Water,” a reference to the less than clean Charles River.

It's actually not so dirty anymore...
It’s actually not so dirty anymore…

The song describes some of the frustrations with living in Boston (especially if you were a rock star in the 1960s) but always returns to this cheerful refrain: “I love that Dirty Water; Boston you’re my home.” Yes, Boston’s favorite song, the song that most embodies the Bostonian spirit is an ode to a river so polluted that Harper’s Magazine once described it as “foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Nevertheless, Bostonians really do love that dirty water. Even though it is disgusting to outsiders, the Charles River is an emblem of Boston’s collective identity: its gritty tenacity, its stubborn refusal to be bullied, and its awesome capacity to survive. Even though they probably wouldn’t swim in it and certainly wouldn’t drink out of it, Bostonians love that dirty water because it helps them understand who they are.

Though the Jordan River is not nearly as dirty as the Charles, it must have looked similarly unimpressive to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman is one of the more relatable characters in the Hebrew Bible. We all come to a point when we realize that our ability to control our own lives extends only so far. Namaan, who had control over so many aspects of his life (he was wealthy, commanded an army, had political clout) had no control whatsoever over leprosy, this debilitating and alienating skin disease. We can understand his enthusiasm when someone tells him about Elisha: “Finally! Here is someone I can pay to regain control over my life.” When Naaman heads south to Samaria, he carries all the trappings of someone who is prepared to do anything to get what he wants: sacks of gold and silver and truckloads of expensive garments to barter with. He is ready to pay dearly for Elisha’s help. But when he arrives at the prophet’s door with his retinue, Elisha does not greet him as a foreign dignitary, but sends out a servant, who tells Namaan to follow the laws set out in Leviticus and to bathe seven times in the dirty waters of the Jordan River. Now the rivers in Namaan’s homeland are much more impressive and support the livelihoods of many more people than the Jordan; the name of one of the rivers, the Abana, can actually be translated “golden stream.” It’s no real surprise, in other words, that Namaan says “aren’t the rivers of my homeland better than all the waters of this Podunk country?” As we know, the Jordan, like the Charles in Boston, was much more than just a waterway for the people of Israel, it was a symbol of God’s power. God could use even the dirty waters of the Jordan to redeem God’s people. In a very real way, the Jordan reminded the people of Israel of their collective identity as a people who belonged to God. Naaman, however, was incapable of seeing this. Instead of welcoming the elegant simplicity of Elisha’s solution, Naaman balks. This was a man who was used to getting what he asks for when he asks for it, and as far as he is concerned, Elisha has told him to jump in a river.

Naaman was told that he had to do something very simple to achieve his aims, and yet he could not make sense of this. He thought that it couldn’t possibly be that simple. This world is a complicated place; people appreciate effort and authority and credentials and wealth. How could the power of God be given to those who simply wash themselves in a dirty river? How is it that Naaman, who was prepared to pay good money for his cure, was given the same solution he would have been given if he were a poor beggar who had nothing to offer?

We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.
We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.

What Naaman failed to understand is the crucial difference between the economy of God and that of the world. Naaman assumed that he would have to barter with Elisha, that his relationship with the God of Israel would be a quid pro quo kind of interaction. But God does not operate within this economy of exchange. God’s is an economy of grace, an economy of gift, an economy of abundant love that overshadows the wealth and influence of this world. Naaman was focused on what he could do; Elisha reminded him to focus instead on what God can do and what God has done.

Over the past several months, a variety of media outlets have published some version of the same article. The thesis is pretty straightforward: we should stop saying “sorry” when we mean “thank you.” If I am late for a lunch appointment, for instance, I shouldn’t say, “Sorry I’m late,” but rather, “Thank you for waiting.” For the most part, the articles have counseled that this helps us to become less anxious and generally kinder people. This subtle shift, however, does more than reduce our anxiety; indeed, it changes the way we experience the world. When we say “sorry,” we, like Namaan, assume an economy of exchange. We assume that when someone does something for us, we are in their debt. This leads us to keep track of every gesture of goodwill and every insult in order to ensure that our ledger is balanced. Ultimately, this worldview results in either shame or entitlement: shame when we get more than we deserve, entitlement when we get less. Saying “thank you,” however, dispenses with this economy of exchange. Gratitude assumes an economy of grace because it recognizes that everything is a gift. If everything is a gift, nothing is actually deserved. Gratitude precludes both entitlement and shame. This is what Paul was getting at when he referred to “new creation” in the climactic verses of Galatians. The new creation is where the economy of grace is operative. The new creation is where we dispense with the economy of exchange and shift our focus from what we can do to what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gratitude is how we inhabit this new creation. Gratitude allows us to experience life as a gift from God and helps us understand who we truly are: a people who belong to God.

True Repentance

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Byrn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Every time we renew our baptismal vows, we answer the following question: “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” This question makes a somewhat surprising assumption, namely that falling into sin is inevitable and that repentance is something we will have to do over and over and over again throughout our lives of faith. This is not at all what we expect. As you probably know, “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.” Repentance, in other words, is about turning our lives around and starting with a clean slate; it is the means by which we turn away from our sins and live righteously. It is something that we should only have to do once. And yet, we know that this is not true. We know that no matter how hard we try, we will fall into sin. We know that no matter how much we want to give up self destructive behavior, we will invariably fall back into our old patterns. Moreover, our failure leads us to feel guilty and frustrated with ourselves. It’s enough to make us think that we should just give up the possibility of renewal, that any effort at living righteously is ultimately hopeless.

Repentance is a theme that appears repeatedly in the gospel narratives. All three of the synoptic gospels begin with John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus takes up this mantle: in both accounts, Jesus inaugurates his public ministry by announcing the nearness of the kingdom of God and saying, “Repent and believe in the good news.” In this sense, Jesus is the successor to John the Baptist. He is carrying on a mission that was begun by someone else. Though he transforms this mission and brings it to its conclusion in a way that no one before him could, the mission that Jesus fulfills in the gospels of Matthew and Mark ultimately originated with someone else. This is not true of Luke’s gospel. In fact, Luke does not mention repentance at all once John departs the scene. While this may just be a narrative quirk of Luke’s gospel, it is unlikely that Luke ignored a theme as significant as repentance for mere stylistic reasons. It is far more likely that Luke has a unique and challenging understanding of repentance.

We see a glimpse of Luke’s unique vision of repentance in our gospel reading this morning. Most interpreters of Luke note that the moment when Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem is the pivot point the gospel. This is no surprise. The idea of “setting one’s face” comes up pretty frequently in Scripture: the psalmist uses the expression to indicate resolve in the face of adversity, the prophets use the phrase to highlight their righteous indignation against their people. Even apart from the Scriptural allusions, Luke’s point is clear: Jesus has turned in the direction of his destiny. plowing-cottonEverything Jesus will do from this point on will be shaped by his inexorable march toward his crucifixion and death at the hands of the authorities. We see this play out immediately. Jesus plows through Samaria, refusing to address the ancient grudge between Jews and Samaritans and ignoring his disciples as they dwell on petty slights. He tells those who would follow him that they can neither bury their dead nor say goodbye to their families. To underscore his point, Jesus announces that anyone who puts a hand to the plow and even turns back for a moment is unfit for the kingdom of God. The only thing that matters now is the fact that Jesus has turned toward Jerusalem to fulfill his destiny.

It is in this moment that Luke very subtly returns to the theme of repentance. Though he doesn’t use the word, the physical act of repenting is there: the lynchpin of Jesus’ ministry is marked by a literal turning. Implicit to this moment is an understanding that Jesus is the only one who can do what he is about to do. Jesus is the only one who can submit to and transcend the violence of this world without looking back. Jesus, in other words, is the only one who can truly repent, once and for all. Only Jesus can turn toward his destiny without being hamstrung by fear, doubt, or regret. Only Jesus is truly fit for the kingdom of God.

This is enormously significant for us. We tend to assume that if we try really hard, we can turn away from sin, that we can make ourselves fit for the kingdom of God. The bystanders who would follow Jesus, however, demonstrate the folly of this thinking. No matter how dedicated we may be, something will always distract us from fulfilling our goal. None of us is able to put a hand to the plow without looking back. The fact is, any effort at living righteously that depends on us is hopeless. We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. Every time we attempt to make ourselves righteous, every time we try to overcome our sins, every time we turn repentance into a self improvement project, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The great paradox of the Christian life is this: we can only turn in the direction we are meant to go when we recognize that we are powerless to do so on our own. It is God through Jesus Christ who makes us fit for the kingdom of God. It is God through Jesus Christ who empowers us to live in righteousness and peace. It is God through Jesus Christ who frees us to live the life we have been called to live.

To be clear, this freedom is not mere libertinism. Paul makes this clear when he reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence. Moreover, this freedom does not negate our responsibilities to one another. Paul highlights this when he tells the Galatians they should use their freedom to become slaves to one another. Rather, Jesus Christ frees us to be defined, not by what we have done, but by what God has done for us. The freedom God offers through Jesus Christ unshackles us from our failures and empowers us to hope for the future. In this sense, our repentance is less about what we have turned away from and more about who we have turned toward: Jesus Christ, the one who set off to defeat the power of sin and never looked back.

The Full Stature of Christ

Sermon on Galatians 1:11-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Though he loved performing as a young man, Gary Stocker’s career initially took a very different path. After excelling in school, he studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. By the time he was thirty, he was living very comfortably: he had a lucrative salary and a house with a pool in the London suburbs. By any objective standard, Gary was walking an enviable path: he was well-respected and almost guaranteed to have gainful employment for the rest of his working life. imgresThat changed when a friend of his made an unusual request: he wanted Gary’s help building a cannon suitable for a human cannonball stunt (I suppose everyone needs a hobby). For several months, the cannon languished in his backyard until another friend, who was starting a circus, wondered whether Gary, who never quite lost his love of performing, would close the show with a human cannonball stunt. With that invitation, Gary Stocker abandoned the job security, predictable salary, and social prestige of the law for a career as a human cannonball.

For the most part, we tend to admire people who do what Gary did. We often tell our kids how important it is for them to pursue their passions, just like Gary. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we repeat with confidence. In some ways, Gary Stocker is the embodiment of this truism. His own words are revealing: “the elation I felt the first time I performed the stunt in public was incredible.” This is clearly a man who has found his passion. At the same time, one of the reasons we admire Gary is because we recognize we could never do what he did. His career change seems irresponsible at best and reckless at worst. It’s one thing when someone makes a dramatic career change after losing everything, but Gary willingly gave up everything to venture into the unknown. Most of us can’t imagine giving up everything he gave up: not only the predictable salary and job security, but also the years of study and work that went into becoming a lawyer. Sure, he’s doing what he loves, but how could throw all that away?

Like the lawyer turned human cannonball, Paul also experienced a significant change in his vocation. This morning, we hear Paul remind us of that vocational shift when he tells the Galatians of his “earlier life in Judaism.” “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it,” he recalls. But as we all know, Paul went from a zealous persecutor of the Church to its most enthusiastic apostle. He left everything behind to become a minister of the gospel. And lest the Galatians think that Paul converted because he lost everything or hit rock bottom, he is careful to explain, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul had everything going for him; he was respected by his peers and was cultivating a position of authority in his religious community. His future was secure. Paul wasn’t looking to change anything about his life when he received his revelation of the gospel. In fact, he couldn’t have imagined being an apostle to the Gentiles. Therein lies the crucial difference between Paul and others who have changed their vocations, like Gary Stocker. While Gary had always nurtured a passion for performance, Paul had never considered that his vocation would be to proclaim good news to the Gentiles. Gentiles weren’t even on Paul’s radar. Prior to his conversion, Paul, like all first century Jews, understood the world to be divided between Jew and Gentile, between covenant insiders and covenant outsiders, between those who followed the Law of Moses and everybody else. Gentiles simply did not belong. This deeply held belief was a fundamental element of the Jewish tradition. In other words, the revelation Paul received from God not only forced him to abandon a secure future, but also to reevaluate the way he understood the world, to give up everything that made sense to him, to empty himself of everything he thought was important for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that for Paul, it is this act of emptying that defines what God does through Jesus Christ. In another letter to another community, Paul articulates that though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. It is easy to miss the significance of this statement. There are few things in this world that we value more than security. Whether it is the basic yearning for physical safety, or the impulse to predict what will happen tomorrow, or the desire to know that our lives are meaningful; security is an elemental human aspiration. Yet this is what Jesus Christ gives up at the most fundamental level. He gives up the deeply human desire for security and willingly submits to the evil powers of this world. He forfeits the one thing that all of us cling to with everything we have. And in spite of his death at the hands of the authorities, Christ Jesus was vindicated in the resurrection. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ accomplishes something that no one else can accomplish: he nullifies the power of the death and frees us to live in the shadow of God’s grace. This is animating force behind Paul’s conversion. Through the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, Paul was able to give up everything he thought made him secure and gave his life meaning and recognize that his true worth came from God alone.

In our baptismal service, the parents and godparents of a child about to be baptized are asked a curious question: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” This is an unusual term, and it would be easy to assume that growing into the full stature of Christ is about acting like Jesus, which is ultimately an impossible goal. I wonder, however, if the meaning of this phrase can be found in the words of Paul. Before he explains how Christ emptied himself, abdicated his desire for security, and became obedient to death, Paul invites us to “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Paul suggests that we too are to give up our preoccupation with security, to let go of our desire for predictability, to recognize that our true worth comes not from what everyone else thinks of us, but from God alone. Growing into the full stature of Christ is about letting this mind of Christ be in us. It is about recognizing that everything we think is important, everything we think is worthwhile, everything we think defines us, everything we think will guarantee our security is not worth comparing with the grace that has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.