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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

Invitation

The week between January 18 and 25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Heavenly Rest observed this occasion by having a pulpit exchange with First Central Presbyterian Church in Abilene, TX.  What follows is a sermon on John 1:35-51 offered to the people of First Central Presbyterian.

Indulge me for a moment, if you’d be so kind.  Think about the television show Wheel of Fortune.  What is the first image that comes to your mind?  While I’m no mind reader, I’d bet anything that for the vast majority of people, the first image that Wheel of Fortune conjures is Vanna White, clad in sparkly evening gown, revealing letters on a game board.  Am I right? 

For those of you who either haven’t seen or aren’t aware of this television show, Wheel of Fortune is a game show in which contestants solve hangman-style word puzzles to win cash and prizes determined by spinning this giant carnival wheel.  For the past 25 years, the show has been hosted by the aforementioned Vanna White, who reveals the correctly guessed letters from the puzzles, and Pat Sajak, who explains the rules of the game, makes small talk with the contestants, and is responsible for the giant wheel.  vanna whiteVanna is virtually silent and has very little to do during the course of the television show; all she has to do is point.  Pat, on the other hand, has to work the room like a small-town politician; he’s constantly encouraging people when they want to solve the puzzle or feigning interest in their mostly tedious anecdotes or consoling them when they lose.  It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the person most associated with Wheel of Fortune is not the guy who communicates with the contestants and operates the eponymous wheel; it is the woman who shows us the answer.  Apparently this is a source of some consternation for Mr. Sajak.  I heard a hilarious radio interview with him a few months ago.  Evidently, when people see him on the street, the first thing they ask him is: “Where’s Vanna?”  Sajak intimated that he would like to respond, “Why are you asking me?  We don’t live together!  And why do you care?  All she has to do is point to the letters!  She doesn’t even have to turn them around anymore; it’s all computerized!” 

While I suspect Mr. Sajak was being somewhat sarcastic, his question is an interesting one.  Why is it that we are more likely to be interested in Vanna White than Pat Sajak?  Why is Vanna White the first person we think of when we think about Wheel of Fortune?  I don’t think it is just because she wears beautiful clothes and seems like a pleasant person.  I believe that there something deeper at play.  There something about the human condition that attracts us to people who reveal things to us.  There something deep within us that draws us to people whose job it is to say “Let me show you.”

A few moments ago, we heard the gospel of John’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  For those of us familiar with this story from other gospels, John’s account is decidedly unfamiliar.  There is no miraculous catch of fish, there is no abandoning of nets by the shore, there is no “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Instead, John tells us about these individual encounters with Jesus, and they’re all pretty strange.  First, John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Unlike the other gospel accounts, there is no conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist; there is simply a declarative statement that reveals Jesus’ identity.  In the next encounter, one of John’s disciples asks Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  It’s an odd question to our ears (why would this guy care where Jesus is staying?), but this is how student-teacher relationships started in the ancient world.  A potential disciple would ask a rabbi where he was staying, and then present himself at the threshold of that teacher’s door early the next morning, demonstrating his devotion to studying under his tutelage.  So while the disciple’s question seems strange, it is actually Jesus’ response that is odd; instead of waiting for the disciple to present himself as a supplicant the next morning, Jesus tells him immediately, “Come and see.”  It’s as if John is saying that what Jesus is revealing to the world can’t wait for morning; it has to happen right away.  Hot on the heels of this encounter is the meeting of Jesus and Simon. The moment that Jesus looks at Simon, he says, “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas.”  In John’s gospel, Peter doesn’t get his nickname after correctly identifying Jesus as the Messiah; Jesus reveals it to him in the first five seconds of knowing him.  The final encounter is easily the strangest one.  After wondering sarcastically if anything good can come out of Nazareth, Nathanael approaches Jesus, who says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  This statement eventually leads Nathanael to identify Jesus as Son of God and King of Israel.

In some ways, this whole sequence is absurd.  No one walks around exchanging declarative statements like this and no one ends every sentence with an exclamation point (unless that person’s name is Richard Simmons); it’s just not how human beings communicate.  I’m confident that John understood this, that he deliberately chose to present these encounters with Jesus in a bizarre way.  This leaves us to wonder what the gospel writer is trying to tell us.  It’s pretty clear that for John, the revelation of Jesus Christ is something that simply can’t be contained.  Carousel june bustinThose of you who are familiar with musical theater may know the song “June is busting out all over” from Carousel; in the first chapter of John’s gospel, revelations are busting out all over.  For John the Baptist the mere presence of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Lamb of God and indicates that God is manifest in him.  In a similar way, Peter’s encounter with Jesus is an opportunity for conversion and transformation; it represents a call to a new vocation that is informed by the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.  So on one hand, it might seem as though John is telling us that if we truly encounter Jesus, the effects are immediate: we will immediately recognize him and our lives will be transformed accordingly.  Christian history is filled with dramatic conversion experiences like these, stories of people who have had epiphanies of Jesus Christ that have led them to change their lives completely.  Indeed, I think that there is a popular assumption that the only way you can experience God is if you have had a sudden and dramatic conversion.  Part of the reason for this is that our culture loves conversion stories.  We love to identify those moments that changed people’s lives; we love stories about people who reoriented all of their priorities after a single dramatic experience.  Why else would the notion of “love at first sight” be so universally compelling?  Sure, we love love, but more importantly, we love a good conversion story.  And from what we read this morning, it seems that John is suggesting that this is the way God operates, that our encounter with Jesus Christ should represent one of these conversion moments, that as soon as we experience the Word made flesh, we should feel inexorably motivated to reorient our priorities and transform our lives completely.

This is certainly how it worked for numerous people throughout Christian history.  The stories of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther, to name but a few, are all informed by this emphasis on conversion and transformation.  These men were living a certain way, had an epiphany of the living God, and then proceeded to live their lives in a radically different way.  As compelling as these conversion stories are, however, it is vitally important for us to recognize the other, more gradual ways that God can be manifest to us.  And while John gives us dramatic examples of conversion in his account of Jesus’ early ministry, he also gives us compelling instances where God’s purposes are revealed in a more subtle way.  There is, of course, the nameless disciple of John whom Jesus invites to “come and see.”  We do not read that this disciple felt compelled to change everything about himself; instead, Jesus invited him into a relationship, a relationship that wasn’t predicated on any particular result.  Even more powerful is the example of Philip and Nathanael.  After Philip tells Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” Nathanael’s caustic response is, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Nazareth was something of a backwater, not terribly well regarded, especially by those from the more cosmopolitan cities around the Galilee, like Bethsaida.  Nathanael’s question has particular resonance for me, as my hometown was a place that was not terribly well regarded.  hartfordI have heard a version of “Can anything good come out of Hartford” more than a few times in my life.  My response to remarks like this tended to be defensive and sometimes angry.  I would ball my fists and list all of the luminaries who had called Hartford, CT home, from Mark Twain to Katherine Hepburn.  I would, in other words, shut down the conversation.  But notice that’s exactly what Philip does not do with Nathanael.  Instead of responding defensively, Philip responds with an invitation: “Come and see.”  Instead of shutting down the conversation and telling Nathanael to go find his own Messiah, Philip turns to him and says, “Let me show you what good can come out of Nazareth.  Let me show you what God is up to in this Jesus.  Let me show how your life can be different.”

It occurs to me that in many ways, this is the nature of our vocation as Christians.  We are called to be like Philip, and if you’ll permit me, we’re called to be like Vanna White.  We are called to show the world the good that has come out of Nazareth.  We are called to show the world what God is up to in this Jesus.  We are called to show the people of this world how their lives can be different.  This is a challenging time in the history of the Church.  In the face of scandal, abuse, denominational infighting, and whole host of other issues, fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves as Christians.  People look at the plethora of Christian denominations and wonder whether there is anything that they can agree on, if there is any point to them trying to have a conversation.  More and more, the Church is regarded as an irrelevant artifact of a patriarchal past, one that is destined gradually to disappear.  In short, people are asking, “Can anything good come out of the Church?”  Even though we might be inclined to respond defensively, the God we serve calls us to invitation.  Even though we might want to avoid challenging conversations, the God we worship calls us to say, “Let me show you.”  Let me show you the Medical Care Mission, a ministry of this church that has provided people with low incomes with health care for thirty years.  Let me show you Christians of many denominations serving breakfast to the working poor over at First Christian before the sun comes up every day of the week.  Let me show you people from a variety of backgrounds worshiping together with silence and song as they gather for ecumenical Taize services.  Let me show you a group of people committed to serving their community and seeking Christ in everyone they meet.  Let me show you love.  It is in the moments that we acknowledge and celebrate our love for one another, our love for our community, and God’s love for everyone in this broken world that we most vividly show the world what good the Church can do.  Ultimately, the Church does not exist for itself; it exists for the transformation of the world.  In that regard, we cannot reach out to the people of world with the intention of getting them to become Episcopalians or Presbyterians; we must reach out to the people of the world with the intention of showing them how much God loves them.  This week of prayer for Christian Unity that we celebrate today is an opportunity to do just that, an opportunity for us to embrace our Christian vocation, our call to be in relationship with the world and invite the world to come and see.