Religious Energy

Sermon on John 12:20-33 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

A few years ago, I went to Boston’s Museum of Science on a Friday evening to view an exhibit about the Dead Sea Scrolls. I assumed that I and my party would be among the few people there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the Dead Sea Scrolls aren’t fascinating; it’s just that I would suspect that most people have better things to do with their Friday nights than examine ancient religious manuscripts. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered a long, snaking line to enter the exhibit hall. Hundreds of people had come to the museum to learn about a two thousand year old ascetic religious community and view its sacred texts. While there were plenty of people who taking respectful stock of the Bronze Age knick knacks the museum had acquired to supplement the show, the vast majority of the museumgoers were in the room that contained the scroll fragments. There was a palpable energy that has stayed with me ever since. It was striking that on a Friday night in one of the most secular cities in the country, people were squinting to decipher the name of God on these ancient religious texts.

Paradoxically, the secularization of our culture has done little to dampen religious fervor. In fact, the more secular our culture has become, the more it has become clear that human beings seem to have an innate religious energy, a need to be wholly devoted to something. As faith has become less prominent in people’s lives, they have found other outlets for their religious energy. What once would have been mere interests or even passions have taken on an altogether different quality. Consider the zeal with which we pursue our fitness goals these days. No longer are we content to hit the gym every so often: now we have to keep track of every workout and try to achieve personal bests everytime we lace up our sneakers. Fitness programs like Crossfit have been jestingly compared to cults. marathon-car1Next time you’re driving around, count how many “26.2” stickers you see: I’d wager it’s more than the number of bumper stickers advertising a faith community. This ardor is not limited to our physical health: it extends to our professional accomplishments, political preferences, and a whole host of other matters. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with caring about our health, our careers, or the state of our country. The problem arises when we wholly devote ourselves to these things that are, by their nature, passing away. Our bodies will eventually break down. No matter how indispensable we are at work, we will be replaced someday. And there is no government in the history of human civilization that has not ultimately collapsed. Many of us are locating our religious energy in that which is ephemeral, rather than that which is eternal.

This morning’s gospel reading is one of the stranger passages from John’s gospel, which is saying something. The most jarring aspect of this passage is the apparent incongruity between what is asked of Jesus and how he responds. John tells us that some Greeks approach the disciples and tell them that they wish to see Jesus. This request is pretty much out of the blue. We have no idea who these Greeks are. If we think about John’s intended readers, however, the situation becomes a little clearer. One of John’s primary tasks was to make the story of Jesus, a relatively uneducated rabbi from the frontier of the Roman Empire, compelling and intelligible to a sophisticated audience. In the first century, there was nothing classier or more sophisticated than Greek philosophy. These Greeks who wish to see Jesus, in other words, are stand ins for John’s audience. Moreover, it seems that their purpose is to evaluate Jesus, to get a sense of his philosophy and see how it compares with the other ones. Is he more of a Neoplatonist? A Stoic? A Cynic? Something else entirely? We can safely assume that these Greeks were looking for something that would help them make sense of the world.

If this is the case, then they were almost certainly disappointed. The juxtaposition between the Greeks’ request and Jesus’ response is almost comic. The disciples approach Jesus and say, “Hey, there are some Greeks who want to see you.” Jesus replies by saying, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” But arguably it is only through the starkness of the comparison that we begin to see what Jesus is trying to say. As he haltingly wrestles with the reality of his imminent death, Jesus finds deep comfort and confidence in the integrity and faithfulness of God. Because God is God, there is no need to fear. When God’s name is glorified, the fruit is eternal life. Jesus, in other words, does not offer a worldview; he offers a perspective informed by eternity, a sense that there is something about us that will endure. All of the philosophies the Greeks would have had in mind were ephemeral: limited in their scope and unable to shift our perspective on the world. Jesus offers something fundamentally different: not a way to make sense of the world, but a way of looking at the world differently.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a parishioner who hadn’t been at church in a little while. He described weekend trips, family responsibilities, and the challenge of getting children out the door on a Sunday morning; things that often stand in the way of church attendance. But throughout the conversation, he kept saying, “I’m just so glad I came today.” The very same day, I had a conversation with another parishioner who pulled me aside and said, “Where is everybody?” I started to explain that some people were still recovering from the Nor’easter, that some people had the flu, didn’t have power, when she interrupted me: “No. Where is everybody? Everybody needs to hear the message the Church is proclaiming.”

Whether they knew it or not, both of these parishioners understood how important it is to locate our religious energy in that which is eternal. We no longer have the authority to compel or coerce church attendance. This is probably a good thing, but it also means that other activities and responsibilities often take precedence. Gradually, we begin to devote ourselves entirely to ephemeral concerns, and we think of the eternal only on occasion, if at all. I hope I don’t sound like a scold, because that’s not my intention. I suppose the question I would like you to ask yourself is this: where are you locating your religious energy? What if we thought of Church not as another obligation, not as another place where we can try to make sense of the world, but as a place where we go, week by week, to hold eternity in mind? I suspect we would be glad we came. More importantly, I suspect we would look at the world differently.

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The only thing we have to fear

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

History_Speeches_1147_FDR_First_Inaugural_Address_still_624x352When Franklin Roosevelt took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the United States had been enduring the most significant economic crisis of its history for almost three and a half years. After the market crashed in 1929, the average household income plummeted more than forty percent. Half of the nation’s banks had failed, and crippling drought drove millions of people from their homes and livelihoods in the Great Plains. By 1933, one out of every four American workers was unemployed. It was, in other words, one of the darkest chapters in our nation’s history. Roosevelt acknowledged this with astonishing candor in his inaugural address. He refused to sugarcoat or downplay the challenges of the Great Depression: “This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly,” he averred. This context makes that immortal line all the more surprising: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For Roosevelt, fear was more pernicious than any of the adversity we had endured or any of the calamities we had yet to experience. Fear was a bigger obstacle than unemployment, drought, or financial ruin. And so before the First 100 Days, before the New Deal, before he did anything, Franklin Roosevelt argued that that the biggest challenge our country faced in responding to the Great Depression was to cast out fear.

The gospel according to Mark was written during one of the darkest chapters in the history of God’s people, a time of great uncertainty and fear. Most scholars agree that the gospel was written around the time of the Jewish War, which was Rome’s final showdown with the recalcitrant residents of Judea. Though the Jewish people always retained certain privileges in the empire, including the freedom to worship their own God in the Temple, their repeated attempts to oust their occupiers finally exhausted Rome’s patience. While this was not the first time Judea had experienced violent retribution from the Roman authorities, most people in Jerusalem recognized that this time would be different, that Rome’s vengeance would be absolute. Mark captures the totality of the anticipated destruction when he quotes that ominous prediction of Jesus: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The situation was indeed bleak for God’s people: Jerusalem was surrounded by hostile forces, the Temple was about to be destroyed, and the Jewish way of life was about to come to a violent end. If ever there was a time to fear, this was it.

Yet, Jesus specifically enjoins his disciples not to be afraid. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars,” when you see armies at the gate, when you feel that your world is coming to an end, “do not be alarmed.” This advice is almost shocking, especially in light of the fact that Jesus goes on to list a host of other calamities, including uprisings, earthquakes, and famines. Nevertheless, Jesus asserts that the greatest trial God’s people will face is fear. This diagnosis seems almost laughably naive when we think about the state of the world. The calamities Jesus describes are painfully familiar: destructive weather events have become commonplace, millions of American children go to bed not knowing where their next meal with come from, and just this week, terrorists murdered hundreds of innocent people in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. It seems that every day our equilibrium is shaken, that every day we are reminded how truly vulnerable we are. As we bear witness to all of this human misery, devastation, and death, how are we not to be alarmed?

It’s easy to read the last line of this passage with a sense of dread: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs,” as if to say, there is much more to come, or “you thought this was bad, wait until what comes next!” But the word that Mark uses, the one our version translates as “birth pangs,” is very specific to birth. It is a word that connotes not only the agony of childbirth, but also the joy that comes with bringing another human being into world. Those of you who have children know: even though the process of raising a child can be difficult and painful, there is an persistent and inescapable joy that exists at the very heart of being a parent. The hours in labor, the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy and failure, all melt away when you hold that child in your arms. This is why Jesus specifically refers to birth pangs: not so that we think about pain, but so that we think about birth, so that we remember the joy at the heart of the gospel. This is a joy that has the power to cast out fear. It is a joy that has the power to remind us that God is present even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a joy that Jesus embodied on the cross, when he put his life and his death in God’s hands, when he trusted that both his life and death were part of God’s story. Indeed, by framing the end of the world as we know it within the context of birth, Mark affirms that God is present in all our beginnings and endings. This astonishing statement demands a mature sense of God’s Providence, a persistent and inescapable belief that everything; every beginning and ending, every victory and defeat, every life and death; that everything belongs to God. This fundamental truth of our faith is incompatible with fear; Jesus tells his disciples not to be alarmed not because he is naive, but because fear prevents us from recognizing that even the things we are afraid of belong to God.

On Friday, more than 125 people in Paris were killed by terrorists acting at the behest of ISIS. In the wake of the attacks, countless religious leaders from every tradition have condemned the attacks, giving voice to our collective grief and outrage. One imam in particular offered a particularly cogent reflection: “Terrorists have no religion whatsoever. Their religion is intolerance, hatred for peace.” The so-called Islamic State’s view of the world is warped, not just because it is predicated on violence and extremism, but because it assumes the world can be cleansed of anything inconsistent with its narrow and twisted interpretation of Islam, that the ap631649421158world God created somehow contains people who do not belong. This intolerance cannot exist in true religion, because true religion requires us to trust not in our own will, not in our own prejudices, not in our own power, but in the power of God. True religion requires us to recognize that nothing exists that is ultimately apart from God. This morning, it would be tempting for us to adopt a posture of vengeance or of apathy, to clamor for retribution or throw up our hands in despair. These responses, however, are ultimately rooted in fear, because they forget the all-encompassing reality of God’s Providence. The gospel calls us courageously to claim joy even in the midst of our darkest moments. It calls us to remember that the towers and temples in our lives, though built with toil and care, will fall to dust, but that our hope is ultimately founded on God. It calls us to put our trust in the God who is present in our beginnings and endings. Above all, the gospel calls us to cast out fear and remember this fundamental truth of our faith: that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God.

Forgetting to Remember

Sermon on Genesis 9:8-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  To hear audio of this sermon, click here.

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Jill Price. To read an article about her condition, click here.

Jill Price, a forty-something school administrator from California, remembers everything that has happened to her since she was eleven years old.  I want to make it very clear, I don’t mean that she has particularly vivid memories of her senior prom or the first time she travelled abroad.  Rather, Ms. Price remembers what she had for breakfast three decades ago. As a result of her unique and remarkable memory, psychological professionals have diagnosed Price with an otherwise unknown condition called hyperthymesia.  Others have simply and more romantically dubbed her, “The Woman who can’t Forget.”

Though some have questioned whether Price’s astonishing memory is the result of hyperthymesia or a form of obsessive compulsive disorder, the practical consequences are the same: Jill Price has an extraordinarily difficult time making decisions.  You might think that a long and detailed memory would be an advantage when dealing with a dilemma, that recalling a similar situation would give one perspective when making a decision.  For Price, however, the opposite is true.  She is so overwhelmed with memories that she has no idea how to discern which are important.  In other words, she lacks the crucial ability to forget. Neuroscientists contend that one of the reasons human beings forget is so that we can recognize the importance of what we actually remember.  Ironically, Jill Price’s paralyzing ability to recall every detail of her past effectively prevents her from remembering anything of lasting significance.  The flood of information about who she was prevents her from becoming who she is meant to be.

In Scripture, there is an interesting tension around the notion of memory.  On one hand, memory is held up as one of the primary virtues of the community of faith.  Israel, for instance, was commanded to remember its liberation from the land of Egypt.  Jesus commanded his disciples to eat the Eucharistic meal in order to remember him.  On the other hand, there are moments in Scripture when God’s people are exhorted to forget.  In Isaiah, the LORD instructs the exiled nation of Israel “not to remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul implies that the Christian life is about “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”  The writers of the Old and New Testaments, in other words, indicate that there is a complicated relationship between faith and memory.

imgresNowhere is this ambivalence more clearly articulated than in the passage we heard from Genesis this morning.  The story of the flood is one of the most familiar in Scripture.  Not only is it an important reference point in the biblical witness, it is also an indelible part of popular culture; just think about how many nurseries are decorated with images of Noah standing on an ark full of smiling animals.  But there is a way in which the very ubiquity of this story has taken away its power.  For many people, the story of the flood is so familiar, so timeworn, that it has become cliched.  But it is important for us to see this story not as a mere fairy tale about a rainstorm and a boat full of animals, but as the foundational statement about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.

The first pages of Genesis do not paint a particularly flattering picture of human beings.  After God creates the heavens and the earth in the first two chapters, it’s pretty much downhill from there.  From chapter 3 onward, all we read about is how human beings tried to put themselves in God’s place, whether it was Adam and Eve disobeying God’s explicit instruction regarding the Tree of Knowledge or Cain jealously murdering his brother.  The first chapters of Genesis describe a downward spiral of sin.  At the beginning of the flood story, the writer explains that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”  As a result, God is sorry that he created human beings.  God’s heart is grieved that these beings created to have free will used that very freedom to turn away from God.  God is heartbroken, and God decides to start over, to give the world a new birth, to blot out what he had made and start again.

But here is the astonishing thing.  God decides to save a small group of righteous human beings, the very creatures who had abused their freedom and sent the world into a tailspin of destructive sin.  It is implicitly illogical.  God knows that when these creatures with free will are left to their own devices, they ignore God and turn toward themselves.  And yet, God includes them in the renewal of creation. Moreover, even though God was working with these same disobedient creatures, after the flood God promises “never again will all flesh be cut off,” that the world will never again be destroyed as a result of humanity’s disobedience.  The Hebrew word the writer uses also implies that as a result of this covenant, it is impossible for us to be completely separated from God’s faithfulness and love.  Notice that this covenant is completely one-sided.  It is not contingent on whether human beings shape up.  God pledges to remember this everlasting covenant regardless of our repeated attempts to put ourselves in God’s place.  It is here that the complicated relationship between faith and memory becomes most evident.  In order to remember this everlasting covenant with Noah, God has to forget the countless ways that God’s people have rejected him.  Indeed, the remainder of Scripture is the story of God’s repeated attempts to draw us to himself and our repeated failure to respond.  God made a covenant with Abraham, gave the Law to Moses at Sinai, brought God’s people into the Promised Land, instituted a monarchy, sent prophets to warn God’s people, placed them into exile, brought them back from exile and still we refused to respond.  Nevertheless, God was able to forget all of these rejections because they were overshadowed by the memory of God’s covenant with Noah: the foundational promise a that there is nothing we can do to cut off our relationship with God.

In many ways, Lent embodies the tension of faith and memory.  It is a season that begins with a potent reminder of our mortality and ends with a reenactment of the final days of Jesus’ life.  At the same time, it is a period when we forego certain aspects of our lives, forgetting, if only for a time, our typical routine.  This paradox helps us remember Lent’s true purpose.  Lent is not about giving things up in order to somehow please God.  Rather, this season is an opportunity to forget everything that distracts us from our relationship with God so that we can remember God’s enduring faithfulness.  It is a time to name and forget our failures so that they can be overwhelmed by the memory of God’s everlasting covenant.  It is a season that enables us to let go of who we once were so that we can become who we are meant to be.

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.

Balance

This morning, I bought a breakfast burrito from my favorite spot in Abilene.

imgresThose of you who live in the area are probably familiar with the wonder that is La Popular.  Indeed, this well-named local chain of hole-in-the-wall burrito shacks seems to be one of the more popular eateries in town.  If ever I mention to someone that I went to La Popular for breakfast, I almost always get a knowing smile, no matter who the person is.  And this is because La Popular’s appeal transcends a whole variety of boundaries.  Whenever I stop by, there are people from all walks of life waiting for burritos: blue collar and white collar workers, English speakers and Spanish speakers, civilians and military personnel.  A visit to La Popular is an opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and celebrate the diversity of our community.

I think the main reason that La Popular’s appeal cuts across cultural boundaries is not for any existential reason, but rather because the burritos are really, really good.  The tortillas are some of the best I’ve ever had: soft and chewy with just the right levels of flavor.  The filling is always savory and delicious, and the little containers of salsa are so good that they should be illegal.  But the best aspect of La Popular’s burritos is how well constructed and balanced they are.  Each contains just the right amount of filling and is folded in such a way that your chorizo and egg (or whatever you ordered) almost never falls out of the tortilla and onto the floor.  It’s marvelous to watch the cooks assemble these burritos: they place spoons into the containers of the chorizo and egg mixture, pull out exactly the same amount every time, place the filling into the middle of the tortilla, and fold the tortilla with utter commitment and not a moment of hesitation.  The resulting burritos aren’t over- or under-stuffed; they are perfectly balanced and delicious.

We sometimes get caught up in the notion that our lives of faith don’t really count unless we are doing as much as we possibly can.  We sometimes feel obligated to attend every educational opportunity at church, to go to worship services three or four times a week, to make sure all of our reading is somehow devotional, and to listen only to sacred music.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but we need to be careful that our faith lives do not become overstuffed.  We must be careful that our devotional practices serve a purpose, that they move us toward a more intimate relationship with God, and are not mere obligations destined to end up on the floor.  In other words, our spiritual lives should be balanced.  At the same time, it does not make any sense for us to engage in these balanced spiritual practices halfway.  Like the cooks at La Popular, we must engage our lives of faith with utter commitment and without hesitation.  As you use this Lenten season to examine your spiritual lives, I encourage you to discern those spiritual places where you might be both balanced and committed.

Failure

The last place one expects to find grace is in long lists of our failings.

On Ash Wednesday in the Episcopal Church, after ashes are imposed and we are reminded of our mortality, the entire congregation kneels to recite the Litany of Penitence.  While Episcopalians are used to corporate confession (in most churches, prayers of confession are recited nearly every Sunday), the one we recite on Ash Wednesday is particularly intense.  Not only do we confess our sin to God; we also confess to one another “and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth.”  The prayer then proceeds with a comprehensive acknowledgment of our collective propensity to do wrong.  We confess our unfaithfulness, hypocrisy, self-indulgence, anger, envy, love of worldly goods, and negligence in prayer and worship.  It is, in many ways, a classic vice list that doesn’t really leave any penitential stone unturned.

At approximately the midpoint of this damning list, however, we are called to confess “our failure to commend the faith that is in us.”  Here, in the midst of all this talk about our wretchedness and the depravity of human nature, we are reminded that there is a part of us that is faithful, that there is a part of us that wants to return to God and put our trust in God’s grace.  Too often, we convince ourselves that we couldn’t possibly be faithful enough to be part of a body of believers.  Too often, we convince ourselves that our moments of doubt prevent us from being accepted by a Christian community.  Too often, we convince ourselves that there is no way God could love us in light of our faithlessness.  This attitude, however, misses not only the boundless and gracious love of God, but also the faith that lingers within us, the faith that may have languished over the last months and years but is ready to be cultivated, the faith that is a gift from God we are called to nurture.

I pray that the season of Lent may be a time when you will recognize the faith that is in you and use that faith to trust in the God who loves you.