Unbalanced

Sermon on John 3:14-21 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here

Astrophysicists tell us that after the Big Bang, the universe was a primeval soup made of light.  From this soup emerged particles of matter, the substance of everything that exists.  Because of a physical law known as the law of conservation of charge, equal amounts of something called antimatter were also produced.  Antimatter is measurably the same as matter, except for one important distinction: it has an opposite charge.  As a result, when matter and antimatter come in contact with each other, they are annihilated.  Now, you can probably see how this is a problem.  If there is an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles, then the universe cannot exist.  But here’s the astonishing thing that physicists can’t quite explain: for every billion particles of antimatter, there are a billion and one particles of matter.  This infinitesimal bias toward matter is the reason we are all here right now.  To put it another way, the universe as we know it would not exist without this fundamental imbalance.

452a93d93e5e881b45afb170badc4de3This morning, we heard what is almost certainly the most well-known passage of the New Testament. John 3:16 is virtually ubiquitous in our culture. It can be seen on signs at sporting events and on fast food packaging. Many Christians consider it “the gospel in a nutshell,” a shorthand for the saving work of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the singular popularity of John 3:16 has caused us to forget that it comes from a much larger narrative.  And because this verse has been divorced from its context, it has also been robbed of its power.

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple and insisting that the house of God was not a marketplace. In this action, Jesus challenged one of the deeply held assumptions of the Jewish Law: the belief that the reconciliation of God to his people required the restoration of balance. The reason that there was a marketplace in the Temple was so that sinners could purchase the sacrificial animals and other materials necessary for them to pay the debts incurred by their sin and be blameless under the Law.  The entire Temple system was predicated on this specific understanding of judgment: the idea that sin upsets a delicate balance that must be restored through sacrifice and acts of contrition.  By disrupting the Temple economy, Jesus challenged this fundamental assumption about the nature of God.

In the passage we heard this morning, Jesus is speaking with someone who is thoroughly steeped in the worldview represented by the Temple system.  It’s no accident that the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus the Pharisee appears where it does in John’s narrative.  Immediately after Jesus challenges the Temple economy of balance, one of the representatives of that system comes to Jesus in order to discern the nature of his mission.  What Jesus tells him is nothing short of astonishing: “God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world.”  The word our version translates as “condemn” can more accurately be rendered “judge.”  In other words, Jesus affirms that God did not come into the world for the purpose of judgment.  While this statement may not seem radical to us, it represents an entirely new way of understanding the nature of God. Judgment was central to the Jewish Law, because the Law was all about maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. The Law was essentially about maintaining equilibrium; it prescribed specific acts of contrition for particular violations. Judgment was the underlying rationale for the Temple system, for the religious establishment, and for the way that people related to God. In this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus rejects this understanding of God and insists that his mission is not about restoring balance or somehow providing an antidote to unrighteousness.  God’s purpose in the incarnation was not to restore the balance between sin and righteousness or good and evil; it was to transcend these categories altogether.

It is here that we can begin to grasp the true power of John 3:16.  According to this famous verse, Jesus Christ’s mission is to manifest the love of God.  Love transcends the very idea of balance.  Judgment assumes symmetry, that the scale will be level.  Love, however, is asymmetrical, wasteful, unconcerned with the idea of balance. There is no counterweight to love.  brsnake1This is part of why Jesus appropriates the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.  In the passage from Numbers, the instrument of punishment and the instrument of redemption are one and the same.  There is no “anti-serpent” that will restore balance by negating the effects of the poison.  John uses this example to articulate that the cross, an instrument of shameful death and punishment, will also become the means of redemption. Jesus does not try to bring balance by combating or providing a counterweight to the evil powers of this world. Rather, Jesus overwhelms and transcends these powers by willingly subjecting himself to death on the cross. The cross is the ultimate expression of God’s love because it is fundamentally unbalanced. This asymmetry invites us into a new way of being.

Most of the world’s religious and quasi religious traditions assume that the delicate balance of the universe has been upset and needs to be restored.  Good needs to be balanced by evil, righteousness needs to be balanced by sin, light needs to be balanced by dark.  All of these antitheses are a way of grappling with the great human dilemma: the harsh and unavoidable reality that life seems to balanced by death.  The problem with this balanced perspective is that it automatically leads us to think about the world in terms of categories.  We spend our time and energy discerning who or what is in or out, what side of the scale they represent.  The Christian witness, however, points to a very different understanding of the world. As Christians, we affirm that God’s asymmetrical love both transcends and encompasses all binary categories. There is no condition that is unaffected by God’s abundant and unbalanced love: not darkness, not sin, not even death.  This is the ultimate power of John 3:16: it is an everlasting pledge that there is nothing that can alienate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week, our community has grieved the tragic death of Cayman Naib.  In many ways, our response has been predictable: we have tried to figure out why Cayman took his own life and we have asked questions about the pressure we put on our children.  These responses have their place, but they are ultimately rooted in a worldview predicated on balance. These questions assume that if we do everything right, we can restore balance and prevent this from happening again.  As Christians, however, we are called to view Cayman’s death not as a problem to be solved but as a tragedy to be mourned. More importantly, we are called to entrust Cayman to the God whose love transcends both life and death. In our grief, we are called to reaffirm our trust in the words of our burial liturgy: “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” We are called, in other words, to cling to the fundamental truth of the gospel, that there is nothing that has the power to separate us from God’s abundant and unbalanced love.

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Bearing Fruit

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree.  Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly.  Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground.  imagesUnfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels.  Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away.  This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them.  Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.

It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears.  We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways.  My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful.  I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating.  By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.

Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators.  His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.
Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators. His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.

Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me.  In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy.  In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son.  It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable.  Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral.  Fables, however, are very different from parables.  While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives.  Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave.  Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable?  He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”  Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers.  Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted.  “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking.  But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority?  Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance.  As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.

imgresThough Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange.  Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit.  And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again.  For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come.  Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.”  So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry.  Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders.  He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God.  This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders.  The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity.  Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear.  Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority.  And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.

Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual.  Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God.  And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair.  Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair.  Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love.  In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.

Breaking the Rules

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

rachel_mcadams_mean_girls_20080813_02In 2004, Paramount Pictures released Mean Girls, a comedy about the perils of attending high school during the first decade of the new millennium.  Starring Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid headline, Mean Girls is, in many ways, a typically trite teen comedy; the protagonist succumbs to the temptations of cliques and cattiness only to realize that the coolest thing she can be is herself.  What sets Mean Girls apart from other films in its genre is the writing.  The movie is endlessly quotable, and nowhere is this truer than the scene in which Lohan’s character eats lunch with the popular clique known as “the Plastics” for the very first time.  One of the other girls, Gretchen, explains the rules that members of this clique must follow: Plastics wear pink on Wednesdays, Plastics can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, Plastics can only wear ponytails once a week, Plastics can only wear jeans or track pants on Friday.  After reciting this litany of requirements, Gretchen warns about the consequences of violation: “If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.”  This scene is meant to show the audience the superficiality of the Plastics; the ludicrousness of excluding someone from a group for wearing sweatpants is supposed to make us laugh.  And yet, if we’re honest, every group establishes rules that members must follow in order to remain part of the community.  Establishing such rules is a way of ensuring that the community can function properly, a way of reducing conflict, a way of understanding who we are.

We see an example of a set of such rules in our gospel reading for today.  These rules deal with the management of interpersonal conflict among the group of first-century Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  Now, Matthew’s was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted.  With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable.  As we all know, it is difficult for a community to function when members are clashing with one another.  There are a variety of different strategies that leaders use to deal with this kind of conflict.  As the leader of a church community, Matthew, like the Plastics, seems to assume that those who persistently and unrepentantly disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community, though he is concerned with offenses more significant than not wearing pink on Wednesday.  The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, our Lord spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it.  If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him.  If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Jesus, in other words, seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful.  Far from the pettiness of a high school clique, this whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community.  Not only that, excommunication requires a rigorous due process: the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right before they are shunned by the church.  In Matthew’s community, people are not excommunicated for light and transient causes.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

There’s a level at which I think we can really understand this.  We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community.  There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, who piggybacks on other people’s successes and shifts blame when he is at fault.  There’s the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships and somehow manages to make every gathering a symposium on her personal problems.  There’s the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him.  Often, these people will continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg.  It seems that Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues.  In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can live and work in harmony.

But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, this seems like a fairly definitive condemnation.  After all, for a Jewish audience, Gentiles and tax collectors are among the most hated people in first-century Palestine.  Labeling someone as a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel.  But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles.  Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Chapel-window Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoins the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.”  Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there is always an opportunity for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors to be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s body.

Who are the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives?  Who have we excluded because of their repeated failure to meet our expectations?  Is it the lazy coworker, the selfish friend, or the shameful family member?  Or is it someone else?  Have we excluded ourselves because we believe that what we have done cannot be forgiven?  The gospel calls us to look within ourselves, to discern who we are excluding from our lives, and to reach out to those people and open ourselves to the possibility of reconciliation.  We may not get anywhere, we may be rejected for our efforts, but we worship a God who reached out to us while we were still sinners, while we were rejecting God.  We are called to be persistent, to remember that Christ does not willingly exclude anyone from the fellowship of his body, to live our lives deeply aware of how inclusive God’s love really is.

Remembering we have been Redeemed

Sermon on Romans 7:15-25a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on July 6, 2014.

At Quarterman Ranch in Amarillo, our former diocesan camp and conference center, there is a sidewalk covered in names that leads to nowhere.  During Quarterman’s final years, each camp session ended with the addition of another slab to the woebegone sidewalk.  Campers, counselors, staff, and clergy would sign their names in the wet concrete, leaving a permanent reminder that they had been present in that place.  imgresSome campers acted as though they were outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood; they would leave their handprints and sign their names with the flourish of budding movie stars.  Others would immortalize the romance that they had kindled that week by writing that so and so and what’s his name would be together forever.  Still others would correct the professions of eternal love and devotion that they had made in previous years and indicate that what’s his name was, in fact, a jerk.  I always loved this moment in the week.  In spite of the self-indulgence of some of the contributions to the sidewalk, the act of gathering together and writing our names was an opportunity to recognize that we had been in that place together.  As we mixed concrete in the hot panhandle sun, we were reminded for a moment that we were more than individuals floating through life alone, that for the past week or so, we had been a community.  Each of those slabs of concrete was a sacramental reminder that we were called to be in each other’s lives, that we were called to love one another.

Today, we heard one of the stranger passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Out of context, this passage looks more like an entry from the diary of a teenager with low self-esteem rather than an excerpt from the letter of a self-possessed apostle who writes letters of advice to people he’s never met.  Normally, Paul’s letters are dripping with self-confidence, so much so that one New Testament scholar says that Paul’s most obvious attribute is his “robust conscience.”  This is, after all, the same guy who, in the letter to the Philippians, tells his audience that he was “blameless” in regards to righteousness under the law.  In other words, this vacillating, uncertain passage from Romans is out of character for its author.  It is unusual to see  Paul saying things like “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” or “I know that nothing good dwells within me” or “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”  What is the reason for this change?  Why is it that Paul focuses so thoroughly on his struggles with being a sinful person?  On one hand, it could be that Paul is saying that all of us, including him, can fall victim to the power of sin, that we must remain vigilant at all times and not allow sin to exercise dominion in our bodies.  On the other hand, there could be something very different happening in this passage.  Before we delve directly into that possibility, it would probably be helpful for us to remind ourselves what Paul has been doing so far in this letter to the Romans.

Romans begins with Paul addressing a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles he has never met.  Immediately after he dispenses with the traditional pleasantries at the beginning of the letter, Paul apparently lays into the Gentiles, saying that the wrath of God is being revealed against those who disobey the Law of Moses.  Rhetorically, this is meant to encourage the Law-abiding, Jewish members of the congregation to think, “You tell ’em Paul!  Tell those Gentiles just how sinful they are.”  But, just when it seems like Paul is going to say the Gentiles in the Roman church are destined for perdition, Paul turns it around, saying at the beginning of chapter two: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are…because you… are doing the very same things.”  Paul explains what he means by this when he comes to the crux of his argument, asserting that, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Paul is saying to this congregation: no matter who you are, Jew or Gentile, all of you have fallen short of God’s commandments.

The good news, however, is that even though we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, Jesus Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been justified, or made righteous, apart from the law, in spite of the fact that we have failed to honor God and God’s commandments.  Through the redeeming action of God through Jesus Christ, we have been empowered to live a new life of righteousness and peace.

This is Paul’s main purpose in the first chapters of Romans: to tell the congregation that regardless of who they are, they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But Paul has another purpose in these first chapters.  He wants to explain that while the law is valuable, it is no longer necessary to follow the strictures of the law.  One of Paul’s biggest rhetorical challenges in all of his letters is to make this case, the argument that the law, which he believes was ordained by God, is good, but no longer necessary.  In the first part of chapter seven, he does this by saying that sin used the law to bring death into the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God destroyed the power of sin.  In other words, the law no longer applies, not because God nullified the law, but because God defeated the power of sin.

All of this brings us to the passage we read today.  While it might appear that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to illustrate how difficult it is to be good, there is something much more important happening, something that is informed by where we’ve already been in Romans.  Paul has been saying that the power of sin has been destroyed and that the law has been rendered unnecessary, only to launch into this prolonged, self-loathing, legalistic complaint about how hard it is not to be sinful.  If this is all this passage is about, it doesn’t to jibe with where we’ve come in Romans (or where we’re going, for that matter).  But if we look at the very end of this passage, we see that Paul has a very different purpose.  After complaining tediously and self-indulgently about his struggles with sinful behavior, Paul melodramatically writes, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  Without missing a beat, he immediately answers the question by reminding himself of the redeeming work of God that he has been discussing for the last six chapters: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  You’ll notice that Paul’s rhetorical strategy in this passage is pretty similar to what he does at the beginning of the letter: he draws us in to the point that we also begin to wallow in self-loathing until he snaps us out of it, smacking us over the head with the gospel message of redemption and reconciliation.  This passage is not a meditation by Paul about his sinful behavior; it is a pointed and powerful reminder that we should not be distracted by our apparent failures, that we should not wallow in our supposed sinfulness.  Instead, Paul insists that should live our lives in assurance of the fact that we have been reconciled to God by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter?  Why would Paul be concerned if people wallow in a sense of their sinfulness?  Isn’t there a certain nobility in trying to do everything right?  There are two problems with being preoccupied with our sinful behavior.  On one level, if we believe that the power of sin has indeed been destroyed by Christ’s death and resurrection, then focusing so intensely on our sinfulness devalues what God has done through Jesus Christ.  On another, even more significant level, focusing on our sinfulness means that we become completely and destructively self-centered.  Paul is trying to build relationships between the Jewish and Gentile members of the Roman church.  But if they are totally inwardly focused and completely self-centered about their behavior, there is no way that they are going to be able to recognize themselves in the other members of the community.  Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “I” in the passage we read this morning?  If we truly wish to be part of the Church, it is impossible to be that “I”-oriented.  If we value being part of a community, it is impossible for us to be entirely consumed with our own behavior.  If we truly trust that we have been redeemed through Jesus Christ, then we must look outside ourselves and reach out to those around us.

If you walk toward Heavenly Rest on the south side of Sixth Street, you will notice that someone has etched words into one of the paving stones on the sidewalk.  Unlike the concrete slabs that comprise the Quarterman sidewalk, however, this block doesn’t include petty recriminations, professions of eternal love, or Hollywood dreams.  Instead, written in block letters are two simple words: “Look Up.”  347914039_5954ef24c5_mWhen you do, you are greeted by the soaring majesty and beauty of the Heavenly Rest bell tower.  I have no idea who carved those words into the concrete, but it might as well have been Saint Paul.  Because those words are a pointed sacramental reminder to all of us.  Those words remind us to look up from our preoccupation with everything wrong in our lives and pay attention to the reality of beauty and possibility.  Those words remind us to look up from our assumption that must go through this life alone and recognize that we are part of a community that has been shaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words remind us to look up from our self-centered, self-indulgent perspective and remember that we worship a God who looked up at the world and redeemed creation through Jesus Christ.

Narcissism

Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39 offered to the people of Trinity Church in Albany, TX on Sunday, June 22, 2014.

imgresSince moving to Texas, I have become fascinated by the life and career of Lyndon Johnson, who is easily one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.  Johnson was known for his drive, ambition, and his thirst for power.  One of his most conspicuous traits, however, was his narcissism; he needed to be the center of attention wherever he happened to be.  Of course, we tend to expect this from successful politicians; they are used to being fawned upon and adored by those around them.  But Lyndon Johnson possessed this narcissistic personality even when he was a poor boy with few prospects in the Texas hill country.  Even at an early age, Lyndon insisted that the world had to revolve around him.  Johnson’s most thorough biographer notes that when he played baseball with his friends as a child, Lyndon would insist on pitching.  If his friends refused or demanded that one of them have a turn, Lyndon would take his ball and go home, leaving his companions stranded and unable to play.  Even as a young boy, Lyndon Johnson insisted that nothing could happen without his involvement.

We might criticize our 36th president for this self-centeredness, but if we’re honest, I think all of us can exhibit this narcissistic personality from time to time.  While very few of us insist on being adored by those who surround us, we all tend to imagine that we are the center of the universe in some way.  We focus only on things that impact our lives, we forget to pay attention to news from the other side of the world, and we are surprised when those closest to us change without our apparent influence.  How many of us have seen a young relative who has grown up significantly and thought to ourselves, “How did she get so tall?  I never said she was allowed to do that!”  How many of us have done something embarrassing in public and worried about what other people were thinking, not realizing that everyone else is so self-involved that they probably haven’t even noticed us?  I imagine that there are times when all of us pretend that the world stops spinning when we are not around, when we are convinced that we are indispensable, when we are tempted to take our ball and go home when things don’t go our way.

Today, we begin the season after Pentecost, what one friend of mine refers to as “the dog days of discipleship.”  We have just finished tracing the journey from Advent to Trinity Sunday, meditating on the significant moments from the life of Jesus.  The season after Pentecost is an opportunity to really dig into some of the great stories of the Old Testament and explore some of the challenging teachings of the New Testament.  And our lectionary began the season after Pentecost with a bang.  We heard the soap opera-worthy story of Hagar being expelled from Abraham’s household by her jealous mistress.  We heard Paul remind us that baptism is less about washing and more about drowning.  And we heard the hard teaching from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus tells us that he did not come to bring peace to the earth.  These are all fascinating, but because it flies in the face of our expectations, I want us to take a closer look at the gospel lesson.

Jesus sending the 12The passage we read today comes from the portion of Matthew’s gospel when Jesus is sending out his disciples to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God.  In the passages immediately before the one we read today, Jesus gives his disciples instructions about what they should carry, who they should travel with, and how they should introduce themselves to new communities.  As far as we can tell, Jesus does not expect things to go well.  He specifically instructs his disciples about what to do if people do not show them hospitality.  He tells them that they will probably be dragged before the authorities for their evangelization.  He even gives them the specific warning that they should be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.”  To put it mildly, being a disciple is clearly not an easy gig.  This is the background for today’s reading.  Jesus appears to be comforting his followers by telling them they know everything they need to know as they go off into the world.  At the same time, he is warning them that the message of the gospel has the potential to alienate disciples from their friends and families.  In all likelihood, this was a reality that the people of Matthew’s community were dealing with; they were finding themselves estranged from their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and other members of their household on account of their belief that Jesus was the Messiah.  So, on one level, Jesus is responding to this concern.  He seems to be saying, “Listen, the message of the gospel is going to make people uncomfortable, even people in your own household.  It may even divide your family.  You need to decide where your true allegiance lies.”  Jesus even goes so far as to use the metaphor of a sword to describe the family strife the gospel can bring.  It’s an intense moment, because it challenges our expectations of a Jesus who is meek and mild.

But why is it that we expect a Jesus who is meek and mild?  Yes, he talks about peace and yes, he shows forgiveness to those who have transgressed.  But if you think about it, meek people rarely challenge us and rarely expect us to make changes in our lives.  Yet, Jesus does this constantly.  He forces us to examine our lives and make often significant transformations.  One of the reasons we tend to think of Jesus as meek and mild is because he is easier to control, easier to pigeonhole, easier to ignore.  It would be easy for us to ignore what Jesus is saying this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  Many of us grew up in families where everyone at least nominally affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.  Looking at our situation, it would be easy to assume that Jesus has nothing to say to us in this passage.  If we were to say that, however, we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus is warning against in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

The most striking element of this chapter is how it breaks down the expectations of the disciples.  At the beginning, Jesus gives his followers “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”  Jesus, in other words, gives his disciples the same authority that he himself possesses.  He leads them to think that they are spiritual rock stars.  Jesus then tells the disciples that in spite of their power, they will probably not be rejected for their message about the kingdom of God.   In the passage we read today, Jesus tells his followers that they will most likely be threatened with death, but not to worry, because God also pays attention to birds.  Jesus goes on to explain that the ministry of the disciples will cause familial strife before concluding with this ominous-sounding statement: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

imgresThis passage is striking because of how thoroughly it breaks down the ego of the disciples.  Jesus begins by imbuing his followers with power and authority and then proceeds to explain to them in detail that they are not the center of the universe, that life is not all about them.  Jesus explains that there will be places where they are not accepted; he explains that their own families will potentially move on without them; he even explains that sparrows are as worthy of God’s attention as they are.  Jesus impels the disciples to examine their lives and recognize that the world does not revolve around them, that they are not the most important people in the world, that they have the same value as everyone else.  In spite of their status as disciples of Jesus and in spite of their charismatic authority, the disciples have no right to pick up their ball and leave when things don’t go their way, because life is not ultimately about them.  In the end, this is what Jesus is talking about when he says that “Those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  While this statement clearly has the undertones of martyrdom, Jesus is also suggesting that those who lose their attachment to self-centeredness and ego will find a much larger life, one in which they are connected to everyone in a profound and meaningful way.

In some ways, this interpretation makes this hard teaching even more difficult.  If this passage were simply about being alienated from our families for our beliefs, we could take solace in our self-righteousness and continue to believe that we are the most important person in the world.  But if this passage illustrates the simple reality that life exists apart from us, it is one of the most challenging teachings in the New Testament.  We tend to believe that whatever we experience is the best: that our country is superior to every other country, that our time is more advanced than any other time, that our interests are more important than the interests of the environment, that our worldview is the most enlightened.  But when we acknowledge the simple truth made plain in this gospel passage, we are forced to recognize that there are other people in this world who are as valuable and as beloved as we are.  And while this may seem problematic at first, it is, in fact, incredibly liberating.  We do not have to pretend that we are indispensable, because we are not.  We do not have to pretend that everything depends on us, because it does not.  We do not have to imagine that we are the most important person in the world, because we are not.  Life does not center around us; it is grounded in the God who redeemed his entire creation through Jesus Christ.  May God give us the grace to recognize that we are as beloved by God as everyone else in this world.

Phone Call

I got an unusual phone call yesterday.

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

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

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

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

Competition

Over the next few days, I will be reflecting on finding grace at the gym, namely Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

As I mentioned yesterday, I have been trying to make it to the gym more regularly over the past few months.

These are ergs.  They hurt.  A lot.
These are ergs. They hurt. A lot.

The last time I spent any significant time at a gym, I was rowing crew.  In that context, all of the people exercising were ostensibly working toward the same goal; we were all trying to make the boat move as fast as possible.  In other words, we were pushing each other to be the best that we could be (just a warning: there will probably more clichés than usual in this post).  As a result, we tended to compete with one another.  Coaches would place people with similar erg scores (an erg is a torture device designed to simulate the movements of rowing) near one another so that we would push each other to the next level (cliché #2).  For the most part, I thrived in this environment.  I am a naturally competitive person, and I found that competing against my fellow athletes effectively motivated me to improve.

Since I’ve returned to the gym, however, I’ve had to overcome my inherently competitive nature.  The main reason for this is that unlike at the gym where I worked out with my teammates, each person who works out at the Abilene YMCA is at a different level and has set different goals.  It is unproductive for me to compare myself to the person who is working out on the next elliptical because they have a totally different objective than I do.  It is foolish for me to race the person in the next lane of the pool, because more often than not they will beat me and I will be embarrassed.  My exercise time is far more productive when I set goals for myself and attempt to meet those, rather than making comparisons to everyone else at the gym.

We live in a culture that is preoccupied with competition.  Whether it is the newness of our smartphone or the size of our house or the level of our education or the difficulty of our Lenten discipline, we tend to be obsessed with comparing ourselves to other people.  We must recognize, however, that God does not care if we keep up with Joneses.  God’s relationship with us is not contingent on any criteria except God’s abundant love.  Our objective for our relationship with God should not be to be holier than anyone else; our goal should be to discover ways that we can be deeply aware of how much God loves us and how much God loves our brothers and sisters in Christ.