Commencement

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few weeks ago, George W. Bush offered the commencement address at Southern Methodist University. At one point, he offered these words of encouragement to the graduating class: “For those of you graduating with high honors and distinctions, I say well done. And as I like to tell the ‘C’ students, you too can be president.” With this quip, our former president was employing one of the well worn conventions of the genre. Self deprecating humor is just one of those things people tend to expect from commencement addresses. But the element that everyone expects from a commencement address is an affirmation of the boundless potential of the graduating class. During the months of May and June, countless speakers tell the young women and men gathered before them that if they follow their passions, they can make the world a better place. The cynical among us might say that commencement speakers say this in order to assure people that the time, money, and energy they spent earning their degree was worthwhile. But I suspect that this vote of confidence for the graduating class stems from a genuine hope that by excelling in their chosen field, the members of graduating class can make a difference and change the world.

Isaiah son of Amoz was a man who excelled in his chosen field. Now, when I say “chosen,” I should make it clear that he was chosen by birth to serve God as a priest in the Temple. And when I say that he “excelled,” I should make it clear that Isaiah did exactly what was expected of a priest in the Temple. Isaiah was one of those charged with the responsibility of maintaining the delicate balance between sin and righteousness. He made sacrifices and offerings to God on behalf of his people in order to negate the effects of their sins.

We can assume that this is what Isaiah was doing on that fateful day in the year King Uzziah died. As he went about his priestly business, Isaiah experienced a vision of the LORD. He saw the LORD he had been serving as a priest for many years, the LORD whom he encountered in the exercise of his duties, the LORD he was supposed to know intimately. But Isaiah’s vision is anything but familiar. Instead of sitting in the holy of holies, the LORD is sitting on a high and lofty throne far above the Temple with fiery serpents swirling around him. The smallest part of his robe fills the entire Temple; this place that is supposed to be the dwelling place of God can’t even accommodate the tiniest part of his garment. The angels that attend the LORD sing a seraphic song that calls the LORD “Holy” three separate times, as if to say, “You have no idea who you are dealing with.” To top it all off, an earthquake shakes the very foundations of the Temple as the building fills with smoke. It is a terrifying and majestic vision, and Isaiah could have viewed it as an affirmation of his priestly ministry; Isaiah could have surmised that God was being revealed to him as a reward for his dedication. Instead, Isaiah has the opposite reaction. When faced with a vision of the living God, Isaiah loses confidence in himself, in his vocation, and in his people: “Woe is me,” he cries, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah is bereft and humiliated because he realizes that the God he supposedly has been representing is far more powerful, far more expansive, far more than he had previously imagined. This realization leads Isaiah to change his vocation completely. No longer can he serve God in the Temple that can’t even contain the hem of God’s robe. Isaiah instead understands that his prophetic mission is to proclaim the ultimate sovereignty of God: the fact that God transcends all worldly concerns, the fact that in the end, God will be God. All at once, Isaiah comes to the profound and startling realization that the only thing interesting about religion is God. And so, at the commencement of his prophetic ministry, Isaiah is not told to go follow his passion and change the world like the graduates of today, he is instead reminded of how very small he is, of how very parochial his experience of the world and his experience of God has been, and then he is told to go change the world.

This morning, we observe Trinity Sunday, which is one of the stranger feasts of the church year. Most other observances in our calendar recall events in the life of Jesus or celebrate the lives of the saints. Trinity Sunday, however, is the celebration of the Christian doctrine that the one God is manifest in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only the doctrine of the Trinity has this unusual distinction. There’s no “Doctrine of the Divine and Human Natures of Jesus Christ Sunday” or “Filioque Clause Sunday.” Given it’s unique place in the calendar, it is easy to fall into the trap of using this Sunday as didactic opportunity to square the Trinitarian circle, to explain how 1+1+1 can equal 1. The greatest theologians of the Church, however, have argued persuasively that the Trinity is not meant to be understood in any human terms. The reason we celebrate the Trinity on an annual basis goes much deeper than mere instruction; in fact, it is the same reason that God appeared to Isaiah. Trinity Sunday is meant to remind us of how very small we are, to help us recognize how our understanding of God is limited by our prejudices, and to give us an opportunity to recognize the fact that God will be God.

Ten years ago, the great contemporary philosopher David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College. Given the context, the most striking thing about his eloquent speech was that he never once told the graduating class to follow their passions. Instead, dfw-thumb-320x238he reminded them of how very small they are. The speech begins with Wallace giving voice to an assumption that the vast majority of people have: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” This selfishness is our default setting as human beings, and Wallace argues that the task of education, the task of becoming part of society, is to deny this self-centered impulse. He suggests that the only way we can truly deny our selfish nature is by worshipping that which is life-giving. Whether we recognize it or not we all worship something. We are free to worship either that which encourages our self-centeredness or that which empowers us to deny our selfish nature and reach out in humility to others. True freedom, Wallace argues, involves making the correct choice and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them.” This is the witness of David Foster Wallace, but it is also the witness of Isaiah son of Amoz, it is the witness of Trinity Sunday, and indeed, it is the witness of the gospel. It is only when we are humbled that we can begin to make a difference. It is only when we acknowledge that there is something greater than ourselves that we can truly change the world.

 

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Loaves

On this first Sunday in Lent, Christians around the world will hear Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  The movements of the story are familiar: the tempter makes an offer to Jesus three times, and three times Jesus rebuffs him.  Today, I wanted to take a moment to focus on the first interaction between Jesus and the devil:

The tempter came and said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”  (Matthew 4:3-4)

Jesus’ response is packed with meaning and recalls an important moment in Israel’s history.  After the tempter suggests that Jesus turn stones in to bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, recalling God’s provision of manna in the wilderness.  Jesus indicates that when we are in the wilderness, we are not meant to rely on cheap parlor tricks, but rather on the grace and mercy of God.  One also can’t help but hear echoes of Isaiah in Jesus’ response to the devil: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2).  Jesus points away from the empty and easy promises of mere satisfaction and toward the true fullness that comes from a relationship with God.

In spite of this, it’s hard not to fault Jesus in this situation.  After all, there are lots of hungry people in the world, and most of them are probably more interested in bread than they are in the words that come from the mouth of God.  Isn’t Jesus indulging in an unaffordable luxury by refusing to create food when he has the opportunity?

Just a few chapters after we hear Jesus refuse to make bread for himself, Matthew relates the story of the feeding of the multitude.  The striking thing about this story is not its miraculous nature, but the fact that Jesus shifts the perception of the gathered crowd.  When Jesus asks his disciples what they can share with the hungry people, they say, “Nothing…except for two fish and a few loaves.”  Jesus invites the people gathered in that wilderness to look at what they have in a new way, to understand that even when we have limited resources, we can share them with those in need.

imgresUltimately, Jesus does not turn stones into bread because that would accomplish very little; it would not feed anyone except Jesus.  But the next time he is in a deserted place and food becomes an issue, Jesus invites his disciples to share their meager lunch with the gathered multitude.  Jesus indicates that feeding the hungry is not an individual enterprise; it requires relationship.  In the same way, the process of becoming a faithful person is shaped within the context of community.  This morning, the Curate at Heavenly Rest reminded us that we’re not meant to go through Lent by ourselves, but rather within a community of people who are also struggling to be faithful.  When we gather around the bread of the Eucharist, I pray we will remember that our lives are not sustained only by loaves of bread, but by relationships with God and one another.

Forgetfulness

urlIn honor of Valentine’s Day last week, my wife and I watched the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.  Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, the movie explores the age-old dilemma of whether men and women can ever be friends.  Towards the end of the movie, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are at a New Year’s Eve Party.  At midnight, the revelers begin to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Harry tells his companion that he has never understood the classic song.  Is it about not forgetting our friends?  Or is it about remembering the friends that we’ve already forgotten (which, he points out, is impossible)?  Sally isn’t sure but is relatively certain that the song is about old friends.  It seems to be an appropriate song for the New Year: a promise to do our best not to forget those people and events that we have experienced throughout our lives.

Yesterday, we began to explore the topic of forgiveness.  We noticed that the word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “let go” or “abandon.”  In other words, forgiving those who sin against us is entirely our initiative; Jesus does not leave room for us to expect a penitent or even apologetic response from the person we are forgiving.  This leaves us with some challenging questions.  What are we supposed to do with the pain or the anger we feel as a result of the other person’s actions?  If the other person is not penitent and has no interest in being forgiven, how do we move forward in our relationship with that person?  And if the other person has done something to wrong us, how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

When politicians and other public figures apologize for their misdeeds, we often see the people who are close to them say things like, “I’ll forgive him, but I won’t be able to forget.”  I submit, however, that forgetting is a crucially important element of forgiveness.  “Auld Lang Syne” is not a particularly appropriate song when it comes to forgiveness.  It is only by forgetting that we can truly move on from the hurt and the pain that someone has caused us.  In Isaiah 43:25, the prophet writes that God will not remember our sins.  God will let go of our sins and will not permit them to influence God’s understanding of who we are.  In the same way, we are called not to remember the wrongs that other people have done to us; we are called to do our best to forget the pain that other people have caused.  God calls us to avoid carrying grudges, because it is only by forgetting what others have done to us that we can truly move forward in a life of grace.

We are left with the niggling question of what we do about those who aren’t interested in being forgiven.  One thing we cannot do is force our forgiveness upon someone.  Just as we cannot forgive with the expectation of penitence, we cannot expect that everyone will be interested in our forgiveness.  Nevertheless, we must not allow past wrongs to poison our relationships permanently.  We can move on from pain and anger even without the other person, and we can pray that they too will arrive at a place where they can let go.

Perhaps the most challenging question of all is how we avoid being hurt in the future.  On one hand, Jesus instructs us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.  We know those situations where we can be hurt and we should avoid those when we can.  On the other hand, part of what the Christian life is about is vulnerability, realizing that we cannot arm ourselves against every hurt, because God himself did not forego pain and suffering.  We are challenged to live in a world where people can cause us pain, but to trust that the new life that God promises us transcends even the deepest pain we might experience.  We live in a world where we can be hurt; God challenges us to let that hurt go and to forget.