Love and other unnecessary things

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas on the occasion of the dedication of their new fellowship space, Gerhart Hall.

There is a revealing photograph of Heavenly Rest that comes from just after the church building was completed. Since it was taken before the pews had been installed, this picture shows the nave filled with neat rows of metal folding chairs. It is my favorite picture of this church; it actually hangs on the wall of our house in Pennsylvania. There are several reasons I like it. For one, it makes me laugh: the contrast between the gothic beauty of Heavenly Rest’s nave and the stark utility of the folding chairs makes for an amusing visual. There is a deeper reason this photograph resonates with me, and that is the fact that it makes the church feel so empty. Part of what makes this church so wonderful is the people who inhabit it. Those rows of empty folding chairs are reminders that, as important as buildings can be, a church is only a church when its people are gathered there.

Our gospel reading this morning understands that the church can only be the church when God’s people are present. It also understands that when people get together, there is going to be conflict. As such, the gospel offers some practical instructions about managing conflict in the Christian community. Before we assume that we know how nasty conflict in the church can be, remember that Matthew was writing to a group of people who, until very recently, wouldn’t even be in the same room together. His 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 a leader of the church community, Matthew seems to assume that those who disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community. The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, he 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.” In other words, Jesus 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. This cannot be a rash decision. It’s not like someone can just get rid of someone they don’t get along with. The whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community. Not only that, the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right. Matthew describes a rigorous due process, one designed to be as fair and equitable as possible. In Matthew’s community, excommunication is a last resort. 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.

While this verdict seems harsh, there’s a level at which I think we can understand the need for a process like 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, the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships, the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him. These people will often continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg. 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 move on with our lives and live 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.” This feels like a fairly definitive condemnation. After all, labeling someone 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. Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus exhorts 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 are always seats available for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors. Matthew reminds us that the church exists for those outside its walls.

When Willis Gerhart stepped off the train in Abilene in 1920, he had an unusual dream. He believed that what this West Texas town really needed was a gothic cathedral. For someone as eminently practical as Parson Gerhart, this was unexpected. This, after all, was the same man who couldn’t pass a beggar without giving him money, who gave away his coat more times than anyone could count, and who wrote his sermons in the cold during the Depression because he gave the stove in his office to a family with 12 children. Surely, he could have imagined raising money to combat poverty or alleviate homelessness, instead of building a church, of all things. Parson Gerhart understood something that most of us fail to recognize throughout our lives. Most of us evaluate the world in terms of what is necessary or useful: will this event be worth my time? will this class prepare me for a career? Parson Gerhart, however, understood the things that truly matter in this world are not strictly necessary.

If you think about it, it is not necessary to reach out the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives. In fact, it would be easy and expedient to exclude those who have repeatedly failed to meet our expectations. As Christians, we are called to be guided not by necessity, but by love. In fact, classical Christian theology suggests that it was not necessary for God to create the universe, that creation is not intrinsically useful to God. The scholastic theologians argued instead that God created the universe out of love. There is something astonishing about this claim. Love has no intrinsic utility. It is not goal oriented. It cannot be quantified. It serves no useful purpose. But for this reason, because it is not strictly necessary, love is more powerful than any of those forces the world considers indispensable. Love is the only thing the world truly needs.

This is something the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have understood since the beginning. This beautiful church building, the bell tower, the parish house, Gerhart Hall; none of these are strictly necessary. There is nothing that would have prevented this parish from worshiping in the Quonset Hut for the last 70 years. But this parish recognizes the architectural marvels of which you are the stewards are not merely buildings: they are expressions of God’s love for the whole world. These structures point us away from our selfish preoccupations and toward the eternal. As one parishioner is fond of observing, you can’t help but look up when you enter this space. Moreover, these buildings remind us that this church was not built for the sake of those who built it, but for those outside its walls. They encourage us to consider those who are missing from our fellowship, those who ache to know the grace and love of God, and those who have rejected it. These buildings help us recognize that the world is bigger than anyone of us, and that the only way we can truly celebrate what we have been given is when all of us are at the table.

This is a momentous weekend at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. It is the culmination of many years of vision, dedication, and hard work. The sheer number of you who were directly involved in building Gerhart Hall is a testament to the amazing quality of the people at this parish. Many of you are justifiably proud of what you have accomplished. You are the next in a long line of faithful people who have served and built this parish. But even as we celebrate, we must not forget our call to reach out beyond these walls, to recognize that these buildings were built not for the sake of those who built them, but for the people of this community. Gerhart Hall is more than a building; it is an icon of who you are and who you hope to be. It is a sign of God’s reconciling love, a love that, in the end, is the only thing the world really needs.

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Drowning out the Noise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tenacity of Love

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.

imagesPaul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.

It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.

The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.

imagesIn just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.

The Unimportance of being Earnest

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43 offered to the people of Marsh Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts. A recording of the sermon and the service where it was preached may be heard here.

In 1935, Thomas P. O’Neill, the legendary Massachusetts politician and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, ran for a seat on the City Council in Cambridge. In what was to be the only electoral defeat in his long political career, O’Neill lost the race by 228 votes. Though imgres-1Tip was understandably disappointed, he derived two important lessons from the experience of losing that city council race. One came from his father, a local legend in his own right who advised O’Neill that he did not spend enough time campaigning in his own neighborhood. “All politics is local,” he counseled with a phrase that was to become O’Neill’s trademark. The other lesson came from Mrs. Elizabeth O’Brien, a neighbor whom Tip had known since childhood. On Election Day, Mrs. O’Brien somewhat haughtily told her young neighbor, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you even though you didn’t ask me.” O’Neill was taken aback: “Mrs. O’Brien,” he protested, “I’ve lived across the street from you for eighteen years. I cut your grass in the summer and shovel your walk in the winter. I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.” “Tom, let me tell you something,” she replied. “People like to be asked.” Tip got a lot of mileage out of this story; when O’Neill became Majority Whip in Congress, Hale Boggs of Louisiana heard the Mrs. O’Brien story so frequently that he would roll his eyes at the first hint of its coming. Even though it became a cliche, this story reveals an important truth, not only about politics, but about the human condition. No matter how earnest and talented we may be, it is our participation in the community that is most important. While assumptions and good intentions have their place, there is no substitute for reaching outside of ourselves and remembering that people like to be asked.

This morning we hear two passages from Scripture that would have met with Mrs. O’Brien’s approval. As you probably remember, we have been reading through Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians for the past several weeks. Second Corinthians has some of Paul’s most eloquent language, from “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” to “ We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see– we are alive.” In the first seven chapters of Second Corinthians, Paul is firing on all cylinders, affirming the power of the resurrection and the endurance of the Christian community. Today, however, Paul shifts gears a little bit, and begins to address some practical concerns, namely fundraising. You see, apart from proclaiming the gospel, the primary objective of Paul’s ministry is to raise money for the church in Jerusalem. It is one of the few directives he received from the other apostles, and he takes the responsibility very seriously. As such, almost every Pauline letter has at least some reference to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem: either thanking the community for its support or encouraging them to open their pocketbooks. Second Corinthians falls into the latter category. Paul tells the Corinthians how impressed he is with their enthusiasm for the gospel and the work of the Church, and further explains that their zeal ought to be matched by material support: “it is appropriate for you who began last year…to desire to do something– now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” It sounds remarkably like an NPR pledge drive, doesn’t it? But Paul is not simply asking for money. Notice the way he frames his request: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” Paul is not encouraging a mere redistribution of resources; he is framing financial generosity, as he frames everything, within the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s love; it’s the affirmation that God’s love truly bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, even death. And it is the resurrection that Paul has in mind when he says, “I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.” Far from simply soliciting a contribution to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem, Paul is suggesting that the Corinthians’ financial gift makes a profound statement about the way they look at the world. Yes, Paul is asking the members of the congregation to put their money where their mouth is, but he is also drawing a subtle, but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between the desire to help and the will to help, between assuming and asking. Just as God’s love was revealed to be genuine in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Paul implies that our love is revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves.

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New Testament scholarship can make one hungry.

This is also the implication of today’s gospel reading. This passage from Mark’s gospel is a great example of an intercalation, known more colloquially as a “Markan sandwich.” A Markan sandwich is composed of two stories, which, when read together, reveal a larger truth. In this case, the “filling” for the sandwich is the story about the hemorrhaging woman, while the “bread” is the story about Jairus’ daughter. The similarities between these stories are obvious: both depict women who have their health restored, both feature the number “twelve” prominently (probably a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel), and both celebrate the power of faith. But the most interesting similarity between these stories is that they depict people reaching outside of themselves across social boundaries. Jairus is a leader of the synagogue; he comes from a caste that naturally distrusts Jesus and other upstarts. Jairus, however, reaches out to Jesus in spite of the social implications. Mark uses the imperfect tense to describe this interaction, indicating that Jairus kept asking Jesus, repeatedly violating social norms on behalf of his sick daughter. The hemorrhaging woman crosses an even more formidable boundary than Jairus. Not only is she a woman reaching out to a man in a patriarchal culture, her condition renders her unclean according to the Jewish Law. By reaching out to Jesus, she violates not only social convention but the Law of Moses itself. Nevertheless, she reaches out to Jesus, aware that her earnestness will only take her so far. Both Jairus and the woman Jesus heals understand that love is only revealed to be genuine when we reach outside of ourselves. With this intercalation, Mark illustrates the subtle but crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking.

Those of you who have spent any amount of time in the Church know that it tends to be a hotbed of earnestness. When faced with an issue, our impulse is to create a committee to discuss it and to conceive of possible solutions, all while assuming that we know best. Then, if we fail or do not achieve the desired result, we are inclined to give up, saying something to the effect of, “Well, at least we tried.” Earnestness has an incredibly short shelf-life. It is suited to the quick fix, to the cause celebre, to the armchair activist, to the easy answer. The gospel, however, does not call us to earnestness; it calls us to genuine love. Genuine love asks us to reach outside of ourselves, it asks us to violate social conventions, it asks us to acknowledge we do not have all the answers. And even when our efforts at communication and bridge-building fail, genuine love asks that we, like Jairus, keep asking, keep striving to be in relationship, keep forging the bonds of affection that build up the body of Christ. Above all, genuine love asks us to recognize what we share in common with the people around us. While earnestness demands that we see the world as a collection of causes, genuine love invites us to see the people of this world as sisters and brothers, as members of the same body, as those for whom Christ died.

Ten days ago, this country was appalled, angered, and saddened to hear about the murder of nine Black Christians at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Everything about this terrorist act was horrifying: the fact that it took place in a house of worship, the fact that the murderer exploited the hospitality of those he murdered, the fact that he left someone alive to repeat his hateful message. Naturally, people from every walk of life have expressed their outrage at this atrocity. They have clamored for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from public buildings and for a dramatic reevaluation of our gun laws. There is no question that these are necessary steps to take: symbols of bygone rebellions have no place in the halls of government and our nation must examine its idolatrous preoccupation with firearms. Ultimately, however, these steps are symbolic. The problems that led to this massacre will not be solved when the stars and bars are taken down from outside the South Carolina state house, nor will they disappear when it is harder to purchase a deadly weapon. For all of our earnest desire to “do something” in the wake of this tragedy, we must adopt a perspective of genuine love, recognizing that the sin of racism cannot be undone through symbolic and legislative acts. Genuine love requires us to reach outside of ourselves across the walls that separate us. It requires that we be willing to ask our sisters and brothers about their experience of the world, recognizing that their answers may make us uncomfortable. All the while, we must trust in the God who is reconciling all things to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, our response to the tragedy in Charleston requires us to recognize the crucial distinction between earnestness and genuineness, between desire and will, between assuming and asking. Earnestness assumes that systemic racism is confined to one part of the country. Genuine love recognizes that all of us are complicit in a racist system of oppression. Earnestness looks for quick fixes. Genuine love recognizes that the problems we face do not have easy answers. Earnestness is a solitary endeavor. Genuine love works toward Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community. Earnestness says “somebody ought to do something about this.” Genuine love asks if that “somebody” might be me. Most importantly, earnestness tells us to give up every time we fall short. Genuine love encourages us to keep asking, keep striving, keep working, keep trusting that the walls that separate us can and will be dismantled, because God has renewed creation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be more than earnest and well-intentioned; we are called to be genuine: we are called to build up the Beloved Community, to ask our sisters and brothers to share in the new creation, and to reach outside of ourselves with genuine and reconciling love.

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.

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.

Comeback

Sermon on Acts 1:6-14 offered to the people of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Midland, TX.

imgresF. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”  You’ve probably heard this quotation before; members of the media love to trot it out whenever a disgraced politician makes a comeback.  Reporters will repeat the quotation and then say something like, “But clearly, Fitzgerald never met—fill in the blank” (Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Eliot Spitzer; the list goes on and on and on).  The rhetorical point is clear: though F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was impossible to make a comeback in America, these people seem to buck the trend.  This interpretation, however, actually misses Fitzgerald’s point.  Kirk Curnutt, the vice president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, points out that the quotation originally appears in an essay called “My Lost City.”  In it, Fitzgerald writes, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”  In other words, while one might be inclined to conclude that comebacks are impossible in America, the example of New York points to the contrary conclusion.  Another interpreter points out that the second act of a play is when the protagonist has to deal with difficulties and challenges before things are resolved in the third act.  Fitzgerald may have been implying that in American life, there is no messy second act; things seem to get resolved with out too much complication.  In the case of either interpretation, the point is clear: the comeback is a crucial part of the American narrative, not only for disgraced politicians, but also for military veterans, sports franchises, and cities.  As Americans and as human beings, we tend to find comeback stories very compelling.  One of the striking features of most comeback stories is that the person or the team or the city that has come back usually looks very different.  Sometimes it is challenging to recognize people experiencing a second act because so much about them has changed.  They have a new appreciation for life, a new ambition, a new understanding of their place in the world.

imagesThis morning, we heard about the Ascension, one of the stranger moments in the post resurrection life of Jesus, which is saying something, when you think about it.  Over the past several weeks, we have heard about Jesus being raised from the dead (which is pretty strange in and of itself), appearing to his disciples after passing through walls, and disappearing from their sight after being made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this is pretty bizarre stuff.  The Ascension, however, is even more perplexing than any of these other stories.  It is so strange that Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the only evangelist who bothers to include it in his account of the life of Jesus.  In both the gospel and Acts, the story is pretty similar: Jesus gathers his disciples, makes some promises about the coming of the Holy Spirit, and is carried away into the sky until he disappears behind a cloud.  It is a strange story, not just because it’s about someone being taken up into the sky, but also because it is difficult to understand why it is included in the story of Jesus at all.  Most events in the life of Jesus point to some significant truth about the nature of God.  The Ascension doesn’t seem to have a significance beyond, “Hey, remember when that happened?  That was weird.”  And yet, Luke mentions the Ascension two separate times; in fact, it seems to be the pivot point between his gospel and his account of the early Church.  Moreover, the Church fathers thought the Ascension important enough to merit its own clause in the Nicene Creed.  That’s more than you can say for any of Jesus’ teachings.  So while it is one of the more perplexing aspects of the life of Jesus, the Ascension remains an important part of the Christian faith.

This leads us to wonder why.  What is significant about the Ascension?  What does it tell us about Jesus Christ and the nature of the God we worship?  One of the most conspicuous elements of the Ascension is that it is characterized by absence.  Think about the ending of the gospel according to Matthew for a moment.  Jesus gathers his disciples on a mountain and charges them to make disciples of all nations.  Jesus then tells them, “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Those are the final words of Matthew’s gospel.  The last thing that Matthew wants us to remember is that Jesus is present with us in some way.  Contrast that to Luke, where Jesus does not promise to be present with the disciples, but instead, vanishes from their sight.  For Luke, the Ascension is noteworthy because Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, because Jesus is no longer present, because Jesus, like Elvis, has left the building.  For Luke, Jesus needs to be elsewhere, needs to be interested and engaged with creation, but on a remote level.  The reason for this is revealed to us by those mysterious men in white robes.  After Jesus disappears from the disciples’ view, Luke tells us that they continue to gaze at the sky.  Two men approach them and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  The logical response to this question is, of course, “Duh!  We just saw someone carried away into the sky!”  Before the disciples can offer this obvious response, however, the mysterious men in white say, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Luke emphasizes the absence of Jesus in order to prepare us for the return of Jesus.  The Ascension, in other words, is less about Jesus’ departure and more about his coming again.

When we hear about the return of Christ, the image that comes to mind tends to terrifying and violent.  Thanks to the apocalyptic imagery found in parts of the gospels, the book of Revelation, and works of popular fiction like the Left Behind series, many of us have come to regard the Second Coming of Christ as something scary.  Christ will return from heaven like a conquering warrior, leading an army of heavenly hosts and slaying the wicked and unrighteous.  In fact, the words of the mysterious strangers in today’s gospel account seem to support this fearsome understanding of Christ’s return: “This Jesus…will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Through much of Christian history, the prevailing way to read this prediction was as a physical description: Christ went into heaven through the sky and will come back from heaven through the sky.  Charles Wesley embraces this view in the great Advent hymn: “Lo, he comes with clouds descending; once for our salvation slain.  Thousand, thousand saints attending swell the triumph of his train.”

imagesBut what if the prediction of the two men in white is not a physical description, but something much more significant?  What if, by saying that Jesus will come in the same way, these mysterious strangers are not saying “Jesus is going to return from the sky,” but are instead saying, “Jesus will return in the same way he originally came,” that the Second Coming of Christ is going to look similar to Christ’s first advent?  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, he will return as one who cares for the poor, reaches out to the downtrodden, heals the sick, and welcomes the stranger.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that in his second act, Jesus will be unchanged, that he will continue to be passionate about justice, compassion, and love.  Perhaps these mysterious strangers are saying that when Christ returns, we will recognize him.

If we are going to recognize Jesus when he returns, this leads us to wonder if Jesus will recognize the Church.  This, I think, is the reason Luke repeats the story of the Ascension in both of his books: he intends this question to be at the back of our minds as we read about the beginnings of the Church in the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospel, we are told what Jesus did in his earthly ministry, how he cared for the poor, reached out to the downtrodden, healed the sick, and welcomed the stranger.  As we hear the stories of the early Church, Luke wants us to ask: are the apostles living up to the example of their Lord and Master?  By repeating the story of the Ascension at the beginning of Acts, Luke ensures that Jesus’ example and his promise to return are at the back of our minds.  Throughout the book of Acts, we see the apostles striving to follow Christ’s example by caring for the widows and orphans, healing the palsied and disabled, and expanding their understanding of God’s justice as they begin to include Gentiles into the Church.  In other words, we see the apostles striving to make the Church recognizable to the Jesus who will return in the same way he came.

Would Jesus recognize the Church today?  On one level, this is a silly question.  The Church has evolved significantly over the last two thousand years.  Jesus would probably have a hard time recognizing our hierarchical structures, our liturgies, our vestments, our preoccupation with committees, our buildings, and even our creeds, for that matter.  But, would Jesus recognize our passion for justice, compassion, and love?  Would Jesus recognize our efforts to provide for the poor, reach out to the downtrodden, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger?  Would Jesus recognize our attempts to follow his example?  Too often we get distracted from our call to follow Christ’s example by our slavish devotion to our Church structures.  We assume that we are not the Church unless we hold to just the right doctrine or use just the right liturgy or embrace just the right hierarchy.  But what the disciples show us in the Acts of the Apostles is that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more passionate about justice than dogma.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is one that is more concerned with compassion than structure.  The disciples show us that the Church Jesus will recognize is more interested in sharing God’s love than being right.  The Ascension reveals to us that Christ is the same, yesterday and today; we are called to embrace his changeless example and allow it to shape our lives and the life of the Church.