Senseless

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Like many of you, I woke up on Monday morning to the news that 59 people had been murdered and hundreds injured by a gunman in Las Vegas last Sunday night. Like many of you, I was horrified and grief-stricken; I found myself weeping in my car as I listened to reports about the massacre. As troubled as I was by the news itself, I was just as dismayed by the way people reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t that anyone said anything particularly offensive or insensitive; it was that the reaction was so predictable. On Monday night, the late night comedy hosts “got real” in their opening monologues. By Tuesday, some politicians were insisting that it was not the time to discuss gun control while others were insisting that it was. On Wednesday, news outlets posted the article they always publish when mass shootings occur. By Thursday, conspiracy theories began to circulate. Even the reaction of the church felt like it was following a grim routine. At Redeemer, we tolled the bells, just as we did after the Pulse nightclub, just as we did after Sandy Hook. It was as if everyone had been assigned a role in some grotesque drama designed to help us make sense of the fact that 59 more people were dead.

In some ways, this isn’t all that surprising. After all, we often turn to familiar narratives to comfort us when we are grieving. We look for ways to distract ourselves from the pain we feel when we realize what human beings are capable of doing to one another. We try to make sense of these tragedies, even though we know in our hearts that they are senseless.

Paul certainly understood this impulse to make sense of the world. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains that he once found meaning by positioning himself within the story and traditions of Israel. By his own account, Paul was completely devoted to the Jewish tradition. He asserts that he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” It might be tempting to gloss over these verses as just another list in Paul’s letters, but that fails to recognize the value Paul placed on these identity markers. They represented his pedigree: the fact that he came from the right family and did everything that was expected of him. More importantly, these defining characteristics helped Paul know exactly who he was and what God expected him to do. If Paul wanted to understand his place in the world, all he had to do was consider his identity as an Israelite. Paul’s birth allowed him to tap into a heritage and a shared narrative that gave his life meaning. Paul was “confident in the flesh” because his religious identity helped him to make sense of the world.

For this reason, it is nothing short of remarkable that Paul goes on to write, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” It’s not as though Paul was looking for a change when he became an apostle. Paul didn’t hit rock bottom before his conversion. He was an influential man who understood his place in the world better than most. And yet, Paul regards this identity as something to be cast aside. In fact, he describes that which he once held most dear a term that, literally translated, means “dung.” Paul is not demeaning his tradition of origin; he is simply demonstrating that his experience of Christ has completely overshadowed what he once prized. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” is replaced by a confidence that “Christ Jesus has made him his own.” This kind of transformation demanded a great deal of philosophical courage. Paul’s conversion obliged him to abandon a tradition that helped him make sense of the world and embrace a worldview in which things were far less certain. Such a radical shift would have required something earth shattering, a fundamental reordering of the world as Paul knew it.

Ultimately, it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ that caused Paul to reevaluate the way he understood the world. For Paul, the resurrection is not an isolated incident. It is not just some miraculous event that proves how special Jesus was. Rather, the resurrection represents a fundamental shift in the ordering of things. Paul reasons that if the power of death has been nullified for even one individual, it must, by necessity, be nullified for everyone. The normal pattern has been disrupted: death is no longer the end of the story. The implications of this are profound. It means that life, once destined to end, now has a meaning that transcends every narrative we use to explain the world. The resurrection, in other words, invites us to adopt an entirely new perspective on reality. It challenges us to recognize with Paul that the world has been fundamentally transformed by Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection.

In times like these, we often ask our faith to help us make sense of the world. We ask “why?” and expect Scripture or the Church to provide a clear answer and a clear path forward. The Christian faith, however, is not prescriptive. The Bible is much less concerned with how we act than it is with God’s action in the world. Moreover, our faith cannot make sense of that which is fundamentally senseless. In fact, our desire to find a reason for this tragedy prevents us from truly wrestling with the reality of what happened. What the Christian faith does provide in times like these is something much more valuable: an opportunity to reevaluate our perspective. Rather than helping us make sense of the world, our faith challenges us to look at the world differently. It asks us to adopt an attitude shaped by the resurrection. This can be a terrifying prospect, because it requires us to critically examine and sometimes abandon that which we hold most dear: whether it is the narratives that give us comfort when tragedy strikes or our inviolable assumptions about security and personal freedom. Nothing can be off the table when we adopt a perspective shaped by the resurrection, because nothing is unaffected by God’s undoing of death.

The only way we can adopt this perspective is if we share Paul’s confidence that “Christ Jesus has made us his own.” The only way we can honestly face a senseless and uncertain world is if we put our trust in the Providence of God. In our darkest moments, the gospel calls us to remember this fundamental truth of our faith: no matter what happens, we belong to God.

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Whether We Live, or Whether We Die

Sermon on Romans 14:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.” So begins The Sneetches, Dr. Seuss’s 1961 book about creatures who looked identical, apart from the presence of small green stars on their bellies. As Dr. Seuss explains, “those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small you might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all. But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, ‘We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.’” It’s a familiar story, one that really gets going when a fly-by-night huckster named Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town with two machines: one that will affix stars to Sneetch bellies and another that will remove them, both for a small fee. As Dr. Seuss observes, “from then on, as you can probably guess, things really got into a horrible mess.” The Sneetches paid to have stars affixed and stars removed until they ran out of money and, more importantly, had no idea who was originally a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch. Dr. Seuss’s point is clear: while the differences between us may seem significant, they are ultimately inconsequential.

This is a lesson that most of us tend to learn at a young age, which is not all that surprising, since Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books. At the same time, there are ways that this message can feel naive when we consider the complexity of our world. Certainly, the superficial differences between us are less important than we tend to think. Though I am a Red Sox fan, I don’t actually think that Yankee fans are bad people. But sometimes there are fundamental questions of identity that can be very difficult to disregard. Occasionally, the values espoused by various individuals are irreconcilably opposed to one another. For instance, is it really possible for us to say that the difference between a white supremacist and someone who believes in racial equality is inconsequential? While the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not is ultimately trivial, there do seem to be differences between us that are important to acknowledge.

At first glance, the disputes in the church in Rome that Paul addresses in this morning’s epistle reading do not seem to be of any consequence. When Paul describes the differences among members of the community, they seem as insignificant as the question of whether Sneetches have stars on their bellies or not: “some believe in eating anything, while [some] eat only vegetables” and “some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.” The way that Paul frames these arguments makes them seem like a matter of mere personal preference. His advice seems to bear out this assumption. Paul essentially counsels that we should not judge how other people practice their faith. Whatever you decide to do, he says, do it in honor of the Lord. Otherwise, live and let live. After all, these differences aren’t all that important in the end.

While the questions of what we eat and which holidays we observe may not seem controversial to us, they were actually fundamental questions of identity in the first century. Those who ate only vegetables did so in order to avoid meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Idolatry, the human tendency to worship something in God’s place, is the chief sin in the Hebrew Bible, the one from which all other sins stem. So one can understand the desire of devout Jews to scrupulously avoid eating meat if there was even a small chance been used in the worship of something that was not God. In the meantime, those who ate anything weren’t entirely sure it was worth even considering the dangers of idolatry. What one eats, in other words, was far from a casual issue in a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, the church in Rome was full of people who were accustomed to defining themselves in terms of what they did as members of their community: the Jewish community, for instance, could be defined as those people who kept kosher and observed holidays like Passover. If there weren’t any standard community rituals, how could the community define itself? In other words, when Paul instructs the Roman church not to let their differences be a source of division, he is challenging some of their most deeply and dearly held beliefs.

Significantly, Paul does not challenge these beliefs in the name of mere tolerance. Though it may seem like his argument boils down to “can’t we all just get along,” his appeal to unity is rooted in something much deeper than any fortune cookie wisdom. “We do not live to ourselves,” he writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Paul finds radical unity in our mortal nature: the fact that, no matter who we are or what group we belong to, we are all going to die someday. As consequential as our differences may be, all of them are overshadowed by our mortality. But Paul doesn’t leave us with this grim observation. Paul insists that this mortal nature we all share has been radically transformed through Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, Paul reasoned that it couldn’t have been significant for just one person or even one group people; it had to have been a defining event for the whole of humanity, and indeed, the whole of creation. And in light of the world-altering magnitude of the resurrection, questions of group identity, once so pivotal, now feel parochial and unimportant. The resurrection puts the differences between us into an entirely new perspective. It invites us to consider our identity not in terms of which group we belong to, but in terms of the fact that we belong to God. Indeed, there is nothing and no one that exists apart from the parameters of “whether we live or whether we die.” We are Lord’s no matter who we are or what happens to us.

It would be nice if we could pretend that the issues surrounding divisions in our society don’t really matter, that we could live in harmony with our neighbors if everyone just stopped being angry for a moment. Most of us would agree that this is naive: the issues that divide us are anything but superficial. Besides, as Arthur Brooks pointed out a few months ago,“the real problem in [our society] today is not anger, it’s contempt.” He went on to define contempt as “the conviction of the worthlessness of another human being.” I find this diagnosis compelling, mostly because contempt has been the root cause of most of human history’s intractable divisions. We cannot defeat contempt by shouting down our opponents or even by making a more persuasive argument. As Paul implies, the only way to overcome contempt, the only way to acknowledge the worthiness of our opponents, is to recognize that we share something fundamental with those whose positions infuriate us. We must recognize that the Lord has laid claim to everyone who lives and everyone who dies. This is ultimately what loving our enemies is about: it is acknowledging the Christ died for them as much as he died for us. We are the ones who have to make this recognition. We are the ones who have to step out courageously and announce that even the differences that are fundamental fade away when we remember that we all belong to God.

God’s Economy

Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Despite its rich cultural heritage, the city of Boston has very few iconic songs. Cities like New York can claim an enviable discography that includes the likes of Billy Joel, Frank Sinatra, and Jay-Z. Meanwhile, many of the songs about Boston are written by a punk rock band called The Dropkick Murphys, and they feature lots of screaming. Perhaps the best-loved Boston anthem was recorded by a group called the Standells in 1966. Even though the group was from California, this song has become the quintessential Boston song: it’s played at the end of winning Red Sox and Bruins games and has been honored by the Massachusetts legislature. You would probably expect this beloved song to pay homage to some honorable figure or moment from Boston’s storied past, like Paul Revere or the Boston Tea Party. But the song is actually called “Dirty Water,” a reference to the less than clean Charles River.

It's actually not so dirty anymore...
It’s actually not so dirty anymore…

The song describes some of the frustrations with living in Boston (especially if you were a rock star in the 1960s) but always returns to this cheerful refrain: “I love that Dirty Water; Boston you’re my home.” Yes, Boston’s favorite song, the song that most embodies the Bostonian spirit is an ode to a river so polluted that Harper’s Magazine once described it as “foul and noisome, polluted by offal and industrious wastes, scummy with oil, unlikely to be mistaken for water.” Nevertheless, Bostonians really do love that dirty water. Even though it is disgusting to outsiders, the Charles River is an emblem of Boston’s collective identity: its gritty tenacity, its stubborn refusal to be bullied, and its awesome capacity to survive. Even though they probably wouldn’t swim in it and certainly wouldn’t drink out of it, Bostonians love that dirty water because it helps them understand who they are.

Though the Jordan River is not nearly as dirty as the Charles, it must have looked similarly unimpressive to Naaman the Syrian. Naaman is one of the more relatable characters in the Hebrew Bible. We all come to a point when we realize that our ability to control our own lives extends only so far. Namaan, who had control over so many aspects of his life (he was wealthy, commanded an army, had political clout) had no control whatsoever over leprosy, this debilitating and alienating skin disease. We can understand his enthusiasm when someone tells him about Elisha: “Finally! Here is someone I can pay to regain control over my life.” When Naaman heads south to Samaria, he carries all the trappings of someone who is prepared to do anything to get what he wants: sacks of gold and silver and truckloads of expensive garments to barter with. He is ready to pay dearly for Elisha’s help. But when he arrives at the prophet’s door with his retinue, Elisha does not greet him as a foreign dignitary, but sends out a servant, who tells Namaan to follow the laws set out in Leviticus and to bathe seven times in the dirty waters of the Jordan River. Now the rivers in Namaan’s homeland are much more impressive and support the livelihoods of many more people than the Jordan; the name of one of the rivers, the Abana, can actually be translated “golden stream.” It’s no real surprise, in other words, that Namaan says “aren’t the rivers of my homeland better than all the waters of this Podunk country?” As we know, the Jordan, like the Charles in Boston, was much more than just a waterway for the people of Israel, it was a symbol of God’s power. God could use even the dirty waters of the Jordan to redeem God’s people. In a very real way, the Jordan reminded the people of Israel of their collective identity as a people who belonged to God. Naaman, however, was incapable of seeing this. Instead of welcoming the elegant simplicity of Elisha’s solution, Naaman balks. This was a man who was used to getting what he asks for when he asks for it, and as far as he is concerned, Elisha has told him to jump in a river.

Naaman was told that he had to do something very simple to achieve his aims, and yet he could not make sense of this. He thought that it couldn’t possibly be that simple. This world is a complicated place; people appreciate effort and authority and credentials and wealth. How could the power of God be given to those who simply wash themselves in a dirty river? How is it that Naaman, who was prepared to pay good money for his cure, was given the same solution he would have been given if he were a poor beggar who had nothing to offer?

We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.
We should avoid emulating Hannibal Lecter for more than just his economy of exchange.

What Naaman failed to understand is the crucial difference between the economy of God and that of the world. Naaman assumed that he would have to barter with Elisha, that his relationship with the God of Israel would be a quid pro quo kind of interaction. But God does not operate within this economy of exchange. God’s is an economy of grace, an economy of gift, an economy of abundant love that overshadows the wealth and influence of this world. Naaman was focused on what he could do; Elisha reminded him to focus instead on what God can do and what God has done.

Over the past several months, a variety of media outlets have published some version of the same article. The thesis is pretty straightforward: we should stop saying “sorry” when we mean “thank you.” If I am late for a lunch appointment, for instance, I shouldn’t say, “Sorry I’m late,” but rather, “Thank you for waiting.” For the most part, the articles have counseled that this helps us to become less anxious and generally kinder people. This subtle shift, however, does more than reduce our anxiety; indeed, it changes the way we experience the world. When we say “sorry,” we, like Namaan, assume an economy of exchange. We assume that when someone does something for us, we are in their debt. This leads us to keep track of every gesture of goodwill and every insult in order to ensure that our ledger is balanced. Ultimately, this worldview results in either shame or entitlement: shame when we get more than we deserve, entitlement when we get less. Saying “thank you,” however, dispenses with this economy of exchange. Gratitude assumes an economy of grace because it recognizes that everything is a gift. If everything is a gift, nothing is actually deserved. Gratitude precludes both entitlement and shame. This is what Paul was getting at when he referred to “new creation” in the climactic verses of Galatians. The new creation is where the economy of grace is operative. The new creation is where we dispense with the economy of exchange and shift our focus from what we can do to what God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Gratitude is how we inhabit this new creation. Gratitude allows us to experience life as a gift from God and helps us understand who we truly are: a people who belong to God.

The Full Stature of Christ

Sermon on Galatians 1:11-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Though he loved performing as a young man, Gary Stocker’s career initially took a very different path. After excelling in school, he studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. By the time he was thirty, he was living very comfortably: he had a lucrative salary and a house with a pool in the London suburbs. By any objective standard, Gary was walking an enviable path: he was well-respected and almost guaranteed to have gainful employment for the rest of his working life. imgresThat changed when a friend of his made an unusual request: he wanted Gary’s help building a cannon suitable for a human cannonball stunt (I suppose everyone needs a hobby). For several months, the cannon languished in his backyard until another friend, who was starting a circus, wondered whether Gary, who never quite lost his love of performing, would close the show with a human cannonball stunt. With that invitation, Gary Stocker abandoned the job security, predictable salary, and social prestige of the law for a career as a human cannonball.

For the most part, we tend to admire people who do what Gary did. We often tell our kids how important it is for them to pursue their passions, just like Gary. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we repeat with confidence. In some ways, Gary Stocker is the embodiment of this truism. His own words are revealing: “the elation I felt the first time I performed the stunt in public was incredible.” This is clearly a man who has found his passion. At the same time, one of the reasons we admire Gary is because we recognize we could never do what he did. His career change seems irresponsible at best and reckless at worst. It’s one thing when someone makes a dramatic career change after losing everything, but Gary willingly gave up everything to venture into the unknown. Most of us can’t imagine giving up everything he gave up: not only the predictable salary and job security, but also the years of study and work that went into becoming a lawyer. Sure, he’s doing what he loves, but how could throw all that away?

Like the lawyer turned human cannonball, Paul also experienced a significant change in his vocation. This morning, we hear Paul remind us of that vocational shift when he tells the Galatians of his “earlier life in Judaism.” “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it,” he recalls. But as we all know, Paul went from a zealous persecutor of the Church to its most enthusiastic apostle. He left everything behind to become a minister of the gospel. And lest the Galatians think that Paul converted because he lost everything or hit rock bottom, he is careful to explain, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul had everything going for him; he was respected by his peers and was cultivating a position of authority in his religious community. His future was secure. Paul wasn’t looking to change anything about his life when he received his revelation of the gospel. In fact, he couldn’t have imagined being an apostle to the Gentiles. Therein lies the crucial difference between Paul and others who have changed their vocations, like Gary Stocker. While Gary had always nurtured a passion for performance, Paul had never considered that his vocation would be to proclaim good news to the Gentiles. Gentiles weren’t even on Paul’s radar. Prior to his conversion, Paul, like all first century Jews, understood the world to be divided between Jew and Gentile, between covenant insiders and covenant outsiders, between those who followed the Law of Moses and everybody else. Gentiles simply did not belong. This deeply held belief was a fundamental element of the Jewish tradition. In other words, the revelation Paul received from God not only forced him to abandon a secure future, but also to reevaluate the way he understood the world, to give up everything that made sense to him, to empty himself of everything he thought was important for the sake of the gospel.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that for Paul, it is this act of emptying that defines what God does through Jesus Christ. In another letter to another community, Paul articulates that though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross. It is easy to miss the significance of this statement. There are few things in this world that we value more than security. Whether it is the basic yearning for physical safety, or the impulse to predict what will happen tomorrow, or the desire to know that our lives are meaningful; security is an elemental human aspiration. Yet this is what Jesus Christ gives up at the most fundamental level. He gives up the deeply human desire for security and willingly submits to the evil powers of this world. He forfeits the one thing that all of us cling to with everything we have. And in spite of his death at the hands of the authorities, Christ Jesus was vindicated in the resurrection. In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ accomplishes something that no one else can accomplish: he nullifies the power of the death and frees us to live in the shadow of God’s grace. This is animating force behind Paul’s conversion. Through the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord, Paul was able to give up everything he thought made him secure and gave his life meaning and recognize that his true worth came from God alone.

In our baptismal service, the parents and godparents of a child about to be baptized are asked a curious question: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” This is an unusual term, and it would be easy to assume that growing into the full stature of Christ is about acting like Jesus, which is ultimately an impossible goal. I wonder, however, if the meaning of this phrase can be found in the words of Paul. Before he explains how Christ emptied himself, abdicated his desire for security, and became obedient to death, Paul invites us to “let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus.” In other words, Paul suggests that we too are to give up our preoccupation with security, to let go of our desire for predictability, to recognize that our true worth comes not from what everyone else thinks of us, but from God alone. Growing into the full stature of Christ is about letting this mind of Christ be in us. It is about recognizing that everything we think is important, everything we think is worthwhile, everything we think defines us, everything we think will guarantee our security is not worth comparing with the grace that has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.

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.

Steps

Note: Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation and my father, preached on yesterday’s lectionary at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pontiac, Michigan yesterday.  Below is the sermon he offered to that congregation.

urlTwo years ago I had bilateral total knee replacement surgery.  In other words, I had both knees done at once. While it was a pretty rugged surgery and a very challenging recovery and rehab period, I was fully prepared for this ordeal physically, emotionally, intellectually and even spiritually. I planned for this elective surgery well in advance and all my business and personal affairs were in order. I was in good physical shape, spiritually grounded and had done extensive on-line research on all aspects of the procedure. I even arranged for appropriate pastoral care for both me and my family during the various stages of the process.  All I had to do was trust my surgeons, therapists and caregivers and put all my energies into getting, better, stronger, and back to normal. I became the poster child for bilateral knee replacement patients as my recovery was quick, successful and complete. I was fully confident that my knees were fixed for at least a twenty or thirty year period.

Seven weeks ago, I began to have flu-like symptoms, including swelling and discomfort which turned out to be a rare and unanticipated infection in my left replacement knee joint. Consequently, I needed immediate surgical and medical intervention.  While they didn’t have to replace the entire prosthesis, the surgeons did have to open up the knee, clean it out and replace some of the parts. More significantly, they put me on heavy duty, self-administered IV antibiotics via a PIC line inserted in my arm which resulted in very severe and annoying side effects. This type of complication, by the way, only occurs in less than 1% of knee replacement patients two years after the fact.  So much for odds.

Unlike my first knee surgery, this one was not planned. The physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual preparedness of two years ago was utterly and totally absent. I had no time to plan anything and had no control whatsoever. In fact, rather than the experience of a deep spiritual journey and time set aside for reflection and discernment which characterized the last surgery, this  time I very soon felt hopeless, frustrated , angry and, for a while, totally disconnected from God. I even railed against God with a few choice words.  This was truly a wilderness time for me – in a sense, a ready-made Lenten journey that I did not want to take. It was forced upon me totally against my will.

In this morning’s psalm, we proclaim that the Lord has done great things for us and therefore we rejoice. We are also reminded that those who sow in tears and go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy. While the message of the psalm is clearly meant to be comforting, I think it is often unrealistic especially in times of tragedy, illness, loss or total devastation. Do you really think that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are finding comfort in these words, even three months after the fact? Six weeks ago, my mouth was not filled with laughter nor my tongue with shouts of joy.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians presents an alternative approach and point of view, at least for me. In the passage we read today, Paul begins with identifying those valuable things in his life that give him status among the people of Israel so much so that he has reason to be “confident in the flesh.” After all, at the time he was knocked off his horse on the way to Damascus, Paul had lived a good life and had all the credentials he needed for fame, fortune and influence. He was at the top of his game and recognized that fact even at this point in his ministry.  And yet, Paul goes on to say that whatever inheritance he shared with God’s chosen people, his social, religious and political status, he now comes to regard as loss, not gain, because of Christ. He even refers to all this as rubbish. Paul states that any righteousness that may be associated with him comes not from his status or the law but because of his faith in Christ, in other words, righteousness from God based on faith.

For Paul, nothing is more important to him than sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even says that he wants to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”  This is incredibly powerful stuff, and in essence, the very core of what it means to be a Christian. But isn’t this easier said than done? How can I, as a Christian, participate in the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ when I even have difficulty feeling some connection to God as I did during my recent illness?

Fortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Like me and you, even Paul hasn’t quite figured it out – at least not yet. He acknowledges that he has not already obtained or reached this goal of participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, but presses on to make it his own – forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. For me, these words of Paul are much more realistic than the seemingly comforting words of the psalm. Paul is basically acknowledging that we live in a world where bad things happen and people are oppressed and suffer needlessly, all of which often results in pervasive feelings of alienation, isolation and separation from God. In other words, we live in a world that has not yet been fully transformed by God’s ultimate plan of salvation. But still we are called to press on. We are called to strive toward the heavenly goal of God in Christ Jesus. We are called to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. That’s all that matters. That’s all that really counts. It’s really okay if we have not yet reached this ultimate goal.

The good news for me is that I am recovering from this medical ordeal and have completed the arduous and necessary regimen of antibiotics and other medications. The better news is that my feelings of frustration and abandonment are gone and my Lenten wilderness experience has morphed into something more anticipatory and hopeful. I guess I took Paul’s advice, whether I knew it or not, and forgot what lay behind and attempted to strain forward to what lies ahead.  For deep down inside, I ultimately realized that nothing can ever separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even infections, rashes, nausea, fever, chills or PIC lines.  I realize and appreciate that despite this setback, I am healthy, I am strong and, with some PT and exercise, I will be able to walk normally again and, hopefully, avoid any further complications in the future. God was indeed with me on this entire journey and will continue to be with me no matter what lies ahead.

urlWhich brings me to today’s Gospel from John. On first blush, this passage can be interpreted as a subtle endorsement of conspicuous consumption and even excess. Here we have Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing the feet of Jesus with perfume that was obviously worth a small fortune. We also have that famous quote from Jesus – “you will always have the poor with you but you will not always have me”. Clearly, that is not the point of the story. What is significant in this passage is that the perfume bought by Mary, pure nard, was to be kept for the day of Jesus’ burial, a necessary and important element in ancient Jewish funeral rituals. But Mary was not saving the perfume for Jesus’ burial, which at that point was about a week away. She was using it now. Perhaps, rather than being extravagant, Mary’s simple but poignant act of anointing his feet while he was still alive was a powerful symbol of  her active and ongoing participation in the imminent death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After all, why waste expensive burial perfume on someone who is going to rise from the dead? You might as well use it now when everyone can appreciate its value and enjoy the fragrance wafting throughout the house. I think that Mary of Bethany from 2000 years ago is giving those of us gathered here today in Pontiac, Michigan an elsewhere some clues on what it means to be in relationship with the person called Jesus.

How do we as Christians in our own time and place actively, relevantly, practically yet completely participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the ultimate goal and challenge posed by Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi? Maybe the answer is simple – one small step at a time. Let’s go back to my knee replacement rehabilitation metaphor. Physical therapy is a process of small and often simple movements, stretches and exercises that with repetition, discipline and time ultimately result in the ability to walk again. I suggest that Christian discipleship is similar. Through simple acts of prayer, worship, fellowship, stewardship, outreach, empathy, sympathy and love, we, both individually and as a community, ultimately come to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As we approach the end of Lent and begin the powerful drama and pageantry of Holy Week, may we continue our journeys of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead – again – one step at a time.

Pursuit

Yesterday, I assisted at the funeral of a young woman who died last weekend.  Though she was only thirty-one, I sensed that she had already experienced more pain and suffering than those who live much longer.  This young woman struggled with mental health issues, addiction, and estrangement from her friends and family.  No matter how much those who loved her tried to reach out to her, no matter how many times they brought her in for treatment, she would push them away, unable to accept the help they offered.  I was profoundly aware that this young woman was running away from something that neither she nor anyone else could understand.

As the congregation mourned, we recited the healing words of the 23rd Psalm.  This extraordinary meditation on the depth of God’s love is comforting in many ways, but I draw the most solace from the fact that most versions of the bible translate a verb in the final verse incorrectly: “Surely, your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).  As it happens, the verb most versions translate as “follow” is closer to “pursue.”  The Psalmist is saying that God’s goodness and mercy, that God’s compassionate love, that God’s identity as our shepherd is something that pursues us through every step of our journey through life.  God’s love pursues us even when we try to push back and run away from it.  The 23rd Psalm assures us that we cannot outrun the love and compassion of God.  The 23rd Psalm promises that even when we refuse God’s love, even when we reject God’s mercy, God will continue to pursue us with a persistent and inescapable love that transcends even death.

Lent is one of the times in the Church year that we slow down intentionally, a time that we pause and make an effort to turn around and embrace the love that God offers.  While we may occasionally be successful, there will invariably be times when we will get caught up in our own self-interest, when we will refuse the grace God offers, when we will push back and run away from God.  Nevertheless, we can be confident that God will continue to pursue us with a compassionate love that we simply cannot outrun.  It is for this reason that we can, like Paul, be confident that neither angels, nor rulers, nor addiction, nor estrangement, nor backsliding, nor  heard-heartedness, nor anything else in all creation, including death itself, can separate any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.