The Disciple Abides

Sermon on John 15:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced us to the Dude, the main character in a movie called The Big Lebowski. I won’t summarize the whole movie for you (it’s really worth watching), but I will tell you that it follows the Dude as he gets caught up in an escalating series of predicaments in imageswhich he is used by various powerful people for their nefarious purposes. It is an homage to the film noir genre, but unlike those films, in which the protagonist tends to get so caught up in the spiral of events that he ends up in a ditch somewhere, the Dude is unperturbed and ultimately unaffected by the drama that surrounds him. Indeed, the Dude seems to practice the Zen art of detachment; nothing seems to bother him all that much. This works out well for him; by the end of the movie, in spite of everything that happens to him, the Dude is back where he started. He summarizes his resilience with a memorable phrase: “the Dude abides.”

“Abide” is one of those words that tends to show up only in very specific contexts. Even though it just means “stay” or “remain,” we tend not to use it in everyday conversation. It shows up in hymnody all the time: “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,” “O come with us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.” And as a result of its frequent appearance in hymns, “abide” has become something of an explicitly religious word. Perhaps this is why we don’t use “abide” regularly; it is reserved for loftier purposes. But I wonder if there is a deeper reason that abide is not part of the modern lexicon. “Abide” shares a root with “abode”; if we say that we abide somewhere, we imply that we are making that place our home. “Abide” implies permanence, contentment, a sense that we are not going anywhere for a while. Is there anything that is more at odds with our contemporary preoccupation with progress than a sense of permanence? Our culture insists that we shouldn’t stay in any one place for too long, that should move out of the starter home as soon as it’s financially feasible, that we should always be on the lookout for new job opportunities, that we should always be thinking about what comes next. This impatience for what comes next is motivated by a profound anxiety that there is much more to do, much more to strive for before we can achieve peace and contentment. In this anxious cultural context, the worst thing we can possibly do is abide.

This kind of anxiety is nothing new. When Jesus gathers with his friends prior to his crucifixion, the disciples are riddled with apprehension, uncertain about what will happen next. This morning’s gospel reading comes from a section of John in which everything the disciples say betrays their trepidation: “Are you going to wash my feet?”, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, how can we know the way?”, “Lord, just show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” It’s no wonder that the disciples are anxious. After all, Jesus has predicted his execution; the disciples know that it is only a matter of time before the authorities come to arrest him. It is in the midst of this swirling anxiety that Jesus offers these startlingly simple words of assurance: “As the Father has loved me, so I love you; abide in my love.” These words are surprising because they do very little to alleviate the anxiety of the disciples; indeed, Jesus doesn’t even address their concern about what will happen next. Rather than engaging their concerns about the future, Jesus challenges the disciples to embrace the present.

This would have been countercultural for the disciples even if they weren’t worried about Jesus’ impending Passion. Much of the first century Jewish experience was about waiting for what comes next. There are two pivotal stories from the Hebrew Bible that gave shape to the way the Jewish people understood the world. One was the Exodus, the story of how God liberated God’s people from slavery and led them to the Promised Land. imagesThe other was the exile, the fact that God’s people were removed from the place God promised and forced to live in a strange land. The centrality of the exile meant that the Jewish worldview was one of yearning and expectation. This continued into the first century because even though the Jewish people lived in the land promised to them by God, they did not posses it; it was a territory of the Roman Empire. The centrality of both Exodus and exile meant much of the first-century Jewish experience was about looking to the future: the future when God would expel the foreign occupiers from the promised land, the future when the Messiah would rule with justice and equity, the future when God’s people would be free to live in peace.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in his love, he challenges this worldview. And by telling his disciples to abide, Jesus taps into another deep tradition from the Hebrew Bible, one affirmed by the psalmist when he calls us to make “the Lord our refuge and the Most High our habitation.” Jesus taps into God’s promise that we will abide with God regardless of what happens to us. The story told in the Bible is the story of a God who abides with his people even when they have been cut off from everything they know. The Exodus, therefore, is not a story about a circuitous journey to the Promised Land; it is a story about a God who remains with his people as they fail and falter their way through the desert. The exile is not a story of mere deportation, it is the story of how God’s faithfulness endured even though God’s people had been removed from the promised land. Moreover, the incarnation is the embodiment of the reality that God abides among us, and the resurrection the affirmation that not even death can disrupt God’s abiding presence. Jesus challenges the disciples to recognize that God is with them even in the midst of their anxiety and uncertainty. Jesus challenges the disciples to abide in the knowledge that God’s love endures even the most difficult circumstances of their lives. Jesus challenges the disciples and challenges all of us to get out of the endless cycle of striving, to buck the culture of “what’s next,” and recognize that we have a home in God.

For many of us, the very idea of abiding is frightening. We think that if we stay in one place, the world will pass us by. We assume that in order to abide, we have to adopt the the Dude’s perspective, detached and disengaged from the world. But Jesus does not tell his disciples to abide in blissful ignorance; he tells them to abide in his love. Abiding is not just about remaining in one place oblivious to the realities of life; it is about being in a mutual, dynamic relationship with the one who created and redeemed us. We enter this relationship through worship, through the practice of sabbath. The practice of sabbath, the discipline of staying put, allows us to understand that God sustains creation even when we take a break. The discipline of sabbath allows us to understand that the time we have is a gift from God. At its best, our worship is about providing a space in which we can put away anxiety and abide in God’s love.

 

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Snow Day

SnowStreetLast week, the Church of the Redeemer was closed for a snow day.  Notwithstanding the limited accumulation (some clever souls dubbed the storm “The Fizzard of 2015”), there was something delightfully nostalgic about being “snowed in.”  The instant I discovered that our offices were closed, I was transported back to my childhood, to those wonderful moments when I looked out the window at a world blanketed in white and knew that the day was full of unanticipated possibility.

Of course, snow days can be slightly more complicated for adults.  They oblige us to reschedule meetings, ensure that our children are occupied, and deal with the anxiety of missing a day of work.  In spite of these these complications, we ought to view snow days with at least some of our childhood delight.  Snow days are unique opportunities to experience a true respite from our impossibly busy schedules.  We tend to fill other days off with chores and other obligations.  Since snow days are unanticipated, however, they are unencumbered by plans and expectations; they are opportunities to do things that we would otherwise not have time to do.  Snow days are a gift, and the appropriate response to a gift is gratitude.

Gifts often make us a little uncomfortable.  When we are given a gift, we tend to assume that we either do not deserve whatever we have received or that it was given out of a sense of obligation.  As Christians, however, we are called look at gifts in a different way.  Our faith affirms that God gives us the gift of his grace freely and without condition.  We are not meant to discern the reason God’s grace has been made known to us.  Rather, we are called to respond to this grace by gratefully acknowledging that our lives have been changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

One of the ways we exercise this gratitude is through the practice of Sabbath.  Sabbath is an opportunity to remember that we are called to put our trust in the God who created and redeemed us.  Sabbath is a way of pausing in the midst of our busy schedules so that we can move from a place of anxiety to a place of peace.  Like a snow day, Sabbath is meant to be a gift, a chance to give thanks for the grace that God has so freely given us.

Spiritual Readiness

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13 and Amos 5:18-24 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Several years ago, amid the endless prelude to the 2012 presidential election, President Obama committed a memorable gaffe during a speech in Irwin, Pennsylvania.  The president was expounding on the principles of our democracy’s social contract: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help…Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  Some argued that Mr. Obama’s point was that public infrastructure, which is supported and “built” by all taxpayers, allows business to thrive.  Others, however, suggested that the president was denigrating the hard work and entrepreneurial spirit of job creators.

Now, I’m not even remotely interested in determining what the president meant when he said this two years ago.  Rather, I bring this up because it demonstrates how defensive we can be about our work ethic.  In 2012, the mere implication that business owners didn’t do the work required to make their business successful was enough to send people into a tailspin of recrimination.  I think that this is because one of the great assumptions about our culture is that natural talent and birth can only take you so far; in the American dream merit and hard work are the true arbiters of success.  We are proud of how hard we work, and this invariably leads us to feel limited sympathy for those who haven’t worked as hard to achieve success.  The American narrative celebrates success and assumes that those who are unsuccessful simply are not prepared and not dedicated to the task set before them.

images
George C. Scott would have been an interesting casting choice for Jesus.

Though this celebration of success and disdain for those who have fallen short is part of the American narrative, it is not generally what we expect from the gospel.  Nevertheless, we heard a gospel story this morning that seems to consider hard work and preparation more important than compassion.  This story about the wise and foolish maidens is one of Jesus’ “hard teachings,” so called because it challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about Jesus.  Nothing about this story lines up with our expectations about Jesus.  For instance, while we may be preoccupied with success, Jesus is supposed to look out for the little guy; after all, even the chronically lazy are given a break in the parable of the day laborers.  And while we may selfishly hoard our possessions, Jesus is supposed to encourage sharing; he’s pretty clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”  But in the midst of this parable about the wise and foolish maidens Jesus sounds less like the Jesus we have come to know and more like Ebenezer Scrooge, implying that the wise maidens are wise because they are miserly.  When the unprepared bridesmaids ask their wise counterparts to lend them some oil, the wise maidens balk, claiming that there is no way they could possibly share what they have.  The wise maidens are celebrated for their careful preparation and their unwillingness to share, while the foolish maidens are sent into the night and ultimately excluded from the wedding banquet because of their failure to prepare accordingly.  In spite of our usual lack of sympathy for the lazy and unprepared, I think there’s a level at which this doesn’t sit well with us.  Are we really supposed to believe that the wise bridesmaids couldn’t spare even a little oil, just enough to tide over their companions until the bridegroom arrives?  Moreover, doesn’t Jesus call us to give sacrificially even when we are not entirely sure we have enough for ourselves?

Part of the reason that this is such a challenging parable is that we tend to read it as a description rather than an illustration.  We imagine that there is a group of five bridesmaids left out in the cold somewhere, vainly knocking at the door.  When we think of this story as the account of an actual event, however, we fail to recognize the larger themes that Jesus is exploring in this section of Matthew’s gospel.  Before the passage we read today, Jesus describes the apocalypse, the time when the kingdom of God will be fully revealed.  This parable, which follows immediately, is the first in a series about being ready for the arrival of God’s kingdom.  The theme that runs through this entire portion of Matthew’s gospel, in other words, is that the day of the Lord will come when we do not expect it, that we must always be ready for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom.  Now, some Christian traditions suggest that the way to prepare for coming of God’s kingdom is essentially to wait patiently for Christ’s return, taking care not to do much of anything in the meantime so as not jeopardize our salvation.  This approach, however, is far too static for the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  It assumes that we can anticipate exactly what the day of the Lord will look like, a notion that is entirely inconsistent with the biblical witness.  In Scripture, God’s action is dynamic and surprising.

The prophet Amos wrote to a group of people who thought they could predict what the day of the Lord would look like.  Amos corrects this notion with the line that concludes the passage we read this morning: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  imagesIn English, the sense we get is that God’s justice and righteousness are going to come down in torrents from heaven.  While this is technically correct, the Hebrew word Amos uses is more specific; it’s basically the term for a gully washer.  For Amos, in other words, God’s justice flows like a flash flood: suddenly, dramatically, and unexpectedly.  It’s not something for which we can specifically plan.  If you think about it, there is no way to avoid or prepare completely for a flash flood; one can only be ready for the possibility, ready to swim when the water comes.  Ultimately, this is why the wise bridesmaids cannot help their foolish counterparts in our gospel reading.  It’s not that wise bridesmaids are more prepared; it’s that they are more spiritually ready.  This is a crucial distinction.  If all the wise bridesmaids had done was stock up on oil, they could have shared what they had without any problem.  Spiritual readiness, however, is a state of being, which by definition cannot be imparted to anyone else.  It would be like trying to share one’s ability to swim with someone else.  When it comes to spiritual readiness, there is no quick fix; one must put in the time required to be spiritually ready.

In some ways, it would be easier if we could predict how and when Christ will return.  We could become spiritual survivalists, hoarding lamp oil, stocking up on spiritual supplies, and cowering in our bunkers as we await the day of the Lord.  We could be satisfied in the knowledge that we have worked hard and made appropriate preparations, in contrast to our lazy brothers and sisters.  But the reality is that spiritual readiness is less about hoarding supplies and more about risking what we value most.  Spiritual readiness requires us to give something of ourselves.  It requires us to give up part of our precious schedule to nurture our relationship with God through prayer, Sabbath, and worship.  It requires us to give up those parts of our life that draw us away from an awareness of God’s love.  It requires us to invest our time and energy in helping others become spiritually ready.  Though we cannot specifically plan for Christ’s return, we can be spiritually ready to participate in the kingdom we didn’t build, but are privileged to share.

Stories

Forrest Gump was on television the other day.

forrest-4For those of you who don’t remember, Forrest Gump chronicles the life of a man from Alabama who manages to be present for every significant event of the 1960s and 70s.  He serves in the Vietnam War, participates in the Olympics, and is responsible for catching the burglars at the Watergate Hotel.  Forrest narrates these events as he sits at a bus stop in Savannah, and he shares the stories of his life with his fellow passengers in the most matter-of-fact way possible.  It gradually becomes clear that these stories shape the way that Forrest looks at the world and define his relationships with his mother, his friends, and his beloved Jenny.  He derives meaning from these stories because they remind him who he is.

In a similar way, the Jewish Sabbath always begins with the telling of stories.  Every Sabbath includes the same words: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord your God is one.”  The people gathered around that table tell the story of their relationship with God.  They tell the story of God’s faithfulness to their people in ages past and remind themselves that God is faithful to them through the changes and chances of their own lives.

This is why the gospels tell us that the disciples are in such a hurry to entomb the body of Jesus.  According to John, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus place Jesus in a nearby tomb simply because it is conveniently located.  They do this so that they can return to their homes in time to observe the Sabbath, so that they can return to their homes to tell the story of God’s faithfulness, so that they can be reminded that God is faithful even through the changes and chances of their lives.  There is something very powerful about this.  Even though Jesus Christ had been betrayed, abandoned, and rejected, his disciples reminded themselves that God had been faithful to them in ages past.  Even though their world had been shaken to its core, the disciples renewed their trust in the faithfulness of God.

There are times that all of us feel betrayed, abandoned, and rejected.  There are times that all of us doubt the presence of God among us.  But this Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the face of these challenges, we are called to tell the story of our relationship with God.  We are called to renew our trust in the God who is faithful to us even when our whole world has collapsed around us.  We are called to be faithful to a God who is faithful to us even to the point of death.

Oasis

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on finding grace at the gym, particularly Abilene’s YMCA in Redbud Park.

If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you know that I have been trying to get to the gym on a more regular basis.

images-2When I first returned to an exercise regimen, I solemnly vowed that I would not use elliptical machines.  They seemed simultaneously to require too little effort and too much coordination (more than I possess, anyway).  When I grew tired of swimming every day, however, I sheepishly broke my vow and gave the elliptical a try.  Astonishingly, I enjoyed the experience far more than I expected I would.  Sure, I looked a little like a baby deer the first time I tried to make my arms and legs work together, but I eventually got the hang of it.  More importantly, I discovered that when you do it right, the elliptical is a lot more challenging than it looks.  By the time I finished my first hour-long session, I was completely worn out and gasping for a drink of water.  When I stumbled to the water fountain, I noticed the word etched into the plastic handle: “Oasis.”  I can’t think of a better way to describe the experience of drinking water from that fountain after a long workout.  Like an oasis in the desert, it was a place of refreshment and sustenance, a verdant patch of green in an otherwise forbidding landscape, a place that signaled it was time to rest.

Where is your oasis?  Where is the place that you can stop, rest, and be refreshed?  One of the important aspects of life in the Church that I believe we have forgotten is the practice of Sabbath.  We have gotten seduced by the notion we always have to be doing something in order to be considered productive.  Our ancestors, however, recognized that we are occasionally the most productive when we are doing nothing at all.  The Torah lays out a fairly comprehensive approach to the concept of Sabbath.  Not only are there rules requiring people to rest every week, there are regulations that specify when to let land lie fallow, when to rest livestock, and when to cancel debts.  Sabbath, in other words, not about taking a breather every once in a while, it is about reevaluating our position in the world and reorienting ourselves to the God who created us.  It was a way of rejuvenating the land and reinvigorating human relationships, something that we desperately need in this age of overconsumption and mistrust.  So, as you consider where you might find your oasis, make sure it is a place where you can really stop.  Make sure it is a place where you can go regularly and be productively unproductive, where you can reevaluate where you are and reorient yourself to God.

Opening Day

Today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season.

imgresI have been at least a casual baseball fan for much of my life (and by “casual,” I mean that I’ve always been at least nominally a Red Sox fan), but I really fell in love with the game about ten years ago, when I moved to Boston.  There are a number of aspects of baseball that appeal to me.  I love the history of the game; it is humbling to know that some MLB franchises have been playing since the Gilded Age.  I love the liturgy of the game; there is something very comforting about the unnecessarily detailed rules that are a central part of the game, like this unnecessary and beautiful ritual: whenever a pitching change is made, the manager walks all the way out to the mound, takes the ball from the pitcher, and hands it to the reliever.  I love the pace of the game; baseball is the athletic equivalent of Sabbath: it encourages us to slow down in the midst of our busy lives and experience the wonder of life.

The main reason I love baseball as much as a I do, however, is how well the sport embraces failure.  There are 162 games in the Major League Baseball season.  The Boston Red Sox, who were the World Series champions last year, won 97 of these 162 regular season games.  In spite of the fact that they lost 65 games, they were crowned as the best team in baseball.  Even more dramatic is the fact that Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in history, had a single-season batting average of .406.  This means that in his best season, Teddy Ballgame himself was unsuccessful at the plate almost 60 percent of the time.  The best hitters playing today tend to have batting averages around .300, which means that they fail 70 percent of the time.  Baseball players and fans know how to deal with failure.  And this shapes the way that baseball fans look at the world, especially on Opening Day.  Every team begins the season with a mathematically equal chance of going to the playoffs, and even fans of historically bad teams hold on to this hope.  In spite of past failures, we always know that there is a possibility for redemption.  For baseball fans, the past does not dictate the future; instead, the future is shaped by boundless possibility.

I think the same can be said of the Christian life.  At its best, the Church is deeply aware of the reality of human failure, of the fact that sin is part of the human condition.  At the same time, the Christian community is also deeply aware that in spite of our human failings, there is always a possibility for transformation.  Paul tells us that Christ reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners.  God was aware of our human frailty, and held out the hope of redemption in spite of our inability to recognize God’s love.  We must remember that in the Church, the past does not dictate the future; instead, our future is shaped by the boundless possibilities available to us when we ground our life in God.

Routine

During the Second World War, an English priest was given the unpleasant task of telling a widow that her son had been killed in action.  She had already lost her husband during the Battle of Britain; the priest knew that this newest piece of information would be completely devastating.  He knocked on the widow’s door and held his breath as he waited for her to answer.  As she answered the door, she saw the priest’s clerical collar and knew that the news would not be good.  Tenuously, the priest said, “Madam, it grieves me to inform you that your son has been killed.”  The widow’s response was surprising: “Won’t you come in for a cup of tea?”  As the pair sat at the woman’s kitchen table, munching on biscuits and sipping Earl Grey, the priest observed quizzically, “Madam, you seem to be coping with this loss remarkably well.  I certainly would not have felt able to invite someone over for tea if I had received the news you just received.”  The widow mused, “I always have a cup of tea at this time.  I’m told that when one faces devastating loss, one should strive to keep one’s routine.  It’s the only way I can move forward.”

icon_epitaphios_thrinos_lamentToday is Holy Saturday, the day that we remember the uncertainty that followed Jesus’ death.  It is the day that we remember the grief of those closest to Jesus: the sorrow of his mother, the dejection of his friends, and the uncertainty of his disciples.  In the liturgy for the day, we say the words of Psalm 130: “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning.”  Holy Saturday is a day of mourning and waiting.  Yet it is also a day of routine.  It’s striking that in the accounts of Jesus’ burial, a primary concern of those who mourned Jesus was to ensure they observed the Jewish burial customs, that they did the same thing that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years.  Even more striking is how careful they are to observe the Sabbath, to take the day of rest appointed by Jewish law, to do the same thing they have done week in and week out for their entire lives.  In the face of their grief, in the face of their uncertainty, in the face of the fact that their world had crashed down around them, those who mourned Jesus fell back on their routine, because that was the only way they could move forward.

There is a wisdom to routines.  In the face of uncertainty and pain, routines can be an enormous comfort.  Even as our world crashes down around us, we can cling to our routines and they can sustain us as we carefully move forward.  But even as we return to our routines, we must always be willing to be surprised, to be jolted from complacency by a truth that transcends even the grief and uncertainty of this day.  In the meantime, we are called to return to our routine, to gather in hope, and to wait for the Lord.