Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.
The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. Williams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 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.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.
Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.
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.
A 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.
Paul’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.
In 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.
Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer on Maundy Thursday, 2015.
In January of 1929, Rube Goldberg, an artist and former engineering student, began contributing satirical cartoons to Collier’s magazine. These cartoons depicted everyday tasks being accomplished through the most complicated means imaginable. You’ve probably seen these drawings: they are commentaries on America’s seemingly boundless faith in technology. Since its first publication, Goldberg’s work has become a cultural touchstone. As early as the 1930s, Merriam-Webster added “Rube Goldberg” to the dictionary, defining it as “accomplishing something simple through complicated means.” Since 1989, engineers have competed in the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, in which contestants must build a machine that accomplishes a simple task in at least 20 steps. I wonder, however, how Rube Goldberg would feel about his cultural ubiquity. His cartoons were shaped by an implicit sense that life had become too complicated, that the labor saving devices on which we were becoming increasingly dependent actually prevented us from experiencing the fullness that life has to offer. Goldberg’s drawings exposed the artifice of modern life: the false assumption that our life has meaning because of what we possess.
This evening, we commemorate two acts of Jesus that, unlike the designs of Rube Goldberg, are striking for their simplicity. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the careful Passover instructions articulated in the book of Exodus, the footwashing and the institution of the Lord’s Supper are almost laughably straightforward. In both acts, Jesus uses the most basic element imaginable: a pitcher of water, a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Paul and the other witnesses don’t tell us that there was anything special about these; in fact, the evangelists imply that Jesus used the bread and wine that happened to be left over at the end of dinner. And as Jesus shares the simple elements of bread and wine and water with those gathered around the table, his instructions are equally uncomplicated: “do as I have done for you”; “do this in remembrance of me.” The simplicity is almost comic, and might lead us to wonder why these simple gestures have any power at all.
The narrative context for these two rituals reveals that their simplicity is deceptive. John tells us that Jesus washes the feet of his disciples knowing “that his hour had come to depart from this world.” Paul reminds the Corinthians, as we are reminded every Sunday, that Jesus shared bread and wine with his disciples “on the night when he was betrayed.” Both the footwashing and the institution of the Eucharist, in other words, are colored by the fact that Jesus is about to be handed over to suffering and death. More significantly, Jesus shares this simple meal with and washes the feet of the very people who betray, deny, and abandon him. The simplicity of the acts performed by Jesus exposes the artifice of those gathered around the table: the shrewd patience that keeps Judas at the table until the appointed time, the disquiet that leads the disciples to say, “Surely not I, Lord?” when Jesus predicts his betrayal, and perhaps most damning of all, the false confidence that leads Peter to protest, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus spends his last night on earth with a group of people who will fail him at every turn.
It is this context of betrayal and infidelity that gives Jesus’ acts on that last night their true power. Even though Jesus knew that those gathered around the table would soon behave as enemies, Jesus calls them “friends.” When he washes the feet of his disciples, Jesus adopts the role of a servant to those who are not worthy of being served. When he says, “this is my Body,” Jesus gives himself to those who would soon betray, deny, and abandon him. Before his disciples can hand him over to the evil powers of this world, Jesus hands himself over in the forms of bread and wine, and nullifies their betrayal. “By his surrender into the passive forms of food and drink,” writes Rowan Williams, “[Jesus] makes void and powerless the impending betrayal, and, more, makes the betrayers his guests and debtors, making with them the promise of divine fidelity…that cannot be negated by their unfaithfulness.” Jesus affirms that in spite of what they are about to do, the disciples are still part of his family. Even as everything falls apart around him, Jesus reaffirms the enduring faithfulness of God. In the Eucharist, the simple act of sharing a meal becomes an eloquent articulation of God’s love, a love that cannot be overcome by the darkness of human infidelity and violence.
From our historical vantage, it is easy to hear these stories assuming that we would never abandon Jesus during his final hours. We assume that we would stand at the foot of the cross, weeping with his mother and the beloved disciple. Or we would stand with the women of Jerusalem at a respectful distance. We certainly would not betray Jesus into the hands of sinners or deny that we ever knew him. But I wonder: when things start to fall apart in our own lives, when we are faced the loss of everything we possess and hold dear, when we lose our sense that we are in control our lives, are we really able to trust that God’s faithfulness will endure? I’d be willing to wager that there are moments in each of our lives that we have turned away from God: perhaps for convenience, or apathy, or fear, or uncertainty, or perhaps for a thousand other reasons. And yet, we put our trust in a God who gives himself to us in spite of our infidelity. We put our trust in a God whose love cannot be negated by our failure. We put our trust in a God who affirms that our life has meaning even when everything we hold dear has been stripped away. Tonight, we affirm a fundamental truth of the Christian faith: that even when things fall apart, the God made known to us in the bread and wine continues to call us family.
Sermon on 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be heard here.
A few weeks ago, George Clooney received the Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Clooney is a film actor, director, and producer who is generally considered one of Hollywood’s elite. He was also regarded as one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, that is until his marriage in September to Amal Alamuddin, a lawyer with an international reputation and an impressive resume. At the Globes, host Tina Fey introduced Mr. Clooney’s bride, saying “Amal is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three person U.N. Commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.” This joke is effective not only because it exposes the ludicrousness of awards ceremonies in which celebrities give golden statues to one another, but also because it puts the entire enterprise into perspective. Though George Clooney is among the most celebrated people in Hollywood, his accomplishments seem trivial when compared with those of his spouse. Tina Fey’s one liner highlights the importance of perspective, the necessity of making sure that our priorities are oriented correctly.
In our epistle reading this morning, we hear Saint Paul highlight the importance of perspective. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is among his more practical: he addresses specific issues pertaining to community discipline, attempts to mediate disputes among members of the community, and makes discrete suggestions about how to live faithfully. The portion of the letter we heard this morning comes from a much longer passage in which Paul takes up questions about marriage. From the misleading brevity of this passage, we might assume that Paul does not regard marriage as a worthwhile enterprise. In these three verses, Paul comes across as a Stoic philosopher, appearing to suggest that we ought to be completely unencumbered by worldly attachments. Indeed, this is how many of the Corinthians understood the path to holiness. Their sense was that the pleasures of the flesh, even within the bonds of matrimony, prevented one from being spiritual. As a result, certain members of the Corinthian community would abstain from marital relations, often without first consulting their chagrined spouses. This approach to spirituality was actually fairly common in the first century. In certain circles, ascetics were held up as spiritual athletes; those who abstained from worldly pleasures were celebrated and believed to have charismatic authority. For these groups, the more one abstained and the more temptations one resisted, the more spiritual power one acquired. Apparently there were some Corinthians who thought that this correlation of abstinence and spirituality was a characteristic of the Christian life. Moreover, they supposed that Paul, the confirmed crotchety old bachelor (probably never as eligible as George Clooney), would endorse this path to holiness and praise them for their temperance. The snippet of text that we heard this morning might lead us to assume that the Corinthians supposed correctly.
But in fact, Paul has very little patience for this Corinthian approach to holiness. While he concedes that some people are called to live single lives, Paul affirms that those who are married ought to behave as though they are married. His rationale for this is striking. Paul tells the Corinthians that spouses should give each other their conjugal rights because “the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” A statement like that is precisely what we might expect from a man living in a patriarchal culture. But Paul immediately provides a corrective: “Likewise,” he writes, “the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Paul describes a mutuality of relationship that was unheard of in the first century. In describing how marriage ought to be, he implies that none of us is our own master, that we are all subject to the sovereignty of the God made known to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, this is why Paul refuses to endorse the ascetic path to holiness. While the Corinthians believed that they could abstain their way to spiritual power, Paul insists that true holiness comes only from what God has done through Jesus Christ. While the Corinthians believed that spiritual charisma was something to acquire, Paul affirms that it is a gift given by the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. For Paul, the resurrection is the standard by which we measure every aspect of our lives. For Paul, the resurrection reorients our priorities and changes the way we experience the world.
This brings us to the passage we heard this morning. Paul tells those who are married, those who mourn, those who rejoice, and those who have dealings with the world to live as though none of these things were true. Though it may seem like Paul is being dismissive, it’s pretty clear from his earlier meditations on marriage that he believes these states of being to be incredibly important, vital elements of the Christian community. Far from encouraging the Corinthians to ignore their marriages or their livelihoods or their emotions, Paul is exhorting the congregation to put these into the proper perspective. Now for George Clooney, proper perspective is viewing his achievement in light of his wife’s accomplishments. For Paul, however, the proper perspective is viewing everything in light of the resurrection. This is essentially Paul’s primary purpose in writing first Corinthians. The whole letter builds to a soaring, comprehensive meditation on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event Paul affirms is so significant that it dwarfs every other event in history and every other concern of humanity. For Paul, the resurrection exposes the triviality of the Corinthians’ petty squabbles, claims to spiritual authority, and economic differences. For Paul, the resurrection tempers earthly sorrows and joys, because it allows us to experience the fullness of God’s glory. For Paul, the resurrection empowers us to live our lives unchained from the uncertainties of this life and to put our trust in the God who has defeated the power of death.
There’s no question that we live in an uncertain world. From terrorism to economic malaise to questions about the fairness of our justice system, there is much to be anxious about. But I would also contend that we live in a world that lacks perspective. Our culture tends to respond to every event in a very predictable way: first we are shocked, then we are outraged, and then we forget. Far from encouraging understanding, this pattern leads us to privilege novelty and ignore issues that are actually important. Living in light the resurrection allows us to shift our perspective. It enables us to disregard the ephemeral and recognize that which is of lasting importance. It equips us to participate in God’s transforming work as we build for a future that has been and will be redeemed. It liberates us from worldly anxiety and encourages us to put our trust in the faithfulness of God. Above all, living in light of the resurrection empowers us to look at the world with a new perspective, one shaped by the knowledge that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new.
Today is the day the Church commemorates the feast of St. Michael and All Angels.
On one level, it makes perfect sense to take time during the liturgical year to celebrate St. Michael. Like many saints, Michael demonstrates considerable devotion to God’s will during the course of his prominent, albeit fleeting, appearance in Holy Scripture. On another level, however, the inclusion of Michael in the calendar of the saints is downright bizarre. After all, St. Michael is an angel, a heavenly being appointed by God to carry a message or accomplish a specific task. “Saint” is a designation that seems as though it should be reserved for human beings who are particularly attuned to God’s will for creation. Sainthood implies a certain moral fortitude and a capacity for doing good and obeying God’s will even in the face of overwhelming difficulty. Angels don’t have a choice about doing God’s will; they are created to do so. Moreover, saints are generally held up as moral exemplars, people who share our struggles but show us that it is possible to persevere even we experience the limits of our human finitude. It is all but impossible for us to pattern our lives after angelic beings specifically created to be messengers of God.
This confusion about Michael’s presence on the calendar of our saints raises a broader question about our understanding of sainthood. While I gave a definition of “saint” in the previous paragraph, the reality is that the Church has never been settled on what a saint really is. The word comes from the Greek hagios, which literally means “holy,” i.e. set apart for God’s purposes. In the early days of Christianity, therefore, the term was applied to everyone who had been baptized into the body of Christ, since the Church was set apart from the world. The Church was, quite literally, the community of the saints. As the Church grew, however, “saint” was applied more specifically to individuals whom the community considered particularly holy and worthy of emulation, like those who had been martyred. Gradually, the Church began to regard these individuals as fundamentally different from everyone else. If you think about it, this notion that a saint is a different kind of person persists today. Most frequently, “saint” is applied to someone who is preternaturally well-behaved or long-suffering: “her husband is so hard to deal with; she’s a saint!” Given this popular assumption that saints are different from you and me, the inclusion of Michael makes perfect sense; what could be more different from a mere mortal than an ageless and deathless divine messenger?
I wonder, however, whether we are missing the point when it comes to sainthood. All of the definitions that we’ve explored assume that saints are special because of something that they have done, whether that is dying for their faith or tolerating a boorish husband. But what if sainthood is less concerned with what we do and more concerned with what God does? What if the holiness of saints has less to do with their good behavior and more to do with their ability to be in touch with the boundless grace of God? If you think about it, there is no way you could apply the conventional definition of “saint” to some of the Church’s most celebrated holy people. St. Paul, for instance, was a judgmental, misanthropic persecutor of the Church and St. Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus. What these two pillars of the Church had in common was that they each had an experience in which they came to know the radical and transformative power of God’s grace. The saints are saints not because they are fundamentally different from normal human beings, but because they reflect and radiate the grace of God that is available to each and every one of us. Ultimately, Michael the Archangel is a saint because his example helps us to remember that God’s grace is more boundless than we can possibly imagine.
A few months ago, I was eating a disappointing breakfast sandwich in a restaurant at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when I overheard a group of people mention the word “theology.” Being a sucker for theological inquiry, I slowed my chewing and listened a little more closely. To my surprise, the group was not discussing Athanasius or Thomas Aquinas (the fact that this surprised me tells you a lot about who I am), but rather the Illuminati and their sinister plot to take over the world. For those of you who are not up to date on your conspiracy theories, the Illuminati are supposedly a secret cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals bent on world domination. While this narrative is boilerplate for any self-respecting conspiracy theorist, I was curious to hear it framed in terms of Christian theology. The group of people I heard talking in the airport apparently believed that the Illuminati’s secret control of the world was part of God’s plan to bring the world to an end. Several members of the group repeatedly said things like, “God has already set the plan in motion” and “It’s only a matter of time.” When I decided I could no longer remain in the same room without holding my tongue, I abandoned my sandwich and wandered to my gate.
Though I was initially surprised by this marriage of old-school conspiracy theories to dispensationalist theology, it occurs to me that these worldviews have similar perspectives. Those who subscribe to both of these worldviews are convinced that someone else is in complete control of the world, that there is nothing they can do to influence the course of history. In both of these worldviews, the only solution is enlightenment; the only way we can deal with our lack of control is to realize that we have no control, to realize that the puppet strings are being held by someone else. And I think that both of these worldviews stem primarily from fear of the unknown. The only way some people can deal with the very human fear of uncertainty is to deny that anything is uncertain. If it’s all part of the plan, and they realize that it’s all part of the plan, then they can take solace in their enlightened understanding of the world. Both conspiracy theories and dispensationalist theologies, in other words, can be sources of profound comfort.
Yet, by denying the reality of uncertainty, these worldviews fail to help people deal with reality. Not only that, the idea that God has set a definite plan in motion is not terribly Scriptural. As I mentioned yesterday, one of the central affirmations of Christian theology is that we have free will, that we have a choice to be in relationship with God. In fact, St. Paul argues that our reconciliation to God occurs because of Christ’s faithful obedience, because of Christ’s exercise of his freedom. Faithfulness, therefore, is not about being certain about what is going to happen next, it is about trusting that God will be faithful to us even when we don’t know what is going to happen next. Faithfulness is not about believing that God is controlling every aspect of our lives, it is about trusting that God is with us as we move through this life. As you walk the way of the cross during Holy Week, I pray that you will be comforted by the fact that God is with you even in the midst of uncertainty.
Today is Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season.
I 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.
Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest.
In 1844, the people of the United States elected a president no one had ever heard of. That’s not entirely true, of course. James Polk was both Speaker of the House of Representatives and Governor of Tennessee, so his name was known in the political circles of the day. The thing is, no one expected him to be nominated, much less elected to the presidency. In 1844, most observers assumed that the presidential contest would be between Martin Van Buren, who had served as president from 1837 to 1841, and Henry Clay, who had already unsuccessfully run for the office in 1824 and 1832. Nevertheless, due to a variety of factors, like a deadlocked convention and the endorsement Van Buren’s former ally Andrew Jackson, Polk received the Democratic nomination for president. And even though most people assumed that 1844 was finally Clay’s year, James K. Polk won the election by a fairly convincing margin.
In spite of the fact that Polk served only a single term in office and died shortly thereafter, his legacy is surprisingly significant. Through his negotiations with Great Britain and his prosecution of the Mexican-American War, Polk is responsible for acquiring territory that now makes up a large portion of the United States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and of course, Texas. Furthermore, the acquisition of all this territory impelled Congress to deal with the question of slavery, which may have hastened the onset of the Civil War. But perhaps the most enduring popular legacy of James Polk’s presidency is the fact that he was the first so-called “dark horse” candidate for president in this country. Because Polk was largely unknown to the political establishment, his candidacy took most people by surprise and frankly, no one had any real expectations of him. Since Polk’s presidency, the notion that an unknown can be nominated and elected president has become an important part of the American political narrative, even though it has only happened a handful of times. Pundits and party strategists spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine who the next “dark horse” candidates are going to be (which arguably means that they aren’t dark horse candidates anymore). The reason for this is the same reason we pretend that so many of our presidents were born in log cabins: there is a romance about the dark horse candidate. The very concept resonates with our deepest hopes about the American Dream: that literally anyone can be elected president; literally anyone can attain the goals they set for themselves.
In our reading from Genesis today, we are introduced to Abram, who in some ways is the ultimate dark horse candidate from Scripture. Now you may be thinking, “Come on! Abraham? The “father of many nations”? The patriarch of patriarchs? He’s somehow a dark horse? Get out of here!” But please, hear me out. Up to this point in Genesis, we have the story of God’s attempt to be in relationship with all of humanity at once. To put it mildly, things have not gone terribly well. Adam and Eve have disobeyed God’s commandment in the Garden of Eden, Cain has murdered Abel, and humanity has gotten together to build a huge tower so that they can be like God. So in chapter twelve, God adopts a new strategy. Instead of trying to be in relationship with all of humanity at once, God decides to be in relationship with a single person and his family. This is the genesis, if you will, of Israel’s understanding of their identity as a chosen people; the people of Israel traced their lineage back to Abraham, who they believed was chosen by God to be the father of a great nation. The fascinating thing is that Genesis does not give us a reason for why God chose Abram. The very first mention of Abram takes place at the end of the previous chapter, and all we are told is about him is that his father’s name was Terah, his wife’s name was Sarai, and they settled in the land of Canaan. We do not hear that he was righteous or blameless like Noah or that he was particularly well suited to the life of a nomad or that he had any particular qualifications for being chosen by God. This is striking. This chapter is a hinge point in Genesis; in fact, it is hinge point for the story of God and God’s people and it all centers around this guy we’ve never heard of, this guy we don’t know anything about, this guy who was chosen by God for reasons that are beyond our understanding. We are by no means the first to notice that Genesis fails to give Abram a backstory. In fact, during the early days of Rabbinic Judaism, a midrash (or non-biblical story) about Abram circulated among the rabbis. The midrash suggests that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker, and that one day Abram, in a fit of righteous anger, stormed into his father’s workshop and destroyed every statue, thus demonstrating his intense and complete devotion to God. While this is a great story, it says more about the fact that we want to know why God chose Abram than it does about Abram’s personal history.
This leaves us in the uneasy position of acknowledging that Abram is something of a dark horse: we don’t know where he came from or what the rationale for choosing him might have been. Human beings like to make predictions, we like to put things in categories, we like to anticipate things before they happen, we like to decide who the dark horse candidate is going to be before they arrive on the scene. Yet, in this crucial moment in the story of God and God’s people, we see that God’s choices rarely align with our expectations. And this leads us inexorably into the uncertain territory of trust. In all likelihood, the fact that we don’t know anything about Abram’s backstory means that he was also taken by surprise when God chose him. Imagine his shock when he heard the Lord say, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” For all we know, this is the first time that Abram heard the voice of the Lord. And God does not provide an itinerary, God does not say how long Abram will be traveling, God does not say if Abram will ever see his family again. All God does is hold out the vague promise that through Abram “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Genesis tells us that for whatever reason, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” It’s really quite astonishing. Abram’s “call story,” this pivotal moment in the history of God’s people takes up only three and half verses. We are not told that Abram asks questions, nor are we told that God explains his choice; we are only told that Abram is told to go and goes. It’s no wonder that in his letter to the Romans, St. Paul summarizes the patriarch’s story with a single verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” As you’ve probably heard before, the Greek word that we typically translate as “believe” can just as easily be rendered “trust.” In other words, Paul’s summary of Abraham’s story is that he trusted God, and because of his trust, God considered Abraham righteous.
This raises a question about what Abram trusted, about what Abram was called to trust. On one hand, it is clear that God was calling Abram to trust that he would inherit the land promised to him, that his journey would someday come to an end, that God was leading Abram toward a destination. On the other hand, there is the promise that concludes God’s call to Abram: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” This promise comes before any of the other promises the Lord makes to Abram: before God promises that Abram’s descendants will be like the sand on the seashore, before Abram is promised the land of the Perizzites, Canaanites, and Jebusites, even before God promises that Abram’s wife Sarai will bear a son. Before any of these other promises, God calls Abram to trust that he will be a blessing to the nations. In some ways, this is the most extraordinary promise of all. Abram was a nomad, a herdsman, a man without pedigree or evident talent, a dark horse, and God tells him to trust that he will be a means of blessing for the whole world. In response to this outlandish promise, Abram trusts God and establishes the vocation for God’s people. In the end, Scripture tells us that God did not choose Israel for their benefit, but for the benefit of all the people of the world, for the benefit of God’s whole creation. As Christians, we trust that through Jesus Christ, we have been incorporated into that heritage, that we have become part of God’s chosen people, and that we too are called to be a blessing to the entire world. Abram’s act of trust is ultimately the means by which all people will come into relationship with the God who created and redeemed them.
This week marks the anniversary of the selection of another dark horse. On March 13 of last year, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected to be the Bishop of Rome. Calling himself Francis after the poor friar of Assisi and the founder of the Jesuit order, the Pope quickly began to make waves as he dispensed with the traditional trappings of the papacy and began to reform the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps most strikingly, the Pope insisted that the Church was called to be in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden. Prior to the selection of Pope Francis, there were many observers who claimed that the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the Church generally, had outlived its usefulness, that it was no longer relevant, that it was plagued by so many issues that it could not possibly survive. And yet, even in the face of all of these criticisms, even though he hasn’t dealt with all the issues plaguing the church, this first year of Francis’ papacy has been shaped by his understanding that the Church can and must be a blessing to the world. Francis’ attitude in this first year of his papacy has been the embodiment of the Anglican Archbishop William Temple’s observation: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to embrace this reality, to embrace our call to be a blessing to the world. We are called to realize that God calls every one of us, no matter who we are, to help the people of this world understand how much God loves them. By doing so, we, like Abram, will be dark horses, blessing the world with God’s promise of love for all people.
Sermon on Galatians 1:1-12 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on June 2, 2013.
A few weeks ago, one of the great television shows of the previous decade had its series finale. Starting in 2005, The Office was one of the first sitcoms to dispense with the “live studio audience” format and was instead presented as a documentary that chronicled the story of a mid-sized paper company called Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Though filled with ridiculous personalities, the show’s most memorable character was easily Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin’s hapless regional manager who wanted nothing more than to be considered the greatest boss in the history of the world. One of the running jokes is that he carried around a mug that reads “World’s Greatest Boss” that he bought for himself. Michael, played uncomfortably well by Steve Carrell, was a famous people pleaser who tried mightily to get people to love him by constantly avoiding unpopular but necessary decisions. He passed the buck, he waffled, he tried desperately to distract people from the issue at hand. A telling line occurs during one of the shows signature producer interviews, when in response to a question Michael muses: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy: both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” Michael’s need to please people is clearly taken to the point of absurdity, but I think that most of us can relate to his profound need to be liked. If we are honest with ourselves, we would admit that many of the things we do, many of the choices we make are made in an effort to please other people. It’s human nature. Our preoccupation with popularity when we are in high school points to a larger reality: ultimately, we care very deeply about what people think of us.
So when we hear Saint Paul make the claim that he really doesn’t care what people think of him in our reading from Galatians this morning, we’re inclined to pay attention. Paul’s dismissal of human approval goes against a very human impulse. It’s intriguing to me that the Church places such enormous value on Paul’s writings when he devotes so many of his letters to defending himself and his understanding of the gospel. If you think about it, more than half of the letters that we have are adversarial and downright angry in tone at one point or another. Nowhere is this adversarial tone more evident than in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And Paul makes his anger and frustration clear from the very beginning of the letter. As you know, Paul usually begins his letters by way of a complex and circular introduction: he starts by identifying himself, generally as called apostle or a slave of Jesus Christ or sometimes both, and then he identifies his audience, usually including some positive affirmation of what God has been doing among them. In Galatians, however, Paul is much more abrupt: “Paul an apostle– sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul makes it abundantly clear that his authority as an apostle comes directly from God. After introducing himself in this abrupt way, Paul identifies his audience, but has nothing positive to say, no extra words of encouragement, calling them simply “the churches of Galatia.” Already, Paul is making it clear that he is not happy with the Galatians. And in case there was any doubt, Paul hammers it home in the next verses. While all of Paul’s other letters include a thanksgiving paragraph, a series of verses where Paul gives thanks for all that God has done in the community, there is no thanksgiving paragraph in Galatians. Paul implies that he has nothing to give thanks for when it comes to the churches in Galatia.
So what’s going on? What is it that is irking Paul so much? We start to get a clue in the next paragraph, where Paul says that he is astonished, mystified, blown away that the Galatians have abandoned the faith to which they had been called and embraced another gospel. What seems to have happened is that after Paul left the Galatians, someone came along and claimed that his initial proclamation of the gospel was somehow insufficient, inadequate, incomplete. In other words, someone came into Galatia and said that Paul was wrong. Now, I don’t know about you, but when somebody talks behind my back and questions my integrity, my first reaction is to get mad, to defend myself, to enlist others in my defense: “How dare you call me a liar! How dare you say that I’m wrong!” My first inclination, in other words, is to take it very personally. Maybe this is what’s going on with Paul. Maybe he’s blowing off steam because he’s really concerned about whether the Galatians like him. Unfortunately for this theory, the very next thing that Paul says is “If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” If people liked me, then I would not be doing my duty as an apostle. Paul makes it clear that his job as an apostle is not to be liked, not to be loved, not even to be respected; it is to proclaim a gospel that was revealed to him in an apocalypse of Jesus Christ, a revelation from God that changed his life forever. Before Paul had his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he was probably pretty well liked. He was respected as a zealous Pharisee and people took him very seriously when he warned against the Christian threat. In spite of his opposition to the Church and the gospel, Paul encountered the Truth; he came face to face with the risen Christ in an extraordinary and transformative vision, and he spent the rest of his life and ministry trying to sort out exactly what this revelation meant. Paul understood that his call as an apostle was to speak the truth and ensure that the truth of the gospel was proclaimed, regardless of whether people liked him for it. After his experience of the risen Christ, Paul rejected the very human impulse to please people and strove instead to serve God and proclaim God’s grace made known in Jesus Christ with his entire being.
The other day I was in the line at Target and I noticed on the magazine rack that Reader’s Digest is currently featuring a list of the “100 Most Trusted People in America.” I thought it was an odd designation for this kind of format, and so with piqued curiosity, I picked up the magazine. Upon scanning the names, I discovered that the vast majority of the people on the list were actors or television personalities, people for whom trustworthiness doesn’t seem to be a crucial quality. I realized that these people could more accurately be described not as the most trusted people in America, but as the best-liked people in America. These were those celebrities who basically seem like nice people, those you want to have over for dinner, like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington. What was more striking is that there were only three publicly religious people on the list, including Billy Graham, Rabbi Arthur Scheiner, and Tim Tebow. On one level, the absence of religious leaders on the list surprised me because most religious leaders strive to be trustworthy. But on another level, if this was actually a list not of the most trusted but of the best-liked people in America, then we should not be surprised that there aren’t many religious leaders on the list. If Paul shows us anything, it is that commitment to the gospel of Christ is not something that is necessarily going to win you friends and admirers. If Paul’s experience at Galatia is typical, the gospel is not necessarily going to make people like us. And this is okay because rejection by the world is an important part of who we are called to be as Christians. The grace, mercy, and abundant love made known by God in Jesus Christ are challenges to this world driven by greed and selfishness. When we agitate for economic justice in a world that seems driven to keep the poor in their place, we are going to ruffle a few feathers. When we affirm the promise that God’s grace is available to all in this world so obsessed with status, we are going to make some people uncomfortable. When we proclaim Resurrection in a world laid low by despair and hopelessness, we are not going to be popular. And yet, God does not call us to be popular; God calls us to speak and live out the truth. Like Paul, we are meant to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in everything that we do, with our whole being, regardless of what the world thinks. If you think about it, this is incredibly liberating. We are called to build for the kingdom regardless of who’s in charge, we are called to be the Church regardless of who makes fun of us, we are called do the work of the gospel regardless of who tells us that we are attempting the impossible. When we realize with Paul that serving Christ is not about getting people to like us, then we will be able to serve the world in God’s name, not because we are well-liked, but because we are participating in Jesus Christ’s work of transformation.
The other night, I watched James Lipton interview Tina Fey on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Though Fey has had a dazzling career as a star of Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, a published author, and an erstwhile movie star, she got her start at Second City, a comedy troupe based in Chicago. During the course of their conversation, Lipton and Fey discussed some of the finer points of improvisational comedy, including the guidelines that govern it.
Perhaps the two most important “rules” of improv are 1) agree and 2) don’t say “yes,” say “yes and.” The first rule ensures that every participant in a scene respects what her partner has created. If my improv partner says, “Check out this apple,” the scene would not be particularly successful if I said, “That’s not an apple!” At the same time, the scene will stagnate with mere agreement. This is where the second rule comes into play; the agreement of the first rule presupposes a contribution on my part. If you began a scene by saying, “It sure is hot in here,” and I simply said, “Yes it is,” there is not much room for development. If, however, I responded by saying, “That can’t be good for all of these wax figures,” the scene now has direction.
As Lipton and Fey discussed the importance of these rules, Tina made an interesting point. These improvisational guidelines permit an actor to be completely focused on the other person in the scene, allowing him to forget all about his own preoccupations. These rules allow participants in improv to abandon self-consciousness and be entirely available to and totally focused on another person.
Yesterday, our epistle reading was taken from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In the passage that we read, Paul quotes an ancient Christian hymn extolling the humility of Jesus Christ: ”
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave and was born in human likeness. Being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
These words describe the actions of someone who is utterly focused on other people, willing to sacrifice his own glory and abandon his self-consciousness for the sake of world. Paul uses this hymn to illustrate the depth of Jesus’ self-giving love and also to encourage us to aspire to Jesus’ example of selflessness and humility. If Jesus Christ did not exploit his equality with God, we cannot exploit the fact that we have been made in the image of God. Rather, we must selflessly give to those who have need, focusing entirely on others, and by doing so abandoning our self-absorbed lives.
In many ways, this is what we are meant to do during Holy Week. By focusing totally on the passion and death of our Lord, we leave behind any sense of self-interest or self-consciousness. By focusing entirely on Jesus as he walks the way of the cross, we can give ourselves completely to our fellow human beings and to the God who loves to the point of death, even death on a cross.