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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On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism.  To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.

Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film.  In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries.  For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.  Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.

During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart.  Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor.  As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano.  After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.”  Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece.  Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself.  Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly.  It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant.  It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new.  In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent.  In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.

The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark.  It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan.  This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him.  This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized.  The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important.  As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.

In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant.  Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry.  In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again.  Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed.  If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once.  Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else.  Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place.  As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.  But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant.  Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc.  While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it.  And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.

Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven.  It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten.  But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static.  Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage.  Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence.  As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends.  It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down.  It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new.  And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before.  Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance.  While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him.  John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life.  Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us.  Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism.  This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter.  Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears.  It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories.  But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment.  Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love.  Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.

Unlike the Ones I Used to Know

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on Christmas Eve, 2014.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

images“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”  So ends A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge and his overnight conversion from grumpy malcontent to jolly humanitarian.  When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it is unlikely that he could have imagined how ubiquitous his little parable and its protagonist would become.  Scrooge’s story has become an indelible part of our culture: ensembles as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Muppets have presented adaptations of this “ghost story of Christmas.”

In spite of its omnipresence, there is something very curious about the way we remember the Dickens classic.  Though it ends with Scrooge amending his ways by making a generous donation to charity, reconciling with his nephew, and giving Bob Cratchit a raise, we remember Scrooge as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that Dickens introduces at the beginning of the story.  We ignore Scrooge’s Christmas Eve conversion and focus instead on his previous identity as a misanthropic miser.  Why else would “Scrooge” be the near-universal epithet for anyone who does not enjoy the Christmas season?

Our failure to remember Scrooge’s conversion is a symptom of a larger reality: as human beings, we have a hard time believing that anyone can change.  If we encountered Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation, I suspect that most of us would cynically wonder what his angle was.  We tend to live our lives according to maxims like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “a leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  This inherent suspicion is a form of self-preservation; if we refuse to trust that anyone or anything can change, then we can never be hurt.  If we refuse to acknowledge that new things are possible, then we can continue to live our lives in the same way we always have.

Tonight, however, we hear an angelic announcement that something new has happened, that our world has changed, that life will no longer be the same.  It’s easy to be preoccupied by the familiarity of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, to be distracted by the images of swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts, and to listen nostalgically for the dulcet tones of Linus Van Pelt of the Charlie Brown Christmas instead of the “good news” at the heart of this story.  When the angel of the Lord says, “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” one might think that he is merely providing information, that this is the first century equivalent of “breaking news.”  But the word that we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor.  Luke implies that Christ’s birth represents a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

imgresThough Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word typically associated with social upheaval, the political situation in the world doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.  After all, Luke reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and that Quirinius is the governor of Syria.  There’s no indication that either leader is on his way out or that the time is ripe for the arrival of a new king.  In fact, Augustus reigned for more than twenty years prior to the birth of Jesus and would rule for twenty years more.  If anything, Luke implies that Jesus is born during a time of great political stability.  It was a time a time when Rome’s power was largely unchallenged at home and completely unrivaled abroad.  It was a time when the Emperor was so feared that he could arbitrarily order people to the towns of their birth in order to conduct a mostly meaningless census.  It was a time when the Jewish people were aware and reminded frequently that their tenuous right to worship one God could be revoked without any warning.  All of this makes one wonder how the birth of Jesus could possibly be “good news.”  A tiny child born in a backwater province couldn’t possibly challenge the most powerful empire the world had ever known.  By worldly standards, the birth of Jesus would change nothing: tyrants would persist in forcing their will on the weak and the world would continue as it always had.

But this assumes that Jesus was a typical king. Luke goes out of his way to illustrate that Jesus was not a typical king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome tonight was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers spend their time among the elite in the centers of commerce and culture, the king we welcome tonight was first announced to downtrodden shepherds on a Judean hillside.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through cruelty and violence, the king we welcome tonight reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome tonight gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Tonight, we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and empowered us to live lives of freedom and grace even in the midst of a world dominated by oppression and fear.  Jesus Christ invites us to let go of our belief that everything always stays the same and enter into a new way of being.

Christmas is often a time for nostalgia.  We bring ancient decorations out of storage, sing songs that we have sung year after year, and return to traditions that have been part of our lives for as long as we can remember.  It is a time that we remember Scrooge before his transformation, when we dream of Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.”  Christmas, however, is about more than mere remembrance; it is about recognizing the way in which the good news of the Incarnation is, in fact, news.  This has been a year of incredible turmoil.  From the rumblings of war in Europe to the specter of terrorism in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence on the streets of this country, this year has been a potent reminder that our world is often dominated by oppression and fear.  We might be tempted to despair, to assume that bad news like this is simply the way of the world.  Tonight, however, we are called to remember the “good news” of Christ’s birth and embrace the new way of being that God has inaugurated in the arrival of this holy child.  On Christmas, we are called to focus not on the way things have always been, but on the way things can be when we live our lives shaped by the Incarnation.  Christmas calls us to hear and be transformed by the good news that God entered this broken world and is making all things new.

Traversing the Wilderness

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

unnamedIn the Redeemer churchyard, there is a pretty, though otherwise unremarkable headstone marking the grave of Alexander Cassatt.  Before his death in 1906, Cassatt served as the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad during some of the headiest and most productive years in its history.  His brief tenure saw the Pennsylvania expand its reach in every direction and cement its status as one of the most powerful corporations in the United States.  These accomplishments, however, seem trivial when compared to his plan for the railroad to cross the Hudson River into a magnificent new terminal in New York City.  Prior to the construction of Penn Station and its subaqueous tunnels, the trip from New Jersey to Manhattan was frustratingly unreliable, involving ferries that would frequently be stymied by the roiling and uncertain tidal waters of the Hudson.  Though railroad executives had dreamed about traversing the Hudson with tunnels or a bridge since the 1870s, many considered it impossible, due to the instability of the silt that comprised the riverbed.  In spite of the skeptics, Cassatt made crossing the Hudson his number one priority from the moment he took office in 1899.

Part of the reason for Cassatt’s dogged optimism was that he was an engineer.   Engineers tend to look at the world differently than you and me. What we might consider an insurmountable obstacle is a mere challenge to overcome for an engineer.  Thus, while most 19th century commuters were convinced that the only way to cross the Hudson was by unreliable ferry, Alexander Cassatt and the engineers of the Pennsylvania Railroad were confident that they could make the trip easier.  While most of us tend to assume that impediments are permanent, engineers look for ways to transcend those barriers.  While most of us are perfectly content with the way things have always been, engineers wonder if the future can be different.

imgresToday we heard the very first verses of the gospel according to Mark, wherein the evangelist describes the ministry of John the Baptist.  Mark’s gospel is unique among its counterparts in the sense that it contains minimal introduction.  While the other gospels begin with backstories, genealogies, and theological treatises, Mark begins with a single sentence fragment: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  From the very outset of Mark’s gospel, in other words, we are told that we are about to experience something completely new.  After this terse preamble, we are abruptly dropped by the banks of the Jordan and introduced to John the Baptist, a striking figure who lives off the land, wears rough clothing, and proclaims repentance in the wilderness.  Moreover, Mark tells us that John is the one Isaiah prophesied would prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight.  In this gospel account, John’s ministry is the startling inauguration of something entirely new.

In the years since John the Baptist was wading in the Jordan, we have tended to downplay his revolutionary nature.  We have focused his quirks (his diet of bugs, his interesting wardrobe selection) rather than the radical quality of his proclamation.  We have domesticated John, treating him as we might treat an eccentric uncle rather than a prophet of God’s new way of being.  In part, this is because we have failed to understand how transforming John’s message truly is.  On the surface, John’s “baptism of repentance” seems like simplicity itself: all God wants is for us to be sorry for our sins and change the way we behave.  Even Luke, writing only a few years after John’s ministry, implied that John’s message essentially boiled down to common sense: if you have an extra coat, give it away; if you’re a tax collector, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you; if you’re a soldier, don’t extort money from anyone, etc.  As early as the first century, in other words, the Church was already running away from John’s proclamation.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that we have domesticated John’s message.  If repentance is simply about being sorry for our sins and trying our best to behave in the future, then it means that our lives don’t have to change all that much.  We can add repentance to our list of occasional tasks, like cleaning the gutters or purging our inbox; it simply becomes part of our routine.  John’s understanding of repentance, however, is anything but routine.  In fact, it abolishes the very idea of routine altogether.  The prophecy from Isaiah that Mark associates with John’s ministry illustrates the radical nature of repentance and the utter newness of John’s proclamation.  Isaiah was writing to a group of people in exile, a group of people who had been removed from their homeland to a strange place across a forbidding desert, a group of people who believed they had been alienated from their God.  These people had essentially given up the possibility of ever returning to the place where their ancestors worshipped.  And yet, Isaiah promises to this hopeless generation that they will be comforted, that their exile will end, that they will traverse the wilderness and return home.  To illustrate how radical this transformation will be, Isaiah announces that Israel’s return from exile will take place on a highway through the desert, that God will empower his people to traverse even the impenetrable wilderness.  This is John the Baptist’s heritage.  His proclamation of repentance is not about mere contrition, it is about liberation from exile.  For John the Baptist, repentance is not about saying “I’m sorry,” it is about acknowledging that all things are possible with God.  In this sense, John the Baptist would have made a good engineer, not because he proposed building tunnels under the Jordan River, but because he refused to concede that the past has power to shape our future.  Repentance is about turning away from the status quo and recognizing that transformation is possible.  Repentance is about realizing that our lives are not determined by who we are or what we have done and affirming that through Jesus Christ, we can live new lives of grace.

For all of the lip service we pay to the concept of free will, the fact is that most of us behave as inveterate determinists.  We are convinced that the course of our life is governed by our family of origin or our ethnic background or the mistakes we have made.  We refuse to consider the possibility that we or anyone else can change.  But the Christian witness is that the status quo can be transformed, that the most pernicious injustice can be redeemed, and that even the power of death can be defeated.  John’s proclamation of repentance urges us to live our lives in light of this witness.  Repentance urges us to affirm that God’s justice will ultimately prevail in Ferguson, Missouri.  Repentance urges us to refuse to make judgments about people based on who they are or what they look like, no matter what “side” they represent.  Repentance urges us to abandon our confidence in the status quo and trust that God is making this world new through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Christians, we are called to follow God’s highway in the wilderness, to look at insurmountable obstacles as challenges to overcome, and to trust in the transforming power of God’s grace.

And I mean to be one too…

Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends.  After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe.  Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain.  Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available.  Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all.  Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.

imgresSince its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially.  While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment.  These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat.  The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records.  To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim.  The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.

Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints.  In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation.  Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness.  This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate.  Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations.  In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid.  In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process.  For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else.  They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.

This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way.  In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws.  In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone.  There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood.  According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations.  Saints have some kind of superhuman ability.  Saints, in other words, are not like you and me.  And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints?  If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.

While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context.  Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning.  In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints.  Pantocrator and All Saints[1]The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs.  Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes.  It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven.  Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice.  In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace.  In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.

There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood.  I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example.  “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard.  I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.”  If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint.  No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.  It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this.  Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God.  As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.

Bearing Fruit

Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

In the backyard of the house where I grew up, there was an enormous pear tree.  Regrettably, this did not mean I got to eat fresh pears regularly.  Since the tree was so large, the fruit it produced was completely out of reach until it dropped from the branches to the ground.  imagesUnfortunately, once the pears hit the ground, they either rotted almost immediately or were consumed by squirrels.  Thus, around this time every year, my family had to collect these inedible pears and throw them away.  This task had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  The air would be redolent with that sickeningly sweet smell of rotting fruit, we would stoop until our backs ached, we would tenuously pick up those squishy pears so that the rotting flesh wouldn’t explode all over our clothes, and we would throw the woebegone fruit into battered aluminum trash cans that became so heavy they required three people to move them.  Picking up pears is easily the most thankless, uncomfortable, and mind-numbing chore that I remember from my childhood.

It goes without saying that my younger brother and I dreaded the day we had to pick up pears.  We dealt with the arrival of this day in different ways.  My brother, who is more confrontational by nature, tended to shout something like, “I’m not picking up another pear as long as I live,” at breakfast, only to drift outside by midmorning in order to be helpful.  I, on the other hand, would dutifully acquiesce to my parents’ instructions, saying something like, “Of course; it is my joy to serve you,” only to fritter away the day procrastinating.  By the time I would emerge from the house, my exhausted family would point to the trash barrels full of pears, while I had nothing to show but my empty promises.

Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators.  His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.
Expeditus, patron saint of procrastinators. His feast day is April 19th, or whenever you get around to it.

Given my history of procrastination when it comes to household chores, today’s gospel reading resonates with me.  In fact, the parable that Jesus tells was a favorite of my father, especially on days when I was particularly lazy.  In his interpretation, I was the son who said “I go, sir,” but did not go, whereas my brother was the defiant, yet ultimately obedient son.  It would seem that my father’s use of this parable was effective; I still feel pangs of guilt when I hear this passage from Matthew’s gospel.  But I wonder whether there was a level at which we both missed the point of Jesus’ parable.  Our understanding of this story assumed that it was akin to one of Aesop’s fables, that it had a self-evident moral.  Fables, however, are very different from parables.  While fables tend to be literally minded and focused on proper behavior, parables hold a mirror to our lives.  Parables expose something about who we are rather than how we should behave.  Jesus uses parables not only to illuminate and expand his teaching but also to reveal to us something about the character of God.

So, what is it that Jesus is trying to illuminate with this parable?  He relates this story in the midst of an exchange with the religious authorities, who begin by asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”  Keep in mind that the “thing” they are referring to is the Temple incident, when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers.  Their question about Jesus’ authority, in other words, is not entirely unreasonable or unwarranted.  “Who do you think you are?” is essentially what the chief priests and elders are asking.  But in typical fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  His point is clear: well, where did John the Baptist derive his authority?  Like the good politicians they are, the chief priests and elders plead ignorance.  As a result, Jesus refuses to tell them where his authority comes from and continues with an apparent non sequitur, telling his audience a story about two brothers who are sent to work in the vineyard.

imgresThough Jesus seems to change the subject, however, there is one key detail about this parable that connects it to the rest of the exchange.  Notice that the two brothers are sent out to work in a vineyard, to cultivate and bear fruit.  And remember that in Matthew’s gospel, the theme of bearing fruit comes up over and over again.  For instance, John the Baptist’s charge to those who gather by the Jordan is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  Then there’s the moment the moment when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is indeed the one who is to come.  Instead of saying “Yes, absolutely; I’m the Messiah,” Jesus points to the fruit his ministry has borne: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have good news brought to them.”  So by telling this parable of two brothers sent to cultivate a vineyard, Jesus affirms that his authority is derived from the fruits of his ministry.  Ultimately, this is Jesus’ response to the initial question of the chief priests and elders.  He explains that his authority emanates not from his title or his lineage, but from the fact that the disobedient, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have turned from their sinful ways and have reoriented their lives in relationship to God.  This authority that is derived from bearing fruit is set up in contrast to authority of the chief priests and elders.  The traditional religious authorities assume that their position of power is unassailable, that the mere accident of birth empowers them to mediate between God and humanity.  Jesus challenges this assumption, insisting that true spiritual authority is derived from the fruit we bear.  Just as I thought the empty promise of labor would cement my status as the obedient son, the chief priests and elders imagine their membership in a particular family guarantees their authority.  And just as my brother actually showed himself to be the obedient son with that full barrel of pears, Jesus demonstrates his true authority by pointing to those whose lives have been transformed by the gospel proclamation.

Now, it might seem that the message of this parable is that one must accomplish a certain set of tasks, that one must bear a certain amount of fruit in order to be considered spiritual.  Remember, however, that the primary purpose of Jesus’ parables is to reveal something about the nature of God.  And just as the authority of Jesus is made known in the fruit he bears, in the lives he transforms, God’s nature is made known in the fruit God bears, and that fruit that is ultimately revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the cross and empty tomb, our God experiences the beauty and pain of human life, but also promises that there is hope even in the midst of despair.  Thus, as a people who have been redeemed by Christ’s death and resurrection, a people renewed by the fruit of God’s redemptive love, we are called to bear fruit that is shaped by the reality of the resurrection, to recognize that there is always hope, to build for the kingdom even in the midst of devastation, to insist that joy can conquer despair.  Our lives are meant to be signs that point to the power of God’s resurrection love.  In the end, we are meant to be the fruit by which others may know the promise of God’s redemption.

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.