True Love

Please note: the following post reflects on the Disney film Frozen and necessarily contains spoilers.  If you haven’t seen Frozen yet, stop reading this post and go see it, because it’s awesome.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but for the first time in a number of years, everyone is talking about an animated movie made by Disney.

Frozen is the first Disney movie in a long time that comes close to achieving the quality of the films it released in the 1990s, including classics like The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast, and Aladdin.  Already it has had a profound influence on the culture, inspiring parodies, lip dub videos, and sing- alongs that have gone viral.  The movie has transcended the “kids movie” genre and has become a surprise hit, not only among nostalgic lovers of the old Disney favorites, but also among those who want the movies they watch to have a deeper meaning.

MV5BMTQ1MjQwMTE5OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjk3MTcyMDE@._V1_SX214_In some ways, it’s no surprise that Frozen has been so popular.  It ticks all of the appropriate Disney movie boxes: catchy songs, cute sidekicks, princesses, anthropomorphic animals, and parental tragedy.  I think the reason for its near-universal popularity, however, is the fact that it is not hamstrung by its need to be a traditional Disney movie.  Indeed, there are elements of Frozen that totally transcend the genre.  For instance, Elsa and Anna (the princesses; yes, there are two), are far more three-dimensional than their historic counterparts.  They struggle with the same issues that we struggle with: how to be ourselves in the face of societal pressure, how to trust people, and most of all, what the nature of love really is.

THIS IS WHERE THE SPOILERS ARE.  IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE AND DON’T WANT THE ENDING RUINED, PLEASE STOP READING!

I won’t rehash the entire plot, but suffice it to say that in the final sequence of the movie, Anna is trying to be healed of a frozen heart caused by her sister Elsa.  Told by one of the sidekick characters that the only way to heal a frozen heart is through an act of true love, Anna assumes, like a traditional Disney princess, that this act must be true love’s kiss.  As she prepares to kiss the man with whom she has ostensibly fallen in love, however, she sees her sister in mortal danger.  Instead of acting to save herself, Anna throws herself between Elsa and her would-be murderer.  As the sword comes crashing down, Anna succumbs to her frozen heart and is frozen solid even as she saves her sister’s life.  But after a beat, Anna gradually becomes unfrozen and kingdom is returned to  normal.  The sisters embrace and the implication is very clear: the act of true love was Anna’s sacrifice, her willingness to put her sister’s life ahead of her own.

Several reviews of Frozen describe its ending as “revolutionary.”  From the perspective of Disney princess movies in particular or children’s movies generally, it very well may be.  It strikes me, however, that the notion of true love being embodied in sacrifice is an ancient idea.  In fact, it lies at the very heart of our Christian faith.  We believe that Jesus Christ manifested the true nature of God’s love to us through his sacrifice on the cross.  The core affirmation of our faith is that God was willing to die on behalf of the world, even though the world had rejected God.  And I suppose that this is a revolutionary idea.  We tend to be seduced by the idea that love is contingent on whether the person we love does what we think they ought to do.  Yet the heart of our religion is that God loves us with a love that is unconditional, sacrificial, and true.

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Saltiness

Sermon on Matthew 5:13-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on February 9, 2014.

images When I first learned to cook, I was scrupulous about following recipes.  If a cookbook told me to heat something over medium-high heat, I would carefully turn the knob on the stove so that the arrow rested on the precise midpoint between “medium” and “high.”  When a bread recipe instructed me to knead dough for ten minutes, I would set a timer and press that dough against the counter until the precise moment the bell rang.  Most importantly, when a dish called for a teaspoon of salt, I would pour salt into a measuring spoon, careful not to add even a few extra grains to the dish.  After all, I didn’t want the food I prepared to be too salty.  For the most part, this scrupulosity seemed to pay off.  The results of my first attempts at cooking were mostly edible, and some were even moderately successful.

But when I watched more experienced people cook, I noticed that they tended to be less wedded to the recipe.  When my father heated something on the stove, he would turn the knob without carefully examining the place it landed.  When my mother kneaded bread dough, she wouldn’t set a timer to tell her when to stop; she would know how the dough was supposed to feel after it had been kneaded.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation was that when my parents cooked, they didn’t carefully measure out the salt they added to dishes.  In fact, they grabbed what appeared to be huge handfuls of salt and used those to season whatever they were preparing.  The first time I saw this, I shouted, “What are you doing?  It’s going to be too salty!”  Giving me a knowing smile, they said, “Just wait and see.”  Of course, those well-seasoned dishes were not salty at all; in fact, they were far more flavorful and complex than those dishes that I had assembled so scrupulously.  It gradually dawned on me that the primary purpose of salt in cooking is not to make food salty; it is to make food taste the way it is supposed to taste.  The purpose of salt is to make a dish what it is supposed to be.

Today, we hear one of the more interesting passages from the Sermon on the Mount.  Part of the reason I think this passage is interesting is that it seems so disjointed.  Just after Jesus preaches the beatitudes to the crowds, he jumps into these two metaphors, telling those listening to him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  This is the kind of teaching we expect from Jesus; he’s making us feel good about our Christian vocation to go make the world a better place.  It’s no accident that upbeat songs like “This little light of mine” draw on the images that Jesus uses in this passage.  But just after Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he brings down the hammer: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”  In other words, it seems that Jesus is saying, “If you thought that being my follower was going to be easy and free of rules and regulations, you’ve got another thing coming.”  In fact, he concludes the passage we read today by saying, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  Yikes.  Just so we’re clear, the scribes and the Pharisees were known for their righteousness under the law, known for their ability to keep all of the rules and regulations prescribed under the Law of Moses.  Jesus is setting an extremely high bar here: “unless you are more righteous than the most righteous people around, you are not fit for the kingdom that God is bringing into being.”

Why is Jesus setting this impossibly high standard?  Doesn’t this insistence on the Law seem inconsistent with what we know about Jesus?  To answer these questions, it might be helpful for us to think about the purpose of the Law.  For the Jewish people, the Law was the lens through which they understood their relationship with God.  During the Babylonian captivity, Israel was unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, and so the Law became what defined them.  It was a way of continuing to be God’s people even though they had been driven from the land God had given to them.  The Law retained a central role even as the Jewish people returned from captivity and dwelled in the land promised to them by God.  There were, however, some who regarded the Law not as a way to be in relationship with God, but as an end in itself.  There were some who were scrupulous about keeping the law so that they would be blameless, so that they would be perfect, so that they could look in the mirror and say, “Boy, I sure am righteous.”  In other words, there were some who regarded the law as a recipe for righteousness, who said “as long as I set the burner at precisely the right temperature, as long as knead the dough for just the right amount of time, as long as I add just the right amount of salt, I will be righteous under the law.”  Jesus, however, comes along and tells us that he has come to fulfill the Law, to remind us of its primary purpose, to return our focus from following the recipe to being in relationship with God.

This is where we see that those two metaphors that Jesus uses at the beginning of this passage are far from unrelated to his meditations about the Law.  Jesus tells his hearers that they are the salt of the earth and that they are the light of the world.  Notice what Jesus does not say.  He does not say, “If you follow the Law, you will be the salt of the earth” or “If you abide by these beatitudes, you will be the light of the world.”  Rather, Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  Right here.  Right now.  Moreover, Jesus is very specific about who he is talking to.  We don’t get the sense of it in English, but the Greek makes it very clear that Jesus is talking to everyone in front of him: “All y’all are the salt of the earth.  All y’all are the light of the world.  Each and every one of you is called to enlighten this world and help it to be what it is supposed to be.”  This is how our righteousness is meant to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees. imgres While they are focused on following the recipe and reaching the goal of making themselves righteous, we are to realize that we are already who God has called us to be.  Our righteousness does not come from our successful completion of the Law’s requirements; our righteousness comes from the God who loves us and desires a relationship with us.  Our righteousness does not come from following the recipe; our righteousness comes from realizing that we are salt, that we are called to season the world and make it what God desires it to be.

It is clear that our identity as the salt of the earth is meant to shape our lives.  But this begs the question: how do we live our lives with the understanding that we are salt?  Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, but immediately adds a caveat: “if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”  The way that the question is worded indicates that once it has lost its saltiness, salt’s taste cannot be restored, that it is now worthless and needs to be thrown away.  This seems to imply that if we are not careful, we will lose our saltiness and become worthless in the eyes of God.  But here’s the thing: if you ask a scientist, she will tell you that salt cannot lose its saltiness.  Sodium chloride is a remarkably stable compound that will not lose its flavor even after being stored for many years.  So is Jesus saying that unlike real salt, we can lose our saltiness?  That just doesn’t seem consistent with the rest of this passage.  In the very next metaphor, Jesus tells us that we are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden, implying that any attempts to conceal the light are going fail.  It seems far more likely that Jesus is saying that even if we think we have lost our saltiness, we are still salt.  Even if we feel as though we have abandoned our call to bring God’s savor to the world, we are still who God has called us to be. Even if we think we are worthless in the eyes of God, God still loves us and desires a relationship with us.

Whether you nurture your life of faith on a daily basis or you feel that your faith has been dormant for a long time; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you have been here every Sunday for the past thirty years or this is the first time you have ever been inside a church building; you are the salt of the earth.  Whether you embrace the life of this community or you have turned away from it; you are the salt of the earth.  No matter where you have been or what you have done, you are who God has called you to be.  In light of this identity, in light of who God has called you to be: Jesus Christ invites you, Jesus Christ invites all of us to be salt.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by bringing God’s savor to a world that craves compassion and justice.  Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by seasoning a world that is hungry for hope and beauty. Above all, Jesus Christ invites us to be salt by filling the world with God’s love and helping the world be what it is supposed to be.

Neighbor

UnknownLast week was the late Fred Rogers’ birthday.  Though he needs no introduction, Mr. Rogers was a beloved television personality who hosted a popular children’s show called Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS for more than 30 years.  Even by the standards of children’s programming on PBS, Mr. Rogers’ show seemed impossibly wholesome.  Every episode began the same way: after Mr. Rogers entered his home, singing his theme song, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”, he changed into sneakers and a zippered cardigan (all of which were hand knitted by his mother).  During the course of the show, Rogers would earnestly talk to his audience, interview live guests, take field trips to places like bakeries, and visit the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.”  Fred Rogers was so wholesome that he made Sesame Street look like Homicide:Life on the Street.

Conventional wisdom dictates that even if Mr. Rogers resonated with young children, his good-hearted message and milquetoast persona would become stale when those children reached adolescence and adulthood.  Nevertheless, Fred Rogers remains one of the most universally beloved characters in television history.  This was profoundly evident last week, as various outlets on the Internet acknowledged his birthday.  When the Internet celebrates public figures, there are almost always a few naysayers who write vitriolic and cruel things in the comment sections of the articles about that person.  Yet even as I combed through comment sections (something I generally do not like doing), I was hard-pressed to find anything negative about Mr. Rogers.  His appeal transcends even a forum where people castigate videos of generous and selfless acts, like a police officer giving boots to a homeless person.  One commenter summarized it well by saying, “Fred Rogers has tamed the Internet.”

We might wonder why Mr. Rogers is so beloved.  Some, pointing to his anachronistic approach, might claim that people are attracted to him because he seems like a product of a bygone era and represents something we wish we could still be.  The problem with this analysis is that it idealizes the past (always dangerous) and ignores the fact that most people are mocked if they act like it is still 1953.  Others might point to his genuineness: Fred Rogers behaved the same on-screen as he did off-screen.  While this is certainly a quality that will earn people’s respect, it does not necessarily lead to admiration.  After all, someone who is a jerk in public and a jerk in private could also be respected for his genuineness.  Mr. Rogers’ appeal is far simpler and far deeper: Fred Rogers believed that his primary responsibility in this life was to love others.  He went through every step of his life believing that everyone deserves to be loved, no matter who they are or where they come from or what they have done.  He didn’t do this with an agenda in mind.  His love for other people was never conditioned on a desired response or behavior.  Mr. Rogers loved without the expectation of results.

There is no question in my mind that Fred Rogers’ love for other people was shaped by his faith in the God who loved to the point of death.  As a Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers understood the deep logic of the atonement, the deep logic of the cross, the deep logic of the events that we commemorate this week: God loved us so much that God became a human being who was willing to suffer and die on the cross, even though he had been abandoned by those closest to him.  This love was unconditional; Jesus did not say, “Never mind” and turn back after Peter’s denial.  God loves us with a self-emptying, self-giving love that has the power to transform the world.  As we meditate on the events of Holy Week, we are called to put this love into practice, to love our fellow human beings without any expectation of reward, and to see everyone in the world, regardless of who they are, as our neighbor.

Belonging

Sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.

Donna couldn’t sleep.  Even though she had had an extremely long day at work, even though she had spent the evening driving around town, asking people about her son, even though she had been up late, reassuring her mother over the phone that she was doing everything she could, Donna couldn’t sleep.  Donna couldn’t sleep because it had been three weeks since Sam had left, three weeks since the fight that had brought the police to the door, three weeks since Sam had said those words she didn’t think it was possible for a son to say to his mother, three weeks since she had seen the young man she still thought of as a boy in a Little League uniform.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was searching her recollections, trying to recall something she had done, something she had said to make Sam act the way he had been acting.  Donna couldn’t sleep because she was trying not to imagine where Sam was, trying not to imagine what he might be doing.  She sat up, put on her glasses, and watched as the square numbers of her alarm clock changed from 3:59 to 4:00.  As her husband snored quietly next to her, Donna tried to push frightening images from her mind: images of Sam’s bedroom floor covered in vodka bottles, images of Sam’s face contorted in rage as he screamed at her, images of the twisted wreckage of a white pickup truck.  As she watched the clock march forward slowly, Donna tried to push frightening words from her mind, words like “emergency room” and “overdose.”  Just as she was about to remove her glasses and try to sleep for a few hours, the screen on her cell phone began to glow.  Her heart pounding, she reached for the phone and brought it close to her face.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Glancing at the clock, she noticed that it was 4:28 A.M.  People don’t call with good news at 4:28 A.M.  After waiting another moment that felt like an eternity, Donna pressed the button to answer the phone.  Bringing it to her ear, she held her breath and waited.

Return-of-the-Prodigal-SonToday we hear an incredible story from Scripture about a parent waiting for his child to come home.  The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most familiar and probably one of the most misunderstood stories from Scripture.  It is a challenging tale of grace, restoration, and an unconditional love that is far more powerful than we can imagine.  The story goes like this.  There is a man who has two sons.  One day, the younger son goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance.  This would have been just as shocking to Jesus’ hearers as it is to us.  This younger son essentially says to his father, “I wish you were dead so that I could have the money that is coming to me.”  Surprisingly, the father grants the request, and the younger son leaves town and spends his money wastefully.  After a severe famine strikes the land, the young man, who is working as a pig farmer, realizes the error of his ways and determines to repent and live as one of his father’s servants.  As he returns home, ready to grovel and beg for his father’s mercy, the father runs to his son and embraces him, proclaiming that his son “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found!”  To welcome the lost son home, the father dresses him in finery and throws a big party.  The older son, however, is miffed at the welcome his brother has received.  He goes up to his father and says, “Dad, I’ve been here, working my butt off for you and you have never thrown me a party!”  I imagine he might also have said, “You didn’t even invite me to this one!”  The father patiently explains how extraordinary this situation is, saying “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

One of the elements in this story that I find very poignant is the moment that the younger son comes to his senses.  He realizes that he has made a huge mistake and after he decides to return home he begins to plan what he will say to his father.  This is something that we all do.  Before we go on a job interview or make a phone call to someone we’ve never met or apologize for missing an appointment, we tend to rehearse what we might say.  I like to imagine the younger son revising and editing his speech as he began his long journey home.  He probably thought very carefully about what he would say and considered how he would say it.  He probably imagined how his father would look: arms folded, stern look on his face as his son kneeled before him.  The younger son probably polished the language and practiced the speech until he entered the city limits, when he finally settled on saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  His father, however, takes him by surprise.  Instead of having to walk all the way to his father’s house to sheepishly knock on the door, the wayward son is spotted by his father, who is waiting on the front porch.  When the father spots his son, he picks up the hem of his robe and sprints out to meet his boy, which is not something that a man of means would be caught doing in the first century.  The father embraces and kisses his son, refusing to let him go even as he tries recite his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son…”  But the father interrupts and begins organizing a celebration for the son who was once dead but is now alive.

The love and the forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal Son are obvious and palpable.  This story teaches us an important lesson about the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s grace.  There is, however, a subtler message embedded within this extraordinary parable.  Twice the father proclaims that his son was dead and is now alive, once when the son arrives from his journey and once when the father is explaining to his oldest child why he welcomed his wayward son with open arms.  “He was dead and has come back to life.”  While I think Jesus is using symbolic language, I also think it’s important to remember that for all he knew, this father thought his son was dead.  He never imagined that he would see his son again.  We only get the younger son’s perspective when he is away; we don’t know what things were like back home.  But what we do know, what Jesus implies in this parable is that the father waited for his son to return.  We know this because Jesus tells us that the father knew his son had returned while he was still far away.  This means that the father was standing in front of his house, scanning the horizon, hoping against hope that his son would return to him.  This means that the father trusted that he would see his son again even though he wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead.  This means that the father knew in his heart of hearts that no matter what happened, his son belonged to God.

In our funeral liturgy, as the body is carried into the church, we hear that wonderful anthem: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  At one point, the anthem quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”  It is in this reality that the father trusts.  He understands that even if he never sees his son again, his son is the Lord’s possession.  Even if the son wastes his life and winds up destitute, he still belongs to the God who created and redeemed him.  This affirms the deep and powerful truth that whether we live or die, we belong to God.  This may seem like a small comfort to the father waiting on the front porch or the mother waiting to hear news in the middle of the night or the parent who has lost a child, but I think that it is crucial.  In our human understanding of the world, we often imagine that there are things we can do that are completely unforgiveable, that we are capable of running so far away from God that God has no claim on us.  But the message of this parable is that even when we have completely turned away from God, even when we have run away from those who love us, we still belong to God.  The season of Lent is meant to be an opportunity for us to trust that we are the Lord’s possession.  Our Lenten disciplines are daily reminders that God is present in our lives and will be with us no matter where we go or how much we refuse God’s abundant love.  During Lent, we are called to remember that even if we push our families away, even if we forget who we are, even if we die, we belong to the Lord who embraces us and refuses to let us go.