It was a deep blessing to be invited back to Church in Bethesda this past Sunday morning to bring a message during worship. I’m dropping the transcript of the sermon, below. I share this realizing that choosing wholeness and achieving wholeness are often two very different things, but I do believe we begin with the choice. Cheers!
Our text is Matthew 6:26-34 from The Inclusive Bible:
26 “Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? 28 And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. 29 Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these.
30 If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith? 31 “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear?’ 32 Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. 33 Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.
34 Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.
Good morning, everyone. I come to you in the name of the God who dresses wildflowers in their bold colors and striking style, who sees each individual in the vast clouds of birds which crisscross our skies, and who sends us to seek and make justice in our world. Let us pray…
“Saving God, may we seek you and your justice, trust you deeply and move into this world as your agents of peace, and kindness, trendsetting only when showing the great glory of your mercy and grace. May the words of our mouths and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.”
It was an interesting experience to put our passage from Matthew 6 out on Facebook this week as our text for today, and immediately hear from multiple people something like, “Oh that’s my favorite text!” The longer I live, the more I fall in love with our diversity as human beings and people of faith. I did not choose the text for today because it’s one of my favorites, in fact, I chose it because it holds a message with which I struggle. An opportunity to speak to you is a chance, perhaps selfishly, for me to dig into a passage and grow.
You see, I’m good at worrying, it’s always been one of my special gifts. I’m not only kinda good at worrying, I’m also good to planning what I’m going to wear and especially what I’d like to eat. Just to illuminate that: When we lived Africa we had a professor from our seminary come and visit us, and I was so excited for us take him out and show him some the places where we were planting churches. As we drove through the rural areas I would often point to places along the road and say, “That’s a nice place to stop on the way home for some beans and rice. Oh, sometimes I like to stop over there because they have really good chicken. Sometimes I’ll go down here to the edge lake because companies bring ice to pack the day’s catch of fish in, and they use the ice to have cold Cokes!” He finally laughs and asks me, “Todd, are all your landmarks in life places to eat?” Yeah. They kinda were. Anyone with me on that way of mapping life?
I’m also paradoxically really good at procrastinating, even though my whole life I’ve tried not to procrastinate as much. Anyone else good at putting things off and feeling bad while doing it? Anyone else with me in wishing they didn’t put things off as much as we do? I’m a conflicted guy sometimes, making all these great plans and worrying, just to put off following the plans.
And in one little passage Jesus comes in and threatens my whole house of cards, to topple both my comfortable worrying and my comfortable guilt over procrastination: he says, “Don’t worry about anything, just put it off until tomorrow.”
What? Am I to really do that? Doesn’t Jesus know we’ve invented some of our own proverbs over the years, proverbs about doing. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Anyone ever try to find that one in scripture? It’s not there, but it does very aptly capture one of our societal and religious preoccupations, huh? And more to the point, we have often quoted and canonized a “verse” that’s not even in scripture: “God helps those who help themselves.” That is exactly opposite of what Jesus just said!
I remember hearing this passage as a young Christian and being mortified… Jesus just told me to goof off. Every other teacher I’ve ever had has told me the opposite. Because at a glance, in English, this looks to be a debate about goofing off, when it really it’s more a text about wholeness.
The Greek word for anxious here is merimnaó, “a piece instead of a whole.” Jesus says not to let ourselves get pulled to pieces by life, taken apart by cares and concerns over small stuff, but as whole people seek the greatest things, and remain whole people by focusing on the greatest things: God’s reign, God’s justice. Hear the passage again, but paraphrased a bit with this drive for wholeness woven into the text…
Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t work like we do to buy the stuff we buy, yet God’s birds have all they need. Aren’t you smarter than birds, who just go be the birds they were made to be without worrying if they’re bird enough? Which of you by falling apart over the small stuff can add a moment of meaning to your life? Why lose your bearings in life over clothing and fashion? Really? Learn a lesson from the way the wildest flowers of the field grow. They don’t work. They don’t shop. Yet not even King Solomon in his fullest splendor was as amazing a sight as one of these delicate marvels. In God’s world outward adornment is casually lavished on the unplanned growth of the fields, which measure so small against your value – you have been made even more wonderfully. You don’t need a bunch of other adornment to be the beautiful creation God intended you to be.
So, decide today that you’re not going to keep falling apart and losing yourself in addictions to food and fashion. You are so much more those things, made to be so much more. Anyone can dress, and anyone can eat, and everyone does. God knows you. God loves you. So, live to see God’s glorious peace in this world, first in your own life and then multiplied around you. Live to see God’s justice made real in this world, first in you, and then multiplying in the world around you. Enough falling apart over the junk that doesn’t really make us happy or fulfilled… that stuff steals from us our today and promises us a false tomorrow! There’s enough need for justice today to keep us busy. Tomorrow will present opportunities for action and justice all its own.
Folks, I’m still going to do my laundry. Jesus wasn’t saying I have permission to stop doing my chores. I’m still going to eat, and Asian foods like Phó and Bulgogi will still be some of my most favorites. I plan to eat them some more. But I’m also going to hold extra tight to the truth that no matter how well I dress, someone, honestly a bunch of someones, will be dressed better. No matter how well I wear my clothes, there’s always some who will wear them better. And no matter what I eat, my favorite foods or not, it is still fuel for the meaning, it is the energy for what matters: God’s will and God’s reign in me and God’s justice for those who most need it.
May we never lose sight, that after the food is done, the clothes have faded, and all that we thought was so important has vanished from memory like last year’s whithered flowers, God’s justice and the hope that God’s justice engenders in us and the world, that is our tomorrow.
It’s no wonder that this passage drops into it’s context as it does, caught between the discussions of heavenly treasures and not judging. This passage is a natural extension of putting our focus on heavenly values, the things worth treasuring, and it’s a perfect prelude to a warning about judging people around us or succumbing to that judgement.
Wholeness is the opposite of judgment. Wholeness is a refutation of life lived as critical competitors focused on the flaws of others. Wholeness is freeing for us and the world around us.
No, Jesus isn’t writing us a life-long hall pass to skip class and goof off from our responsibilities. Jesus is reminding us that God is involved here, and even if the clothes fade and the flowers whither, there is justice, there is peace, and there is life infused with meaning, the kind of meaning that lasts.
So, fly. The God of the Birds has also given you wings. And smile. Enrich this world, for the God of Flowers has also made you beautiful and amazing. This is our gospel, our Good News. Amen.
Thanks, everyone at CiB, for a blessed morning together!
Here’s a link to CIB’s post about our visit with a few more pictures: https://www.churchinbethesda.com/single-post/2017/07/06/Thank-you-Todd-and-Teresa-Thomas
We had such a beautiful Sunday, yesterday. Teresa and I fasted for social justice and mercy during the day with our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and many others from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. We also heard from a special guest in Sunday School, Imam Tarif Shraim of the Islamic Community Center of Potomac (the ICCP). He attended with another teacher from the ICCP and several of their youth.
I met Imam Shraim at his mosque on my birthday, March 31 of this year, when I attended Friday prayers with other guests invited from our parish of St. John’s Episcopal Church Norwood. By the way, both Imam Shraim and Reverend Sari Ateek, our pastor, are Palestinians. When they are together you can feel the contagious energy of two humans thrilled to be present with each other.
Imam Shraim was gracious and wise as he shared with our combined Sunday School of 8th to 12th graders some of what it is like to be a Muslim in America. He shared his own story of facing racial and religious hatred here in America (a high speed pursuit and attempt to run his family off the road) because they have brown skin and his wife chooses to wear a head scarf. He expressed sincere gratitude for his welcome at St. John’s, and he invited us all to visit the ICCP any time we can make it. I plan to visit again as soon as my work schedule allows, hopefully during the coming celebration of Ramadan, beginning the evening of May 27 until June 25.
It warmed my heart to spend our class time helping our students grow in their understanding of our shared humanity with our Muslim neighbors, and our shared religious heritage and aspirations. I loved that our epistle reading in worship that morning was of the Apostle Paul in Athens, Acts 17:22-31. I’ve always believed that this should be a foundational text for our interaction with other faiths and adherents of other faiths. Paul shows respect for them and appreciation for what they share in common, and he even quotes their own poets. There is a humility and graciousness in this text that we have lost in so many of our own interactions with other faiths. Paul has a message to share and his own faith convictions, of course, but he doesn’t belittle, hate, fear or condemn the aspirations of the Athenians.
I pray that this is a week marked by more love, more learning and more service. May we find ourselves drawn to a shared grace and mercy for all people, and may we speak loudly and consistently against the hatred, fear and violence that threaten so many of our neighbors. And to support our prayer, may we do more loving, do more learning, and may we do more service. This is our calling as followers of Christ, to be known by our love: love for neighbors, love for friends and family, love for enemies, love for all. “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Colossians 3:14
Whether you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist or you identify with any other religion on this shared globe, you can love these two, hurt for them and hope for them. Whether you are Syrian, American, French, Korean, Kenyan, or any other nationality on this immense earth, you can can recognize their humanity, their need and their beauty.
I don’t care what they are wearing, either religiously or culturally… I feel like I’m watching a video of my own grandparents. I see my wife, and I see me. I see love and pain. I see two human beings.
Their marriage sounds so different than our marriage, but then again our marriage (at the ages of 19 and 21) seems more than a little crazy to some of our friends who are just now getting married in their late 30’s and 40’s. I hope that my wife and I can make such joy of our love at such an age. I hope we can one day make a whimsical video about our 65 year love affair.
I also hope we don’t reach that milestone just to be bombed from our home and driven into a refugee camp. I pray that we always know where our children are and that we can see them and speak with them and know they are safe.
Syria is not so far away after all. I haven’t done enough.
Got a long post for you… I’m preaching today at the the 8am, 11:15am and 5pm services, and this is my transcript. Be blest, you beloved of God!
I stand before you now in the name of the One who called to Lazarus, “Come out,” who wept with hurting friends, and who risked it all to be with those whom he loved. May we cherish one another as deeply and be as present with each other, in joys and in the darkest of days. Amen.
Has anyone started doodling on their bulletin, yet? I know ours can’t be the only bulletin doodling family at St. John’s. Not only do I invite you to doodle away, keep your hands as busy as you need to, but I invite you to think with me for a moment, and maybe doodle or jot down a few things that come to mind with this question… “What labels do you wear?”
As examples: First in this life I was son and brother, and later I became husband and father. I am Christian, and I have been “Pastor.” I have labels applied to me according to my work and employment, my sexuality and gender, and I have labels that try to define and capture my political thoughts and opinions. Some of those labels, I kinda like… but sometimes labels can be hurtful, or limiting and completely unnecessary. Labels are a daily tool and reality of life. We can say we don’t like labels, but we’re kinda stuck with them. So, I think we need to be careful with them.
Someone in our Gospel story we just read was labeled a long time ago, and that stigma still sticks to him, today. Even someone who may not be a student of the Bible has probably heard and used the phrase “Doubting Thomas” to name the Apostle Thomas or chastise a doubting friend. But is that fair? Is a Doubter all that Thomas was? Or, is a doubter even an important part of who or what Thomas was in his life?
One of the many reasons I love our Gospel passage from John 11 is that we learn something about this man named Thomas. If we only knew Thomas from the later chapter when he doubts the word of the other apostles, then maybe I would be more open to the Doubter label, but here he is in chapter 11, the lone apostle of the group we hear daring to go with Jesus into hostile territory. In fact, Thomas is willing to go die with Jesus should that be their fate for venturing to Bethany. He’s willing to go die with Jesus.
This guy Thomas is bought in, folks. He belongs to Christ and is willing to follow him anywhere, into anything and through the worst. Maybe we can understand his moment of doubt in a better light when we understand the depth of his love and devotion to Jesus. Later when he watches his Lord die, he must have been crushed. The idea of his resurrection must also have been a desirable idea, but… trusting the words of his friends?
He’s already lost so much, felt the hurt so deeply, he’s not ready to trust their words and dare to again hope. From the man we know in our passage in chapter 11 this Doubting Thomas could as much or more easily have been labeled Daring Thomas, Devoted Thomas or DareDevil Thomas, willing to give his all to Jesus. And by the way, so ya know, Jesus didn’t label him Doubter, and neither did anyone in our scriptural witness. We did this to him. We, his legacy of faith through the generations, labeled him I suppose for his worst day, his doubting day.
We saddled him with Doubting instead of Daring or Devoted. In a similar vein we’ve done worse to Mary Magdalene through the years. All we know from scripture for sure is that Jesus cast demons from Mary and then she was his devoted, faithful disciple. The Apostle John even names her as the first to witness the empty tomb of Jesus. But we through the centuries have most often rewarded her faith by associating her with a nameless prostitute in another Gospel story. We have often needlessly associated her with sexual sin. By our scriptural witness, she has no specific sin at all, neither a failure of moral or doctrinal nature, attributed to her… but we needed to do that for some reason. We needed to label her Sinner and Adulteress.
What drives us to do this to one another? Why do we need to see one another in the worst light? Jesus didn’t do this… he sets no example of relating to people in their worst moment or identifying them by their failure. He sees people in their best light, sees into their best nature and loves them deeply. That love led him into hostile territory in our Gospel story… Bethany wasn’t safe, but he was determined to be with his hurting friends. And when he arrived, and Lazarus had died, Jesus weeps with his friends.
Maybe standing next to Jesus as he wept Thomas put his hand on his Lord’s shoulder to comfort him? Maybe Thomas held Mary or Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, in their moment of grief and weeping? Thomas was there in the middle of it, because he followed Jesus anywhere and everywhere, and Jesus was in the middle of it. Daring. Devoted.
Think back on some of those labels you carry with you. Specifically, now… think about the negative labels you’ve been given, or maybe have even chosen for yourself… in your mind, name them… do any of us carry something similar to dumb, undeserving, stupid, inadequate, loser, cheater, liar, thief, unworthy, fake? These labels, when given to us or even chosen by us, are not our true selves. Those labels, even when they have been earned, are not who we are.
Martha and Mary both say to Jesus, “…if you’d have only been here…” But Jesus is not late. He reminds the sisters that he has a few labels of his own: I am Resurrection and Life. Martha adds a couple more in a beautiful statement of faith: Messiah, Son of God. And Jesus is going to take that label of “dead” that clings to Lazarus, and tear it away. “Lazarus, come out!” Because if Jesus is Life and Resurrection, then so also is Lazarus, and so are we.
If Jesus is Resurrection and Life we are also Resurrection and Life! Jesus will tear away the worst of the labels we own and replace them them new labels of Goodness and Hope. He does it so many times in Gospel stories: the Unclean and Untouchable become Clean, sometimes they even become Dinner Guests and Hosts. Paul echoed this to the church in Ephesus when he wrote: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Recently in a Gospel reading (in John 4) we saw Jesus chatting with a Samaritan woman at a well! This woman who seemed in several ways to be labeled Unfit or Undeserving of that conversation with Jesus suddenly finds herself labeled Fit and Welcome by the Messiah. She would even become Prophetess and Missionary, bringing her whole village out to the meet and believe in Jesus.
A few chapters later in John chapter 8 Jesus will famously draw in the sand as some accusers drag a woman caught in adultery to him for judgment. She is labeled Sinner and Guilty, and seems to have earned those labels, being caught in the act. Jesus labels her Un-condemned, Loved and Capable. He sends her back to life with renewed energy and purpose.
Can you imagine how it must have felt to be either of those women, relabeled by love in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine how it felt to be Lazarus, when the label of Death is remade into Life? Now maybe you want to say to me, “Todd, dead is not a label for Lazarus, he’s dead, as in dead.” And you’re right, he’s physiologically dead, not just labeled so out of spite, but sometimes aren’t we? Maybe we aren’t physically expired, but our souls feel dead, our spirits crushed, our emotions flatlined and others may view us as unworthy of more life, of better life, or full life. We acutely feel the label of unworthy, dead.
Jesus preached a familiar and oft quoted line in his Great Sermon as recorded by Matthew: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the prophets.” What would life be like for us, for those around us, if we applied that sentiment to the labels we use? Jesus sets an example for us of applying labels that give life. He looks into the lives of the people around him and loves them, and he labels them by that love. He sees them as the best of who and what they are, and he names them as such. And he treats them as such.
Oh, to have someone ignore my worst day, when I fail so miserably, and remember me and call me by my best day. Perhaps I haven’t even had that best day yet, but I think Jesus would still see me for it, name me for it, label me by it. Because the same power that called Lazarus from the grave can awaken my soul, revive my spirit, and re-energize my life, as he calls me Beloved, Redeemed, Sought After, Worthy and Alive.
And this can be scary! Jesus said to roll back the stone and the people protested, “Jesus, it’s gross in there. It stinks.” I can feel the same way sometimes, “Jesus, don’t come to close, I’m just not always what I seem.” But he is not deterred. He says, “Come out to life! Be who you were made to be!”
God has labeled us with love before we earn it, deserve it or even seek it. God has chosen us for love. You are called Alive, Wanted, Worthy. You are Beloved and Welcome. When we are called into his kingdom and mission, this is a gift we receive and then give to those around us who are mired in the death-dealing labels which steal their joy and true identity.
I will remember Thomas for his Daring Faith, not his Doubting Faith. And as God sees me, the best of me, and calls me Beloved, so will I strive to see you and all humanity, in your best. And I with God will call you such: Beloved. Worthy. Amazing. Beautiful. Needed. Valuable.
I have a short favorite poem/prayer I’d like to share with you in closing, written by a Jesuit Father, Michael Moynahan called “Broken Record”. I often turn to it when labels offered to me by this life or by my own failures begin to cloud my memory of how God has labeled me, how God has called me. It’s a prayer of remembrance. It’s a prayer of our truest self and our truest label. It begins briefly as spoken to God, but then shifts to be God speaking to us. Since you can’t see that shift indicated in the text I’ll signify it by raising my hands as God begins to speak in the poem…
You see our sin / as symptomatic stutter,
self-effacing struggle / to ignore
the confounding reality / of Your willful vulnerability:
“I love you
because I can’t do anything else.
I made you,
every last part of you:
all that’s hidden
and all that’s revealed,
all that’s muddled
and even all that’s clear.
at the risk
of repeating Myself,
dear to Me.
You are precious
in My eyes
you are Mine.
That’s enough for Me.
And it will have to do / for you.
Wrestle with it / until you get tired
and then relax / and give in.
Take a deep breath / and enjoy.”