This is a sermon manuscript from my message on Sunday, September 15th 2019, at St. James Episcopal Church, Potomac MD. As a sermon manuscript it breaks my usual goal of staying at 500 words in a blog post, lol, clocking just over 1,700. The day’s Gospel passage was Luke 15:1-10.
Who has ever lost something and found it?
Our gospel passage today is in part about losing and searching and finding, and the joy that comes with being found. Jesus tells two stories about things being lost, first one of a hundred sheep, and then one of ten coins. When was the last time you lost something, and found it? Or maybe you’re like me, you like to think that you never lose anything important and love to be a little judgey when other people do? I’ll admit it, I’ve been that “How could you?” guy too many times… that is I was until I lost my wallet… on a cross country drive… in East Africa.
I don’t have my wallet at the hotel!
It’s the year 2000, and I’m driving across Tanzania with a friend, bringing home a new truck which we had just imported and outfitted for work in the rural areas where we were planting churches. After a long day of driving toward home from an area near Mount Kilimanjaro we were pulling into a beautiful safari hotel in the heart of the Serengeti game reserve for a well-earned night’s rest. But when I went to check in, I didn’t have my wallet and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my new truck. The folks at the hotel were understandably like, “Sorry, no money, no room.” That wallet had my money, US ID, Tanzanian drivers license, checkbook, everything… oh man.
Jesus is speaking to religious snobbery.
So we find Jesus was doing his normal thing one day, teaching the crowds around him… you might remember some of the recent gospel passages have been a little on the hard-to-hear tough side, yeah? He’s been talking about the cost of discipleship, or how seriously they should think of a decision to follow him. It’s a deep thing, choosing to follow Jesus, and it should be treated seriously and with dedication. And who should gather around and be listening to Jesus, but sinners. And worst kind of sinners, tax collectors, those who colluded with Rome and stole the wealth of the people. The good religious folks watching are like, “Man, Jesus hangs out with the worst people: Sinners!” Sound a bit snobby? Sound a bit judgmental? Yeah, it does.
A Clue! I find a map on the grill of my truck!
Back in Tanzania I’m standing at my new truck with my friend and we’re talking about this missing wallet thing while my stomach twists and sinks lower and lower. I last had the wallet at the gate into the park where we stopped to pay the game park entry fees… I know I had it at the gate! I start looking around some more and as I inspect the truck inside and out, I find a game park map stuck to my front grill. Putting things together I begin to imagine what I had done… leaving the office at the park gate after paying my entry fees, I must have set my wallet and the map I had grabbed on the hood of my truck. I must have forgotten and left them there. And as my luck would have it, my wallet didn’t get stuck anywhere in place like the map.
What does sinner mean? What will make the angels party?
Something else we know about Jesus from the recent gospel readings is that when invited he would totally go to the house of a Pharisee or religious leader for a meal. It’s not even like he exclusively eats or only hangs out with those sinners, but he is available to everyone. They’re a bit jealous maybe? We also know from many Gospel stories that Jesus doesn’t tolerate religious snobbery. To answer their anxiety at his choice of company he tells a couple of parables, short stories, actually two of three we find in Luke 15, to very pointedly reorient them back from their judgmental stance. He tells stories that will help them understand that sinner doesn’t really mean what they think. Lost doesn’t really mean what they think. For Jesus, sinner apparently means beloved. Lost means desirable. In the first story a man finds one of a hundred sheep has gone missing. Instead of simply being glad of the 99 and writing off his loss, he leaves them to find the one. And when that one is found the party gets started. There is rejoicing! I wish rejoice wasn’t such a church word these days… if we’re going to honest, the man and the angels partied when the lost one was found. In the second story we meet a woman who has lost one of ten coins, and she is relentless in finding that coin! She doesn’t give up but turns her world upside down to find what was lost. And when the lost coin is found? You guessed it, she and the angels start partying.
We just have to drive back, hoping and praying for the best.
Having figured out that I had left my wallet on the hood of my truck we were faced with a couple of problems. We had driven two hours since coming in that park gate, and it was getting dark. We’re not supposed to drive in the park after dark, it’s too dangerous with animals and possibly even poachers roaming around. I mean, could we even hope that it wasn’t already seen and grabbed up? Or maybe it was run over and scattered? It was also beginning to rain. We talked it over for a few minutes and eventually decided to drive back toward the gate and hope, and pray, for the best. You know that sick feeling when you can’t even talk? Everything inside is so tied up and you’re feeling so stupid and worthless that you just can’t even. I drove on, even out pacing the rain after some time, eyes glued to the road, and my friend sat there with a hand on my shoulder praying grace for me, for courage for me and for a wallet for our hotel stay.
Jesus is consistent that this kind of snobbery is not acceptable.
Maybe you’ve heard the kind of whispers and judgements that the people with Jesus heard from the religious leaders that day. Maybe you have felt unworthy in life, in church, in work, in play, in anything and everything. Maybe you’ve had the label sinner applied to you. Maybe you’ve had the label lost applied to you. Like many of the religious folks that day, we at church mostly find ourselves among the 99, the found. We find ourselves among the nine, tucked safely away in God’s purse. When you’re the 99 or the 9, terms like sinner or lost start sounding kinda bad. But in the stories told by Jesus, lost seems to mean desired, sinner seems to mean beloved. What the 99 and the 9 have to remember is that they aren’t giving up any of God’s love for it to be shared with the outsider, the other, the one whom God is pursuing instead of just always hanging with the insiders. So here’s a thought… we recently read Jesus telling a dinner host not to invite just friends and family to the table, but those who needed a meal, those without food, those without a table. Does that start to make more sense now? Do we have an extra layer now of understanding of the kind of love God has for all people so that we get a better idea of why spreading a table for the ones least likely to be invited, most likely to be overlooked, is so important?
What about my wallet?
We had out paced the rain and were driving in the dark for about an hour heading back toward the gate. We’d seen nothing in the dusty dirt road and now strained to peer through the high beams of my truck as we moved as fast as we dared. No, this wasn’t a paved highway, this wasn’t I-95 South toward Richmond. This was dirt, soon to be mud when the rain caught up to us again. Can you imagine what my heart did when at the edge of the high beam’s light, a small brown shape off the side of the road came into view? Can you imagine my lack of strength to even get out of my truck and go pick it up, when it was so obviously my wallet with the colored rubber-bands still holding all the contents safely in place? Can you imagine the relief, the joy? Can you imagine the party on our drive back to the hotel? I kid you not… we had found the wallet and started back for no more than ten or fifteen minutes when the rain storm caught up to us and poured down, obscuring a lot of our visibility for the drive back to the hotel. I don’t know if we could’ve found that wallet in the rain. Oh man, we partied like the angels in heaven! God is good.
Let’s make more solidarity, less fear more love!
What I believe Jesus is so often pushing the people around him to do, is to fear others less and feel a deeper sense of solidarity with them, a longing for them, a love that shatters complacency. He would seek and spend time with the lost and the sinner, because those are just synonyms for the beloved ones, the desired and desirable ones, the ones worthy of a great search, worthy of turning the world upside to get close to. Behind all that we do, all that we say, all that we would accomplish, let there be a deep sense of our being found, our being loved of God, and our being made worthy. From that understanding, let us also hold tight to the love of God that also embraces those outside of our community, making them worthy, worthy to be missed, worthy to be sought, worthy of our love and respect. Amen.
This is my sermon of June 24 2018 shared at St John’s Norwood Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We do revisit my recent trip to the MVA a bit, but in light of God’s promise and presence in the middle of trouble. =)
“Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Blessed be Abba God, the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the Source of all mercies and the God of all consoling, who comforts us in all our troubles…” These words were part of the greeting from the Apostle Paul to the Church of Corinth, opening his letter to them, the one we call 2 Corinthians.
In that letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul digs deeply into trouble and being troubled. He speaks of despair, of hope, of opposition and of faith, both the troubles and the faith of those Christians when facing hard times, and his own as an apostle, teacher and prophetic voice for Christ. Paul believes that we have in us from God a deep and strong vein of treasure to be accessed, a wealth of blessing completing us in our spiritual lives and also strengthening us in our daily lives. In chapter 4 of 2 Corinthians he’ll speak of that deep treasure and the troubled storms of life very poetically, “But this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
Paul knew something about the storms of life. In his letters he often speaks of the trials of being beaten, ship-wrecked, rejected and neglected. He knew all about the storms of life. Our Gospel passage today is about a storm, an unexpected storm that stirred up an otherwise routine and placid trip across the Sea of Galilee. Now, this is a Pilgrim Church, so may I see a show of hands of everyone who has taken a boat out on the Sea of Galilee? I was also there, with a group of pilgrims from this parish, just a couple of months ago… but my boat ride was as calm and serene as expected. No surprise winds or sudden storms came upon us, but just the lap of the waters against the sides of our boat overseen by that platinum sky and the pounding midday heat.
We’ve not all been on the Sea of Galilee, but we all know what its like when storms brew up in life, right? I went been through a storm recently, church… I had to go last week to the MVA… the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association. Sometimes our storms in life are less sudden and more directly linked to our procrastination, and I’m not going to lie about it. My car’s registration had expired a couple of weeks before, and I had spend the previous week and several hundred dollars getting various fines and parking tickets cleared up, but I was at the MVA believing that I was all done and ready to get things squared away. Come on… who can ever anticipate what will happen once you get to the MVA, right? I arrived, waited in a long line to share with a very pleasant woman why I was there, just to be told that I had some things to clear up with EZPass. I had spoken with them the previous week and paid about $50 to get that account cleared up, as my transponder hadn’t had funds for a some toll runs, but apparently there was more to do… a storm began brew for my quick run to the MVA. Thankfully EZPass is housed at the MVA, so I just had to go hop in another line and wait a bit to speak to another every pleasant person there. She pulled up my registration and said I had fines of around $650 to clear up before they would release my registration to be renewed. How does that happen? I had not had funds for about $30 in tolls, but they add gigantic “civil penalties” to those tolls, which added up in my case to over $650. Didn’t sound very “civil” to me. My storm was in full swing. I did not have $650+ to spend on these fines, and I had a real problem with their legitimacy and right to so outrageously fine me.
What do we do in these kinds of storms? When sudden storms pop up in our lives, people seem to be arrayed against us, and seems so unjust, that even if I didn’t keep my account current with EZPass, they had said the week before I was fine, and now I see these incredible fines before me… what do I do? Have you ever been in a storm like this? Have you ever just raged along with the storm? Fight fire with fire and all that? Certainly, I felt the storm pulling me into its embrace and tempting me to lash about and blow a lot of hot air of my own.
But thank God, I didn’t. I took a deep breath and composed myself. I didn’t have $650, or even a clue what to do next, but I wasn’t going to rage with the storm or give up or give in, and I would certainly not attack this person before me who neither let my account run out of money (that was me) or was responsible for imposing the fines on my overdrawn account. I took a moment of silence to breath deep and settle myself, and in that moment of quiet I heard her voice again, this time asking me a question, “Have you ever had a one-time waiver?” A one-time waiver? I’ve never heard of this thing, but wow does it sound promising! “No, I don’t believe I have ever had that waiver” I answered. If you don’t know this thing either, ONCE IN YOUR LIFE the folks at EZPass will waive the giant civil penalties by changing every $50 fine into $3! I got away from that little window spending about $70 total instead of nearly $700, and was out of the MVA in about 30 minutes with a renewed registration and an updated Driver’s License. Storm defeated, but not because I out-raged it or fought it to a stand-still or because I had any power at all in the storm except power over myself. I believe that if I had raged and fought and filled the stormy day at the MVA with my own ragings, I probably wouldn’t have heard that important question she asked me, or at least wouldn’t have been able to hear it as the gift and blessing that it was.
So In our Gospel reading today we find our friends, the friends of Jesus, in a boat and in a storm, and they are freaking out. The storm is raging and so are they! They wake Jesus up exclaiming, “You don’t care if we die!” They feel neglected, ignored and they feel acutely the injustice of this storm in their lives. They don’t deserve this storm, they’re serving Jesus! And Jesus isn’t doing anything they can see, so he doesn’t care. And you know how we keep hearing in scripture over and over “Do not be afraid” when God speaks or angels arrive unexpectedly we hear “Do not be afraid.” Well not this time! This time Jesus doesn’t say don’t be afraid, he basically asks, “What’s wrong with you?” Don’t you have any faith? He questions their raging along with the storm. Yes, they were scared. True, they did not have the power of Jesus to dispel the storm. But they had given up the only control they had in that storm, which was their ability to still themselves.
Not all storms in life are going to finish us off, as not all storms are just, not all are deserved, but all of them are opportunities to be faithful to the people that God has called and created us to be. Sometimes we can see God working in those storms, and sometimes we can’t see God in the midst of the trouble. But we know that God has loved us and called us and given us hope to be calm in those storms, true and just in those storms and gracious in the middle of turmoil. We have God’s promise to be with us. In a storm tossed world, we are so greatly needed, church. For we not only ride out the storms for our sakes, but for the sake of those within our reach.
In no way would I ever want to downplay some of the real struggles we face in life with an overly simple comparison to a trip to the MVA: those disciples in the boat sound as though they really thought they were going to die. But I do know that I need the occasional reminder that God’s grace, God’s love and God’s presence are not lost in the troubles of a day, the storms of this life. In these storms God’s grace, love and presence are the truly lasting things to which we cling and claim the power to remain ourselves. Perhaps some of the storms we have most feared will actually become moments of faith, gratitude and potential, when we remember who God has made and enabled us to be. “…this treasure we possess is in earthen vessels, to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we are full of doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but never abandoned; we are struck down, but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”
When the wind kicks up in the coming week, and the storms of life begin to move around us, unjust and unwanted, may we remember that we are still God’s beloved people. When the fear begins to creep in and our hearts race and our minds reel, and when we don’t immediately see the God in whom we have hoped, may we remember that God is still with us. When we are tempted to rage along with the unexpected twists and turns of the day, may we remember to still ourselves, to remain faithful, just and kind.
As we began with Paul’s greeting to Corinth, we’ll end with his farewell to that church and to us all, “And now, sisters and brothers, I must say goodbye. Mend your ways. Encourage one another. Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones send you greetings. The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ and the love of God and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Amen.
The audio of my sermon should be posted soon at St John’s: https://stjohnsnorwood.org/sermons/
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
In looking at Matthew’s introduction to Jesus we focused on the story of Joseph, and it only makes sense to cover Mary’s story with Luke’s Gospel. Luke gives us the grand narrative of the birth of Jesus, beginning with the drama surrounding his aunt, uncle and cousin, and then his own parents traveling to Bethlehem in that iconic journey which comes to rest under the star. He has angels galore, shepherds and an all-booked-booked-up inn. We have women breaking out into song and a guy with temporary muteness. Luke really delivers.
But in Mary’s story a single word has captivated me this season: Behold. You almost have to go back and grab an old translation for this, and I chose to study and read from the King James Version this past Sunday, Luke 1:26-38…
26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be . 30 And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
34 Then said Mary unto the angel, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.
Mary said “BEHOLD!”
It was interesting to look into newer translations and see verse 38 expressed in different ways. Many simply had Mary say something like “I am the Lord’s servant” or a variant thereof, and some at least allow her to say, “Here I am…” In the Greek she says idou, which is “see me, perceive me.” She really does say behold!
I think that Mary was often presented to me as someone who acquiesced to God’s will… but this is not acquiescence, this is proclamation! She turns the table on the angel and says, “Ok Gabriel, now you pay attention and see that I am God’s gal!” She’s not giving in, she’s buying in.
Mary is sounding very prophetic here. This part of her story reminds me of Isaiah’s moment of identifying himself in God’s plans, “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” Isaiah 6:8, KJV.
This Is A Powerful Woman.
Why does it matter that Mary said behold? It matters because she is on the cusp of major life joys and changes, and God arrives to announce the impossible, the unlooked for and the unimaginable… and she buys in. She has her moment of how can this be?, and then she squares her shoulders, takes a deep breath, and gives herself to God’s insane sounding plan. This young woman hands it all to God and allows herself to be caught up in something she does not control, accepting all the repercussions to come. We think of Christ being incarnated in the Advent story, but this is an moment of faith being incarnated, strength incarnated and courage incarnated.
You Are a Powerful Woman (or Guy).
The story of Mary matters because it is our story as well. I want to be like Mary. I want to hear God’s crazy sounding will for peace and good news, grace and reconciliation, and believe it! I want to see a place for me in that plan, and I want to buy in like Mary.
I want faith to be advented in me, incarnated in my own behold! If we were all Mary in our own communities, Mary in our schools, Mary in our homes… if God’s insane grace, love and forgiveness were allowed to interrupt our daily plans and advent something new… if only. How many cycles of abuse would be stopped? How many cycles of insult and hurt would end? How many hearts would be reconciled in God’s peace? What do I miss when I insist on the plans I have made?
I’m not sure I can always be as strong as Mary when confronted with God’s work in the world. Many days I feel more like Zechariah, questioning and struck mute by my doubts. (Luke 1:5-25) But that’s ok, because Zechariah’s mouth was eventually reopened, his words are returned to him, and he sings a beautiful song…
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them…
…because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Let’s go advent some faith. And if we don’t have the words at a given moment, keep believing and the words will come. Yes, Mary was blessed among women, and she is also a prophet and a inspiration for us all.
At Church in Bethesda we’ve been looking at “spiritual gifts,” or the way that God’s Spirit moves and acts in each of us. A couple of weeks back we talked about the way that God’s Spirit equips each of us us for serving one another, stressing that the gifts we receive from God aren’t our own, but they shared with others from us to them in our active service. A key verse that Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:7, found in one of Paul’s three chapter long discussions on spiritual gifts and service…
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” TNIV
“A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church.” NLT
“The Spirit has given each of us a special way of serving others.” CEV
Following up that week we remained in 1 Corinthians 12 to discuss what I like to call some “economic principles” of God’s Kingdom. I’m not doing that because I’m necessarily fond of economics, but because these are some strong ideas about about value, worth and relational transactions. I think they point us to an understanding of an “Economy of the Kingdom” that challenges views of worth and transactional value in other parts of our lives. It’s a bit longer of a text than simply looking at verse seven, but I invite you to take the time to read this passage over, maybe twice… 1 Corinthians 12:12-27:
“12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body–whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free–and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” TNIV
Again, I believe that Paul is expressing some deep truths for the economy of the kingdom, our system of valuing and serving one another. And as it should be, this is Good News, both for his first audience and for us, today. Our community of faith, the spiritual family to which we belong, has a great variety of parts and pieces, doing their different jobs, being themselves, and rendering their various services just like the different parts of a human body… and this is a really good thing! As we think of God placing our body parts in needful places, we can also think of God placing each of us in the community of faith with purpose and value. And it leads to the first of three principles to take away from the passage…
Principle #1: Our Abilities & Attributes Differ, Our Value Does Not
This is the first direct challenge to the other economies of our life. In the faith community, our differing abilities and attributes do not raise or lower our individual value or worth. We all know what it’s like to compete in realms of school or work where our worth is judged by having a certain skill set or not, or being able to use certain abilities well, or not. And so some are paid more, or less. We have also seen those economies pay more or less or value someone more or less based on their attributes of skin color, ethnicity or gender. We cannot bring such inequities into the kingdom.
Churches, as extensions of the Kingdom, should be the place where our intrinsic economy teaches us to value and cherish one another in our diversity. This is why it looks so bad and feels so gross when our churches practice a forced conformity for all people and place greater value on certain gifts, abilities and parts of the community. Why do our churches so often become bastions of homogeneity and enforced uniformity instead of the expressive gardens of all the different types, styles and wondrous variety of people God has made us to be? It happens because although our communities are indeed places of belonging, there’s a danger in simply becoming a “belonging system” which recognizes belonging through conformity and uniformity. Come on. We’ve been taught better than that.
This kind of economy means that we cannot turn to systems of simple conformity that would deny our individuality or restrict the various gifts and abilities God has placed in our faith communities, and it leads directly to our second principle…
Principle #2: I cannot say I don’t need you.
Really. For reals. Honestly. I need you. I cannot judge you as not needful for my life. Even if I’m an ear, and I think ears are pretty dang awesome, but you’re an eye. I cannot say I don’t need you. Even if I happen to be an incredible ear! Even if people tell me what an fantastic ear I am. And even if your eyeballishness drives me crazy. You’re stuck with me, because I need you.
I’m trying to sit here and think of more creative and humorous ways to say that I cannot do without you, but it is what it is. Other economic systems in my life (political, social, educational or even religious systems) might be saying that I don’t need you, and those systems might even make some compelling arguments, based on how different we are, but the Kingdom’s economy reminds me that you are in fact invaluable, irreplaceable.
These first two principles are not worth the pixels being burned to put them on our LCD’s if we aren’t going to daily live our lives out of this economy. It is absolutely necessary that I day by day look into the wallet of my heart and mind and choose to spend my energies and time on living a life that declares your value and my need for you. So, here’s the third principle…
Principle #3: Part of the calling of Christ in our lives is to live in this kingdom of diverse people sharing a common worth, upholding each person’s value and loving our differentness.
This is not a “get rich quick” economy, and it is certainly not a “get my way” economy. This is a system of valuing others that creates a reciprocal worth shared among us, so that we are all held close and cared for… as in verse 26, we share our sorrows and our joys in this Kingdom of recognizing everyone’s personal value and belonging. In this economy we cannot be misers, holding back our gifts and contributions of service acceptance, forgiveness and love. We will pay a good deal to be in this kind of an economy, but we will also be paid back with same, by the graces God has given us.
Lord, I believe, help my unbelief! If I’m saying it, help me find the strength to live it. Amen.
This is a powerful economy of of personal value and worth in the midst of beautiful diversity, in our church, mosque, temple, school, work place, city park, sidewalk, or wherever we find ourselves. The power and beauty of this economy resides in the amazing gift it is to the people around me when I actually live it. I’m not surprised that Paul found it in his exploration of Christ, and I’m unconvinced that it is solely for our faith communities and churches. I bet that this kind of an economy will be transformative in people’s lives when we live it everywhere we find ourselves!
This past Sunday I started a discussion with our church family on the teaching of Jesus that we not be people who judge others. I am blogging along at our church website on our series and wanted to also place the entries here.
Nonjudgemental Christians, Part 1
Here’s our base text from Matthew 7:1-6…
1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?4 How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.
6 “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.
Do Not Judge
We started with the recognition that the word “judge” here means exactly that, “to judge” or to give a verdict. It’s not just criticism, but it is delivering a verdict; a person is judged inadequate, worthless, wrong, or without value. A person is judged as not worth God’s time, not in God’s favor. It is the decision on a person’s worth and value, a full and complete judgement. Certainly among the audience on the day that Jesus spoke these words there were many of the religious professionals present who were well versed in judging, and many who had been judged.
As we read through the ministry and life Jesus we often see these religious professionals in action. They are the ones in the background whispering, “If he only knew.” When Jesus was eating or interacting with people they judged unworthy or undeserving of his attention, they assumed he simply didn’t know who they were. If he knew, surely he would have judged the person as they did. And yet Jesus did not judge as they did, and his words warn us of judging. Some examples of people judging others when Jesus did not: Luke 7:36-50, Mark 2:13-17, John 8:1-11, and Matthew 21:28-32 (premature judgement).
The first warning in this passage that Jesus gives is very clear… if we choose to indulge in bringing judgment, then we open ourselves up to the same standards and imposition of judgment. He says clearly, “Do not.” Then he unpacks the danger of judgement as it opens us up to the same treatment.
Do Not Judge, But Maybe Help
Jesus goes on to essentially make a joke of my hypocritical use of judgment, that I easily overlook the reasons in my own life to face judgement and turn to quickly judge another. He says that when judging others I overlook the “plank” which debilitates my own life to focus on the “speck” that trips you up. Jesus asks “Why do you do this?” Why do I do this blatantly hypocritical thing? Because your speck, your sins or mistakes, they make me an expert. My own plank, my own sins and mistakes, they just make me a failure. Why wouldn’t I choose to spend the day on your problems instead of my own?
And yet, Jesus puts a line of hope out there for me. I can work on on my own life, and maybe, just maybe, one day I’ll be able to help another person. Maybe, if I can do something about this plank in my eye, if I can find my way from the debilitation of my own sins and weakness, then I will be strong enough to help someone with a speck. Because no matter how hard I work on my life and no matter how much I achieve in purifying my life, the contrast is still overwhelmingly against me: my plank vs. your speck. My primary responsibility is always my own sin, no matter how well I ever manage to hide or tame it, or notice yours.
Some see these words as a chance to judge, a license to judge! You see, if I can simply tame a sin in my own life, then it’s fair game to judge in your life. But I will have to humbly disagree with that. This is still within the discussion on judgment which Jesus began with the words, “Do not judge.” We are still talking about why we don’t judge. Removing a plank from my eye does not give me license to judge, but an opportunity to help. St. Paul would later echo the same sentiment in Ephesians 4:28, “Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” I am not to judge, but I may be able to help. There’s a big difference.
Pigs and Pearls
And finally there’s the closing verse of the passage we used on Sunday, the one about pearls, pigs and dogs. I was surprised to find so many commentators who treated this verse as unattached to the fuller discussion. They simply made a comment on the common sense of not wasting precious resources on ventures or opportunities that are not precious.
Yet it is a beautiful restatement of verses 1 & 2! Verse 6 restates the devastating reciprocity of judgment that Jesus warns us of, that when I judge I open myself up to the same treatment. Think of verse 6 now, and in that imagery, the pearls and sacred things are the people around me, and the pigs and dogs are my judgements. If I throw those precious people to my judging (usually to feed my own ego and righteousness), the same judgments will eventually turn and destroy me. I will reap what I sow.
So Why Do We So Often Judge?
In the coming weeks we’ll be talking about the job of sharing life as nonjudgemental people, and yet we are involved in one another’s lives and have a responsibility to help each other when needed. Can we recognize opportunities to help without the prerequisite of judgment? Can we make sense of other things that New Testament writers say in light of the words of Jesus? Maybe I’m too much an optimist, but I believe we can, if we will be both thoughtful speakers and thoughtful listeners, bound in love.
Sunday was a fantastic day. In the morning we had the joy of a new experience for me, a couple from our church family exchanged wedding vows during our worship gathering. That was really cool. And on top of that, their exchange of vows brought in a whole bunch of visitors to the service, their friends and family, who added an amazing element of diversity, discovery and participation.
I knew before the service that many of the visiting family were Jewish. And though we didn’t leave Jesus out of our vocabulary or singing, or any part, we were able to welcome this group of people to a level of comfort and participation that I hoped for, but wasn’t sure we might achieve. I spoke of marriage in a brief homily, mostly from the New Testament and I shared the story of Jesus at the wedding in Cana. Then in the ceremony I referenced the love of God seen in scriptural metaphors from the garden in Genesis through the Psalms and up to Paul’s writings. And our guy Gary, who was leading communion, did the best possible job I could imagine of welcoming our guests to celebrate what was originally their Sader, now our commemoration of Christ. He spoke of communities of faith working to enlarge our circles of fellowship and love, versus shrinking those circles… he was great.
Most of our visitors joined our communion celebration and then shared some prayers during our “open mic” time of Prayers of the People after communion.
All that to say that when we had moved onto a time of fellowship, many visitors stayed to share their joy and appreciation of the worship gathering. One visitor said to me, “I’m Jewish, and I’ve taken communion for the first time!” and I’m thinking, and I believe I replied, “That is awesome!” I thought of Ephesians 2, when Paul says that Jews and Gentiles can be made into one person to have access to God… I saw that in real life!
Another visitor asked if they could return to worship with us again, even though they are gay. That gave me a chance to express how our people would probably represent a vast multitude of ideas, opinions and experiences having to do with the issue of sexual orientation, but our commonality would be found in our commitment to welcome, love and safeguard the dignity every human being. So yeah, you come on back and share yourself with us, all of yourself. Please. We need you. We welcome you.
So there we were, for a short time on Sunday morning, gathered around the table… Jew, Gentile, black, white, American, Nigerian, heterosexuals and homosexuals, Republicans and Democrats, male, female, young and old, and more… reaching out to the God who made us, craves our attention and has laid a table of welcome for all of us.
I know it’s not the church, the typical Sunday morning, of my youth. I know that it doesn’t really fit all the tidy boxes into which many of our churches tend to safely cradle our worship experiences. Still, I also know that God showed up. And I will be always grateful for that morning, even if not one of those visitors ever returns. O, Lord, I pray they do… but that one morning was a real gift, and I want to let it stand on it’s own and not neglect a single syllable of thanks that I owe for it.
I guess this is when I need to quote someone smarter than me, to you know, cement the moment…
“The day will come when, after harnessing the ether,
the winds, the tides and the gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.”
~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
Notes for Passing the Peace
Second Sunday, 01-11-09
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
We have started talking about passing the peace in the sense of building a culture of peace within our faith community that is then expressive to the world around us of the peace of God. We started by stating expressly that we desire a posture of peace versus a combative posture with others, specifically moving from trying to influence people from a position of power to an influence that is in line with the scriptural metaphors of salt and yeast.
We’re following that up by talking about a shift from a “persecution complex” being sold in our country today to a realization of our status as ambassadors, with either majority or minority status.
It would be funny to think of Christians as persecuted in our country today, if religious persecution wasn’t such a deadly reality in so many places around the world. Leave it to some American Christians, numbered among the 5% of global consumers who consume an estimated 24% of the world’s resources, to somehow figure themselves victims.
Victims fight for rights, for revenge, for justice for themselves. Ambassadors work create connection, reconciliation, peace… they work for the rights and others. Maybe in many ways the nouns victim and ambassador don’t make complete sense when set up as opposites, but I believe they do a fairly good job of representing the choice we have as Christ followers in our current culture and context in the West. When we choose to be victims we become self-centered, self-interested and self-absorbed. We begin to carry massive chips on our shoulders and to interpret slights against our faith or faithful habits as attacks, a loss of “rights” and a new battle ground on which to make our stand. When we embrace the role of ambassador, as did Christ, as did Saint Paul, and so many others of our historical faith community, we find a new chance to respond to our minority status or at least to the growing cultural dissonance with our public expressions of faith with a new tact, a new level of peace. Victims are humiliated. Ambassadors are humbled.
Saint Paul actually used the word “ambassadors” in our second letter to Corinthians as I believe he immediately spoke about his own work, but also of the work of the Christian community as a whole. I think this flow begins back in the third chapter, at least. In the third chapter he draws a contrast between the will of God written on stone tablets and then written on the living hearts of followers, a contrast between death and lasting righteousness. Theologically he will hang the idea on two points in the fifth chapter: 1) the fact that this life is not the only life or not the paramount expression of life, and also 2) the driving love of Christ. He calls that love “compelling.”
Here’s how I think this all begins to work out… in this world we belong to a kingdom, but we’re not building one. Christ did not come to extend through his followers a new political power base of movers and shakers to dominate the world scene through force of will or arms. Here we are reminded of last week’s scriptural metaphors of salt and yeast. In fact, the kingdom, and it’s influence, would be vastly different, and therefore far more meaningful and lasting than a particular political or civic establishment. We bring life to the dying, that is part of the message of Christ. We bring peace to the hopeless, freedom to the enslaved. These are hallmarks of Christ’s purpose. But we are not called to bring Christian rule. There’s a necessary difference between the reign of Christ and the rule of Christians. Didn’t Jesus renounce the kind of “fighting kingdom” about which Pilate seemed interested? Hmm…
We are also confronted with the imperative to be led by and formed by the compelling love of Christ. In other words, when a Christian confronts anyone and/or responds to any situation out of disgust, hatred, envy, apathy, racism, vengeance, superiority, lust, self-interest or pride they are on the wrong track. This compelling love of Christ is not a pithy Hallmark card slogan, but it is a real and difficult challenge for a “nation of ambassadors” to carry out in the arenas and times of both domestic and international conflict and even relative tranquility.
A people without an understanding of and a commitment to the kingdom priorities of reconciliation and love will quite naturally have a hard time with “speaking the truth in love.” In fact, I think we have often had a hard time doing this thing. Popular alternatives that I’ve seen have tended to look like “speaking the truth with tough love,” or when we are feeling particularly righteous, “speaking the truth and loving it.”
We have to embrace our ambassadorial status to go and make the connections in the world that lead us to being a people of reconciliation. I’m praying for the day that followers of Christ are not known in our hemisphere for who they hate. I pray for the day that fringe groups of our faith, no matter how small or marginal, have stopped making “God hates Fags” signs. I pray for the day that my own understanding of that compelling love has moved me deeper into relationships of reconciliation with my neighbors, maybe the ones I’ve thought would be the least interested in Christ’s message of peace. There can be a kingdom in this world that while being faithful to God is extending and sharing the divine peace with all the fellow travelers along our roads. Bet on it.
These are some notes I’ve made in preparation for leading a discussion at CiB in January on building a culture of peace, an imperative for Christ followers…
As Israel invades Gaza in a continuation of it’s recent offensive, I’m just not interested in the same old arguments about who started what when. I am reminded of the old African proverb, “When the elephants quarrel, it’s the grass which suffers.” My prayers are with the folks in both Israel and Gaza who are dodging rockets and gunfire. My prayers are with the respective leaderships who cannot find enough love of peace in the jumble of all their many desires.
Tomorrow, I am starting a discussion at Church in Bethesda about creating a culture of peace, in our own lives, in the life of a faith community and in our world. We’ve come a long way from a serving, suffering Christ to find his followers organized into political caucuses, both left and right, fighting for dominance and rights and civil power.
Maybe that big question of who really ultimately fired first in the whole Israel/Gaza mess has a less deadly, but still crass and hurtful analogy in the “Great American Bumper-Fish War.” You know what I mean; on some cars a Jesus fish gobbles the Darwin fish, while on others a Darwin fish consumes the Jesus fish. I don’t know whose fish ate whose first, but I think that in such a contest that no one is winning any hearts or minds. I also don’t believe that faith and intellect are antithetical. Why do we draw lines and go spoiling for a fight?
Mostly, I don’t believe that Jesus calls us to a “one upping” of cultural or personal slights. How far from “Blessed are the peacemakers” do we wander when we assume a combative, either offensive or defensive, posture with the world? Did Jesus die for my civil rights? Did Jesus die for my cultural dominance? Did Jesus ask me to take up my cross and shove into people’s faces? Jesus took a small fish and blessed it and fed the hungry. Why would we use a small fish to divide and insult?
So, tomorrow we start talking about what scripture might be doing when it calls us to be “salt” and likens the kingdom reign of God in this world to “yeast.” I don’t wonder why we can’t “all just get along.” I wonder when we as Christ followers will claim our rightful place as servants, when we will not be found to be the ones standing up for ourselves, but standing to the side, quietly leavening a world that doesn’t need us to win, but to love.
Seriously, there’s only a “culture war,” as the pundits call it, if we show up to fight. When we choose peace, well then there’s just a chance to do some good. I’ve really already stared this conversation with several friends sitting in offices, coffee shops and living rooms. Seemed like something some of you might want to join in on.
With peace, Todd