I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?
It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.
Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.
Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.
Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.
Sermon of Jan 21, 2018 St John’s Episcopal Church
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20, NRSV
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
This passage is a narrative of calling as Jesus goes place to place calling out to everyone “the time has come” and to some of the locals “follow me.” When was the last time you waited on a call? You just sat and watched your phone, checking for missed calls again and again? Today, it seems like that’s all I’m doing, getting calls or calling someone… I’ve even caught myself calling one of my sons in their room on their cell phone… have you been there? Instead of yelling or heaven forbid going to the room, I phone them.
Anyone remember life before cell phones? Before even pagers? When I was a kid we had, I think it was, an enormous brown 1975 Ford LTD. My dad’s car. We kids just roamed the neighborhood like a pack of hyenas, no iPhones, no GPS, no Google Maps. If my dad wanted me home he would go out and honk the horn on that Ford LTD a few times to call me. And pity me if I didn’t make it home in under 15 minutes. I knew that horn. I left what I was doing, so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go. And I get a little bit of the same feeling here in Mark chapter 1 when Jesus says “follow me” and people drop what they’re doing “so sorry fellas, I’m out, I’m called, and I gotta go.”
It reminds me also an East African proverb we learned a long time ago, “To be called is to be sent.” The wisdom being the recognition that if someone with authority or purpose calls for you, it’s with the intent to send you, to use you, to give you something to do. Jesus seems to be calling with the intent to send.
I’d like to chat about Mark’s Gospel for just a moment, because over the years of preaching, it’s sort of become, if not my favorite, one Gospel that I immensely enjoy reading and preaching out of… this Gospel is a masterpiece of sorts. Mark begins, unlike other Gospels with their birth narratives and cosmic returns to the beginning of all things, with a simple statement… here begins the good news.
This good news is bound up in calling and proclaiming: 1) first with John the Baptizer, the voice crying in the wilderness, 2) then in the voice of God at the baptism of Jesus, 3) with Jesus himself who takes up the role of proclaimer as soon as John is arrested and silenced, and 4) eventually in the sending of the disciples to proclaim the message by chapter 3. Mark’s Gospel is an action story, robust with message, meaning, miracles and often a cyclical return to themes and words. Jesus says follow me many times and by the third chapter he appoints twelve apostles to be sent out to proclaim his message.
When my father would honk that horn, he wanted me for something, he was calling me for a reason… it’s dinner time or I had chores to do, or it was simply late and time to be at home. As my father called me for a reason, Jesus called followers for a reason, and we share a similar call, today. We hear it many different ways and we are called in many different situations, but being called is being sent. We who answer to call to enter the kingdom of God accept a call to ministry, as Jesus told them by the water that day “to fish for people.” A focus on the work of God, a call of ministry to the humanity around us. We may not all fish, but we share this call to be aware of the people around us, and follow the lead of Jesus.
We Are All Called
We’re not called to something burdensome, but to shared work and joy of ministry. In a section of our Book of Common Prayer called An Outline of the Faith, we find some the same kind of language wisely used to speak of our calling. I invite you to look into this Outline of the Faith, it begins on page 845, and we’ll be reading at page 855 under the heading, The Ministry.
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.
Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
Who are the ministers of the church? Who is called? We are all called! Does is surprise you that our ministry is described before the work of a bishop, priest or deacon? The very next question goes deeper… we represent Jesus, in his steps and voice, we bear witness, do the work of reconciliation, and share life together in the church, according to our gifts. No cookie cutter, pre-fab, “only my skills are needed or your gifts desired” but we all come together in our diversity to do ministry. We are each called as we are and fit into the work of Christ. On the next page we find the duty of all Christians: to follow.
Q. What is the duty of all Christians?
A. The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
The Apostle Paul uses some of the same language of reconciliation when speaking his ministry and ours, but I’ve always enjoyed the way he described this calling and sending to the church in Ephesus, when he says:
“But God, rich in mercy and loving us so much, brought us to life in Christ, even when we were dead in our sins. It is through this grace that we have been saved. God raised us up and, in union with Christ Jesus, gave us a place in the heavenly realm, to display in ages to come how immense are the resources of God’s grace and kindness in Christ Jesus. And it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith – and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you’ve done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
Ephesians 2:4-10, The Inclusive Bible
We are God’s work of art. I don’t know about you, but I can look around, go to work, read the news, talk to people, see all the things happening in the world, and I can get a little depressed at the dysfunction, discord and deep needs around me. I can get both depressed and a bit overwhelmed. But the calling changes things. The calling reminds me who I am. Remembering the call refocuses me back on the good, the good God has intended and the good of which we are capable and the good needed by the world around us. The calling comes through to each of us to move us fully into this kingdom, this movement, of God’s grace, God’s love and God’s kindness. And the calling sends us, rejuvenated and made more whole, to share these blessings with an often hurting, bruised world.
Not everyone goes fishing… the disciples we find in the scriptures who are answering the call range from vocations like fishing to tax collecting, a physician like Luke, or a religious leader like Paul, benefactors like Theophilus and Phoebe, and church leaders like Prisca and Aquila… men and women of varied means and backgrounds who answered the call according to their many gifts and abilities.
I would love to be a kid again and hear that horn honking in the distance, hurriedly gathering up my Star Wars action figures and toys and saying my goodbyes to friends to head home. I hope that today I can hear every challenge to goodness as a call, each challenge to justice and fairness as a call, every cry of pain and plea for mercy as a calling to be the work of art God has made me to be. The call is there. Today. We are called and we are sent.
I pray that we as a people, as a church, take this calling to heart and cast our nets of love, kindness and healing among the people of the world, in all our variety and diversity of our gifts and our backgrounds. I that pray we answer the call to do the good works God has intended for us as a way of life. Let nothing distract us or sidetrack us or divert us from the call to make goodness our trade, justice our vocation and God’s love our pattern of life.
I will end with a prayer from the Apostle Paul for that church in Ephesus, from Ephesians chapter 3, a prayer for you and I as well, again from The Inclusive Bible:
“I pray that God, out of the riches of divine glory, will strengthen you inwardly with power through the working of the Spirit. May Christ dwell in your hearts through faith, so that you, being rooted and grounded in love, will be able to grasp fully the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love and, with all God’s holy ones, experience this love that surpasses all understanding, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. To God – whose power now at work in us can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine – to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, world without end! Amen.”
I’m making a renewed vow of journaling in the coming year, and I’m inviting anyone along who wants to join me. I used to be a daily, consistent writer of my thoughts, prayers and dreams, but somewhere along the way I stopped. It’s time to start, again.
Why journal? I could mention a couple of things: 1) journaling helps with critical thinking and reflection, 2) it engages our mind and body, multiple senses working together, and 3) it helps us stop.
I’ve experienced all that in the past. Journaling helps me frame my thoughts and it creates a safe space to go deeper in personal reflection. I also like the feel of paper and a fine pen in my hand. It creates a quiet space, a refuge from all the hustle and hurry of the day. When I plan to journal and invest the effort to make a special space and time for journaling it becomes a respite, a place of healing and quiet in my hectic schedule and unrestful days.
What to journal? You can always journal your thoughts and prayers. You can keep a record of your thankfulness. You can track and explore your plans and dreams. I’m going to be keeping two official journals in 2018, one for my thoughts & prayers and one for my plans & schemes.
When to journal? When it’s valued. When it’s easy. When you can. That’s the reality we all face… journaling needs to be a valued practice, given it’s own space and an investment of materials. Pick a good journal, treat yourself with a trip to the bookstore and and get a good one. Do you like a fine pen? Do you not even care and keep $.29 ballpoints? It all works. When should you journal? Do have more time at the beginning or close of a day?
How to journal? Make it a habit, write daily. Write something: consistency. Look, I’m no recognized journaling expert, but this is what I have found in my experience: I need to do something every day to make it a habit and maintain it, and that means writing something, anything, each day. I will write something even if I’m writing the sentence, “Today, I got nothing.”
Why two journals? You may only want to carry one journal around for the year, but I have a bunch of stuff on my mind. I have now been out of full-time ministry for two years. I didn’t expect to still be out after two years. God and I need some time to chat and explore stuff in the new year. That’s a journal all to itself. The other one? I’m feeling creative and I have some projects in mind for 2018. Projects are great, but I need a journal, lists and captured creativity to help me get some of them finished! Let me know if you’re journaling and how it goes! Hold me accountable and ask me how it’s going!
This is my sermon transcript for July 30, 2017, and the promised resources to follow up on the idea of daily prayer, weekly spiritual practice and making your own daily prayer (mantra or litany). Be blessed, Beloved of God!
Sermon of July 30, The Practice of Daily Prayer
Good morning, I come to you today in the name of the God who infuses matter with divinity, who does not hold aloof, but enters into our world, our lives and our moments. I come to you as a fellow observer of the God whose Spirit is here and whose essence is love.
From Romans 8, one of our readings for today: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do we have any fans of Dean Koontz, the author, here? He’s one of my favorites… he writes in a genre blending style, some horror, some mystery, always with some humor and something more than just a little supernatural. One of his most endearing characters is named Odd Thomas, a young man who can see (though not hear) the spirits of the dead. Anyone else an Odd Thomas fan? Among Odd’s colorful family is his very old, salty gambler of a grandmother, Granny Sugars, who taught him her daily prayer, waking each morning to ask God, “Spare me that I may serve.” It became Odd’s daily prayer.
I love to find these little, yet large, things in novels, songs and movies: glimpses of profound truths maybe embedded in fiction or simple daily life. These are reminders that more might be happening and might be present than just what I’m seeing, hearing or noticing.
Finding the profound in the ordinary is a way of describing what I wanted to chat about with you, today. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a saint, a sinner, one of the last Don Quixote’s in his own right, a Basque soldier, a preacher, an armchair theologian and a particularly astute observer of the human spirit. He founded the religious order The Society of Jesus, most known by the moniker The Jesuits.
St. Ignatius has in many ways been a spiritual friend and father to me, through my Spiritual Director Fr Leo Murray and other Jesuit writers, helping me construct a bit of the missing framework to exercising and daily exploring my faith in ways that help me grow, finding new vistas instead of simply struggling to maintain a place where I have arrived. My father Ignatius famously wrote his guide to hearing and recognizing God’s voice and direction in daily life, The Spiritual Exercises, before any theological education. Central to those Exercises, whether you complete them in the intended 30 day retreat or a one week to a nine month adaptation, is the idea of daily giving oneself to an intention and reflecting on the day that’s gone by. Each morning begins with a prayer of intention, a grace he called it; it’s something we hope to realize in the course of that day.
I’d like to chat about daily prayer, fresh on the heels of hearing Granny Sugar’s daily devotion, “Spare me that I may serve.” I know that Dean Koontz’s books are works of fiction, but he’s so good at developing characters that you can see the way this morning mantra, spare me that I may serve, shapes the life of Odd Thomas. He’s a character wholly devoted to helping others, often at a cost to himself. Granny Sugars’ simple prayer shapes his life and keeps him rooted on a chosen path regardless of the circumstances of any given day.
There’s a deep wisdom in this character and this little prayer. Our intentions do shape us, intentions like daily prayers that reflect the basic decisions we make for the day before the day happens. So, in Romans Paul can say that daily trials don’t reflect the love of God for us, or a lack of God’s love, for he’s predetermined that God’s love is consistent regardless of what any day brings us. Granny Sugars prayed a prayer that assumed she would serve if spared. And we make choices and can affirm intentions before our days happen, choices and intentions that when held closely and believed in will lead us, shape us and sustain us with God’s help.
This is something I think I knew before I realized it was really true. I had an experience four years ago when I went up to Princeton Theological Seminary for a week long summer session on preaching. As I usually do when I travel I became a militant introvert. I’m always an introvert, but I have to act like an extrovert whether I’m working in religious vocation or at Apple at the mall, so when I travel I tend to curl inward and soak up some me time. And I was doing this at Princeton. Here’s the picture: at one point between classes I was out on the campus lawn, sitting under a tree, writing a haiku. That’s the kind of stuff introverts do when surrounded by strangers.
I began to notice that everyone else seemed to be walking around between classes in groups, social arrangements in which they were getting to know each other, and I thought, “What am I doing?” I was like, “I need to go interact with these people and not just play introvert for the week. We’re only here together a few days, and I could easily waste this opportunity to make some new friends.” Its not wrong to be an introvert, and I still am an introvert, but there was something here not to be missed. I ended up composing a prayer instead of a haiku under the tree that day, eventually writing these simple words: Let me love. Let me learn. Let me serve.
As I sat and watched people, people with people, it dawned on me that I needed that connection, or a similar connection with the people around me. I needed connection so that I could better love, better learn what needed to be learned, and to be ready to serve and be served. I was there to learn, it was a preaching class and conference, but learning is not the only value of my life. I sat with that prayer, tweaked it a bit, and came to these three things: loving, learning, serving… my heart, my head and my hands.
I’ve carried that prayer with me now for four years and found it resilient to the different themes and movements of life. I’ve used it as a beginning place of reflection when my day is not going well or when I feel a dissonance within my life; often I find that I’ve neglected one or two of these movements, not loving enough, missing what needed to be learned, or having arrived in a place of detachment and self-service.
The first experience I had of this sort of practice was really years and years ago when studying Eastern Orthodox Theology and I learned about the Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This is an ancient adaptation of a prayer Jesus himself shared in a parable about a two men who went to pray at the Temple, a religious leader and a despised tax collector. The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer, a mantra and a litany. Here’s an exercise for you to try sometime… I will sometimes want to pray, but not really know where to start or how to begin. I’ll start with the Jesus Prayer and then slowly, as I repeat it, change the words to be prayers for specific change in me that I want to see around me, or for the needs of people I love, or just different expressions of praise for Christ, God or the Holy Spirit.
in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, praying for a specific grace throughout a week or month is foundational to keeping focus and attention on what God is doing in my life and how the Spirit is speaking to me, and how to recognize the other voices and spirits in my life to ignore.
One last example, from our time here at St. John’s, and an example of adapting scripture into a daily prayer, is something Teresa and I did with our Sunday School class this past year. We wanted a binding theme throughout the year and began by choosing a passage of scripture to be our anthem. We chose Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? This passage presents three main ideas: justice, kindness and humility. Justice, kindness and humility.
We spent time with our kids explaining what it means to be just, which is to be true, trustworthy, fair & honorable. We talked about kindness, being compassionate and good to the people around us. We spoke about humbly seeking to walk with God, to draw close to God and to follow God. We eventually comprised our weekly prayer for class and daily prayer for any day of the year: Help me be kind, help me be true, God I give myself to you. After using it a few times, it sticks and has meaning. Who doesn’t face an opportunity in any given day to be more kind, true in our words and actions, and more in tune with following God?
Prayers like these have a way of changing us. They keep us focused and they help us hold up certain truths as a compass for our faith, our emotional well being and our daily walk. As a mantra or a litany I often use my prayer Let me love Let me learn Let me serve reciting in over and over on my drive to work as way of storing up the energy and reserve of intention for my day. This way no matter what comes why way, no matter how people find me or I find them, no matter the moment, my choice has been made to love, to learn and to serve. As I go through my day I draw on that reserve of God’s will and my intention.
This is similar to what Paul is doing in the passage from Romans 8. He knows that some days and some seasons of life can be tough. He knows that we struggle and we experience pain. He himself struggles and faces hurt of many kinds. He also has learned that these daily hurts do not mean that God loves us less, but God’s love is steadfast even in the hardest of days. So he speaks it: God’s love and our lives are inseparable. Bad days don’t mean that God loves us less. God’s love and our lives are inseparable. It’s good to hear this and sit with it before the worst days roll around, so that when they do we have a starting place to deal with those painful times. This is what daily prayers can do for us, helping shape us for the best and worst of life, strength when needed, extra joy when happy and wisdom when pressed.
What’s your prayer? I invite you this week to make an exercise of distilling down a favorite or a meaningful passage into an expression of prayer. Or maybe not a passage, but an expression of the great themes of your faith as you understand them. It doesn’t have to rhyme. You could take something from the end of Romans 8. You could use Micah 6:8. Maybe use the way that Jesus sums up the Law in Matthew 22: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
To help you do this, if I can, I’ve put some resources on my personal blog, and I invite you check them out. First, I’ve prepared a short one-week guide for daily prayer and reflection modeled after the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. That includes a sheet for each day which gives a grace to pray for, a passage to read, and prompts for reflection and prayer. This is best done shared with a spiritual friend, so I invite you to try it out and share the experience with someone else. You’re invited and welcome to bounce reflections and things off me as you pray and reflect through the week. My contact information is in the document. Secondly, there’s a little one page guide on making a personal daily prayer that includes the ones we’ve mentioned today and some helpful tips on making your own. This is all at toddthomas.net, and I invite you to share some of the journey with me and with one another.
I’m no Saint as Ignatius was in his life. I’m not an author like Dean Koontz. I don’t see dead people like Odd Thomas. I’m not even a rough and tumble cool 90 year old gambler like Odd’s Granny Sugars. But I am on this same road with Micah and those Roman believers, as are you. We are each set on a path of life, which is a path of will. It’s a path of choices, intentions and experiences. Our prayers are strength for that walk. Our prayers prepare us for the choices, the forks and turns we will take.
May God bless your path in the coming week. May we all in new and fresh ways, love the world and it’s people around us, learn something which we didn’t know or understand last week, and may our loving and knowing the world lead us to serve it’s needs with greater joy. Amen.
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