Resistance Sermon 1: “On Crash Helmets, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Resistance, or Becoming the Beloved Community”- October 26, 2014

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” –Annie Dillard, in Teaching a Stone to Talk

N.T. Wright, a favorite pastor, author, and theologian, the former Bishop of Durham, tells a story in his recent book, Surprised by Scripture, about being a caught in traffic in the streets of London with a taxi driver. At one point the cabbie turned around to face him and said, “What I always say is this: if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, everything else is basically rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it?”

Resurrection.

Rock ‘n’ roll.

Wright described this conversation as “a great gospel moment” and said he had been living off of it ever since.

Resurrection.

Andrea once lovingly, of course, accused me of talking in paragraphs. If I talk in paragraphs, maybe I write in chapters, and maybe I have a book in me somewhere. Who knows? Tonight I’ll try to keep it to as few paragraphs as are necessary to give you what God has given me to say.

So I want to talk with you tonight about resurrection, about new life and new creation, about a new humanity, about being the beloved community.

Let me stop there and say that again:

Beloved….community.

Beloved Community

MLK, Jr., talked a lot about Beloved Community. He didn’t coin the phrase, but he certainly popularized it. It was the end for which nonviolent resistance was the means. Nonviolent resistance of institutionalized racial oppression wasn’t merely about justice and a hoped for end to the oppressive regime, it was about reconciliation between the oppressor and the oppressed and the redemption of all. As King put it in a talk entitled, Facing the Challenge of a New Age: “…The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men…” and women, I would add. The Beloved Community transforms the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. We are people of the new age, aren’t we? We are people from the future, residents of the kingdom in which God’s love and justice reigns with peace. Wherever we go, in whatever we do, little by little we unveil the dawning of that new age. We bring the future to pass. In a monochromatic world of black and white and shades of grey, we are an explosion of color. In an era of deep gloom, we are exuberant gladness, if we’ll but be who we are, if we’ll live as the beloved community we are becoming.

To paraphrase Joey a bit and maybe put words in his mouth, for the sports lovers among us we’re supposed to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about football, or in Joey’s case, baseball. For the musicians and cooks and coders and crafters among us, we’re to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about those things. For the consumers among us, we’re to talk about Jesus at least as much as we talk about The Walking Dead or our new iPhone.

But I ask you, why? Why should we talk about Jesus at least as much or even more than any of these other things? These other things are exciting! They’re fun and sometimes shiny and they give our lives some meaning, perhaps in the grand scheme of things not much meaning, or not very good meaning, if we’re honest, but some meaning nonetheless. Does Jesus? Has Jesus so transformed our lives that they are lives worth talking about? Are we filled with exuberant gladness? Do our hearts sing not out of habit or because we think they should, not because we expect to be rescued from this earthly mess in the “sweet bye and bye,” not because we feel morally superior to our neighbor or better than those who couldn’t make it in this dog-eat-dog world, but because Jesus has filled our hearts with exuberant gladness as we live in right relationship with him, with one another, and with God’s good world? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

Can we even imagine what the beloved community is? What it might look like? How we might live into such a future here and now and bring it to bear through beautiful acts of grace, kindness, inclusion, service, love, and forgiveness for our neighbors near and far? How might we do this? How might we imagine this and let our imaginations run wild with this hope?

Allow me to suggest that it begins, and ends, with resurrection.

Resurrection is inescapable in the life of a would-be Jesus-follower. Try as you might to avoid it or sanitize it or dumb it down or smart it up or market it or interpret it or explain it all away, it stands, still (or not), at the heart of any faith we might hope to have. It stands at the center of the Beloved Community, where Jesus is Lord and Caesar and Mammon are not. You may have heard it said that what God accomplished through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was to put creation back on track, to get us back, perhaps, to how things were in the garden, back to what God originally intended for us. In this telling of the Christian story, resurrection functions as a reset button. God pressed it, and finally things can get back to “normal,” back to the way they used to be. There’s hope again that in some cosmic future we can live the idyllic life of Adam and Eve in the garden, with humanity and the created order at peace again in a paradise in which lions lay down with lambs and children play safely with snakes.

I beg to differ.

As people from the future we know how the story ends, right? Ben and Joey have recently led us in a great discussion of it. We know that when God’s kingdom fully and finally comes, heaven will come to earth as a great city, not a mere garden paradise. Cities are the result of humanity’s God-given ingenuity and creativity. They are often held up as examples of human progress. To say, then, that a city is a central feature of the realm in which God’s love and justice reigns, a kingdom in which humanity and creation itself are fully and finally redeemed because the work of resurrection has reached its fullness, is to say that that work- the work of resurrection- is not just to restore what once was, but is to fully and finally create anew what might have been. Resurrection doesn’t cause us to look backward. It propels us forward. And to say all of this is to say that resurrection isn’t God’s giant “reset button;” that’s what the Flood accomplished. To put it even more boldly and provocatively, resurrection wasn’t necessary because of the fall, because of humanity’s sin. It was necessary because it’s what God intended from the very beginning.

That’s right. I’m suggesting, provocatively if this is the first time you’ve heard this argument, that God intended for Jesus to be resurrected, and therefore for Jesus to live as one of us and die like one of us, from the very beginning, from the moment he formed us out of the dust and breathed into us the breath of life. God created, but knew from the very beginning that it was the new creation, made possible by the resurrection of the son of God, that would bring humanity and God’s good world into the fullness of right relationship.

This, I suspect, is part of why Wright says that John chapter 20, describing the resurrection, is full of echoes of Genesis 1.

Genesis 1 speaks of Creation.

John 20 speaks of New Creation.

Wright says: “You see, it has been all too easy for preachers and theologians to imagine, within our late modern culture, that the point of the Easter stories is to provide a happy ending after the sorrow of the previous week or to assure us that there is life after death or something like that.” “But what John is saying,” says Wright, “is far more powerful and…far more relevant to our church life and witness today and tomorrow. He is insisting that Easter is the beginning of God’s new creation, and we therefore have a job to do. The completed work of the Father in creation and the completed work of the Son in redemption issue directly in the ongoing work of the Spirit in mission.”

We therefore have a job to do.

Wright reminds us of the declaration of 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein that “it is love that believes the resurrection.”

Yes, love.

Wright says that because of the resurrection “the world opens up before us as a strange, unmapped new land, full of possibilities and challenges.” He goes on to say that “The mission of the church is not to drag people into buildings or to run raffles or issue statements.” He says “the mission of the church is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.” He says we are to be “Jesus people for the world, kingdom people for the world, forgiveness people for the world.” Jesus, of course, was Israel’s Messiah, the promised one who would set things to right. He was the fulfillment of the Law, the one in whom its work was completed. The purpose of the law was to point us to Jesus, and the stories Jesus told time and again made this clear. The law points us in the direction of right relationship with God, one another, and God’s good world. It tells us how to live, but though it points us in the direction we need to go, it cannot take us there. Only Jesus can do that. In Jesus, the law’s work is finished and Israel’s blessedness becomes the world’s blessing.

Wright talks about Thomas, about Jesus’ willingness to meet him where he was, in the middle of his doubt, in the middle of a locked room, and give him the gift of faith, to show him the signs of new creation, of the new humanity and Beloved Community that God is creating. Wright says:

“The question for us, as we learn again and again the lessons of hope for ourselves, is how we can be for the world what Jesus was for Thomas: how we can show to the world the signs of love, how we can reach out our hands in love, wounded though they will be if the love has been true, how we can invite those whose hearts have grown shrunken and shriveled with sorrow and disbelief to come and see what love has done, what love is doing, in our communities, our neighborhoods: the works of justice and beauty that speak of God’s new creation, the works of healing and new life that should abound in our hospices and detention centers, our schools and our countryside. It is when the church is out there making all that happen, not waiting for permission or encouragement but simply doing what Christian people from the very beginning have always done, that resurrection makes sense, because suddenly the idea of God’s love in new creation makes sense, and people who were formerly skeptical find their hearts and minds transformed so that they say, with Thomas, ‘My Lord and my God’.”

So we’re to be, not in here, but OUT THERE, making it happen, and lest we get off track, this isn’t only about our speech. It isn’t only about what we say about Jesus and the amazing life together we’re having because of Him, it’s about having an amazing life together. This begs the question, again, do we? Do we have an amazing life together? I would be the first to posit that, especially given our size and firm placement in the humdrum middle of white U.S. culture, we probably do some amazing things, and we’re certainly trying to have a life together. I’m not sure though that our life together is as amazing as it can and will be just yet. I’m not sure that anyone would meet us and spend time in our midst and walk away describing our exuberant gladness. Good God talk like Joey challenged us to engage in rightly flows and is given life by a life, together, of exuberant gladness. Resurrection makes it possible, and resurrection makes sense to all the skeptics out there, and dare I say, all the skeptics in here, myself included, literally in light of such an exuberantly glad life together.

How, then, shall we live? What, then, are we to do?

Allow me, if you will, to humbly challenge us….to get a life. I mean it. Go get a life, and not just any life, not just a better than average one, comparatively speaking, according to U.S. census data for your zip code or hoped for zip code. Get a life full of exuberant gladness. Get a life that is truly a life together. Let me tell you how this is working for me. Notice I said, “how it’s working.” It has not worked, just yet, but God knows I’m trying. God knows that He has been trying me, challenging me with ever increasing opportunities to grow my love, to grow my faith, to grow me up. Here are a few examples:

  • I’ve long felt convicted that if I truly belong to Jesus, and if because I belong to Jesus I’m part of the new humanity and Beloved Community that he’s creating, and therefore I also belong to you, then “my” stuff really doesn’t belong to me, in the end. I am to be but a steward of it all (and there’s so much, I admit a bit sadly), because everything belongs to God. It’s God’s stuff. I think a lot of us give lip service to this idea. We talk about it, some of us. I’m trying to back up that talk with just a little action, and lots of even more talk, but strange talk, peculiar talk, because language shapes reality, or at least our perception of it. Words make worlds. So by law Kirsten and I have “owned” God’s house in Cuyahoga Falls (hear that strange talk?) for 9 years this month, but we keep trying to be a little bit crazy with it. We keep imagining and trying out ways to be really good stewards of it. When we moved into it we had taken Kirsten’s mom in and she was the first occupant of the “master” bedroom. After she moved out we were foster parents for a little while and so brought two African-American boys into a community that is sometimes known as “Caucasian Falls.” Our resolve wavered and that chapter came to an end, but when we went down to TX as my dad was dying we rented it at half of our cost for the mortgage to a couple that couldn’t have afforded it otherwise and we eventually hoped to sell it to them. When we wound up coming back to OH we languished for a while, trying to come up with what God might want us to do with it next. Eventually God led us to you all and, on a hopefully Godly whim we invited Joey and Andrea to come live in the basement so that Joey could get out of what felt like an oppressive job and be more creative and available with his time devoted to the Resistance, to each of you. We were very glad to have them in our home and in our lives, but as Joey and Andrea were feeling called to move back to Canton, then free from that oppressive job, we likewise asked Sara to join our household and we now live in community and covenant with her residing with us in God’s house that we share. We don’t just share a house, though. We work hard to share our lives. We share the money God gives us access to. We pray together and eat together. We try to bear one another’s burdens. These are ideals, to be sure, but we’re shooting for the stars, doing our best to let our imaginations, and our lives, run wild with hope.
  • Of course, we don’t just occupy God’s house, we drive God’s cars. We’re training Samuel and Nathan, and ourselves, to refer to them not as “Mom’s car” or “Dad’s car,” but as the black one and the gray one, or the Focus and the Freestyle. We try to use them that way too. We started out this school year with myself, Samuel, and Sara sharing a commute to Canton and then Holmes County, respectively, as this was the best use of the resources we had at our collective disposal and it just made sense, at least from a God’s kingdom-eye view. Now that Samuel is back at school in the Falls, and I’m looking for work myself, we still share the cars and sometimes the commute. Though this is now changing, we know that whatever the future looks like, Lord willing we’ll approach it just as creatively and courageously as we have so far.

Along the way, we hope we’re creating, with God, a life worth talking about, a community of love and support and care, a Community that is truly Beloved, and we yearn for such community with all of you. Whether or not we have any official sanction or title or not, Sara, Samuel, Nathan, and Kirsten and I are a pocket of resistance in Cuyahoga Falls. We didn’t wait for permission to do this. God calls us to do it. God calls you to do it too. God calls us not just to do, but to be. We are called to be the Beloved Community. We are called to be the Church. We are salt. We are light. Jesus is the light of the world, but he hides that light in us, just as He hides in us. Let’s open ourselves up so that it shines. Let’s make Jesus famous because we so famously love each other.  Let’s be peculiar. Let’s be different. Let’s stop talking about going to church- as if such a thing were possible- because, remember, we’re the Church, and let’s be the Church. Let’s stop inviting people to Church, which only makes sense if you mean inviting people into the presence of the gathered Church, and let’s invite them into our lives, into the life we’re having together, into a life of exuberant gladness. Let’s give until our tanks feel empty, and then give some more, inviting Jesus to work a miracle inside us, to make us cups that are filled up and running over with his love, along the way. When God feels absent to us- as is so often the case for me- or we feel alone, let’s love our neighbors extravagantly, exuberantly, so that they feel God’s love coming from and through us, and as we do so maybe we’ll feel God’s love and presence too.  Let’s practice resurrection. Let’s live as the beloved and forgiven people that we already are, like people from God’s future do.

So let’s stop and talk about that for a minute. At your tables, you’ll see a couple of questions I’ve suggested for you to talk about. Spend a few minutes on each one in your groups, and then be prepared to share out some of the ideas you’ve come up with, or, if you’d like, a question you might have for me.

[Table Talk Questions:

  1. You may already be doing this to some degree, but imagine if you will that all of “your” stuff, everything you own, really and truly belongs to God. How would you use it? What would you do with it? Would you still “own” everything you do? Would you share some things, even crazy things like houses or cars? What would that look like?
  2. Imagine too, though you may be living this way already, that YOU fully and finally belong to God- your time, your energy, your love and your will and all of it, every bit of you. How might you give yourself away to others? How might you share “your” time and energy, etc.? What would that look like?]

So let’s live as the beloved and forgiven people that we already are, like people from God’s future do, and let’s start doing this right now. Remember, none of this is possible without resurrection, without the body and blood of Jesus, given for you, and given for me. Jesus invites us to participate in a feast, a feast which is a foretaste of the feast to come. At the Lord’s table, he himself is our host, quite literally, as host means not only the one who gives the invitation and provides the feast, but it also has a theological and technical meaning. The Latin word “hostia” means sacrifice or victim; so Jesus is our host, and He is also our host. He offers us himself, and he makes this offer to all. All are invited to participate in the Lord’s feast, which is the gathering of a community called Beloved, a community that is becoming what Jesus was both for Israel, and for Thomas. For Israel, Jesus was the end of the Law, the “end” not because it was over, but because it was complete; it was fulfilled. The Law points us to Jesus. For Thomas, doubt was not the enemy of faith; it was its partner. Jesus responded to Thomas’ doubt not merely with an admonition to have faith, but with love and the gift of that very faith. Jesus met Thomas right where he was in the middle of his doubt, and he’ll meet us there too. Do you doubt your own faith? Do you doubt the resurrection? Do you doubt the Resistance? Do you wonder if our little band of provocateurs will make it? Do you doubt Jesus, as I sometimes do? Come, come and meet him. Come and see how we love each other, and imagine together how we might do so ever more exuberantly in the future we’re bringing to pass.

So tonight you will not be served the elements of communion by a “leader.” Jesus is our Leader, and he invites us to serve one another, just as He served the disciples at the Last Supper by washing their feet. At each table you’ll see the elements of communion, the bread and the juice. I invite you to serve the elements to each other. One person will hold both the bread and the juice and offer them to the next person, saying: “I love you. Receive the body and blood of Christ, given for you.” That’s right. Words make worlds, and I want you not only to live like you love one another, I want you, if you dare, to say it to one another, to say “I love you.” Those words were: “I love you. Receive the body and blood of Christ, given for you.” The person who receives communion will then turn and repeat the words and offer communion to the next person, and so on all the way around the table until the person who first gave communion becomes the last one to receive it. When everyone has been served, the kids will return and we’ll sing our closing song. I charge you to believe that God is not asleep. He is very awake, and he’s drawing us out past a point of no return. May we never return to our old lives, to our old selves. May we never return to our small lives, to our mundane, humdrum, so-so lives as people from the present only, with lives that lack exuberant gladness. May we never return to isolated, individualistic lives. Let’s be the Beloved Community. Let’s be the Church. Come, let us feast.

Amen.

Just Die Already, Part II -or- Home Is Where the Heart(ache) Is(?)

I preached the following sermon to Circle of Hope East in December 2004, just 8 days before Samuel was born four months premature and our lives were changed forever.

John 14: 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 8 Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Home. For some of us the word evokes fond memories of a nurturing family, especially at this time of the year. For others, including me, the word is fraught with a tension we can hardly describe. We want to be part of a meaningful and nurturing home, but the one we grew up in wasn’t at all like that, and so we struggle to redefine what home means to us as we grow up and make our own dwelling places. But I wonder, and maybe you do too: just what is home, anyway? Frederick Buechner describes home this way:

The word home summons up a place…which you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and which in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment. To think about home eventually leads you to think back to your childhood home, the place where your life started, the place which on and off throughout your life you keep going back to if only in dreams and memories and which is apt to determine the kind of place, perhaps a place inside yourself, that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware that you are searching. I suspect that those who as children never had such a place in actuality had instead some kind of dream of such a home, which for them played an equally crucial part.

As I alluded to a moment ago, I would definitely fall into the latter category. I did not grow up in the kind of home that Buechner describes, though I have always longed for it. In fact, I have spent all of my adult life thus far trying to create such a home, and it has been an exceedingly difficult task.

I think the thing that is so meaningful and important about the dream of home that Buechner talks about it is this idea that it belongs to you, or maybe more importantly that you belong to it, and that somehow, no matter what is happening presently, the result is that all is well or you can rest assured that all will be. Home, for me, is an idea that evokes a sense of safety and security, even though I never knew such safety growing up, and I think that’s often how things work. Sometimes we know things by their presence, but sometimes it is only in the absence of something that we come to know and long for it. This is especially true of God, I think, and you may have heard talk of the “God-shaped hole” that many of us experience in the absence of the abiding presence of Jesus, but I’ll say more about that later. In the meantime, let me say this, and I warn you that this is a spoiler for where my talk is going, but here it is anyway: I believe that whatever kind of home you grew up in- whether you knew a loving home or knew only the absence of one and so yearn for it, like me- either way such a home is a far cry from our true home. That true home is with Jesus, the same Jesus that John says is the Word by which all things were made and in whom all things hold together. God, who is love, so overflows with that love that he made a world. He made us, and breathed into us the breath of life, literally inspiring us to be, to exist. He made us in love, and for love, for right relationship with him and all creation. Ultimately, Jesus is the home we were made for, but like the animals in Narnia we’ve fallen asleep and lost our ability to talk. We don’t remember who we are or what we were made for, but every once in a while, sometimes in the best of our earthly homes, we catch a glimpse of the mystery that lies just beyond our awareness; we see a doorway open for an instant, and we are blinded by the love that waits to make us whole again, and so we set out on a journey- we begin to make our way to our final and true home.

Of course, the hard thing that we find along the way is that this journey to wholeness and home is finally impossible. If Jesus is the home we long for, then like Thomas we do not know where he is going or how to get there. We know only that the lasting peace and rest that we so long for is just beyond our grasp, and so we conclude that we couldn’t possibly be home yet. We are broken, fractured by our freedom to choose because we so often choose that which takes us further from home, away from love. We do not love as we should and do not really know why. We are lost, unable to find our home and in some ways unable to find even our true selves, because as I said before, we’ve forgotten who- and whose- we are. We do not know that we were made in and for love, or we know it only by the absence of such love in our lives. We do not know that we belong to the King, Jesus, and so we bend the knee at any impostor king who comes along and is able to capture our imagination, or at least distract us for a time from the emptiness inside. In the end, lost and alone, yearning for a home we have only dreamed about, we realize that we cannot save ourselves, and we begin to come undone. It’s a hard thing to learn, but I think it’s an essential part of our journey, because in our weakness God’s strength is revealed.

Realizing that I cannot save myself- that I can not create out of my own force of will the kind of home I never had- has been terribly hard for me, but ever so slowly, I am learning. You see, as I’ve alluded to, my home growing up was a pretty messed up place, and those of you who know me or have heard me talk before may know that all too well. My father was very loving, but that love was drowned in the sea of my mother’s abuse, and that abuse marks me deeply and has gone a long way toward making me the man I am today. In fact, I’ve recently begun to imagine the abusive home of my youth as an image. In this image I see my mother, a vital, raving lunatic, trapped in a dungeon deep in my psyche. This is a deep, dark place inside me where no one ever goes, but there she is, locked in a cage, railing at the bars, cursing at anything that moves. And there I am, as a child, about five years old, sitting just outside my mother’s cage, curled up in a ball, sobbing and rocking back and forth. I think that image is the emotional center that I live out of most of the time, though I’m hardly aware of it. I know it’s true, though, because when Jesus actually gets to me- when I see him for who he really is and remember who I really am, that’s the immediate place I go to. I begin to cry, overcome with the experience of his love and care for me even though I’m just a small, broken, weeping child.

So I’ve sort of been living a double life. As an adult I’m even-keeled and intellectual, and though I have moments of passion I’m mostly disconnected from my emotions. I’m fractured that way because I had to be in order to survive my mother’s abuse. I couldn’t keep feeling the way she made me feel at five years old, or I would simply have died. So I became very skilled at hiding and suppressing those emotions and living as if I didn’t have them, and the result is that today, standing before you, I am only half a person, at best. I’m out in the world, looking for home, and I haven’t even brought all of myself along. I don’t know how to be whole, because the part I’ve left behind is a small, weak five year old, who is scared and crying in front of a cage.

But I recently had what I can only describe as a vison, and I think this vision holds the key to my journey to wholeness and home. In it I see myself kneeling before Jesus- as he might be pictured in Revelation, in full warrior garb, eyes blazing, with sword at the ready. I kneel there before him, and he keeps pressing me, asking me over and over again: “Will you yield?!” Each time I am unable to comply; though I want to- I want to say “yes” and acknowledge his lordship over all creation, especially over me. I want to submit to him and trust that he loves me and can keep me safe, but I can’t. I remain stuck, frozen in indecision, trapped in a halting reply. Finally, exasperated, Jesus simply cuts me in two (think Darth =ader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Episode IV of Star Wars). He cuts me in two and I ‘m gone- obliterated….and then, I ‘m there again. Somehow changed. Whole. Complete. No longer kneeling, I see Jesus, and he is different too. With his warrior garb gone, he says to me, “Behold, I make all things new!”

I think that in this vision Jesus offers me a way out- through death, and into new life, but in order to receive that life, I must tread the path that we all must journey down in order to be made whole. If I am to find my life, I must lose it. If I am to be born again, I must die, and God must endure labor to give life to me anew. Jesus offers me a chance to put an end to this identity I have made for myself as the dispassionate intellectual, an identity rooted in my experience of abuse, an identity which consequently is all about self-protection, and so is all about self. Jesus is giving me an opportunity to be that five year old again and live his life over. This time, however, instead of being overwhelmed by the lack of love and abuse that he suffered, I am carried along, as that child, in the loving arms of Jesus. His enduring love is the home I never knew, and that love abides with me day by day as I learn again what it means to live and love and trust and make a family.

This is the task that Mary and Joseph were faced with, I think, as they learned what it meant to carry the baby Jesus, give birth to him, and raise him. Somehow they knew, of course, that their child was different. An angel had come to each of them independently to describe what was to be and reassure them that it was God’s doing, and there were some pretty big moments along the way: like when Mary magnified the Lord after John the Baptist, still in Elizabeth’s womb, leaped for joy at the presence of Jesus, still in Mary’s womb, and later the Magi came, and the heavens opened to announce the birth of Jesus to some unsuspecting shepherds in a field. Likewise, after Jesus was born, they took him to the Temple and an old man named Simeon proclaimed that seeing the infant Jesus was the very thing that made his life finally complete, as he had been promised that he would not die without seeing the Lord’s Anointed One.

All of these things had to have been pretty significant to Mary and Joseph, but these were the high points, the big moments that capture the headlines of the Bible, and we actually know very little about their every day life, about what happened between the lines of the Bible’s pages. And so we wonder about those times when no one was looking, when Mary and Joseph looked into each other’s eyes and wondered what the future held, and what they held in Mary’s belly. The Bible doesn’t capture the secret things they said at night when no one was looking. We do know that Joseph nearly called the whole thing off, but the angel took care of that, and so, like us, Mary and Joseph spent their days watching, waiting, and wondering. They watched Mary’s belly grow, and they waited for Jesus to come as they wondered what it all really meant.

What a magical and mysterious time that must have been. I especially appreciate this Advent season because I get to enter into the story in a new way, as Kirsten and I are expecting a son in the Spring. Even with the very real experience of watching Kirsten’s belly grow, I still can’t imagine what Joseph must have felt, but like him, I hope, I struggle to put it all in perspective and find rest in the midst of it. You see, I think, for a numer of different reasons, that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that you have to be like a child to enter his kingdom. One of the ways that I think this works has to do with belief. Many children, even in our jaded culture, haven’t yet learned to disbelieve. When watching a movie they don’t have to be convinced to suspend their disbelief because their belief hasn’t been suspended yet. Children who have been loved and nurtured well see wonder and magic everywhere- they have “eyes to see” the kingdom. That’s what’s so great about Christmastime, even the commercialized version of it. For six weeks or so, or longer- depending on who can make a buck off it- as a culture we give ourselves permission to be children again. We wait, expectantly, for something magical to happen. We hope, even if we can’t quite believe it, that families will gather and try to love one another. It’s a time when, if only we would stop and be still and listen quietly, we can catch a glimpse of the impossible. You might step through a wardrobe and be in Narnia. The creator and King of the Universe might come to be with us as a helpless baby.

I think Kirsten and I had an experience like this when we decided to move back to Philadelphia and be a part of you all again. We had sojourned in Minnesota for five long years. It was a hard time for both of us, but especially so for me. As you know, I grew up abused and was terribly marked by that experience. While in school I did Kingdomworks, which brought me to Philly to serve in the inner-city, and I was marked by that too, and so I got married and left school and moved here, where we found Circle shortly after it started. We were here for two years and then moved to MN to be with Kirsten’s dying father. My mother died the day after he did, and that weekend of funerals was, for me, a study in contrasts between the consequences of a life lived attempting to love and serve others, like Kirsten’s dad did, and one lived in the absence of such love and service, like my mother. I went to seminary while we were out there, which was a wonderful but terribly hard time for me that wound up looking a lot like the desert that Joshua described last week. It was out of that deserted, desert place that I began to hear that still, small voice calling us back to Philadelphia, and when Kirsten and I decided to go for it, I told her that it was time for us to believe again.

It was time for us to believe, at a most basic level, in Jesus again, and don’t be alarmed- it’s not like somehow we stopped believing along the way; it’s quite the contrary, in fact. I am firmly convinced that, despite the rhetoric of some Christians, doubt is not the enemy of faith, but its partner. As Buechner says:

There are times when all of our explanations ring false even as we make them. There are times when it is hard to see how any honest, intelligent person can look at the world without conluding, like Macbeth, that the whole show is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. Many of us have faith in God and yet have doubts too, and in the long run perhaps it is just as well that we have them. At least doubts prove that we are in touch with reality, with the things that threaten faith as well as with the things that nourish it. If we are not in touch with reality, then our faith is apt to be blind, fragile, and irrelevant.

Even so, coming back here, to you, was a step taken in faith, in the belief that ultimately hope is something that happens, and love is something you do. Coming back here, was, for us, another step forward in the long journey home. We keep taking those steps, however halting they may be, because we know in some sense just beyond our perception or understanding that we are of course home already, because Jesus is the home we yearn for, and he has come to live among us. This is the promise of Immanuel, of God with us. Through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and the ongoing life of his spirit in you and me, God has made a “big space of grace” in which we can live, and move, and have our being. Our home is wherever Jesus is, and Jesus is with us always. Like Thomas, we wonder how to see the Father, to see God and by doing so find the home that we long for, and so to us, too, Jesus says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But Jesus will not coerce us into acknowledging this. He will not force us to receive his love. God hides in the weak and powerless, in babies and AIDS patients, so that when we find him there we can begin to understand his love- and his judgment. Jesus stands at the margins, with the least of these, wooing us to follow him through death and into new life. I leave you, then, with another quote from Frederick Buechner that has been so meaningful to me because I think it sums up what it means to find a home with Jesus in everyday life. He says:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, and smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Sermon: “You Are What You Eat”

John 6:35-51 (The Message):

Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.

39-40 “This, in a nutshell, is that will: that everything handed over to me by the Father be completed—not a single detail missed—and at the wrap-up of time I have everything and everyone put together, upright and whole. This is what my Father wants: that anyone who sees the Son and trusts who he is and what he does and then aligns with him will enter real life, eternal life. My part is to put them on their feet alive and whole at the completion of time.”

41-42 At this, because he said, “I am the Bread that came down from heaven,” the Jews started arguing over him: “Isn’t this the son of Joseph? Don’t we know his father? Don’t we know his mother? How can he now say, ‘I came down out of heaven’ and expect anyone to believe him?”

43-46 Jesus said, “Don’t bicker among yourselves over me. You’re not in charge here. The Father who sent me is in charge. He draws people to me—that’s the only way you’ll ever come. Only then do I do my work, putting people together, setting them on their feet, ready for the End. This is what the prophets meant when they wrote, ‘And then they will all be personally taught by God.’ Anyone who has spent any time at all listening to the Father, really listening and therefore learning, comes to me to be taught personally—to see it with his own eyes, hear it with his own ears, from me, since I have it firsthand from the Father. No one has seen the Father except the One who has his Being alongside the Father—and you can see me.

47-51 “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”

Good morning.

So I guess before I get too far into this, I should say a few words about myself. As you may know my family and I recently joined St. Luke’s, and my boys were baptized. I have two boys- Samuel, who’s 7, and Nathan, now 1. All parents hopefully think their kids are special, and that’s no less true of me. Samuel was born at 24 weeks gestation, and almost didn’t make it. He spent his first four months in the NICU. Today, he’s a happy, amazing, vibrant kid, with few scars from his traumatic birth. He’s an avid, phenomenal reader who challenges me with the most amazing questions, like, “Why are there two church buildings across from each other?” He knows to call them church buildings, not churches, but more on that later. Nathan, on the other hand, is precocious and delightful. He’s just about walking now, and it’s clear he’s going to be our athlete and troublemaker. He loves it when we tell him, “No!” and is sure to keep doing whatever we’ve told him not to, hoping to get more of our attention. He’s got an infectious laugh. My wife, Kirsten, is an overnight RN at Akron Children’s. She usually works Saturday nights and so usually is sleeping on Sundays. In fact, she worked last night, but she’s a trooper and is here now. She’s an incredible cook and is the best friend a person could have. I love her dearly. In fact, on Friday we celebrated our 16th anniversary, thanks be to God.

As for me, I grew up in Texas. My upbringing was hard in many ways, as my mother was abusive, and my Dad was an enabler, though my home was “Christian,” but that’s a story for another day. I didn’t grow up Lutheran, though. My family belonged to an Assembly of God church, which is Pentecostal for those who don’t know. Our congregation was one of those large, suburban mega-churches. Looking back on that congregation now, there’s a lot about it that I don’t particularly agree with, but at the time I think it was good for me, as I certainly encountered God there. It took leaving Texas, mostly for good, when I was 18 though to realize, as I always say, that “God is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant who lives in the ‘burbs and shops at the mall and otherwise spends his time pursuing the American dream.”

Anyway, to make my very long story much shorter, I went to college at a small liberal arts college in MA. That’s where Kirsten and I met.  I left school after my junior year to get married and move to Philly, where I had spent the previous summer working with kids in the inner-city. After a couple of years in Philly we moved to MN for five years, which is where Kirsten’s family is from. While there I finished my undergrad degree and went to Luther Seminary. I did most of an MDiv there before eventually graduating with an MA, which is another long story for another day. So I’ve certainly preached before, but it’s been a while, which is why I was so honored and grateful when Pastor Bob asked me to fill in today.

Some say that as a preacher you really only have one sermon to give, one story to tell. That’s certainly been the case for me. Whatever the Scripture for that week, whatever my title or topic, what I end up saying will in one way or another be a variation of what I’ve said before and will likely say again. This is so because the story I can best tell is my own story, but good preachers tell their stories artfully enough so that others can see how that story connects to the story of us all, and ultimately to THE story, the good news, the Gospel. Paul said it this way in I Corinthians 2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I would add: “and resurrected,” but why quibble? Actually, it’s no small point, though, the resurrection. Paul would go on to say in I Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (I Corinthians 15:14).

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in a useless faith. Life is far too hard, and short, and frankly so is struggling to follow Jesus for it all to be for naught. Don’t get me wrong, I think Jesus’ social teachings were amazing and inspirational, and so was his short life. Frankly, though, I think Gandhi’s social teachings and even more so his life were likewise amazing and inspirational, as were Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. No, if the resurrection isn’t true in any way that means something, if God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, then I’m out. I’m done. You see, the resurrection is the heart of the Gospel, which is the good news of and about Jesus. It’s the Good News OF Jesus because it’s the Good News that he himself proclaimed, that the kingdom of God is upon us, even now, that God himself is with us, that our sins are forgiven. In Luke 4 Jesus declared that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, that he was anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. He was sent to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. He was sent to set the oppressed free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Those words were right out of Isaiah’s scroll, and audaciously Jesus walked into a church service one day, read those words and then declared them fulfilled. Really? Good news for the poor? Freedom for prisoners and the blind healed? No more oppression? The idea seems absurd even to our sensible ears and we are literally the richest people in the richest nation in the history of the world. I know I am anyway. I actually looked it up. I may be in the 99% in this country but globally I’m one of the richest people who has ever lived. 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Heck, sometimes Kirsten and I will spend that much in one afternoon on smoothies. We’re fabulously wealthy, and so are you. But it sure doesn’t feel like it, at least not if we watch the news or want to vote for President. My point is I, as one of the richest people ever, find Jesus’ proclamation of good news for the poor nearly unbearable. In fact, it makes me angry. “Good news?!” I want to rail. What good news? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, right? Unemployment is high. Cancer and AIDS and West Nile and the Flu are rampant. We’re not just the richest people in the history of the world, but the most incarcerated too. Captives aren’t free. And freedom from oppression? For Christ’s sake, literally(!), we still have slavery in our modern world, even right here in the U.S., if only we had eyes to see it. So how could that scripture possibly have been fulfilled? What good news?

I said the Gospel is the Good News OF Jesus and ABOUT Jesus. Of course it’s the Good News about Jesus because we proclaim Jesus Christ and him not just crucified, but resurrected. There are actually a number of theological theories about why Jesus had to die, about how exactly that works cosmically. Did Jesus die, for example, to satisfy God’s anger at sin, or to rescue us from evil? Some even wonder if God engaged in cosmic child abuse when he sent his son to die. Honestly, these theories are interesting if you’re a theology nerd and delving into them may be a fine way to spend an afternoon or even a semester, but I’m not sure that it matters. What matters is that my story, our story, hinges on this seminal event. Either the resurrection is true, or it’s not. If it’s true, then everything changes. If not, then as I said before, count me out. So what is the gospel? What is the story I tell my sons, and am trying to tell you now? What is the story I tell myself when the storms come, and the lights go out, and it seems as if all hope is gone?

The Gospel, as I understand it, is this: God is, and God is love. And because love cannot be contained, because love is something you do, God made you- and the world itself- in and for love. God loves you, and God made you to live in harmony with him and his world and with one another. God also made us free however; free always to choose harmony, to choose love, or its opposite. So to help us maintain that harmony- that right relationship he made us for- he gave us rules, but as I always like to say, “rules are for relationship.” They’re not an end in themselves, to be obeyed for obeying’s sake or to keep us in line. The rules are there to point us in the direction of right relationship, but it is always that right relationship that is the aim, the end, the objective. As Jesus himself said in Mark 2, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In any case, because in our freedom we keep choosing to be slaves, slaves to love’s opposite, which are those actions that take us away from right relationship and therefore away from love and away from God, God sent Jesus. He sent Jesus not only to show us the way to love and live in harmony, but to be that way.

We couldn’t and wouldn’t see it, however, and still we struggle to see it today. In Lutheran theology especially, there is Law, and there is Gospel. The Law is “the rules” I just spoke of, and it’s called the schoolmarm to Christ. It points us in the right direction, but can never get us where we need to go because we can never perfectly follow it. It serves then to reveal our sin- our separation from God, from right and loving relationship. And whether we realize it or not, we find this separation utterly devastating. I know I do. This, then, is why I think Jesus had to die. Sin is an assault on the right relationship we were made for. By definition it separates us from God, from the Love that we were made in and made for, and this is a death sentence. I would contend, though, that the judge handing out this death sentence isn’t God; it’s us. It’s me. Somehow I know that I was made for better, for more. Again, as Paul said in Romans 7 (and this translation is from The Message), “I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate.

So I am my own worst judge, my own worst enemy, and because I cannot forgive myself, I remain stuck, mired in my sin that is separation, that is death. But God, who is love, “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5). Jesus meets me in that place of death, that place of separation from God, from love, and provides a way back. With Jesus I too am resurrected. I am born again into a new life where right relationship with God and his world and with all of you is again possible, not because I’ll never do the wrong thing, because I am still free after all. No, right relationship is again possible because I know that when I screw up not only does God forgive me but I can forgive myself. Jesus “has set me free, and I am free indeed” (John 8). But where before I was free to sin, to harm relationship, now I am free to try again not to. Before I was free not to obey the rules that lead to right relationship; now I am free to obey. More importantly, I am free to love.

All of this begs the question, then, “So what?” Or, “how, then, shall I live?” In our gospel passage for today Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus’ story as John tells it is interesting as always. In the events leading up to today’s passage Jesus broke the “Law” by healing on the Sabbath and telling the person just healed to do “work” by getting up and carrying the mat he had been confined to for years. (And this, by the way, is why I say that rules are for relationship. What was most important there was not the rule to observe the Sabbath by doing no work, but the relationship of the man with his own broken- and then healed- body, and that of the man with Jesus and the man with those to whom he told his story of God’s favor.)

Jesus’ actions here really ticked off the religious leaders of his day, and for good reason. Not only had he disobeyed the Bible by healing on the Sabbath, he had also called God his “Father” and thereby put himself on a level with God. So Jesus explains himself. He tells them that he is the Son of God, that he is, in effect, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who can give them eternal life. As he says in John 5:39-40, as it’s translated in The Message: “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” I really like that translation because far too often I think that’s exactly what happens, even still today. We bury our heads in our Bibles, the written Word of God, and somehow forget that its function is to point us to the Living Word of God, Jesus. Even the Bible is not an end in itself; nor is it the basis of our faith.

Jesus put it plainly to the religious leaders in the passage just before what I just read, when he said (and again I’m reading from The Message): “But my purpose is not to get your vote, and not to appeal to mere human testimony. I’m speaking to you this way so that you will be saved. John was a torch, blazing and bright, and you were glad enough to dance for an hour or so in his bright light. But the witness that really confirms me far exceeds John’s witness. It’s the work the Father gave me to complete. These very tasks, as I go about completing them, confirm that the Father, in fact, sent me. The Father who sent me, confirmed me. And you missed it. You never heard his voice, you never saw his appearance. There is nothing left in your memory of his Message because you do not take his Messenger seriously.”

After this confrontation with the religious leaders, Jesus punctuates what he had just been telling them by showing them when he feeds the five thousand with just a few loaves of bread and two fish. Then, in case they missed the point, he walks on water, and this finally brings us to our gospel lesson for today. When word got out that Jesus was handing out free food- wherever it came from- another large crowd had gathered. Jesus first challenges the crowd, suggesting that they had come not because they saw God in everything he was doing but rather because he had given out free food. He says, “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” When they ask how to get that lasting food, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go.”

So Jesus has just told them that what they’re looking for- the bread from heaven that will stick with them forever so that they never hunger or thirst again- is him. He repeats the point when he says, “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.” He goes on to say that his body is real food and his blood, real drink, and basically says that if they want to live forever they should go ahead and eat up!

This was literally- no pun intended- a hard thing to swallow, and Scripture records that many folks stopped following Jesus right then and there, and really, who can blame them? This teaching, after all, is downright offensive to our delicate sensibilities, isn’t it? Is Jesus really calling us to be cannibals? Even if the meaning is only symbolic, if we’re only to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him, as he himself would later explain, isn’t that a bit offensive too? How can remembering this one man’s death give us life that never ends? How can it satisfy our hunger so that we’re forever full, or sate our thirst so that we’re never thirsty again?

I would suggest to you that we hunger and thirst for real food and real drink, yes, but mostly what we hunger and thirst for is the love out of which we came. I said before that God made us in love, and for love. I said that God himself is love, and that love is something you do. This is what we yearn for, this love that creates, and heals, and makes all things new. We get caught up in the daily affairs of our lives, the routines that keep the lights on and the bills sort of paid. Sometimes a slightly bigger story captures our imagination like the Presidential race or the Olympics, but these rarely hold our attention for long and soon we settle in again for living as if on auto-pilot, almost as if we’re waiting for something. As Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel said:

Man cannot live without acts of exaltation, without moments of trembling and revering, without being transported by grandeur. For weeks and months he may be confined to the routine of sensible interests, until an hour arrives when all his habits burst under the strain. Common sense may sign a decree that life be kept under the lock of average conceptions, but much in our lives is made to be burned up in a holy flame or it will rot in monstrous deeds, in evil thoughts. To satisfy his need for exaltation, man will plunge into rage, wage wars; he will set the city of Rome afire. When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled in holiness.

Whether we’re waiting to graduate or for that long hoped for raise or promotion or job or husband or wife or house or child, we shuffle along from one moment to the next hardly noticing that we’re always waiting and never really living. We hunger and thirst; so we eat, but never are filled. Even when we get the thing we thought we were waiting for, our hunger and thirst, our ache and yearning remain.

Again, I would say to you that what we hunger and thirst for, what we yearn for from the very depths of our being is that love that the very depths of our being were created to participate in. And the Good News is that this love is here, it’s available to us even now. Jesus is that love. This is a hard teaching too though, because faith is required. It takes faith to believe that we’re forgiven and to then forgive ourselves. It takes faith to believe that love really will win in the end, and that there’s enough of it to go around. We’ve been conditioned to think of resources being finite and scarce. But love isn’t like that. Love works quite counter-intuitively, because the more you give, the more you have, but as I’ve said, living like that takes faith. If we were to live like that, though, the world would be a very different place.

I suspect if we lived like that maybe they’re wouldn’t be two church buildings across the street from each other. Maybe the world would come to understand that the church is a people, not a place. This (building) is not the church. WE are the Church. Maybe the world would finally know us as Christians, then, by our love. We love when we stop bickering over whether the President’s a Socialist or the Ryan budget is evil and exhaust ourselves trying to figure out how to make sure every one of our neighbors has not only enough to eat and drink, but also enough love. What if we spent our time, talents, and treasure securing not just a roof over our own head but over our neighbor’s too. In this global economy, what if we finally realized that our neighbors are the many Iraqi orphans and the Chinese peasants who made our smartphones?

What about us? If we’re going to put so much effort into maintaining this building and refurbishing the parking lot, what if we ripped out the pews and put in beds for the homeless, or turned this space into a job training center? Cuyahoga Falls is known as “Caucasian” Falls. What if St. Luke’s became known not for our liturgy or the various programs we support, but rather as a leader in listening, in really getting to know our non-white neighbors so that we could become a community in which they felt welcome. The possibilities for loving are endless, because the love we’re called to participate in is endless. We are what we eat, after all, and Jesus calls us not only to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, but to live in his love. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get to it. Amen.

My Best. Sermon. Ever.

Spoiler Alert: If any of you Sanctuary folk happen to read this blog, this is the text of the sermon I’ll be preaching this Sunday; so if you want to be surprised, skip it.
 

Part I

            I sit in my bedroom, at the little desk in front of the window. I’ve just finished my ice cream- vanilla with hot fudge, and I listen to the quiet hum of the fan in my laptop as it patiently waits for me to type this sermon. I also hear the inspirational music I’ve put on in the background, and below that, always hovering on the fringes of my awareness, I listen for the quiet breaths of my sleeping son over the baby monitor. Each breath has a calming effect, at least on me, as the rhythm of each breath in, followed by each breath out, reassures me that my son is alive- that he is well, that my world is okay. He inhales, and he exhales, and I finally exhale, releasing whatever tension I had allowed to well up inside.

            Prayer is the topic I’ve agreed to speak on. Prayer, and suddenly I’m reminded of the format of a spelling bee: “Number 22: prayer. Prayer is the subject you must preach about. Prayer.” And then the waiting begins, and the inevitable Jeopardy-music-in-my-head begins playing as everyone waits for me to correctly spell prayer. I look around nervously, clear my throat, and begin: “Prayer. P-R-A-Y-E-R. Prayer.” The judge nods affirmatively, the audience claps, and again I exhale. I got it right. Prayer.

Prayer. What could I possibly have to say about prayer? I, who mumble a cursory “Thanks God for this foo…” and can’t even finish the word because my mouth is already full. When I’m feeling a bit more honest- usually with Kirsten there- I’ll sarcastically and only half-jokingly say “God, help us” as I dive into whatever I’m about to eat, and yet I have been charged with speaking to all of you about the in’s and out’s of prayer?! Look- I’ve called myself a Christ-follower most of my life, and especially when I was younger, I was actually earnest about it. I was sincere and somehow innocent, despite- or maybe because of- the abuse I was suffering at home. I raised my hands when the praise band sang at church. I closed my eyes. I didn’t notice- and didn’t really care- that sometimes I was the only one standing- the only one who was into it. I read my Bible- and I underlined it- as a kid. I faithfully and unwittingly consumed Christian products. I shopped at Christian stores, listened to Christian music and watched Christian television. I even wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper defending our nation’s founding fathers as bona fide Christians rather then mere Deists. I mean I was a Christian.

            I prayed back then, too- I mean really prayed. I prayed first thing in the morning, being careful to put on the whole armor of God, just like the Bible talks about. I prayed at church, attending to each of the pastor’s words as he dutifully prayed for the President, for Congress and the rest of the government, for other leaders and other churches around the corner and around the globe. I prayed about the little details of my “walk with Jesus,” about what I was doing and what I wasn’t doing; heck I probably even prayed about my praying.

            But that was then. Now? Not so much. As I’ve gotten older and more cynical over the years, I’ve found that I cannot pray like I used to. I’ve seen too much and done too much and had too much done to me. It’s not that I don’t know how to pray any more. It’s more that I just don’t want to. It’s too naïve, too simple-minded, too risky. I mean after all, why would I pray? Nothing’s going to change anyway, right? Right?!

Part II.

            Jesus prayed in that spot- his spot, with the blue sky visible through the branches of the tree he leaned against and that sweet smell of Autumn in the air. He knew he didn’t really have to say anything, for his Father was watching, and listening, and Jesus knew that they were one. It was enough for Jesus to simply breathe, to just be. Yet even in his solitude, Jesus knew that he was not alone. They were watching, and waiting, eager and excited, though they still were far, far from really “getting it.” Jesus opened his eyes- “Rabbi,” one of them shouted, “Teach us to pray like John taught his disciples,” as if Jesus could tell them something better. Jesus sighed, and then told them what they wanted to hear, some mumbo-jumbo about the right words to use, as if it was all so easily reduced to some formula.

Then, emboldened, Jesus begins to tell a story instead. “Look, you want know how to pray? It’s like this. Your buddy from college, the one who moved out of town, he pounds on your door at midnight. You knew he was coming, but you thought it would be tomorrow night, or maybe it was next Tuesday, whatever. You certainly didn’t expect him now. Now! You haven’t bought groceries in a week. Your half-eaten Ramen noodles still sit in the pot in the sink, with the empty flavor packet on the floor in front of the garbage where you shot- and missed- the proverbial game-winning shot into the waste-can. You’ve got some ketchup and a discriminating mix of soda and beer in the fridge, but none of this will go very well with the pop-tarts that are left in your pantry. So you panic, ‘cause you know your buddy will be starved from his long drive, and he never seems to have any cash on him. He’s one of those friends.

Ever improvising, you put on your gracious-host-smile and invite your buddy in. You set him up on the couch with a beer and make up some excuse about why you have to disappear for a minute, and then quietly slip out the back door and run across to the neighbors. While sprinting, you quickly assess which of your neighbors will respond most favorably to your desperation. The college kids across and to the right might be most sympathetic to your plight, but are also least likely to be much better off than you are. The old folks on either side of you are likely to have fully stocked fridges and pantries that would make any grandmother proud, because they are grandmothers, but they’re also most likely to have a heart attack due to your post-midnight knocking- if they hear it at all. Honestly, you’re still a little wary of the reclusive guy with the big dog that lives next to the college kids; so you settle for the very young couple with the pair of kids instead. Kids have to eat, right?

You peek for any signs of life through the living room curtains; seeing none, you knock on the door- ever so lightly. You wait, with minimal patience, as nothing happens, and then you knock again, a little harder. This time you hear some stirring, and soon, out of nowhere, a full-blown argument has ensued inside: ‘If that’s your low-life brother again, I swear I’m gonna…’ You cringe, as this is definitely not what you had in mind, but desperate, you stand your ground as finally the door opens. You expected the husband, but quietly rejoice when you see it’s the wife. She says: ‘Oh, hi; aren’t you? Can I help you?’ Stuttering, you explain your plight- ‘look I just need some bread and some peanut butter, a pot roast, something! I’ll pay you back in the morning.’ The confused pity in her eyes tells you you’re in luck, but then he buts in, yells ‘beat it!’, and slams the door.

You wait a minute, and then desperate and stupid, you knock again. As the door opens, you raise your arms in a defensive posture and start sputtering your excuses again, when you see it’s the woman again. She smiles dutifully, hands you the makings of a sandwich or two, and only slightly less forcefully shuts the door. Grateful, you scamper back to your place and your hungry friend. THAT,” Jesus says, “is prayer.” “Or,” he goes on, “perhaps you’d prefer to think of it this way: Look, even you semi-stable knuckleheads at least try to feed your kids, right? I mean, you don’t put arsenic in their milky-baa, do you? Well, if you can accomplish that, remember that God is a parent too, and just imagine what he might do if you ask him…..but be careful what you wish for. If you want everything to work out just so, well, look around, buddy. All bets are off if you’re looking for the American dream. But if you want peace and purpose and an awareness that somehow God is near- even if you don’t always feel warm and fuzzy about it, if you want God to blow your mind so that you see and hear things in a new way, He just might give you his Spirit, and I promise you you’ll never, ever be the same.”

Part III

            Tim calls again: “Hey… so you know we’ll be at those adoption classes on the 17th, right, and you said you would preach?” I nod, and then remember that he can’t see me, and answer, “Yeah.” He goes on, “So we’ll still be going through the series we talked about a while back as the next step for Sanctuary where we dive into what it means to be ‘on the way’ with Jesus. The topic for that week is prayer. You can talk about something else, though, if you want to. What’s your plan?” I agree to leave it as prayer, and then get caught up in my life as usual, fatalistically trusting that inspiration will strike when the time is right.

When I finally sit down to type up my talk- this talk- I feel….stuck….uninspired….even bored. “What was I thinking?” I wonder. I don’t care much for prayer. I have certainly not been blessed with the “gift of intercession.” Most days, I muddle through, intending to follow Jesus, however jaded I’ve become, knowing that it’s going to be messy and ugly- especially with me around- and yet somehow I trust that God will work it all out. You see, I’m kind of a mixed bag. I may be one of the most jaded people you’ll ever meet, which is to say that I’ve been hurt- a lot. Yet I also am one of the most stubborn- and stubbornly hopeful- guys you’ll ever lay eyes on. You see, deep down I believe that the gospel is true. Somehow, some way, I cling to the idea that God is for meand for you. Deep down the child-like wonder is alive and well inside me, though buried so deep that when I experience my own awe at the mystery of God it surprises even me. Yet I know, somehow I know, that God is love, and the resurrection is true, and that it’s not all about me. It’s about us.

            So, I pray. I may not form the words in my mind, or speak them aloud, but the truth beneath the words is present nonetheless, and I do my best to uncover that truth before God, and even before myself, trusting that God will know what to do with it- what to do with me and my life- even if I do not, even if I don’t even know what to say about it all. When I wrote those words- those words I just said- I cried, or at least offered the dry heaves of a cry because the tears would not come, and that is how I know that what I’ve said is true- and this is what Paul means, I think, when he speaks of prayer in Romans 8 and says that it’s probably more like groaning than anything else.

In fact, Paul says, when we think of it this way creation itself- the bees and birds and trees, especially the trees, they pray too- because they yearn. Creation is filled with longing, and for what you might ask? Creation longs that we- that you and I- would take our rightful places as sons and daughters of God- as heirs of his kingdom. It’s a kingdom, after all, that is not of this world. It’s a kingdom in which love is the only law, in which strength is revealed in what looks like weakness. It’s a kingdom in which the first are last, and the last are first, and the cycle goes on so that first and last really don’t matter anymore. It’s a kingdom that is a far cry from the world we shop and drive and dine in everyway. It’s a far cry from the bodies piled up in Iraq and on the streets of Philadelphia. It’s a far cry from the white New York of Seinfeld and Friends, and the racist New York of NYPD Blue.

It’s a far cry, a far cry indeed, and so Paul says that we ourselves groan too, and more importantly, God’s Spirit groans for us with sighs too deep for words, because the words just can’t do it all justice. In this, there is hope. But, Paul says, hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what is seen, what is already there? Well… we do…I hope. I mean, on the one hand the kingdom of God is here already- Jesus lived, died, and now lives again. It’s crazy, I know, but it’s true. His love does reign- even in me- in the dark places of my own heart. But like they say, “God’s not finished with me yet.” There are still dark places in my heart, after all, and I suspect in yours too. God’s kingdom is here- already- but it’s not finished yet. It’s not fully revealed.

I’m not fully revealed as a son of God because I’m still working to make peace with the idea that God could love someone like me- no matter what. That’s why we still have so much work to do- so much groaning and praying to do- because I think we’re all still trying to make peace with our own existence to some extent, and because in the meantime we still act in so many ways that aren’t very loving at all. So finally, that, my friends, is how prayer can be kind of like wearing a pair of 3-D glasses. It enables you to see things that you couldn’t otherwise- like the good in your neighbor and even in yourself- like the kingdom of God on earth.

 

Amen.