The Center of the Universe

In the year 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus gave the world a bad case of vertigo.  That year, his book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published.  The book took the universally-held model of the solar system, and exactly reversed it.  For fourteen centuries, the Ptolemaic understanding had held sway.  It was geocentric.  It contended that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, with all the other heavenly bodies revolving around it.  But Copernicus studied astronomy with great care, and he became convinced that the earth was not at the center of things.  The cosmos was not geocentric, he argued, but heliocentric.  All revolves not around us, but, rather, all including us revolves around the sun. Copernicus shared his views with only his friends for thirty years before finally allowing his work to be published widely.  Upon publication, it immediately became obvious that his apprehension was well-founded.  The great German reformer Martin Luther reacted with ridicule, saying, “There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon, just as if somebody [who was] moving in a carriage or ship might hold that he was sitting still and at rest while the earth and the trees walked and moved. But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must needs invent something special! The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.”[i]

Decades after Copernicus, Galileo championed his idea, and Galileo was tried and condemned for it before the Inquisition, not once but twice.  The Inquisition said that the heliocentric theory was “foolish and absurd…and heretical.”[ii]  In the attempt to prevent his teaching from spreading, Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Heliocentric model

Heliocentric model of the solar system

It isn’t difficult to fathom why so many people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries recoiled at the notion of a heliocentric cosmos.  It just didn’t make common sense.  Even now, from our seemingly fixed point of view, the stars move across the night sky, just as the sun daily travels from east to west.  But beyond these astronomical observations—and perhaps more influentially—is the impact of Copernicus’ theory on the ego.  Just as human beings assumed that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos, people equally presumed that they stood at the center of the great narrative of cosmic history.  We still do.  The story is all about us, here, and so we and the earth on which we stand must surely be at the center of things.  The contention that reality could be constructed otherwise was just too much in the days of Copernicus and Galileo.  I’d suggest, existentially speaking, it may be too much for us today, too.

Do you recall the 1998 Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show?  In the film, Truman is raised from childhood as the star of a reality T.V show, but he is unaware of it.  Everyone in his life, including his parents and his best friend, are actually actors, and his every move is broadcast onto television sets across the globe.  Only Truman himself has no idea.  To him, it is simply life.  For everyone else, Truman is the very center of attention.  They tune in to watch his story.  As the movie progresses, Truman slowly becomes aware of his reality, that he’s been the star of the show all along.

The Truman Show was released just as reality television was becoming a thing, and in the years following, a funny thing happened.  Psychologists actually noticed a phenomenon they came to call the “Truman Show Delusion,” in which people in our real world believe that they are secretly being filmed as part of a hit T.V. show.[iii]  They believe that they are the star of the show, that the minutia of their lives is captivating fodder for the rest of us.  They believe they are at the very center of the universe.

The Truman Show

As is often the case, the newest psychological malady of the day is really a sign of something more pervasive in our culture.  Some lesser version of the Truman Show Delusion affects a whole lot of people.  From the common man to the greatest halls of power, we’ve returned to a new kind of geocentric view of the cosmos.  We each believe, subconsciously perhaps, that the universe revolves around us, that we are the star of the show, the very center of the story.  This affects how we interact with our families, and many believe our relationships to be flawed if they don’t complete us.  It affects our economics, as we evaluate every personal business decision or state and national policy decision according to how they affect us rather than by what good they might or might not do for society-at-large.  It affects whether we have empathy and compassion for those outside our orbit.  And, most importantly, it affects our lives of faith and the way we approach Jesus the Christ.  Think about that.  We engage Jesus primarily when we need or want something.  Rather than revolving our lives around the Son—that’s S-O-N in this case—we subconsciously imagine that the Son revolves around us.

This brings us to today’s Gospel, where we are introduced on this Second Sunday of Advent to John the Baptist.  John is a natural star, a preacher with mega-church chops.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that he draws people from “the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”  In other words, John’s message equally captivates salt-of-the-earth rural folk and the urban elite.  (That’s star quality!)  The people stream into the wilderness and revolve around John in an orbit.  They hang on his every word.  And what does John do?  What does he say?  What model does he offer?

John the Baptist deflects any and all attention from himself.  He removes himself from the center—he acknowledges that the center is not where he rightly resides—and instead he uses the brightness of his own star quality to point to the Son (S-O-N) around which all else truly revolves.  John is our spiritual Copernicus!  In other words, in word and action, John does the thing he preaches: He prepares the way of the Lord by recognizing deeply that he—John—is to play a supporting role for the grace of God that will come in Jesus and make all things new.  Whatever else he is or will do in life will be in service to, will revolve around, the Son.

Star over Bethlehem

Our Truman Show culture forms us to believe intuitively that the world revolves around us, that we stand at the center, that we are the stars of the show, that the story is all about us, here.  But that is narrative of our culture, not the narrative of our faith.  At the center of the faith story is the Incarnate God, who will in two more weeks be born among us, to radiate from that center healing and restoring grace throughout the world.  Our part to play—and the role that will give us purpose and meaning and the deepest satisfaction in the end—is a supporting one in service to the Way of Jesus.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” John says to us this Advent season as well.  What will that be for me and for you?  Will we, beginning this very day, look upon ourselves with a shift in perspective, recognizing that the center of the universe is not, after all, where we stand?  Our meaning, our love, our very existence orbit the Son.  Our axis tilts toward his love.  And our part to play in the sacred story is to further his grace in this world in all that we say and through all the choices we make in every aspect of our lives.  We may shine like stars, but our light is to be like that of the star over Bethlehem, always and only pointing the way to the Incarnate God.

[i] http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/Unit3/response.html

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_affair#Trial_and_second_judgment,_1633

[iii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-excess/201608/the-truman-show-delusion

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Living church, dead church, pagan temple, sewer

Several years ago, my family and I traveled to Rome.  While we were there, we visited the Forum, the Colosseum, and the Trevi Fountain, but my favorite and most common stops (much to my family’s chagrin) were churches.  For a priest and ecclesio-phile like me, Rome is the mother lode.  There are more churches there than Starbucks in Houston.  We visited the Vatican, the Pantheon, Santa Maria Maggiore…but of all the churches we saw, my favorite was the Basilica of San Clemente.

At first blush, San Clemente seems like any other Roman church.  But in truth, it is layered like the geologic strata in rock.   From the street, one walks into a functioning parish church, but down winding steps, into the earth below street level, the explorer finds himself in an ancient church fashioned from a converted Roman home, from the very era when Christianity was competing for the heart of the Emperor Constantine in order to move from being the faith of a viciously persecuted minority to becoming the religion of Christendom.

Basilica of San Clemente

Basilica of San Clemente

The stairs, however, descend even deeper into the earth, and below that ancient church is a temple to the pagan cult of Mithrus, a shadowy and bizarre mystery religion that was once thought to include human sacrifice in its practices.  Mithraic altars are scattered about the temple, with the carved relief of the god Mithrus slaughtering a bull.  But not even the floor of the pagan temple reaches rock bottom.  One can climb even lower to discover that below the temple of Mithrus ran the ancient and original Roman sewer.

Present church, ancient church, pagan temple, sewer.  All part of the same space, all aspects of the same reality.  What might the Basilica of San Clemente have to say to us on this, the final Sunday of the church year before we begin the whole cycle again on Advent 1?  What might the layers of the living church, the dead church, the pagan temple, and the sewer have to tell us on this Christ the King Sunday?

Of all the days we observe as Christians, I suspect Christ the King is the most confusing for us.  After all, our very identity as Americans is founded upon the rejection of kings.  We get riled up at any suggestion of deference to kings.  Remember when George H.W. Bush attended the Japanese emperor’s state funeral in 1989 and was raked over the coals for bowing in respect before the casket?  “How dare an American president bow before a king, even a dead one!” critics cried in indignation.  When the Episcopal Church in the United States was formally constituted as distinct from the Church of England in 1789, the same year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, we declared that our senior American bishop would be the “Presiding Bishop” rather than “Archbishop,” because even that title smacked too much of monarchy.  So, whether in secular or religious life, we don’t kowtow to talk of kings.

William White

Presiding Bishop (not Archbishop) William White

And yet, here we are today on Christ the King Sunday.  Today we bring to light what we are doing whenever we reverence as the cross passes by or kneel at the altar rail: We are saying that we are Christians even before we are Americans, and as Christians, we do, in fact, have a king.

We mustn’t shy away from that admission.  As Americans, we are ruled by our own consciences.  As Christians, we are ruled by the conscience of Jesus.  As Americans, we are rugged individualists.  As Christians, we are each part of the same vine, members of and with one another in the Body of Christ.  As Americans, don’t tread on me!  As Christians, Christ the King dictates to us—kings are dictators, after all—where our priorities must lie.

All of that makes me uncomfortable.  Many days, I don’t like it.  I’m inclined to dilute its impact by saying to myself that Jesus’ reign over me is spiritual, not temporal, that it has to do with my prayer and my worship, but not my every day, push-and-pull life in the world.  But then Matthew writes his twenty-fifth chapter, where (like a king on the judgement seat) Jesus cuts through my rationalizations and tells it like it is.  Jesus says:

“The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

There is nothing metaphorical about this passage, and it cannot be relegated to the realm of the spiritual.  Jesus is talking about actually feeding, and clothing, and tending to those who are most vulnerable in our concrete, real-life world.  Jesus is talking about being a friend to those who have none.  Jesus is talking about embracing those many would consider untouchable.  Jesus is talking about making these things the first priority, the center and sine qua non, in our lives of faith.  And, friends, Jesus is not asking.  We are Christians, and Jesus is king.

Which leads us back to those layers of the Basilica of San Clemente: Sewer, pagan temple, past church, and living church.  They are all part of the same space, all layers of the same reality, both in Rome and in our own lives.  And Christ the King calls us to respond to each.

In the very depths, we are to walk through the sewers created by this world, to go where no one else is willing to go, and to declare to those who find themselves abiding there that the sewer does not define them, that they, too, are among God’s beloved.  We are called, in every way that we can—and, blessedly, the Cathedral is about this work—to empower others to step out of the sewer and into lives of hope.

A layer further up, we are to confront the pagan temples of this world, and by this I do not mean other religions’ houses of worship.  I mean the things the secular world sets before us as gods, the idols that steal our attention and in which we risk finding our worth: addictions; the yearning for status or social standing; identity politics, whatever one’s ideology; the glittery things we desperately want to own.  These are the scattered altars in our lives on which we sacrifice God’s good for us, the things to which we bow despite ourselves, the thing to which we give ourselves in place of the Way of Jesus.  We are called to confront them all and to deny their power over us.

Mithraic temple in San Clemente

Temple of Mithrus, underneath San Clemente

A layer higher than that, we enter the dead church, where we are to recognize and name forthrightly that sometimes the idol is the church itself, whether it is the overly spiritualized church that ignores the needs of the real world, or those things of our religion to which we cling simply because we’ve done them that way for so long, even though they may no longer give life, even though they no longer help us spread the Gospel of grace and love to the world.

When we plumb these depths in service to Christ the King, we will emerge finally into the light of the living church, adorned in beauty, which is the very representation of God’s kingdom on earth.  Then, Christ the King will say to us, as he says in Matthew today, “You are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  We will enter into the very love of God to discover that we have actually carried that grace with us through every layer along the way.  We will find our joy having served the king who was first of all our servant, who gave us his all that we might do so, too.

“Like sparks through the stubble”: A Vision of All the Saints

Good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral!  That’s what you are.  If we were living in the first century, and St. Paul were to write us a letter, Paul would address it “to the saints of downtown Houston.”  This recognition is an important corrective to the popular notion of saints, which says that saints are only those who perform miracles or have stigmata on their hands.  Not so.  In the days of the apostles, “saint” was synonymous with “Christian.”  To be a follower of Jesus was to be a saint.  Well, it is All Saints Sunday, and I say to you good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral!

I love All Saints Sunday.  I especially love the first scripture reading on All Saints, which each year includes an option from the Apocrypha, that oft-ignored portion of the scriptures sandwiched between the Old and New Testaments.  Some years, though not this one, we read a passage from Ecclesiasticus, which praises great saints and heroes, both secular and faithful, but then says, “of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.”[i]

How sad is that?  It is tragic, that so many from past generations have lived well but been completely forgotten as though they’d never been born.  Sorrow compounds when we realize that this will be the fate of most of us.  All we need do is walk through old Texas graveyards and wonder at the crooked stones whose names have been erased by weather and time to know this.  We will become, at best, the portrait on a descendant’s wall three generations hence, of whom someone says, “I think he may have been my great, great grandfather, but I’m not sure.”

old gravestones

Are we Shakespeare’s brief candles from MacBeth, walking shadows who “strut and fret [our] hour upon the stage and then [are] heard no more”?[ii]

Well today, on this All Saints Sunday, we read from another great text from the Apocrypha, the Book of Wisdom, which gives us a different perspective.  Wisdom says this:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them. 
In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died,
and their departure thought to be a disaster, 
and their going from us to be their destruction;
[But it is not so]  They are at peace.

The Book of Wisdom says that it is foolish, nihilistic, and untrue not only to believe that anyone is forgotten, but even to believe that any have truly died.  The saints only seem to have died. The world seems to have chewed them up and destroyed both their lives and their memory, but it is not so.  The saints live on in the very hand of God.  They know a peace of which we only glimpse on the earth.

I believe this.  I believe that the dead are not dead and that they live, that the saints of countless generations abide in and with God.  I believe it because the ancient Church Fathers believed it.[iii]  I believe it because Dante believed it in the Paradiso.  I believe it because our boldest contemporary theologians believe it.[iv]  And, friends, I believe it because at this point in my priesthood I have heard more stories that I can discount of those who have sensed the presence of those they love who have left this world.

The saints are not forgotten, and they surely are not lost, because they live across the threshold in what the Church once commonly called larger life.   But do they impact us now?  Put another way, are we still in relationship with the saints of the past, including the people we have loved?  The Book of Wisdom has something to say about this, too.  Wisdom says:

In the time of their visitation, [The saints] will shine forth,
and they will run like sparks through the stubble…

Rather than Shakespeare’s brief candles quickly snuffed, Wisdom says, the saints now live in God as sparks of divine light, and they can shine so brightly with God’s grace that they are known to us.  They make visitation.  But what does that look like?

In the novel Remembering[v], Andy Catlett, a discontented man who moves through the world like one of Shakespeare’s walking shadows, one day takes a walk through the woods and hollows surrounding his home town.  As he crests the ridge that overlooks the town, everything is transformed.  The veil between this world and the next becomes porous, and divine light shines through.  The story picks up this way (and listen with care):

“Andy looks and sees…the signs…of a longer love than any who have lived there have ever imagined…Over town and fields the one great song sings, and is answered everywhere.  And in the fields and the town, walking, standing, or sitting under the trees, resting and talking together in the peace of a sabbath profound and bright, are people of such beauty that [Andy] weeps to see them.  He sees that these are the membership of one another and of the place and of the song or light in which they live and move.

[Andy] sees that they are the dead, and they are alive.  He sees that he lives in eternity as he lives in time, and nothing is lost.  Among the people of that town, he sees men and women he remembers, and men and women remembered in memories he remembers, and they do not look as he ever saw or imagined them.  The young are no longer young, nor the old old.  They appear as children corrected and clarified; they have the luminous vividness of new grass after fire.  And yet they are mature as ripe fruit.  And yet they are flowers.  All of them are flowers.”

farmyard

Andy Catlett has encountered the saints, some known and some forgotten by him, but none forgotten to God.  They are luminous, as the love that is the realest of all things shines through them.  And the encounter changes Andy.  The novel goes on:

“Grieved as he may be to leave them…[Andy] must go back with his help, such as it is, and offer it.  He has come into the presence of these living by a change of sight… Their names singing in his mind.”

By a change of sight, Andy Catlett sees the saints.  He re-members them, even those he never knew, which is to say he recognizes that they, and he, are knit together by God’s love that can never be sundered by time, or death, or the failure of memory.

This account is fiction, but as I said a few minutes ago, I have heard enough stories of wonder from you and others about your encounters with the saints that I say it is nevertheless true.

That, I believe, is the key for us this All Saints Sunday.  We are invited to have a change of sight, to see the world as a place infinitely more nuanced and layered than we have imagined, a place in which the saints we have known and loved and the saints we have forgotten are alive and are still connected to us.  They can shine so brightly that the love through which they now live can be known to us, they can make their visitation in ways that are incredibly subtle or incredibly overt, restoring our souls with the promise that, in God, nothing is lost.  Sometimes, when I am in the Cathedral alone and in the quiet, I think I almost see them: those generations of saints who have been born, and baptized, and wed, and died in this sacred space.  Their light surely shines, and I feel it.

Good morning, Saints of Christ Church Cathedral!  May you know the joy of all the saints this day.

_____________________

[i] Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14

[ii] Shakespeare, William.  MacBeth, Act 5, scene 5

[iii] See especially Origen.

[iv] See John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World.

[v] Berry, Wendell.  Remembering. Counterpoint: Bekeley, CA, 2008.

The Island of Misfit Toys

Every Christmas during my childhood, my older brother Robert and I eagerly awaited the night CBS would air the Claymation cartoon special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  We loved everything about it: Santa Claus, who took care to fatten himself up before Christmas so his red suit would fit; Rudolph, with his nose so bright; Yukon Cornelius and Hermie the Elf, who tame the Abominable Snowman.  But the part of the cartoon I most anticipated, for reasons I could not explain in childhood, was the Island of Misfit Toys.

The island is populated by flawed toys: a fire engine painted pink instead of red; a security doll that is herself insecure; a Charlie-in-the-box no one wants because his name isn’t Jack.  The toys live isolated on the Island of Misfit Toys because, they believe, their flaws render them unlovable in the toy box of any child.  Even at age six, the sadness of this scene worried and overwhelmed me.

Island of misfit toys

This morning Matthew gives us his version of Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet.  As in Luke’s version of this same parable, a host plans a wedding banquet for his son, but the guests everyone expects to be invited all refuse to attend.  So the host creates a new invitation list.  His emissaries go out into the streets and gather all whom they find, both good and bad, and, we are told, “the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

But Matthew’s version of this parable adds something that’s missing in Luke: a disturbing coda to the end of the story.  When the host enters the festive banquet, he notices a man who is clothed wrongly, and he asks, “Friend, how did you get in here dressed like that?” The guest cannot answer, and he is removed from the party.

Especially when we remember that the host is God in this parable, there are two things startling about this twist at the end.  First, and most often remarked upon in sermons and bible studies, is that the host removes the guest after taking such pains to invite everyone in.  It seems ungracious if not unfair, and maybe even cruel.  But second, and more often overlooked, is the word by which the host addresses this guest.  The host calls the guest “friend,” affirming a relationship of companionship and even love.  And so, whatever else happens at the end of this parable, it must be interpreted not through vindictiveness or retribution, but through the friendship and love the host extends to this final guest.  Though at times one may have to do so, one never seeks or wants to exclude a friend.  So we are left to ask, “What is the wedding garment that this guest lacks, and which prevents his participation in the party?”

parable of the wedding banquet

Flannery O’Connor’s stories are about the American South, about which she said “while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is surely Christ-haunted.”[i]  O’Connor’s stories are unflinching.  She uses abrasive and challenging language to get our attention.  In her short-story “Revelation,” O’Connor tells the reader of Ruby Turpin, a genial, middle class Southern Christian woman who has, as Ruby repeatedly reminds herself and others, “a good disposition.”  Ruby is cordial, she is outwardly kind to the African-Americans who work on her small farm, and she supports the causes of those in need.  True, Ruby is also preoccupied by how relieved she is that she wasn’t born (as Flannery O’Connor puts it) poor white trash or black, and she allows herself the satisfaction that it’s people like her who make the world go round.

In a doctor’s office waiting room one afternoon, Ruby finds herself surrounded by all those in society from whom she considers herself set apart: a poor and ignorant white family, whose little boy drips snot from his nose and mother has snuff stains around her mouth; a black delivery boy who mouths back at Ruby just enough that she can guess what kind of family he must come from; and a sullen, pimply-faced college coed who scowls at Ruby over the top of the textbook she is reading.

With Ruby’s only recognized peer in the waiting room (a tidy woman who happens to be the mother of the coed) Ruby carries on a conversation that is genial, but also indicting of anyone whose circumstances in life differ from Ruby’s own.  She talks about the character flaws of this group and the vices of that group.  And she mentions how important it is to society that her people are at the top of the social pyramid.  Ruby crescendos, “Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! It could have been different…Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!”  And at that moment the college student hurls her textbook at Ruby, hitting Ruby square across the forehead, and says, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!”

flannery o'connor

Flannery O’Connor

If you’ve not read the short story “Revelation,” it would be easy to imagine Ruby Turpin in caricature, as if she is a cartoonish lampoon of the worst kind of backwards Southern Christian.  That would be a mistake.  She is not.  But in an earlier era, she could be us.  Outwardly, she truly is genial and kind; she truly does have a good disposition.  And, her cultural lenses lead her subconsciously and uncritically to imagine that she is deserving of her place and everyone else is deserving of theirs, that all is just right as it is.

Ruby recovers from the coed’s assault and goes home, but the coed’s words won’t leave her mind.  They burn deep beneath the surface.  She wanders to the hog pen on her farm and begins to wash down the swine with a water hose, as if to scrub away the coed’s application of “warthog” to herself.  How could she be as ugly to the others in that waiting room as they were to her?   “How am I me and a hog both?” she asks in anguish, “How am I saved and from hell too?”

And then Ruby looks up at the setting sun.  A purple streak cuts across the crimson sky, and Flannery O’Connor tells us:

“A visionary light settled in [Ruby’s] eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire.  Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [black folks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself…had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead.”

In the Rudolph Christmas special, grace comes for the six-year-old viewer when Santa’s first stop on Christmas Eve is to the Island of Misfit Toys to retrieve all the toys and find them homes of acceptance and love.  I can still recall the childhood memory of that blessed relief.  Every child feels that he is, in his way, a misfit toy, and Santa Claus is a natural and intuitive stand-in for God.

Flannery O’Connor gives us the grown-up version.  In “Revelation,” the parade into God’s heavenly grace includes everyone, even white trash, poor blacks folks, and blind Ruby Turpin herself who, until her illusions were shattered by her vision, could not imagine that they all belonged together and to each other.  She is—and, friends, we are—the riff raff and rabble scattered around the doctor’s waiting room, sullen and anxious and proud.  We are the pink firetruck, the insecure blanket, the Charlie-in-the-box.  The truth is that we are all, every one of us, misfit toys.  Our flaws may not be so obvious on the outside.  With our bravado and neatly-put-together-selves we may even, like Ruby, almost convince ourselves that our flaws don’t exist.  Almost.  But we know deep down, perhaps when we are alone looking up at the evening sky, that it is a blessing beyond imagining that God’s grace is extended freely, along the highways and biways, to everyone—everyone—including you and me, that in God we find a home of acceptance and love.

The wedding garment—the only thing we must adorn in order to participate in the banquet of grace—is that very recognition.  The wedding host names us friend.  We are wanted and desired, flaws and all, but we must wear the flaws.  The pretension that we receive God’s grace while others don’t, and worse yet that we are deserving of it while others aren’t, is the wrong garment.  The only robe for us is the joy that sings in gratitude, even when off key, for a love that invites everyone, even an old warthog like me.

________________________

[i] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/443791-whenever-i-m-asked-why-southern-writers-particularly-have-a-penchant

Giving Everything to God

At the parish I served in Roanoke, Virginia—St. John’s—we had a partnership with the Virginia Tech Medical School, which is also located in Roanoke.  At the end of each spring semester, med school faculty and first-year medical students gathered in St. John’s memorial garden, and together we interred in sacred ground the cremated remains of those who had donated their bodies to medical education.  It was a lovely service, planned by the medical school students with minimal guidance from me.  Doctors-in-training treated the ashes of the cadavers with reverence.  Students and faculty of varied faiths prayed, side-by-side.

The identities of the cremated donors were unknown to those of us gathered in the garden and are unknown still.  The only thing we knew about them was that, at the end of their mortal lives, they determined to give the entirety of themselves so that young medical students could train.  Virginia Tech doctors settle in the finest hospitals all over the country.  Who knows, someday you may find yourself being stitched up in the emergency room, the attending physician’s skill with needle and thread first having been formed by the sacrifice of a man or woman interred in the St. John’s garden.

suturing

But that’s all we knew.  We weren’t aware of the donors’ family backgrounds, their professions, their religious faith, or their loves and passions.  For a long time, that troubled and preoccupied me.  I wanted to know those people.  I want to know how they made the decision to give of themselves so radically.

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, we hear what some scholars believe to be the oldest passage in the entire New Testament.  St. Paul has likely heard it elsewhere—he may even have written it himself—and in his conversation with the Philippians he determines to quote it.  It is a hymn about Jesus, and it goes like this:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

It has been said that the most awesome, most incomprehensible truths are best conveyed through music, and this hymn—which was likely originally set to a chant—certainly fits that bill.  In just a few lines, it captures the very essence of Christian belief, that which makes Christianity stunningly different from all other religious faiths.  That essence is this:

God—the God, the one who crafts the galaxies, and creates quantum physics, and gives the azaleas bloom, and fills a baby’s lung with that first breath—that God emptied Godself in the person of Jesus, living among us as one who experienced the basest, the worst that humanity can do to humanity.  After creating a universe in which human life is possible; after giving breath to that very life; in Jesus, God chose to give of himself completely to us, without reserve.

Sand from hand

How we make sense of this is what keeps theologians from joining the ranks of the unemployed.  But the fact of this truth has given, and still gives the deepest comfort to people of faith.  Every day, its realization changes people.  As the hymn in Philippians continues, “Therefore…at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Not because of God’s majesty, and not because of God’s power, but because God emptied Godself of these things for us, because God preferred to know us as we are rather than sit remotely on a throne in highest heaven, we know Jesus is God Incarnate and not some pretender.  We praise Jesus as Lord, as the one who has claim to our hearts and our lives.

That is the “therefore” of St. Paul’s hymn.  In fact, he prefaces the hymn today with the exhortation, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

In other words, Paul is challenging the Christians in Philippi.  He’s saying, “This is who God is.  You want to know how much God’s heart yearns for you?  You want to know how desperately God loves you?  You want to know what God gives you?  The answer is everything.

And how do we respond to that?  How do we return that grace, that love?  By letting our hearts and minds be like Jesus.  By emptying ourselves.  By giving God the all of us.  By giving God everything.”

I’ll never know the identities of those people we interred in the St. John’s memorial garden.  But I think I know something about them.  I suspect that their final act was a sacrament, a representative symbol, of the way they lived their lives.  In the end, they gave away everything: the eyes that had gazed upon their children, the hearts that had loved, the arms that had embraced.  Whether or not they claimed the Christian faith, I suspect they’d have understood Paul’s hymn to the Philippians.  Paul adds today, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Indeed.  At the last, the people in that memorial garden gave everything.  I’d wager they did the same at the first.  I suspect they lived as they died, giving the all of who they were in life for the interest of others, in recognition of the profound grace in their lives.

We here do claim the Christian faith, explicitly, every week.  Today, St. Paul sings to us the truth at the center of that faith.  In Christ, God has given everything to us.  We are to give everything back.  But how do we begin?  In a culture that rebels against this very notion, that immediately seeks to rationalize it away, that instills the mantra “me first” from every quarter, what first step can we take?

This is, in the end, what stewardship is all about.  It is the first step, the way that we begin to orient our entire lives to God’s priorities rather than our own.  Stewardship is the sacramental way—the outward and visible symbol—by which we begin to allow our hearts and minds to be formed like those of Christ.  Biblically, stewardship is not just giving something back to God, it is giving the first and best back to God, what the Bible calls the “first fruits” of our labor.  When we encounter the grace and freedom of giving to God the first and best of us, we soon discover that giving God the remainder—following the Way of Jesus with our entire lives—becomes infinitely easier.

first fruits

Here, at the beginning of our Every Member Canvass, I pledge to do this, and I pray you will, too.  To the instruments of the Church, I will give back to God in 2018 ten percent of my income.  Before I consider anything else in my budget for next year, I will give to God the first fruits.  My prayer is that this emptying will, slowly but surely, help me to realize the Lord of my life: the one who created the galaxies, who gives the azaleas bloom, who puts breath in my children’s lungs, and who beyond all of that gave everything to me in God’s incarnate Son.  It is my prayer for all of us, and in our Every Member Canvass I pray you’ll join me.