Faithful Waiting

         A young couple learns that they are pregnant.  The first days upon making this discovery are filled with alternating sensations of excitement, fear, and utter disbelief.  As those first days pass and the weeks and months drag on, the couple settles into a more stable oscillation of excitement, fear, and disbelief.  But whatever else their nine months entails, it most assuredly does not include passivity or lack of attention.  Theirs is an active and faithful waiting.  They do the things that give life.  She reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting.  He puts together the crib.  They both gaze with wide-eyed amazement at the changes in her abdomen as God’s blessing grows within her, until they can feel and even see the child move, rolling and pitching like a ship at sea.  Their waiting is marked by prenatal visits to the doctor, sonograms and blood tests.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is an attentive and faithful waiting.  The birth will come, and it will be glorious.  The couple can prepare.  They can tend to this blessing they have been given.  But the moment that this child will arrive no one can say.  And so, they wait.

         A 102-year-old woman has outlived her friends.  She enjoys a clear mind, but her body will not respond to her will the way it once did.  She is not depressed, at least not often, but she does wonder why she remains when so many have gone.  She does not fear death, knowing in faith that death is a transition rather than an end.  And so, she waits.  But hers, too, is an active and faithful waiting.  She does the things that give life.  She writes letters, and when she is unable to hold a pen, she asks the woman who cooks her meals to write the words for her.  She talks to her family, passing on the stories that have informed her life and formed her wisdom.  She mends the tears that unavoidably have occurred in some relationships over so long a life.  She talks to God regularly and listens for God even more.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The woman’s reunion with loved ones gone before and with God will come, and it will be glorious.  The woman can prepare.  She can tend to the blessings she has been given.  But the moment that she will enter larger life no one can say.  And so, she waits.

         The Creator reaches down from the heights of the cosmos and dips a hand into the chaos and void.  God moves back the darkness and ushers in the light.  God breathes over the waters and brings forth life.  God bestows upon the creation every blessing, most especially the gift of free will, to determine for itself the kind of world it will be.  God looks on with pain and sorrow as the creation makes choices that lead to destruction and death.  People kill one another.  Nations wage war.  Those charged to be stewards of creation use the green earth in ways that cannot be sustained.  Knit into the Creator’s tapestry of creation is a Savior, who will come and offer redemption to those who have fallen so very far, but the time has not yet come.  And so, God waits.  It is an active and faithful waiting.  God does the things that give life, coming to those in need, crying with those who sorrow.  God labors to melt stony hearts.  There are anxious moments.  There are wondrous moments.  And there is attentive and faithful waiting.  The time will come for the Savior’s birth.  The time will come for his Second Coming, when the creation will be mended and made whole, and it will be glorious.  But the time is not yet.  And so, God waits.

         No one likes to wait.  When given a choice, we are all people of instant gratification.  But blessedly, in those instances in which we have no choice we at times experience waiting as a profound gift.  Just as the pregnant couple, just as the 102-year-old woman, can experience the time of waiting—when the child is formed in the womb, when wisdom is passed on to younger generations—as a gift.

         Today’s Gospel passage in Matthew is one that has been hijacked by those who espouse the very shaky Rapture theology.  But this passage is not about the Rapture (which, by the way, is itself not an authentically scriptural concept).  This passage is about faithful waiting.  It is about doing the things that give life, so that when the Creator’s time has reached fruition, and Jesus our redeemer and friend comes to make all things new, we will recognize him.  It is about, in our anxious moments and our wondrous moments, waiting.

         This has everything to do with Advent, which begins today.  Advent is not primarily that period in which to do our Christmas shopping.  It is a holy season of anticipation and waiting.  I have asked myself why, for some, the Christmas season is such an unhappy time, why it rings so hollow for so many.  I have come to the conclusion that, for some, it is because Christmas in our culture strikes some as so very false.  As if in an eggnog-laden daze, we commercialize and consume our way through late November and December, dragging Christmas ever towards us with flash and tinsel.  There is no faithful waiting.  Instead, there is a breakneck attempt to usher in the holiday earlier and earlier.  And so, for most of us the significance of the Nativity is lost altogether.  For others—those for whom the holiday is so difficult—the good cheer of the holiday season has rung so false that when Christmas Day arrives it is experienced like that drugstore candy that looks so tantalizing as we grab for it but once in our mouths tastes like cardboard.

         Advent is a holy season of anticipation and waiting, both for the Nativity and for the Second Coming.  What would it look like to observe Advent?  What would it look like to hope for the Nativity rather than grabbing it and dragging it backward?  What would it look like to hope for Christ’s return, not knowing the moment it might occur? 

How do we faithfully wait?  Matthew encourages us to be about the things that give life.  He mentions Noah, who labors to build a vessel of life while the world around him continues in its normal, destructive ways.  What, in our lives, might it be to do the same?

         Can you imagine observing Advent by taking half of the money we’d normally spend on Amazon this month and instead purchasing items from our Alternative Giving Market or feeding those who are hungry through a donation to our Food Pantry or St. Francis House?  Can you imagine turning off the television in the evening and instead reading to your family from the second chapter of Luke?  Can you imagine beginning to live today as if Christ might come tomorrow and look you—or me—straight in the eye and ask, “Did you wait faithfully?  Did you make peace?  Did you love?”

         Not all candy tastes like cardboard.  On special nights at my grandmother Boo’s house, she would heat up the oven and mix together a bowl of mushy white meringue.  The entire time she would talk to us about how important it is to wait for the best, most blessed things in life.  She would add chocolate chips to the concoction and then spoon out little blobs onto a cookie sheet.  Once the oven was hot, she’d turn it off, place the cookie sheet inside, and leave the oven door cracked.

         “Now we must wait,” she’d say.  And we would do so actively, never knowing when the treat would be ready.  She would tell us stories of faith, teach us in ways of virtue, and tuck us safely into our beds.  Only the next morning would my grandmother open the oven and let us see what was inside.  Where those mushy blobs had been were now light and airy morsels of such delicate sweetness that they melted in our mouths.  Had we bought them at the store, or had she prepared them with us watching television, zombie-like, in the other room, or had she even told us in advance when they’d be ready, the experience would not have been the same.          So it is for us this Advent.  Christmas will come, and it will be glorious.  Christ’s return will surely come, but we know not when.  We risk missing the significance and the sweetness altogether if we fail to prepare for his coming.  There will be anxious moments, and there will be wondrous moments, as we live in faith.  As we wait. 

Deconstruction

A few years ago over Thanksgiving weekend, Jill, our daughter, a nephew, and I drove the half hour from Paragould to Jonesboro to pay homage to my grandparents’ graves.  After we visited the cemetery, on a whim I decided to swing by my grandparents’ house, which I’d not seen for twenty years.  We made a slow drive-by 1244 Walnut Street.  The outside of the house was unchanged; the yard was well-tended; and there was a man in the carport unloading his pickup truck.  Because of the kind of person I am, we pulled up to the curb, stopped the car, and to Jill’s and the kids’ mild protest I got out to talk to the homeowner.  It turned out that he’d been the sole resident of the house since my grandmother’s death; he’d bought it from my mother and uncle and lived there for two decades.  And, he was happy to see us.  We talked for several minutes, and then, to my surprise, he asked, “Do you want to come inside and see the house?”

I should have declined, but my curiosity got the better of me.  We walked through the back door, and the experience was surreal.  The floorplan remained vaguely as I recalled, but beyond that my memory of my grandparents’ house dissolved.  Everything had been deconstructed.  The Formica countertops were gone.  The vinyl flooring was gone.  The mid-century modern furniture was gone.  The house was transformed.  The homeowner was excited to show me the house anew, and it was very nice, but I rebelled against the transformation.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

1244 Walnut Street in Jonesboro

We are not fans of the deconstruction of the familiar.  Whether it’s our old haunts, our old habits, or our understanding of the world around us, there is a human tendency to cling to the familiar as an unchanging comfort.  We want things to stay the same, when things are good but also, perversely, sometimes when things are bad.  Even when it harms us, we would rather remain in the construction of the familiar than risk its deconstruction toward who-knows-what.

This is equally true of our faith.  In seminary, I had a classmate who dropped out after one semester.  He was almost frantic to escape the seminary, because the first-year curriculum is so much about deconstructing what we’ve understood about our faith: its origins, its presumptions, it’s unexamined conclusions.  My classmate couldn’t bear to face deconstructing questions of his faith.  He saw them as a threat to his belief system, as if God might dissolve in the questions, and so he bailed as quickly as he could.

Today’s Gospel passage is all about the deconstruction of the most familiar and, indeed, most vitally important.  Those around Jesus are gazing at Herod’s temple, a massive architectural wonder of the world and the centerpiece of Jewish faith.  Jesus declares that the temple will, soon and very soon, be deconstructed down to the last stone.  His claim confuses and discomfits those around him.  The temple is the most permanent thing they can imagine, and it is at the core of their identity.  The notion of its deconstruction sends Jesus’ hearers into a frenzy of anxiety.  They can’t imagine life without it.

A model reconstruction of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem

About the temple, Jesus speaks literally.  Within a few decades, Herod’s temple will be, in fact, razed to the ground.  But Jesus also speaks metaphorically.  In his own coming passion and death, every presupposition, expectation, and hope within the hearts and souls of his followers will crumble.  At the foot of the cross, faith will itself collapse.  All the hope that the disciples had placed in Jesus will be deconstructed, piece by piece, until they are left in the rubble.

The lectionary wisely pairs this passage from Luke with God’s closing speech in the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah lives five hundred years before Jesus, during the era in which the first Jewish temple—Solomon’s temple—was destroyed.  During Isaiah’s life, too, the Jewish world and faith was deconstructed, and Jews lived in a decades-long literal and spiritual exile.  As Isaiah’s book nears its end, the Jews have returned to Jerusalem, but it is not how they remember it.  None of the familiar markers remain.  The world they knew is gone, crumbled to the ground like Solomon’s temple.  The people are bereft.  They begin to wish they’d never returned home. 

But notice: It is in that moment that God speaks a wondrous word.  It is then that the very deconstruction that led to despair becomes, instead, a foundation for hope.  Through Isaiah, God says to God’s shell-shocked people standing in the rubble, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

In other words, where the returning Jews see disaster, God sees building material.  Where the Israelites see a life deconstructed, God sees a foundation on which to build something new.  And note that God does not build from scratch.  Whatever new heaven and new earth God will create—whatever new life God will birth—is made of the remnant of the old.  God does not discard what was; God redeems it.

_______________

As I was racing out the back door of my grandparents’ old house, the new owner said, “Before you go, I want to show you your granddad’s woodshop.”  Reluctantly, I crossed the carport and entered the shop, expecting it to be as different as the house.  But with wonder in his eyes, the homeowner showed me the unique shelves my granddad Pop had made a half century ago using bicycle chains, the smooth worktable Pop had built that now held the woodwork of a different hand, the jars of nails, screws, and rivets that Pop had spent a lifetime collecting.  “Your grandfather must have been something else,” the homeowner said to me, “Some of these things I couldn’t bear to change, so I’ve incorporated them, and I’m glad to have them.”

I left Pop’s woodshop with my perspective on the house as transformed as the house itself.  It was new, but the new was built on the foundation of the old.  And though what had been familiar to me was deconstructed and transformed, it was good.

_______________

The thing is, we don’t get the Gospel without the destruction of the temple.  We don’t get to Easter resurrection without first spending time at the foot of the cross and in the tomb.  We don’t walk long or far in this world without the comfortable, familiar, and expected ultimately being deconstructed, leaving us confused, anxious, and bereft.  Whether it’s our haunts, our habits, our worldview, or our faith, sooner or later the world cracks and crumbles around us.  What do we do then?

It is then that we most need to hear voice of God, who promises that deconstruction is never for its own sake.  Whether God causes the deconstruction (as God sometimes does) or the world simply has its way with us (as the world often does), God will always seek to work redemption from the rubble.  Where we may see only devastation, God says, “I am about to do a new thing!  See, I make all things new.”

We look across the globe and our own community, and we see so much turmoil, so much centripetal force seeming to tear at the very fabric of all we know.  In your own life, inside or out, you may be experiencing the same thing.  The temples may be falling down.  Hope may seem to hang by a thread.  But God will never abandon or discard you.  Beyond the deconstruction, Jesus promises not a hair of your head will perish.  Beyond any exile, God promises to create you anew and give you joy and delight.  And God will use the you-that-is and incorporate it, build upon it, redeem and transform it, into God’s new creation.  And far beyond our individual lives, today both Isaiah and Jesus allude that what God does in each of us, God promises ultimately to do for the whole world.  Eventually, even the broken fabric of our creation will all be made new: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  The time will come when all things are made new—you, me, the good world round about us—and the love of God in Christ will be all in all.[i]


[i] Ephesians 1:23

Hope and Dreams

Except during college football season, I never used to watch much television.  And then the pandemic hit.  I don’t know about you, but in the past two and half years I’ve become a television junkie.  I’m afraid to look at my credit card statement to see how many streaming services I’m paying for.  Sometimes it’s seemed as if I’ve watched every single series on Netflix. 

         Streaming shows are hit and miss, but sometimes you stumble upon one that surprises you.  A month or so ago I watched the The Sandman, a fantasy series adapted from a comic book.  But this is neither Superman or Scrooge McDuck.  The series eerie and noir, based upon the premise that the various components of our human experience, like dreams, desire, and despair, are anthropomorphized into godlike characters.  Following me so far?  The title character—the Sandman, called “Dream” as if that’s his proper name—walks around as a person and is the embodiment of all human dreams.  But at the series outset, Dream finds himself cast into hell, where he must face Lucifer.  Catch that: The human embodiment—the incarnation—of our dreams must battle the Devil.  (Now see why the priest was hooked by this series?)

         The battle sequence is more like a chess match than an actual fight.  Both Lucifer and Dream simply take turns transforming themselves into ever more powerful creatures facing off against one another.  Lucifer, says, “I am a dire wolf” and becomes one.  Dream counters by becoming a wolf hunter.  Lucifer then morphs into a deadly viper, and Dream responds by saying, “I am a bird of prey,” transforming himself into a falcon that can swoop down to kill the snake in its talons.  This escalates exponentially, until Dream becomes a bright cosmos, full of stars and galaxies and life, and Lucifer counters by transforming herself into what she calls the “the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything.”  With that, the light of Dream’s cosmos is snuffed.  Dream collapses to the floor, completely spent and apparently beaten.  It appears that the Devil has won, and that Dream—and thus all human dreams—have been dashed.  Lucifer begins to taunt Dream.  She leans over him and asks, “Still with us, Dream?  What can survive the anti-life?”

         Dream quivers on the floor, as if doing battle within himself for an answer, but finally he raises himself up to standing and looks Lucifer directly in the eye.  What survives the anti-life, the darkness that is the end of everything, Lucifer wants to know?  Dream says to her, “I…am…Hope.”  And with that, the Sandman is made whole, and even Hell is illuminated by light.  Lucifer recoils, knowing she is the one who is beaten.  Hope heals dreams.  Hope restores dreams’ power.  Hope recovers dreams even from Hell. 

My goodness, sometimes we can learn a lot from a comic book or a Netflix series!

         Today is the kick-off Sunday for our annual stewardship campaign.  Later this morning we will celebrate with barbeque and fellowship and encourage one another to support the ministry of Saint Mark’s for 2023.  But the most important thing for us to remember today and throughout the next several weeks of this year’s campaign is the theme chosen by our Stewardship Committee, which appears in the Book of Jeremiah just a couple of chapters prior to today’s Old Testament reading.  There, Jeremiah promises us, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, for a future filled with hope.”

         There may be no more profound claim in all of Holy Scripture.  God has plans—dreams!—for us, and those dreams are marked by hope.  And when God instills hope in us, no power, no discouragement, not even the mustered forces of Hell, can snuff God’s light. 

         Fast forward to today’s passage from Jeremiah, and the Prophet explains how this is so.  Hope, it turns out, is not something God gives us as an external tool or a shield to fend off the things that would dash our dreams.  Nor is hope is a philosophy we must learn, like a schoolbook lesson. Listen again to what God says:

         “I will put my law within you, and I will write it on your hearts; I will be your God, and you will be my people. No longer will you teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for you will all know me, from the least to the greatest.” 

         You see, hope springs from the reality that God has entered into our very souls, has written a new covenant on our hearts.  We don’t just know about the God of hope, we know that God as closely and intimately as we know ourselves.  And we trust the promise that because God is within us, God is with us always.

         Jeremiah’s promise of hope reverberates throughout the rest of scripture.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “I am in them—meaning us!—as you, God, are in me.”[i]  In Galatians, Saint Paul says, “It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[ii]  And the whole sweep of salvation history ends in that hope-filled and misunderstood Book of Revelation, when Saint John the Divine says, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God dwells with them; they are God’s people, and God himself is with them.”[iii]

         Friends, God is not distant and apart from us.  God is right here, among and within us, etching the law of love on our hearts, making plans for us, dreaming dreams for us, preparing a hope-filled future for us.  I hope that gives you chills.  I know it does me.

         Even as that makes our hearts soar, plans require, well, planning, and that requires a most earth-bound and decidedly practical closing message.  God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is that we be a lifeline through outreach for those who live on the margins of society, that we form our children and youth into the stature of Christ, that we provide pastoral care for parishioners in need, that we offer glorious worship and music to draw hearts to God, that we provide community in a world where community is sorely lacking.

         And, so we never forget, part of God’s dream for Saint Mark’s is also that we always ensure that the blessing that is this campus be kept in good repair as the launching point for all of our Gospel work.

          To do all of this—to realize God’s dream for us, to embody God’s hope, to live in the world acknowledging that God has written on our very hearts—we are each called to commit ourselves to the ministry of this place with our time and our talent, and also with our treasure.  Our aspirational ministry budget for next year requires that we increase pledge giving by $218,000, in order to keep pace with our current ministries, offer a modest cost of living increase to our staff, add a Lay Minister for Parish Life to work with newcomers and continuing members so we can continue to thrive and grow, and keep our campus in good repair.  If all who are able will stretch to increase our pledges, and if an additional 10% of our parish families will pledge for the first time, we will meet this goal.

         I believe in God’s dream for us!  So much so that Jill and I have already pledged, and we have increased our pledge over what we’d originally planned to give.  This week you’ll receive a pledge card in the mail.  But you don’t have to wait until then!  There are pledge cards in the pew racks, and there will be pledge cards at lunch.  The world is not easy right now.  Returning to that intriguing Netflix show, The Sandman, metaphorically speaking, there are so many ways in which Lucifer seems to be leaning over us and taunting, “Well, people of God?  What can survive the darkness that is the end of everything?”  But we are the people upon whose hearts God has written God’s covenant.  We are the people for whom God has dreamed a dream.  We stand tall, and scatter the darkness, and say, “God has plans for us, and we have hope!” 


[i] John 17:23

[ii] Galatians 2:20

[iii] Revelation 21:3

Increase our faith!

 “Increase our faith!”  Who among us can’t relate to the disciples’ cry at the beginning of the Gospel reading today?  Up to this point, Jesus has talked about the necessity of taking up one’s cross; he’s told the crowds to care for the little ones among them and forgive those who sin against them.  Jesus has told the Parable of the Good Samaritan along with the story of Lazarus and the rich man, a really tricky parable that seems to be about heaven and hell.  The disciples have listened as long and as they quietly can, squirming if not chafing under how challenging it all seems.  It’s finally more than they can muster, and they now cry out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!”

It’s the disciples’ way of saying, “We just can’t do it.  We can’t succeed at all these things.  It’s too hard.  Either you’re going to have to give us a dose of Gospel steroids, or you’re going to have to get someone else.”

I know how they feel.  I suspect you do, too.  The needs of our community, not to mention the world, are so big.  Relationships with people who are different are harder and harder to maintain.  Bridges more difficult to build.  Balance is a bigger challenge to achieve.  Our collective store of grace is sapped. 

And now to top it all off, you have this new rector who will encourage you to make a renewed commitment to the life of the church, to make new efforts to attend both Sunday school and Holy Eucharist, plus involvement in the weekly community life of this place, plus reengaging the programs and ministries of our parish.

Under the weight of all this, we may also cry to God, like the disciples, “Hold on!  First increase our faith!”  And this makes Jesus’ response to the disciples in the Gospel this morning seem, well, not very pastoral.  I actually like Matthew’s version over Luke’s, in which Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could move mountains.”[i]

Jesus then tells the disciples an odd parable about good servants who plow the ground, tend the sheep in the field, and serve at their master’s table all without complaint.  It is almost as if Jesus is telling the disciples to quit their whining and get to work.

Now, we know that Jesus loves the disciples, and we know it’s not Jesus’ style to respond to a cry for help with a lack of empathy, so what might he mean by his response to the disciples today?  To understand, we could use a bit of help from Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer’s 1939 Technicolor triumph.

When I was a child, The Wizard of Oz aired annually on CBS television.  It was, some will recall, an event!  My siblings and I would watch the movie with pie tins of Orville Redenbacher popcorn, sitting in front of my grandparents’ enormous cabinet television (but always six feet back because of, you know, the radiation). 

The primary conundrum for the characters in The Wizard of Oz, as for the disciples, is that they all have in mind that that they need things they do not yet have in order to accomplish the tasks set before them.  The Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion are anxious and afraid, and they believe that before they can begin truly living they need greater virtue.  “Increase my mind, my heart, my courage!” they cry in turn to the Wizard.  But instead, the Wizard sends them out to accomplish great and challenging things as they are.

Along the way, though, circumstances require the friends to think clearly, to show empathy, to be brave.  In other words, in the very acts of living and making the journey together, they discover to their surprise that all along they have already had in abundance the things they seek.  They are already ingenious, courageous, and big-hearted.  And they accomplish amazing things, freeing the land from the power of evil.

This, I believe, is what Jesus, in his wisdom, is telling the disciples today: that faith is not something we receive before we live for God and do God’s work.  God doesn’t give us faith to then go do God’s work.  Rather, it is through God’s work that we come to discover the faith that already lives within us, yearning for expression.  It is like the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who learn as they travel and grow in friendship that they have had within them all along the heart, mind, and courage they seek.

When the disciples cry out to Jesus today, they are unable to see that, with Jesus, they have already taught, fed, healed, and followed.  They have already moved mountains!  But because they are focused on all the things they fear they cannot do, they do not realize the faith that is already within them.

The disciples, even with all their anxiety, have faith.  And everyone in this room, simply by virtue of being here, has faith.  That impulse to seek and know God, however dim, however vague, that brings you to this place is the mustard seed of which Jesus speaks.  It is the grain that caused the disciples first to follow.  It is the same grain that lives in me and lives in you.

In his response today, Jesus uses images of plowing and herding and serving at table, because these were the all-consuming ways of life that would have resonated with the disciples.  “Live your whole lives for God,” Jesus says in essence, “and you will discover that the faith you need is already within you.”

For us, sheepherding doesn’t resonate.  But Jesus’ wisdom still does.  “Go into your law office…or classroom…or ER…or business…or garden…or home,” Jesus might say.  “There, live for God.  At St. Mark’s, roll up your sleeves and teach your children, or engage in community, or join in ministries of care for those on the margins of life.  Love with a love that knows no bounds.  In living for God and in doing God’s work, there you will discover your faith.  And though at first it may seem as small as a mustard seed, it will be all the faith you need.” Sisters and brothers, you are here, and that means the mustard seed is already within you.  God’s grace is there, ready to be watered and grow.  It is never too early and never too late.  And you may someday look back on your journey and realize to your surprise that you, too, moved mountains.


[i] Matthew 17:20

The “Dishonest” Manager?

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus will say things like, “Come to me all you who travail and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you;”[i] “I will not leave you orphaned;”[ii] and “Just as I have loved you, love one another.”[iii]  The counsel, comfort, and truth of each of these sayings is self-evident and immediate.  Beyond that, they reflect the Jesus we know, who is the incarnate love of God and always speaks the truth.  Preachers love to preach on such passages.

And then today’s Gospel passage crops up in the lectionary.  This is a passage no preacher has ever wanted to preach on: “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

So what happens in this story?  A wealthy man has an account manager who has not been doing his job to collect on his boss’s debts.  (Probably because he’s lazy.  He’s a dishonest manager, after all.)  The wealthy employer gets fed up and in frustration fires the manager.  But the conniving manager concocts a plan as he heads out the door.  He goes to each of his employer’s debtors and offers to collect only dimes on the dollar.  Dishonest as he is, the manager doesn’t intend to help those in debt.  Rather, he hopes that by cutting advantageous deals with the debtors he’ll buy their friendship, which may help him when he is soon out of a job.  The manager brings his collection back to his boss, and to the manager’s surprise, rather than fire him, the boss praises him.  He is restored.  The dishonest manager’s shenanigans have saved him. 

It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood film like The Wolf of Wall Street, but it’s strange coming from the mouth of Jesus.  And what’s even more shocking to Christian ears is what Jesus says after telling the story.  Jesus offers his listeners this motto, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal home.”

This is not “Love one another as I’ve loved you.”  It is bizarre and troubling counsel from Jesus.  We scarcely recognize this Jesus.  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth?  What is he talking about? Even Luke the Evangelist isn’t sure. That’s why Luke tacks half a dozen random aphorisms to the end of this parable. Like spaghetti against a wall, Luke hopes one will stick!

The one thing we can be sure of always is that Jesus Christ will not encourage us to be dishonest or unjust, and any biblical interpretation that suggests otherwise must be flawed.  It turns out here that Christian people may have long been disserved by a poor choice of translation.  (Stick with me here!)  One time in this story the manager is referred to as “dishonest,” and this one mention leads us to imagine all of his actions to have self-serving, ulterior motives.  This one mention even leads us to title the story “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”  But the Greek word translated here as “dishonest”—ἀδικία (adikia)—actually more exactly means “unrighteous.”  And in the bible, “unrighteous” can be defined as “opposed to God.”[iv]  It can also be interpreted “devoid of God.”  And that, I think, is the key to understanding this story. 

You see, I don’t believe the manager in today’s parable is dishonest at all.  I don’t think that’s what the original Greek means here.  I believe, instead, that Jesus is telling us a story about a manager who is devoid of God.  Or said a bit differently, this is a story about a man who has lost his faith.  That’s worth saying and hearing again: There is good evidence that is not a parable about a dishonest manager; it’s about a manager who has lost his faith.

So, how does this parable read differently if we give ourselves permission to reinterpret it this way?  It reads something like this:

There is a manager—mid-level guy, building a career—who lately can’t get his job done.  Maybe he’s young or inexperienced and afraid he’s in over his head.  Maybe he’s having a mid-life crisis.  Maybe he’s hit the age where life moves faster than he does.  Maybe he’s depressed.  Maybe he’s struggling with addiction.  Whatever his backstory, Jesus tells us that the manager is adikia, “devoid of God.”  He has lost his faith.  In God.  In himself.  In goodness.  In life’s happy ending.  Perhaps all of these.  And it has paralyzed him. 

The threat of losing his job and becoming destitute jars the manager and makes him realize he must do something.  So he gets up and goes—not in dishonesty, but in the midst of a deep crisis of faith—to engage those indebted to his firm.  He doesn’t treat them the way he feels: empty and devoid of God.  He doesn’t threaten them or demand the impossible.  Instead, the manager extends some grace to them that he himself does not feel.  He offers them what he can.  He meets them where they are.  And when he does these things, a miraculous thing happens.  With these interactions, somehow, bit-by-bit, his own faith is restored.  In the old and tired translation, the parable ends, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”  But a perhaps better and more faithful interpretation is, “The master rejoiced at the manager-who’d-lost-his-faith, because, even when he was faithless, he acted faithfully.”  And through his actions, his faith was restored!

Jesus’ parable suddenly makes more sense, and it is in complete keeping with the Jesus we know throughout the Gospels.  And Jesus’ counsel here is the same for us just as it was in Jesus’ own day:

Sometimes—oftentimes—we, like the manager, lose our faith.  Maybe we’ve suffered disappointment; maybe we’ve made grievous mistakes; maybe we battle addiction; maybe life has simply ground us down.  Whatever our backstory, some days when we pause to take stock, we may realize that our faith has slipped away.  And that can be paralyzing. 

What is the remedy?  Jesus tell us: Even when faith falters, act faithfully.  Even when your soul is empty, act faithfully.  Not perfectly or with complete success.  That’s never the bar.  We need only meet those in need where they are and give of ourselves what we can.  Those for whom we act—to whom we extend grace—may be pulled from their own wreckage.  And by acting faithfully, we will find our way back to faith, and meaning, and joy.

We have actually seen the icon of this within our lifetimes.  It was a shock to many when, upon her death, it was revealed that through much of her life and ministry, Mother Teresa of Calcutta felt devoid of faith.  Mother Teresa lost her faith.  And yet, each day for decades upon decades, Mother Teresa acted faithfully.  She got up and lived her life by giving of herself and extending grace where she could.  When her faith faltered, Mother Teresa acted faithfully.  And in doing so, she found her way back to faith and joy.  One who worked alongside her said of Mother Teresa that in her presence, “There was laughing and giggling and it was all very joyful.”[v]

As for Mother Teresa, as for the manager, so for us.  Whether saint or sinner, we all lose our faith sometimes.  It can be numbing, terrifying…paralyzing.  In exactly those moments, God urges us nevertheless to act faithfully, with grace and kindness: To give what we can of ourselves and meet others where they are.  God does not ask for perfection.  He will not be checking the accounts.  God only asks that when we falter in faith, we still act in faith.  And when we do, we will discover that when we extend grace, we receive grace.  We and find our way back to faith again.   

But then, you, the parish family of St. Mark’s, know this.  No matter what you may be going through, whether in a season your faith is waxing or waning, you act faithfully.  Each week, you feed hundreds through the Food Pantry.  In just a few weeks, you will support St. Francis House through the Shrimp Boil.  Every day, you open this house of God to all who wish to meet and know God.  You offer words of grace; you act faithfully.  And grace returns to you as the master rejoices. 


[i] Matthew 11:28

[ii] John 14:18

[iii] John 13:34

[iv] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g93/kjv/tr/0-1/

[v] http://actualidadereligiosa.blogspot.com/2016/05/mother-teresa-had-very-good-sense-of.html#.YyTaX3bMLSI

Sometimes shepherd, sometimes lost sheep

It is a blessing and privilege to be with you this day!  For the past several months, meeting first with the search committee and then with the vestry, finally arriving in Little Rock and knowing more deeply your wardens and parish staff, Jill and I have readied ourselves for this very day.  As many will know, the return to Arkansas is a homecoming for us.  I am from Paragould.  My mother is from Jonesboro, my dad is from McGehee, and all of my siblings still live in the Natural State.  Jill was raised at Trinity here in Little Rock, and we met and fell in love up the road at Hendrix College in Conway.  I became an Episcopalian in this Diocese more than a quarter century ago.  Beyond all that, St. Mark’s has long been a parish that I have observed from afar and admired, as you have lived your faith so vividly and in so many ways.  The first time I walked onto this campus was in 1994, when Jill and I were newly engaged.  Jill brought me here because her father, John Benson, is interred in St. Mark’s columbarium.  If I was going to marry her, she wanted me to meet her dad.  Then and several other times in the intervening twenty-eight years I have sat in that holy garden and talked to my father-in-law.  Each time, I have imagined what it would be like to serve in this inspiring place.  My heart is glad to be your rector.

Today we read the Parable of the Lost Sheep.  As with so many of Jesus’ parables, we’ve heard this one so many times, and it has become so familiar, that as soon as we hear its first words, we superimpose assumptions on the story.  It’s like visiting your grandmother’s house:  Turning into her driveway, you already feel the warmth of the quilt on the bed, the smell of the cookies baking in the oven.  You know the experience even before it happens.  Similarly, we think we know what these parables will tell us even before the reading is complete. 

But Luke’s telling of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is not so straightforward.  We usually imagine that the shepherd is God, and we are the sinful lost sheep.  Our sin has led us astray, and God loves us so much that God will leave all else behind to find us and bring us home.  The words with which Luke concludes this parable support that interpretation: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” 

And yet, Luke’ introduction to the parable suggests not that we are the lost sheep, but that we are the shepherd.  Jesus begins, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Jesus asks his audience to imagine themselves as the one tending the flock.

So which is it? Are we the sheep, or are we the shepherd?  Are we the lost, or are we the seeker?

In 2003, I was ordained and assigned by my bishop to be the vicar of a restart congregation of forty parishioners in Memphis.  Holy Apostles had declined in membership and sold its church building several years before; had been worshiping for some months in a Presbyterian Church fellowship hall; and was searching for yet a new temporary home.  In all that moving of church records and materiel, everything had become topsy-turvy at best.  I spent those early days trying to sort things out and make sense of it all, when one afternoon Holy Apostles’ Cricket pay-by-the-minute cell phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line asked, “Is this Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles?  We’ve been trying to find you for days.  Marie Daniels is here.  She listed Holy Apostles on her intake history.  We’ve been trying to find you.”

Startled, and furtively rifling through what church records I could find, I responded, “Yes, yes, Holy Apostles…Marie Daniels, you say?”

The nurse exhaled.  “Yes.  Ms. Daniels is unconscious now, but she wanted someone from her church to visit her.”

I could find no written record of Marie Daniels, but within an hour I was in an ICU room at St. Francis Hospital.  Marie was tiny in her hospital bed.  She was clearly in the final hours of her mortal life.  Though she was unconscious, I leaned over and spoke into her ear, “Ms. Daniels, I am so sorry you were lost, but your church has found you.  You are not alone.” 

It was my first pastoral visit as a cleric, and I found myself cast in the role of the shepherd, seeking out one lost sheep in the darkness.

A week later, Marie Daniels’ became my very first funeral.  Graveside on a windy day, as I walked over the berm to the gravesite—with its blue tent and three rows of velvet-covered chairs—I saw that the only attendees were Marie’s out-of-town nephew, who was also her executor, and his wife.  As if to telegraph that they were present only by duty, they—the lone worshipers—sat stony-faced in the back row corner seats.  They looked at me, and the funeral home attendant looked at me.  I couldn’t hold my place in the Prayer Book due to the wind.  I felt entirely lost.  I feared I was not up to the task, and I couldn’t see the way forward.  As I barely suppressed the urge to cut and run like a dullard sheep, my senior warden, Diane Reddoch, walked over the berm and took a seat in the front row.  She smiled up at me in encouragement.  Diane knew that I would be lost, and she would not allow me to wander alone.  I found myself in the role of the sheep, and Diane rescued me from the darkness.

Sometimes we are the shepherd.  Sometimes we are the lost sheep.  Sometimes we know the way, but other times we wander to the very precipice and find ourselves teetering on the edge.  Sometimes we shine the light, and sometimes we look in desperation for a beacon.  And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells his parable in this way.  That is why the Church—the Beloved Community—is so vitally, essentially important.  It is here that in our strength we rescue one another.  It is here that in our weakness we can trust to be found. 

It’s been a strange few years.  In our splintered society and through the long coronavirus pandemic, we have each surely found ourselves sometimes lost.  Our patterns of practice, relationship, gathering, and engagement—all those things that make us whole and bring us joy—have been upended.  So many of the old and trusted roadmaps and guideposts are obscured or gone.  We sometimes feel like the lost sheep, trying to find our way back to what is known. Do you know that feeling?

Beyond our own lives, there are so many, within our orbits and throughout our broader community, who are lost and whose needs are both spiritual and tangible.  There are the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned, and the lonely.  There are those just beyond our sight who find themselves teetering on the precipice, who need someone to reach out with the shepherd’s crook and pull them to safety.

This is, then, the perfect Gospel reading for today.  Here we are, gathered in this sacred space.  So much of what we have collectively lost can be found right here, anew and renewed, at St. Mark’s: Our relationships with people we have not seen in a long while, our community of caring—of shouldering one another’s burdens and doubling one another’s blessing—our joy in singing, and praying, and eating potluck dishes, and seeing the Christ in one another’s eyes…Here we can find and be found!  Today is the invitation for us to restore our patterns of engagement, our embrace of the Gospel, and our care of our neighbors on the precipice.  So many of our programs and ministries are rebuilding post-pandemic, and each needs shepherds to tend the flock.  It is a new year at St. Mark’s.  Whatever we may have lost, here, together in the heart of God’s love, we will find.  I’m so excited to be here with you, in this place, at this moment.  Like the sheep in Jesus’ parable, I am glad to be found here.  Like the shepherd in Jesus’ parable, I call you my new friends and neighbors, and I say on this Kick-off Sunday, “Rejoice with me!” 

Parting Thoughts

Genesis 32:22-31; Colossians 1:15-20; Mark 4:35-41

I’m not going to tell you anything new this morning.  Everything I’ll say today you’ve heard me say before in some venue or another, and likely more than once.  I don’t want to leave the Cathedral on some new note.  I want to depart this wonderful parish family having re-emphasized what I believe to be the most true, what I believe to be—literally—Gospel, and what I believe Christianity unfortunately often neglects.  Today’s message is merely another attempt to articulate what I’ve striven to say for ten years, and for ten more before that in the prior parishes I have served.

Students of the lectionary will have noticed that the readings today are not the propers appointed for this Sunday.  Instead, I’ve taken the liberty to select my “canon within the canon,” those passages that I believe to be most emblematic of the intent and meaning of the whole sweep of Holy Scripture, the “map keys” to all the rest.  We each have a canon within the canon.  Everyone who has ever read the Bible privileges some passages over others.  Indeed, those who claim to believe in biblical literalism really mean that they believe literally in the parts they prefer, whatever those are.  Every reading of scripture entails interpretive choices, and admittedly these are mine.

The first passage today, from Genesis, is an account from the story of Jacob.  After a lifetime of ingenious but conniving living, Jacob finds himself in a fix.  He is fleeing from his uncle, who may want to kill him.  And Jacob is running headlong toward his brother, who he knows wants to kill him.  Jacob sends his family away so that, as night falls, he is starkly all alone.  For the first time in his life, he recognizes that he has nowhere to run, no avenue of escape.  He cannot flee; he cannot rationalize his way out of his predicament; he can no longer convincingly tell himself that he is someone other than he is.  Jacob has a new and potent awareness that he has created the conditions of his own peril.  And in the midst of that lonely realization, from the inky wilderness God jumps out and tackles him.  Jacob wrestles with God all night.  In the end, just before daybreak, God blesses Jacob.  The blessing is two-fold: God injures Jacob’s hip, causing him ever after to limp.  And God renames Jacob, “Israel,” which means “wrestles with God.”  From this moment on, Jacob is different.  Yes, he limps, but he also ceases to flee, prevaricate, or seek to fool either himself or others.

When I was newly ordained almost twenty years ago, and the Episcopal Church was in the throes of its pitched battles over human sexuality, a disgruntled priest said to me, “Barkley, I’m a simple man who prefers a simple faith.”  I was perplexed by the statement then, and I am perplexed by it now.  Our faith is not simple, just as life is not simple.  If anyone ever tells you otherwise, they are as delusional as Jacob was prior to meeting God at the Jabbok.  Life is infinitely complex and responding faithfully is no simpler.  In the Genesis story, God not only encourages us to wrestle with God, God actually names God’s people—defines their identity as—“wrestles with God.”  Questions of faith, questions of purpose, questions of meaning, questions of how to live in an upside-down world—where God is to be found and what God would have us be and do—these are never simple things.  They require time, attention, commitment, and a dogged desire to wrestle with God.  And, the result will not leave us, any more than it left Jacob, unscathed.  Too many people walk away from the Church, and even faith, because something offends them, or disappoints them, or gives them the apprehension that they might have to redefine their lives.  If the Church—and faith—doesn’t do all of these things, then it is nothing more than an opiate.  Faith will wound us, and we will carry the scars, and the key is to recognize that the limp is part of the blessing.  It is the evidence that we have wrestled with the Creator and the creation.

The Gospel passage today is from Mark 4.  I wrote about it in a message to the parish in late June, after the third of my recent back surgeries.  I offer again now what I offered then.  In this passage, Jesus and the disciples are traveling across the Sea of Galilee at night. A supernatural storm arises and begins to capsize their boat. The disciples are terrified, but Jesus sleeps serenely through the storm. In the disciples’ fear and anxiety, they awaken Jesus, who then stills the storm and asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?”

Often this passage is taught and preached as if Jesus means by his questions, “Didn’t you know God wouldn’t allow our boat to capsize?” But Jesus means no such thing. He doesn’t promise that everything will turn out just fine, or that the boat will keep an even keel. Jesus lives in the gritty, real world—the world in which being faithful is like a constant wrestling match—and Jesus knows that sometimes storms upend our lives. What Jesus means to convey to the disciples is that, even when the storms drown us, God is with us. There is no fathom deeper than the presence of the God who creates us in love.  God abides with us when we sail and when we sink. God shares our joy and bears our sorrow.  That is how Jesus can sleep in peace while the tempest rages.

And that brings us to the most difficult passage of the three: Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians.  For me, this passage is the centerpiece of the whole Bible.  Whereas Genesis 17 is mythical, and Mark 4 is gritty, Colossians 1 is cosmic.  It reveals to us that the Christ, even prior to the Incarnation in the historical person of Jesus, is the cosmic God Incarnate in all things.  The cosmic Christ is the scaffolding of creation, the is-ness of all that is.  Thus, when I look at you and say that I see the Christ in you, I am not speaking metaphorically.  Just as God was fully embodied in Jesus, God is fully embodied in the whole of God’s universe.  There is no such thing as inert, dead matter.  There is no such thing as the God-less.  As Colossians will say two chapters later, “Christ is all and in all.” 

Colossians also tells us that the cosmos is created “for Christ.”  What does that mean?  Does it mean what our Evangelical sisters and brothers contend?  I don’t think so.  It means that this creation, which emanates from Christ and through which Christ pervades, also flows toward Christ.  In other words, we are exhaled by God in love and then inhaled—or in-spired—back into God.  That is our purpose and our destiny: To be made in love, to live in love, and ultimately to return to love. 

This is why, dear friends, we can, should, must wrestle with our faith.  We must always and ever ask, What does it look like to be creatures of love?  What does it look like to live in love and only for love, to seek peace, and empathy, and justice in the world as the manifestations of love?  What does it look like to ready ourselves to return to God’s love after our note is sung?  The struggle, including the scars, will indeed bless us and bless the world.

This is why, dear friends, we can travel through storm without fear, because God is not someone “up there” or “out there.”  Rather, God—the Christ—is the song of which we are the notes.  God is the air in which we move and breath.  God is before us, and in us, and beyond us as the horizon toward which we move.         

It is Christ through whom and for whom all things are made, including you and me.  So it was in the beginning, and forever shall be, world without end.  That is the Truth.  Never forget it.  And thank God for it. 

Prophetic Enactment

If I were to ask you, “What is the strangest, most confusing book of the Bible?” I suspect that, without hesitation, most with any scriptural knowledge would respond, “Revelation.”  True, Revelation is bizarre, with its opaque symbolism, its blood and destruction, and its ambiguity about whether it is referring to something long past or still yet to come.  Even so, I contend that Revelation is not the Bible’s weirdest book.  If we gauge oddity by how diligently preachers avoid preaching on a text, the clear winner is the Old Testament book from which we read this morning: Hosea.

When I was in college, my advisor in the philosophy and religion department, Dr. John Farthing, became the global expert on the obscure Reformation theologian Jerome Zanchi by analyzing Zanchi’s commentary on Hosea.  Yes, that’s right: After almost three thousand years, Hosea is still so weird and off-putting that if you want to make a name for yourself in the academy, there’s plenty of scholarship yet to be done!  My advisor entitled his essay “Holy Harlotry.”  “Harlot” isn’t a word you hear very often.  The article was dense, but the title so intrigued me that I read it in full.  That was my own introduction to Hosea, but in nineteen years of ordained ministry, this is the first time I’ve had the nerve to preach it.

No one wants to preach on Hosea.  The poor prophet gets assiduously ignored.  Why is that?  What’s so strange about the book?  The clue is in the title of Dr. Farthing’s essay.  As we just heard from the lectern, Hosea begins his prophecy by declaring—at first, irritatingly in the third person—“The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.”

Hosea and Gomer, depicted in a 13th century illuminated manuscript

Yes, that’s right.  God tells Hosea to seek out and marry a prostitute.  Hosea obeys.  And this is no scene from Pretty Woman.  This isn’t a tender RomCom about redemptive love.  God tells Hosea to marry Gomer as an example to the people of Israel, to set in front of the nation’s face an example of its own—as the prophet himself says it—whoring ways.

So, let’s dig in.  Historically, what’s going on here?  Hosea prophesies in the late 700s B.C., a pivotal moment in Israel’s history.  In fact, though its citizens don’t yet grasp it, Israel—that’s the ancient northern kingdom that does not include Jerusalem—is about to cease to exist.  Within a few short years it will be overrun and swallowed up by the much larger Assyrian Empire to the north and east.  A threat the Israelites cannot see, Hosea does, and as God’s prophet it falls to him to sound a clarion call for the people.

God says to Hosea that the reason for Israel’s impending destruction is that the chosen people of God have failed in their singular calling, which is to be wed in a covenant relationship with God.  Beginning with Abraham and renewed through Moses, Israel is to focus its commitment, loyalty, and love only and all to God.  And the purpose of this whole-hearted relationship is to provide a witness to the whole world that such a covenant with the Creator of heaven and earth is the foundation of all blessing.

Instead, Israel has set its heart on other things: gods, idols, wealth, status, bravado, intrigue, anything and everything but the God who is both the deep center of the soul and the fabric of the cosmos.  Hosea alone recognizes that it is this infidelity that is leading to Israel’s doom.  He wants to startle and shock the Israelites, to awaken them to their error and what needs to be done in order to set things right before it’s too late.  Words won’t be enough.  And so, Hosea physically enacts the crucial message he wants to convey.  So that the Israelites cannot miss his point about their philandering, infidelity, their cheating on God, he himself marries a prostitute. 

Yes, to us this is extreme and bizarre.  But Hosea is actually drawing upon a tactic at least as old as King David: prophetic enactment.  When all else fails, the ancient prophets dramatize, act out, embody their message as a stark and unmissable way to force their audience to take notice.  This is actually more familiar to us than we may at first realize: When an environmentalist literally becomes a tree hugger by chaining herself to an endangered redwood, or, to a greater extreme even than Hosea, when several decades ago Vietnamese Buddhist monks set themselves aflame as a prophetic symbol of the way in which the government was abusing Buddhists.

Prophetic enactment is more familiar to us than we at first realize. This tree-sitter is from near my former home of Roanoke, Virginia.

Prophetic enactment is always eye-catching and often powerful.  The problem is that, if the prophet misunderstands the message he is supposed to convey, prophetic enactment itself can quickly change from something holy to something perverse.  It is an open question whether Hosea got it right.  Undoubtedly, Israel’s infidelity to the God of grace and wandering into the arms of destructive idols was their undoing.  No doubt about that.  But whether that same God of grace would truly encourage Hosea to use Gomer, to capitalize on the circumstances that had forced her to sell her body to survive, to exploit her beyond what she had already suffered…Well, I don’t recognize that God. 

That’s a debate for biblical commentators, but what it begs of us in our own day are the questions, asked in faith and also with caution, “What is our prophetic voice?  What is God calling us to proclaim?  And what are the potent and powerful enactments that embody God’s message and make it real?”

In today’s Gospel we are given the answers to these questions, from the mouth of God Incarnate.  Today Jesus teaches us what we call, for good reason, the Lord’s Prayer, the God-given scaffolding for all our prayers.  It is as sure as any words God ever put on the lips of a prophet.  The words on our lips are to be the hope for bread for all people, that none of God’s children should suffer deprivation or want.  The words on our lips are to be for the strength from God to resist the temptation of idolatry that plagues us as much as it did the ancient Israelites, to resist the allure of bravado, intrigue, status, the self, all of which supplant God as our center and our ground.  And finally, in the words with which the Lord’s Prayer begins, we are to speak the hope that God’s kingdom will be realized on this earth as it is in heaven.

And not only speak.  This last—or, in the Lord’s Prayer, first—is what I contend God calls us to enact, to dramatize, to live publicly and as boldly as Hosea married Gomer: As Christian people, we are called to live in the world as if the kingdom has already come.  We are to enact the kingdom.  We are to interact, we are to respond, we are to engage as citizens of the kingdom.  And that means no matter how the world acts toward us, we respond in love.  When the world is brutal, we respond in love by defending the brutalized.  When the world is callous, we respond in love by extending care to the forgotten.  When the world tells us that things other than the God of grace are central, we respond in love by claiming God instead of idols.  When the world falls asleep, we jolt it awake with our fierce and relentless love.     

In this era in which words are misused and truth is upended, such prophetic enactment is so much more powerful than words alone.  Words can be twisted, but courageous acts of love are unmistakable and un-ignorable.  When we enact the kingdom, by God’s grace our very souls are redeemed.  When we embody the kingdom in our persons and in our actions, we become witnesses to God’s love, and as witness begets witness, the very kingdom we enact is birthed into reality.  This is, by God’s grace, the way we and the good world are saved.  As in Hosea’s own age, time is short and may be running out.  God is calling, and the message is clear.  The prophetic enactment of love is the hope of the world.  Thy kingdom come, and we are God’s prophets. 

Who is my neighbor?

“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints…Just as [the Gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among you from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.”

These are the words with which Saint Paul[i] begins the letter to the Christians in Colossae.  Across two thousand years of time and a world of space, they could just as easily have been written about you, the saints of Christ Church Cathedral in the city of Houston.  Since the day I arrived among you in February 2013, I have been amazed by your love.  In a world too often starved of love—a world that stingily seems to believe love is a zero-sum resource—you love extravagantly.  Why is that?  How is that?  I’ll come back to that question.

Today we also read the best-known parable in the Gospels.  We call it “The Good Samaritan,” and it is so well-known that in 1998 it even featured prominently in the series finale of the sitcom Seinfeld.  Like all familiar stories, the Good Samaritan can be a gauzy comfort, but for that same reason we can also miss its impact.

The passage begins with a lawyer—a schooled and trained expert on Jewish religious law, a keeper of doctrine, someone who already knows all the answers—asking Jesus a metaphysical question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This is, on its surface, an academic debate.  Jesus lobs the ball back to the lawyer, asking, “What is written in the law [you know so well]?  What do you read there?”  The lawyer responds accurately, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.  And love your neighbor as yourself.”  And so, Jesus compliments and commends the lawyer for speaking truthfully and well.

This could have been the end of it.  But instead, that’s when we, the reader, see what this exchange is really all about.  It is on the surface an academic debate, but that’s not what’s actually going on.  There are people around, watching, and this theologically and legally trained lawyer wants to put the scraggly, backwoods, rough-and-tumble Nazarene in his place.  The lawyer wants to best Jesus, to belittle him, and somehow, in an exchange of just three sentences, Jesus has instead affirmed the lawyer.  Rather than receiving that affirmation as a gift, we can imagine the heat rising on the back of the lawyer’s neck, his cheeks getting red, his eyes beginning to water and blaze.  The lawyer cannot receive this gift from Jesus, whom the lawyer sees as so much beneath him.  He rebels against it. 

And so we see that this conversation was never about metaphysics.  The lawyer isn’t interested in eternal life, for himself or anyone else.  That’s a smokescreen, a red herring.  This conversation is really about, as Luke himself tells us in verse 29, the lawyer “justifying himself.”  The lawyer needs, internally for himself and externally to the crowd, to confirm who he is and to expose who he believes Jesus to be.  He’s interested in winning the point, in shoring up his self-image, in preserving the thin veneer of his constructed persona so he doesn’t actually have to confront deeper and serious questions about who he is in the world.  He wants to justify himself.  And he views Jesus and Jesus’ message as a threat to him, to his sense of self, and to his place in the world.  Can you imagine that?  Seeing the Gospel of Jesus as a threat?

Feeling exposed, the lawyer presses the point.  He pushes back, “And who is my neighbor?”  And then Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  Our common interpretation of the story is that our neighbor is anyone in need.  That is true, but that’s actually not what the story is about or what it tells us.  Because, read carefully, in this story the lawyer who questions Jesus—and we, the readers—is supposed to see himself as the man beaten up and left in the ditch.  Catch that: We are not to see ourselves as the passers-by who fail to help, nor as the Samaritan who finally stops.  In the construction of the story, we are the one beaten up, manhandled, injured, and left for dead.

And the man in the ditch is willing to receive aid from—indeed, have his very life saved by—the Samaritan, who in his culture is the enemy, the threat, the dirty, the disdained.  This is the key to the parable: The man in the ditch opens himself to grace from wherever it may come.  When he does, the least expected, least fathomable person becomes his neighbor

Jesus turns the lawyer’s question on its head.  Who is my neighbor?  Our neighbor is anyone from whom we are willing to receive help.  And if we are unwilling to receive help—if we are unwilling first to be vulnerable—we, in turn, cannot be a neighbor.  This is the lesson of The Good Samaritan, and it’s a much harder lesson to learn and embrace than simply offering aid. 

How do we walk through the world?  Do we, like the lawyer, reenforce the veneer we’ve created (one that others can almost assuredly see through anyway)?  Do we close ourselves off as if we have no need and cling to a sense of self that is dependent upon defining the other as base, less than, the object of our disdain or disregard?  Such a persona can neither have nor be a neighbor.

 Or do we, like the man thrown in the ditch, open ourselves to grace from wherever it may come?  Can we be vulnerable to learning from, growing with, receiving love from the people we least expect, whoever they may be?

This brings me back to where I began.  For almost ten years, I’ve been amazed by your ability to love, to be a neighbor.  You feed the hungry, house the homeless, embrace all of God’s children in the fullness of their being, care about justice and peace.  When I arrived almost a decade ago, I saw that immediately.  It took me longer to understand how you do it.  You are able to be neighborly—to extend love—because you also know how to receive it.  You are a most remarkable congregation, one of vulnerability and a willingness to be met and ministered to by one another.  You receive grace as what it is: a gift, and from any quarter.  There is never a stranger among you, because you welcome the stranger as neighbor and friend.  You do not see the Gospel as a threat to your sense of self, but as Good News that can and will change you, heal you, make you whole.

It has been a sanctifying gift to walk with such a people for this decade.  You have been neighbors to me, and I am grateful.  In a few weeks I will go home, to Arkansas and to another remarkable parish that asks and answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with vulnerability and grace.  But when I go, I will take with me the love you have given.  We will always be neighbors. And like Saint Paul, in my prayers for you I will always thank God for the love that you have for all the saints.  You truly comprehended the grace of God.


[i] It is much-debated whether Colossians is a genuine Pauline letter.  It may have been written by a disciple of Paul and attributed to him.

Conquering Mountains

Ben Goram and Croagh Patrick, from the south.

In March I took a spiritually-important but perhaps physically ill-advised trip.  I’d had back surgery two months before that had accomplished exactly nothing.  I was in chronic discomfort, with a much-weakened right leg.  But I’d had on the docket for almost a year a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick—St. Patrick’s Mountain—one of the holiest sites in Ireland, with the plan to climb the mountain on St. Patrick’s Day with three of my closest friends from across the span of my life.  I won’t go into all the advance reasons that I thought this climb was important, mainly because all those reasons were quickly rendered moot as soon as we started up the mountain.

Croagh Patrick is the mountain on which, in the late 400s, St. Patrick lived for forty days and forty nights, emulating Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.  My three friends and I hired a local hiking guide to take us not up the straight, well-marked, relatively easy north face of the mountain, but up the unmarked, no-trail south face that St. Patrick himself is believed to have climbed.  Our climb actually included two mountains: First Ben Goram, then across a saddle, and then up Croagh Patrick itself.

Blissfully unaware before the hike, with Ben Goram in the background.

Ireland was unseasonably sunny and warm in the days leading up to our climb.  But as soon as we took the first step up the steep and boggy turf of Ben Goram (the first mountain), an unholy tempest as if from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel blew in from the Atlantic.  In an instant, the temperature dropped twenty-five degrees, and for the next five hours—five hours!—we were sleeted on and enshrouded in thick fog.  Even so, I approached and attacked the mountain the way I do hikes in the U.S.  I wanted to beat the mountain and, honestly, I wanted to beat my three equally-middle-aged friends, to demonstrate my fitness and vitality.    

Then reality set in.  Fifteen minutes into our climb I began to lean hard into the mountain to keep from being blown off of it.  Thirty minutes after that, my right foot began to “slap” and get hung first on turf and then on scree, as the strength drained from my hobbled right leg.  By the time we topped Ben Goram, reached the saddle between mountains, and briefly paused—but only briefly, because of the risk of hypothermia—I realized that I might not make it to the top.  (Actually, what occurred to me because I watch too many movies, is that, if we became stuck on the mountain and the group was forced to eat someone in order to survive, I’d be dinner!) 

Only because turning around and climbing down the way we’d come was more treacherous than continuing to Croagh Patrick’s summit, we kept going.  But not in the same way as before.  My movements were numbingly slow and deliberate.  With my eyes half-closed against the wind and sleet, I knew that I was the anchor dragging everyone down.  When I finally opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me.  For a split second, I panicked, because I thought I’d fallen so far behind the others that I’d lost them in the fog.  But then I realized that they weren’t in front of me at all.  Without a word to me, and without a word to each other, my three friends had fallen behind me and were walking in a line with me in front.  All competition and bravado had completely given way in our circumstances.  In essence, my three friends were, on the one hand, serving as a safety net to keep me from falling and, on the other hand, pushing me up the mountain.

Ascending Croagh Patrick in the cold, sleet, and fog.

My eyes teared up, this time not from the wind.  For a moment, I was humiliated, as all the unspoken, subconscious things that has brought me to the mountain were revealed to be empty motivations.  That flash of humiliation then gave way to the recognition that I was encountering, in my friends and in real time, a love that is rare; a love that is life-saving.  Much more slowly than we’d planned, we made it to the top of Croagh Patrick.  And fifteen minutes after we began our descent on the other side, the weather broke, and the sun shined brightly.  God’s wonder!

This is Senior Sunday at Christ Church.  Today, we celebrate those at the cusp of adulthood who have been part of this community and who will remain so, even though they may soon be geographically distant.  So to you seniors, but also to all of our youth here present, I share this: Over the next several years, you will hear many people encourage you to climb all sorts of peaks, metaphorical and otherwise, to demonstrate your prowess, your strength, your ambition, your superiority over your peers.  You’ll be told there is no mountain summit you cannot reach.  You’ll see mountain-climbing memes on Instagram that read, “Don’t give up,” and “You can do anything you set your mind to.”  You’ll be told in innumerable ways that life is there for you to conquer. 

That is not my message to you. That is a message we’ve been conveying for three generations now in our culture.  It is largely a lie.  It is detrimental to you, and it is detrimental to the world.  Because if you succeed in conquering those mountains, you do so by leaving behind those injured on the slopes, or by causing an avalanche in your wake and not pausing to see or care about the destruction it causes.  And if you don’t succeed in conquering those mountains, you are left in humiliation and shame because you have not fulfilled the promise all those people told you was your birthright.

Even though we are now well into the Easter season, today in John’s Gospel we are catapulted back to the Upper Room and the Last Supper.  Jesus has just gotten up from the dusty floor where he, to the disciples’ shock and amazement, has washed their feet.  Jesus now explains in words what he has demonstrated in actions.  Jesus says to those he loves, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

To love is an easy thing.  I love lots of things: bluebonnets in spring, the Arkansas Razorbacks, Wendell Berry novels, my car.  If Jesus had only said “Love one another” and stopped there, we could conquer life’s mountains with determination and grit and love just a bit here and there to make us feel better about the climb.  But Jesus doesn’t stop there.  In the same breath, Jesus interprets for us the kind of love he means for us to show one another, the kind of love on which those who follow Jesus are to model our lives.  We are to love one another as Jesus loves us: a get down in the dirt and wash one another’s feet love; a see one another through the fog love; a love that recognizes that we reach the top together or it isn’t worth the climb.

Drying out in the sun after descending the mountain.

There are mountains to climb.  Seniors, the next one is right in front of you, and when you reach its summit, there may be a brief pause on the saddle, but then there will be another peak to climb just beyond.  To that extent, the mountain-climbing metaphor for life holds.  But Jesus shows us that the goal in life is not to conquer the mountain or beat others to the top.  The goal in life is twofold:

First, push yourself, surely, but also recognize your true limitations not as failures, but as reminders that none of us is a little god, that we are creatures of this world, and that the world will ultimately mold us rather than us molding it.  This recognition and embrace is not humiliation, but humility, the opposite of destructive pride, and our hurting world needs humility more than bravado. 

Life’s second goal is to recognize that, as we climb, our first responsibility is to our fellow climbers.  Sometimes, you will be the only one who prevents someone else from falling off the mountain.  Sometimes, you may be the one who can push someone else to the top, so you both reach the apex together. 

So, climb the mountains.  In summer or sleet, climb.  In sunshine or fog, climb.  But as you put one foot in front of the other, remember Jesus’ words: “As I have loved you, so you should love one another.”  With a love like that, and climbing together, sunlight scatters the fog, and we each become disciples.