The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Don't worry about a thing" (reprise)

26 November 2009

Matthew 6:25-33

**NOTE: faithful followers of this blog might recognize this sermon.  It's an updated and contextualized version of a sermon on the same text that I preached about a year and a half ago.  It's one of the most googled sermons I've written, mostly because of the Bob Marley reference.  When I was asked to preach on this text for today's Thanksgiving service at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, I decided it might be good to bring back an old favorite.  Usually I'm philosophically opposed to "recycling" sermons, but since it's for different people, a different occasion, and a while has passed, I thought it might be okay this time.  Thanks for indulging me :)

In the name of God. Amen.

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. But strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

That’s nice, isn’t it? Just quit worrying, because God’s going to give you every thing you need. If you listened closely to the Gospel reading this morning, you could almost hear Bob Marley in the background: “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. I guess I could just go ahead and sit down. We should probably just all go home. God will take care of everything. As the bumper sticker theologian put it, “Let go and let God.” Right?

So why am I still standing here? If it’s true that “all these things will be given to you” as Matthew has said, why are we all here? Why are we all still engaged in the process of discerning God’s will for the church? Or for ourselves?

Worry is a natural phenomenon. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Even on this day devoted to celebrating and giving thanks, some of us are probably experiencing worry right now.

So in some ways, this text makes me angry. “Don’t worry”?? We do worry. We will worry. Isn’t it a little condescending for the writer of the Gospel to say we shouldn’t? Would Jesus really have told us to just stop worrying?

And remember, these words are part of the Sermon on the Mount. They are to have been spoken by the very man who, as the story progresses, will lead his followers into Jerusalem, and who will be brought before Pontius Pilate, and who will eventually suffer death on the cross. He is going to tell us not to worry? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

I doubt that any of us are fated for the kind of life and death that Jesus had, but even so, we have our own causes for worry. We could probably list them more easily than we could ever presume to “count our blessings”. The economy. Violence. Drugs. Fearing for the security of our jobs. Fearing for the stability of our relationships.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright?” I’m not so sure. We all have plenty of cause for worry. And I’m sure you could think of more personal – maybe even secret reasons that I couldn’t know to mention. So I hope Matthew and Bob Marley will forgive me if I don’t just blindly jump on board.

“Don’t worry”? Easy for you to say.

Of course we will worry. Jesus knew we would worry. Advising us against worry wasn’t a preventative measure. It was a recognition that in our worrying, our efforts are often misplaced.

If all we hear in this text is Matthew’s Jesus na├»vely telling us not to worry, we’ve missed an important piece of the advice. Bob Marley may have stopped at encouraging us not to worry, but Jesus offered something more, an alternative: “strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things [the things for lack of which you could consume yourself with worry – all these things] will be given to you.”

It’s a radical concept! Strive first for the kingdom of God – before we even consider our own needs or desires. It’s not just “Don’t worry” – he’s saying, don’t worry about the stuff. Don’t worry about money or possessions or superficial needs. If we strive first for the kingdom of God, we needn’t even worry about the really important things like food or clothing.

It’s counterintuitive, I know. When you’re hungry, it’s only natural to worry about where your next meal will come from. When you’re facing eviction from your home, it’s only natural to worry about where the next payment will come from. When you’re lonely it’s only natural to long for affection.

But what if we really did join Jesus in this counterintuitive thinking? What would it mean to strive first for the kingdom of God, instead of striving first for our own desires? What would it mean to replace all of our worries about things with an eagerness for the glory of God to be realized on earth?

Jesus isn’t telling the hungry, or the poor, or the lonely to stop worrying. More so, he is telling us – those who are not lacking – that it should not be their job to worry. We all have areas in our lives where we are lacking and areas in our lives where we are not lacking. But if we all could strive first for the kingdom of God as it can be realized in our midst, then there would be no need for any of us to worry over our human needs.

The kingdom of God among us would be defined by the reality that all of our needs would be met. If I am striving first for the kingdom of God then my neighbor will never be hungry. My neighbor will never be homeless. My neighbor will never be lonely. If we spend less time worrying over our own want of material possessions and superficial comforts, and more time striving to realize the kingdom of God, then that realization of God’s vision for humanity would ensure that all of our needs would be met: mine, yours, and those of our neighbors, both here and around the world.

I don’t think it’s an accident that on this – the day that is for most of us a day of seemingly unbridled bounty – it’s no accident that this is the day our church, in its wisdom, has asked us to consider our worries and perceptions of scarcity. We always have opportunities for worry, but it’s helpful to consider those worries in the context of our bountiful blessings. It gives us a chance to put them in perspective.

As we examine our lives as members of the Christian community, today reminds us that we must continually ask ourselves: what would it mean if we would make the radical, counterintuitive commitment to strive first and foremost for the realization of God’s vision for humanity in the world? If we made such a commitment, what worries could we allow to rest?

Could people of prayer heal a world torn apart by war and crime? Perhaps. A discipline of prayer yields peace in individual lives. Imagine how our tolerance for unnecessary human suffering would be affected if, as a people, we disciplined ourselves to be people of prayer and allowed our actions to be governed by that peace instead of by our fears. An active commitment to peace could become as infectious as the fear it replaces.

Can the church really speak to the epidemics of anonymity and loneliness that are so rampant in our culture? I think so. When we shift our focus from corporate strategies for consumption to Christian strategies for compassion community will emerge. That light of community will outshine the darkness of solitude that perverts God’s vision for the world.

God’s vision for humanity already exists. We are not called to build it or to create it. God has already done that heavy lifting for us. But we are called to strive toward it, even in the face of all the other kingdoms of this world that might stand in its way.

So don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is going to be all right. Rather than allowing yourself to be consumed with worry, strive instead to make real God’s vision for humanity. When you do, all the little things will fall into place. Amen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Rev. James Otis Sargent Huntington, OHC

25 November 2009
Proper 29B (again!)
John 18:33-37

** NOTE: In our parish we have a mid-week Eucharist on Wednesdays (at 7AM - eek!).  Our practice is to use the propers from the preceding Sunday.  It is also our practice that the preacher on Sunday will also be the preacher at this service.  Whenever that's me, I like to try to incorporate the observance of whatever Feast Day there is, even though we're not using the propers of the day.  I usually don't use a full manuscript for this service, but this morning I did use some quickly sketched notes, so here's a recreation of what I said...

Today we celebrate the Feast of James Otis Sargent Huntington.  Born in 1854, he was the son of the first bishop of the Diocese of Central New York.  When he was 26 years old his father ordained him a deacon and then later, a priest.  Not too long after that, while he was on a retreat in Philadelphia, Huntington began to discern a call to monastic life.  He considered joining the Society of St. John the Evangelist - an English order that had recently established a province in the United States, but instead he felt more called to found a uniquely American order.

Along with two other priests, he established the Order of the Holy Cross.  They began their work of prayer and service to the poor with the sisters of the Community St. John Baptist in New York City.  Eventually, the two who initially began working with Huntington in the order decided to leave.  One, because the rigors of monastic life were taking a toll on his health, and the other, because he discerned a lack of vocation.

Even in the face of this initial setback, Huntington continued in his work and eventually professed his life vows.

Soon, others joined him and the Order of the Holy Cross began to grow.  The order moved from its initial work in New York City a few times before settling in West Park, New York in 1902.  The West Park location remains their primary house.

While studying the life of James Huntington, it was interesting to me to notice that his life was book-ended by some of the most turbulent times in American history.  His early years were shaped by a country embroiled in Civil War.  The last years of his life were during the Great Depression.

On Sunday, I talked about the different language between Pilate and Jesus: they were each coming to their meeting from such vastly different perspectives that they were hardly able to communicate.  They were only barely speaking the same language.

Christians continue to face challenges in communicating with the larger world.

Huntington serves as an example for us, because he used his life of devotion, prayer, and service to the poor to help bridge the chasm that can sometimes exist between the troubles of the world and the hope of Christ.

This is the gift of the monastic tradition: in their lives, they give us that example.  We aren't all called to the Religious life, but we are all called to build those same kinds of bridges where we can.  Like Huntington, we can use our own lives of prayer and service to build bridges between the very real troubles of the world and the hope that we know in Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Belonging in the Reign of Christ

22 November 2009
Proper 29B
John 18:33-37

In the name of God, the Almighty: who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.

One of the ways that I made my way through college was as a bank teller. I loved it. While my friends worked in malls or at restaurants and had unpredictable hours and worked on holidays, I had a set schedule. And though I didn’t make as much money as many of my friends, I always knew how much I would make – I wasn’t dependant on tips or sales quotas or anything like that. I just showed up when I was supposed to and counted money.

It was satisfying work. I could look back at the end of the day and see the thousands of dollars that had come across my desk, the hundreds of transactions that I would perform, and as if by magic, it almost always added up. And on those rare occasions when it didn’t, it would always become clear what had gone wrong in the days ahead: some paper misfiled or some rogue number inverted.

There was order and clarity.

I worked for two rather small, locally owned banks that both, while I was working at them, “merged” with larger, more corporate institutions. In both cases, the new corporations brought with them better pay, better benefits, and new technologies that made my work even easier.

It was a good life.

At the second bank I worked for, I worked as a floating teller. Each day I would get a call telling me where I was to work for that day. I filled in for other tellers who were out sick or on vacation, and I rarely worked at any one branch for more than a few weeks at a time. It appealed to my burgeoning wanderlust, even though I was only traveling within a few dozen miles in a corner of southeast Louisiana. I enjoyed having the opportunity to work with a variety of people and in a variety of markets. There were the typical suburban branches, but I also got to work in downtown branches, rural branches, and branches on what most would have called “the wrong side of the tracks”.

Those were my favorites.

I remember in particular the Plank Road branch in Baton Rouge. It was in an impoverished neighborhood very much on the “wrong side of the tracks”. There were off-duty police officers stationed at the branch at all times – mostly to keep the homeless people from loitering and drinking all the coffee. But it gave my time there a sense of adventure.

I loved the ladies who worked in that branch. They were from the neighborhood, but had “made good”. They were somewhat looked down upon by the rest of the bank, but in this little corner of the kingdom, they were on top – respected in the community as some of their own who had risen above.

It didn’t take me long to encounter the reality that the corporate policies in which I had been so thoroughly trained didn’t work quite the same on Plank Road as they in the other parts of the bank.

One of my first customers at the Plank Road Branch was an older, African American woman named Mrs. Jackson. I forget exactly what it was, but the transaction that she was requesting was something perfectly innocent, but that required a variation from our normal corporate policies. Policies were rigid things meant to protect the bank – and me – from the customers.

I’ll never forget Mrs. Jackson’s face when I refused her transaction. She wasn’t angry, but seemed to be hurt, more than anything. She looked at me with sad eyes and said, “But I’m a member of this bank!”

There was an essential difference between how I had been trained to see her, and how she had come to see herself.

I had been trained to see myself – in my capacity as a teller – as belonging to the bank. As one who belonged, it was my duty to protect the bank from all those individual invaders on the outside.

But Mrs. Jackson saw herself differently. Through years of coming to the same building and building relationships with the same people, she saw herself not as an outsider – not even as an individual, but as one who belonged – part of the body of that institution. She saw her relationship with the bank as corporeal as my own. Through all of the corporate transitions she had not been trained in her new role: she saw herself as a member, but it was my job to dis-member her – to make her into an outsider.

Mrs. Jackson was from a different time in the life of that institution – a time when people belonged. And while she asserted her belonging, I worked to cut her off – to make her no more than an individual.

It’s not unlike the story that we hear in the Gospel lesson today. As was the case with Mrs. Jackson and me, we hear Pilate and Jesus engaging in fundamentally different understandings of belonging. In the arraignment, Pilate seizes the issue of belonging to determine the charges against Jesus. As the designate of the Roman Emperor, Pilate knows to whom Jesus belongs. Or at least he thinks he knows. The question is, to whom does Jesus believe that he belongs – or perhaps more importantly, who does Jesus believe belongs to him?

It’s no wonder that this passage should come across as sounding kind of confusing. Jesus is answering questions that are different from the ones that Pilate is asking. They are coming from such different perspectives that they are only barely speaking the same language.

Jesus is accused of insurrection. To determine the validity of the accusation, Pilate presents Jesus with the only two possibilities that he can imagine: are you claiming to be a king in opposition to the emperor, or do you belong to our kingdom? Jesus’ answer is beyond Pilate’s ability to imagine: “My kingdom is not from this world.”

They volley back and forth, but Pilate was never able to find a common language with Jesus.

Today, in the church calendar, on the cusp of a new liturgical year, we find ourselves in a position not unlike Pilate’s. We celebrate today, the idea of the Reign of Christ. But our culture is centuries removed from any experience of this kind of monarchy. Even in those Western societies where monarchs still exist, they are by no means the kind of absolute monarchy that would have posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire.

Though we don’t have a common language to speak about this kind of ruler or monarch, what we can understand is the same kind of thing that Mrs. Jackson understood – something about belonging. In proclaiming the Reign of Christ we are saying that we belong.

We are not just individuals at worship, but members of the Body of Christ.

We are not just customers of some Christian Enterprise, but we are members – sharing a stake.

So much of our culture tries to dis-member us – to make us individuals. Individuals are so much easier to control than members of a Body that is greater than its parts. Just as I participated in a system that tried to dis-member Mrs. Jackson, so, too, are all of us tempted by different kinds of participation in the cult of individualism.

Christianity is about belonging. And belonging is never about individualism. It is about recognizing the myriad of ways that our existence is tied up in one another. In proclaiming the Reign of Christ, we are proclaiming our belonging and our membership.

Like Mrs. Jackson, we are called to claim that membership. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

I love living in the "facebook age" :)

I just think it's really cool that one of the very important ways that I'm inviting people to my ordination is through facebook.

Yeah, yeah...  I know...  Facebook (like any of the emerging technologies) can be problematic in some respects.  But I honestly believe that these are (or at least can be) tools for being the Body of Christ in the world.

So here's the "online invitation".  Y'all come!

And here's the e-version of the paper invite

Ain't technology cool? :)