The Imperfect Life

Imperfect Life.jpg

When I was a child, the beginning of the month of December brought with it the selection of our annual Christmas tree. We would make our way to the Christmas tree lot and my dad would hold up a series of trees until we found “the one.” We would proudly take the tree home, set it up in our living room, and then begin the annual tradition of lighting and decorating the tree.

Now about twelve years ago, my family and I decided to invest in a quality artificial tree. It’s more costeffective over time. It’s creates less of a mess. And, after all, artificial trees are manufactured to be essentially perfect. The trunk of the tree is exactly straight. Each branch is evenly spaced around the circumference of the tree. The shape of the tree is perfectly balanced with no extraneous, protruding limbs. And, of course, most importantly, it doesn’t drop its needles. Now for someone like me who likes symmetry, balance, order, and consistency, an artificial tree is ideal. So, for more than a decade, an artificial tree has adorned our house.

But this year, the Jupiter High School Band department was selling Christmas trees as one of its major annual fundraisers. Since my son is a part of that program, we, of course, wanted to support him and the program, so we bought a tree. We picked up the tree on Friday night and spent last night decorating the tree as a family while we drank hot cocoa.

It’s a beautiful tree. We had a fantastic time. And I am actually very excited to begin the tradition of having a real tree again. But here’s what I noticed – real trees aren’t perfect. The trunk is bit crooked. There are some gaps between branches. The tree is wider on one side than the other. And, of course, it drops its needles. All of that has got me thinking about the differences between the fake and real trees.

The fake tree is essentially empty and lifeless. The real tree is full and alive.

The fake tree is the product of a manufacturing process in a distant factory. The real tree is the product of growth and endurance and adaptability.

The fake tree is stored safely in a cardboard box in the protection of my garage. The real tree has faced the elements of wind and rain, heat and drought, and the unpredictability of simply existing.

Ultimately, the fake tree is a symbol of the perfectionism of our manufactured world. The real tree is a symbol of the imperfections, the blemishes, and the flaws of life.

Last Sunday, we reflected on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to live more fully into the present moment, to engage the reality and complexity of real life. This morning, I would like to invite us to reflect on the season of Advent as a time when we are challenged to recognize the imperfections of our world and our lives, and to reflect on our deep need for healing and renewal. 

It doesn’t take very long and you don’t have to search very far to see the imperfections, blemishes, and flaws in the world around us. Just turn on your television, read the newspaper, or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed. We see imperfection all around us. We see inconsistency. We see injustice. We see inequality. We see war. We see violence. We see brokenness. We see people hurting. We see pain. We see despair. We see the imperfections of this world.

But, of course, one of the hardest things to do is to recognize those imperfections within ourselves. It’s difficult for us to acknowledge our own complicity in the imperfection of the world, our own brokenness and sinfulness. And this is hard for us to do, because we spend a lot of time and energy trying to cover up our imperfections. The dominate message of our cultural context is to deny our imperfections, to cover up our brokenness, to make sure everyone thinks we have it all together. Over the last decade, the rise of social media has fueled this perfectionist mindset. Facebook is plastered with images of the perfect family, the perfect vacation, the perfect dinner, the perfect gift, the perfect house – every image is cropped and filtered and edited in such a way as to remove the imperfections, to eliminate the flaws, to cover up the blemishes, to deny the inconsistencies. And as a result, we live in a cropped, filtered, and edited world.

Yet the season of Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections, to confront the injustices in our world, to confront the sinfulness of our lives. John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance, a message that called people to account, a message that was brutally honest about the imperfections of the world. I mean, he calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.” You don’t get more brutally honest than that. The very leaders who were charged with shepherding God’s people are confronted with their own issues, their own brokenness, their own need for repentance and renewal. The message of John the Baptist is to “get real.” Advent is a time when we are challenged to confront our imperfections.

But even more than that Advent is also a time when we discover that God actually works through our imperfections to bring about the perfection of his kingdom. 

Our OT reading from the prophet Isaiah begins with the image of a shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David. Jesse was the starting point of what would become the great Davidic dynasty. But, guess what? Jesse wasn’t perfect. David certainly wasn’t perfect. The sons of David weren’t perfect. Their children, and their children’s children weren’t perfect, and so on and so forth. There was brokenness and shame and pain and hurt. And what was once a towering tree of spiritual and political leadership was ultimately reduced to a stump. Everyone looked at the stump and thought – it’s over, it’s done, it’s finished.

But Isaiah looked down the road a bit, he looked with the eyes of faith, and he declared, “Out of that stump, there is going to come a shoot. Out of that brokenness, out of that disappointment, out of that imperfection, something great and glorious and majestic is going to come forth and it’s going to change the world!”

And centuries later, long after prophetic words of Isaiah were uttered, that shoot came forth. Out of the messiness and brokenness and imperfections of Jesse’s family tree, a baby would be born in a manger and that baby would turn out to be the Savior of the world!

My friends, whatever the imperfections are in your life – whatever the blemishes and flaws and brokenness – our God is a God who redeems and restores and makes all things new. Our God is a God who works through the imperfections of our lives to bring about the ultimate perfection of his kingdom.

One of my favorite prayers in the prayer book is a collect that is prayed on Good Friday, at the Easter Vigil, and at every ordination of a bishop, priest, or deacon – and part of the prayer goes like this – O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast downare being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Unexpected Life

the-unexpected-life.jpg

Advent is a challenging season. While the culture around us has already jumped into the stream of Christmas celebrations, we are called on this first Sunday of Advent to wait, to watch, to stay alert, to be spiritually prepared. As a mentor of mine once said, “If the season of Advent doesn’t make you feel like we are swimming upstream, then you probably aren’t doing it right!” We are called to push against the strong cultural currents of consumerism and secularization. For example, during the 48 hours of Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday, Americans spent a record breaking 11.6 billion dollars in online sales alone. And yet, the season of Advent challenges us to be still, to be quiet, to actually slow down, rather than speed up.

But I think there is an even deeper challenge that we face during the season of Advent and it is that deeper challenge that would like us to explore this morning. This deeper challenge can be summarized by two words. These two words represent two actions that consume a great deal of our time and energy. And these two actions represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.

The first action is ANTICIPATION – Anticipation is an emotional response involving excitement or, at times, anxiety regarding some expected or longed-for event. We spend a lot of time and energy engaged in the process of anticipation, the process of planning, preparing, and dealing with expectations about the future.

The second action is REFLECTION – Reflection is the emotional processing that takes place after the expected or longed for event. Sometimes reflection is a formal process that includes things like journaling, meditation, or counseling. But more often reflection is simply the soundtrack of our brains. We have a tendency to analyze certain events or experiences over and over and over again.

It has been said that life is primarily a cycle of anticipation and reflection. If you think about it, almost every day of our lives, we experience this cycle in some form or another. There are days when I wake up in the morning, before I am even fully conscious, a flood of events and meetings and items on my to-do list seems to come crashing into my brain. And so, from the moment I wake up I am already engaged in this cycle of anticipation, planning, preparation, I am full of expectations.

When the day is done, we typically spend at least some time reflecting on the day that has passed. We talk things over with a friend or a spouse. Or many people today engage in the process of reflection by updating their Facebook status. Social media has become a virtual world of mutual reflection. As we spend time reflecting, sometimes we feel good about what has happened and sometimes we don’t!

We see this cycle most clearly play out when it comes to significant events in our lives, such as going to college, preparing for a career, getting married, or having children. But we also see this cycle play out in the mundane, everyday activities of our lives, such as going to the grocery store. Working on a school project with our kids.Planning a party. Remodeling your house. Going on a vacation.

ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. These two basic actions consume a great deal of our time and energy and they represent one of the primary ways we organize and understand our lives.

But here is the great irony with this cycle of anticipation and reflection. The irony is that more often than not, when we engage in the process of reflection, when we look back over the events and circumstances of our lives we end up saying to ourselves, “That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I planned and prepared for, that’s not what I expected!”

There is this gap in-between ANTICIPATION and REFLECTION. And this space in-between is the present moment. This is where life actually happens. We spend a lot of time over here. We spend a lot of time over here, and yet the space in-between represents the reality of our lives, and what we discover in this in-between space, in the reality of our lives, is that things don’t always go as planned, we discover that more often than not life is full of the UNEXPECTED. We plan, we prepare, we anticipate, and yet our lives are often dramatically different than what we planned for, what we anticipated.

Sometimes this space is filled unexpected blessings. Perhaps a dreaded meeting at work becomes an unexpected opportunity for growth and healing and reconciliation. Perhaps a financial burden is unexpectedly lifted, or a healthissue resolved. Or maybe it’s just a thank you note or a word of encouragement or some other unexpected acts of generosity. There are times when this in-between space is filled with blessings.

But often this space is filled with unexpected trials and unexpected pain. Perhaps it’s the remembrance of someone close to you that is no longer there. Perhaps it’s a financial crisis that just won’t go away. Perhaps it’s the report from your doctor that’s not very encouraging. Or perhaps there are unhealed hurts from your past that are still a source of pain in your own heart and mind.

Those are times when you reflect upon your life and say, ”That’s not what I anticipated, that’s not what I expected, that’s not what I planned for!” But my friends, the challenge of ADVENT is truly live into this in-between space, to live in the present moment, to embrace the reality of our lives. This is the challenge of Advent.

Because in just a few weeks we are going to celebrate once again that we have a Savior who has come and has entered into this in-between space. Jesus came to enter into the reality of our lives. Jesus came to enter into the midst of our greatest joy and deepest pain. This is the space of true waiting. This is the space where we learn to trust God.  This is the space where we discover our own need for grace. This is the space of total surrender. This the space where we are most fully alive. 

Did you notice that all of our readings this morning use the language of everyday life, the language of the present moment, to describe our spiritual journey? The prophet Isaiah calls us to go for a walk in the light of God’s presence.Paul reminds us that it is time to set our spiritual alarm clocks, to wake up and pay attention because salvation is nearer than when we first believed. Jesus challenges us to stay awake because he will return at an unexpected hour.

We spend so much time over here anticipating, planning, preparing, and so much time reflecting, evaluating, and critiquing. Yet God challenges us to live in this in-between space, the space where life happens. And so, during this Advent season, what would it look like for you and me to enter into this space? What would it look like in the midst of the frenzied activity of the world around us for you and me to just be? To wait. To watch. To wake up. To enter into the unexpectedness of the present moment. And to catch a glimpse of the very glory of God.

Living with the End in Mind

Sunset

The day in whose clear-shining light
all wrong shall stand revealed,
when justice shall be throned in might,
and every hurt be healed;

When knowledge, hand in hand with peace,
shall walk the earth abroad:
the day of perfect righteousness,
the promised day of God.

Thirty years ago, in 1989, author and leadership expert, Stephen Covey, published his best-selling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. That single book has sold over 25 million copies and been translated into over 40 languages. Now the first habit is to be proactive, to be resourceful, to take initiative in our lives. But the second habit of highly effective, successful people is to begin with the end in mind. According to Stephen Covey, “to begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always moving in the right direction.”

If you think about it, this habit or principle applies to almost every facet of our lives. If you’re a student and you’re deciding which university to attend, you are hopefully going to start by identifying what degree you might want to earn or what profession you aspire to enter into. If you’re going to build a new house, you start with the architectural design and you know exactly what that building is going to look like before a shovel ever touches the ground. Or if you’re trying to get in shape or lose some weight, you start by a setting a goal, so you know precisely how far you have to go and how much effort will be required. There are so many examples from almost every facet of our daily lives of times when we automatically begin with the end in mind, so why would our spiritual lives be any different?

The challenge is that when it comes to our spiritual lives, the end or the goal is not something that we can accomplish in a few weeks, or a few months, or even a few years. The end or goal of the spiritual life is not even “to go to heaven when we die.” The end or goal of the spiritual life is the fulfillment of God’s ultimate vision and dream for all of creation. In other words, my life and your life (and your life and your life), everything we do, everything we say, everything we represent, is meant to be a foretaste and a sign of God’s ultimate vision and dream for all of creation.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Fr. Doug, have you seen my calendar? Most of the time I am just trying to make it through the day. I am trying to pay the bills. I am trying to check things off of my ‘to-do’ list. I am consumed with what is right in front of me. I’m not sure I have the time or the energy or the emotional resources to focus on God’s ultimate vision and dream for all of creation!” And you’re right! The fact of the matter is that most of us live our day to day lives focused on what is right in front of us. And over the past decade, this mindset has become embodied in our actual physical posture as people spend an average of 5.4 hours every day staring at the screen of their cell phone. We’re not thinking about the end. We’re not thinking about God’s ultimate vision and dream. We are held captive by what has been called the tyranny of the urgent.

But, Jesus came to show us something different. Jesus came to pull back the veil of this present moment to give us a glimpse of God’s vision and dream. Jesus came to give us a glimpse of God’s new creation. Jesus says to his disciples, “Look around you – What you see right in front of you is sickness and division and brokenness and pain and injustice, but if you pull back the veil that enshrouds this present moment, you will see God’s ultimate vision. You will see God’s dream for all of creation. And I am calling you, says Jesus, to live your life now with God’s end in mind.

Now this vision and dream was not something that was new with the ministry of Jesus. It was a dream that was envisioned centuries before by the prophets of old – people like Isaiah, who speaks of a new heaven and new earth. Isaiah points forward to a time when there will be no more weeping, no more destruction, no more pain. Isaiah envisions a day when the wolf and lamb, the predator and prey, will actually hang out with one another. Isaiah describes a vision of God’s shalom. God’s wholeness. God’s peace.

I think if Isaiah were writing today, he might say that God’s future is one in which children will go to schoolwithout fear of violence. God’s future is one in which families will be reconciled and relationships healed. God’s future is one in which no child will go to bed hungry. God’s future is one in which walls of hatred and division, walls of prejudice and fear, walls injustice and inequality will be torn down. And all of God’s children will gather togetherfrom every nation, tribe, people, and language to worship and give praise to God!

That’s the end. That’s the goal toward which we are striving. That’s the vision. That’s the dream. We spend so much of our lives stuck right here, consumed with what is right in front of us, captivated by the tyranny of the urgent.  But, my friends, what we see right in front of is not the end of the story! There is a new world coming! Alleluia!

Now in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus made it clear that the emergence of that new world will not be without struggle. There will be those who will reject the vision of God’s future. There will be persecution. There will be suffering. There will be things that we think are strong and stable and permanent that will come crashing down. For the first century followers of Jesus, nobody could have imagined the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – something so strong, so stable, seemingly so indestructible, and yet it came crashing down. Now in our gospel reading, as Jesus describe the challenges we might face, I, for one am relieved to know that in the midst of these struggles not a single hair on my head will perish!

All joking aside, I believe we have been lulled into a false sense of security, because we are fortunate to live in a nation in which we are free to express our faith and to worship as we choose. But that has not always been the case and it is not the case right now in many parts of the world. Living with God’s end in mind is not and will not be easy!

And yet, that is our calling.

To not be stuck in the challenges of this present moment.

To not be held capture by the tyranny of the urgent.

To not be deceived into thinking that what is right in front of us is all there is.

But to place our trust and confidence in Jesus. To allow God’s Spirit to pull back the veil that we might catch a glimpse of God’s future. It might take a while for our eyes to adjust. It might take some time for things to come into focus. But once we see the vision, once we see the dream, our lives will never be the same. Because, it is only when we know the end that we truly know where to begin.

Heavenly Minded

Heaven and Earth

click-to-listenThroughout the Bible there are two locations, two realms, two dimensions that define the relationship between God and humanity. And those two locations are, of course, heaven and earth. The very first verse of the Bible in the Book of Genesis announces that God is the Creator of heaven and earth. The very end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation describes a climatic vision in which God restores and recreates a new heaven and a new earth. And in between the beginning of the Book of Genesis and the end of the Book of Revelation, there are 31,102 verses of Holy Scripture, and what we find is that these two locations, two realms, two dimensions – heaven and earth – are the primary focal points of the entire story of the Bible.

Now we typically think of heaven as God’s space and earth as our space. We tend to think of heaven in spiritual terms and earth in material terms. We think of heaven as where we go when we die and earth as where we live and work and do all the stuff that is part of our daily lives. But at some point, I think we find ourselves wrestling with the question – What is the relationship between earth and heaven? What is the relationship between our space and God’s space? What is the relationship between life here and life there?

And when we find ourselves struggling to understand the relationship between heaven and earth, our default “mode of operation” is to start with our own experience. In other words, we typically start from an earthly perspective. We take our categories, our experiences, and our cultural paradigms, and we project those onto our interpretations of heaven. One of the most common examples of this kind of projection is when I get asked the question, “Will my pets go to heaven?” The whole basis of that question is rooted in our earthly perspective. The question is predicated on our experience, the way we think of the world. Now, I am not saying that your pets don’t go to heaven. Please don’t leave here and say, “Fr. Doug told us our pets don’t go to heaven.” I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that the question itself is based on our own categories and experiences and cultural paradigms.

Our starting point is our earthly experience. We do this all the time!  And in today’s gospel reading, I think this is precisely the mistake that is made by the group of religious leaders called the Sadducees.

The story in today’s gospel reading is sort of Luke’s version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, except in Luke’s version there is just one bride, who becomes the wife of seven brothers, after each one successively dies. As I mentioned, the main characters are Sadducees, who were a group of Jewish religious leaders who denied the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees basically rejected any belief in a spiritual realm and that, of course, explains why they were so sad, you see (groan)!

So, the Sadducees come to Jesus with what they think is the perfect trick question. “If one woman marries seven brothers in this life, who wife will she be in the life to come?” Jesus responds to the Sadducees by saying, “Your question is based on a fundamentally wrong assumption!” You are assuming that resurrection life, life in the age to come, life in the heavenly realm is essentially just like this life. You’re assuming that what is come is essentially “more of the same.” Jesus is saying, “No, resurrection life is qualitatively different!” All of the things that are the markers of our earthly journey – marriage, children, retirements, our jobs, our possessions – none of those things characterize our life in the age in to come, because life in the age to come is not merely an extension of this life, but something wholly and fundamentally different!

Now let me very clear – Jesus didn’t say that we won’t know or recognize our families. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are still around, and they are still Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.He is not saying that is no sense of continuity or connection between this life and the next.

What Jesus is saying is that everything, including our relationships will be transformed and will be different in the life to come! The promise of resurrection, the promise of abundant and eternal life with God, is not just our “Life on Earth 2.0” – but rather the promise of resurrection life is the promise of an entirely new reality in which all things are made new.

Continue reading

The Real Saint

all-saints-mosaic.jpg

click-to-listenOn Thursday night, hundreds of trick-or-treaters were roaming around our neighbor as part of their Halloween celebration. But, you know, nobody came by my house on Friday night to celebrate what is, for the church, a much more significant day – the Feast of All Saints’. Let me just check, did any of you have a few hundred people at your house on Friday for the big All Saints’ neighborhood block party? I didn’t think so.

All Saints is distinctive because it is the only principal feast of the church that can be celebrated on the feast day itself, which was November 1, as well as the Sunday following, which is what we are doing this morning. The Feast of All Saints is the day when we remember the great men and women of the faith who have gone before us. It’s the day we are reminded that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses that is a source of inspiration and encouragement. It’s one the four Sunday’s each year that especially appropriate for the celebration of Holy Baptism. The Feast of All Saint’s also provides us with an opportunity each year to explore the basic, basic question, WHAT IS A SAINT?

According to Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary a saint is defined as a person who is officially recognized by the Christian church as being very holy because of the way he or she lived. A saint is a person officially recognized by the church, is very holy, and this holiness is attributed to their particular way of living.  Now most people, when they hear this basic definition of a saint will usually nod in agreement – “Yeah, that sounds like a pretty good definition of a saint.” After all, since at least the 2nd century, we have had books that chronicle the lives of famous saints of the church. In the Episcopal Church, we have book called A Great Cloud of Witnesses that contains an entire calendar full of men and women all of whom fit the Merriam Webster’s basic definition of a saint:

  • They are recognized by the church
  • They are designated as possessing a certain level of holiness
  • And their holiness is attributed to their particular manner of life

Now Webster’s dictionary has been around for almost 190 years. It has sold millions of copies and profoundly shaped the character of American culture, but I have to say that in this particular case, I think Webster has gotten it slightly wrong. Because the definition that I just referenced may describe one particular category of saints, but it fails to recognize the essential characteristics of a saint that we find described in New Testament and throughout the history of the church. It fails to answer, “What is a saint?”

For starters, Webster’s definition states that a saint is someone “officially recognized by the Church.” There are certainly many saints who have been officially recognized by the Church. I’m sure if we took a quick survey of the room this morning, we would be able to create a long list of “official” saints of the church.

But for every saint officially recognized by the church, there are millions of other saints whose names we will never know. In fact, the vast majority of the saints of God are those whose names have been seemingly forgotten by history, and yet they have not been forgotten by God.

  • These are folks who are living faithfully in the context of their everyday lives.
  • These are moms and dads who are seeking to be faithfully raise their children
  • These are workers who give of themselves to do a job nobody else wants to do
  • These are teachers an doctors and nurses…offer themselves in the service of others
  • These are people who stop to help a stranger on the side of the road

These are not people who set out to do extraordinary things, but they are people who do ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Their names will never be found in the published chronicles of official “saints.” Their faces will never be found on a medal worn around someone’s neck, but they are saints, nonetheless. In their own time and place and circumstance, they have worked for the building up of God’s kingdom. So, contrary to Webster’s definition, the overwhelming majority of saints are rarely recognized or acknowledged.

The second thing that Webster’s definition attributes to saints is a certain level of holiness. The definition says that the saints were recognized because they were “very holy.” Now most of us, would not place ourselves in the category of “very holy.” If we just thing about the past week, most of us could make a list of things that would immediately disqualify us from being labeled “very holy.” But here’s the good new – many of the saints that have been officially recognized by the Church were actually fairly rough around the edges.

Moses was a murderer. David was an adulterer. Paul persecuted the church. Augustine was a lady’s man. And Martin Luther had a problem with profanity. You see, anyone who has been a follower of Jesus for very long knows that the spiritual life is often messy, untidy, and inconsistent.

Now, this is not to say that we are not called to pursue holiness and righteousness. Not at all! We are continually called to cultivate holiness and purity in our lives. But, we pursue holiness and righteousness not to BECOME saints, but because we ARE saints! In other words, God says to each one of us, you are a saint, and then calls us to live into that identity. Essentially we are in process of BECOMING what we already ARE.

So, most saints are not officially recognized and they are not particularly holy according to our typical standards of holiness.

Finally, Webster’s definition states that all this is based on the way he or she lived. Sainthood is identified with a particular manner of life. Now it is certainly true that most of the saints we think have lived rather remarkable lives and, in fact, our lives should be wholesome examples of the Christian life, but here’s the irony, the true saints knows that “its not about them.” The true saint knows that their significance, their spiritual worth is not dependent on how “spiritual” they are or how many righteous or pious deeds they accomplish. But rather the true saint knows that their significance, their spiritual value is found exclusively in the grace and mercy of God which is unearned and undeserved. The true saint knows “its not about them.”

So, let’s take these various understandings of what it means to be a saint and write a new definition. I think it would go something like this:

A saint is a person who is rarely noticed or recognized, but who is seeking to be holy even in the midst of the messiness of life. 

A saint is a person who does ordinary things in an extraordinary way and whose life is sustained only by the grace and mercy of God.

When we begin to define sainthood in this way, we soon discover that there are saints all around us. Just walk about two hundred yards and strop by our school and you will meet a saint. Stop by the hospital, or a nursing home, or the rehab center, and you will meet a saint. Make a visit to the Warfield School or St. George’s Center, or Kairos Prison Ministry…and you will meet a saint. Take a moment to greet one of the newly baptized…and you will meet a saint.  Or better yet, turn a take a look at the person sitting next to you, and you will meet a saint. We are the saints of God!

One of my favorite hymns growing up was I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. The final stanza of that hymn says it best:

They lived not only in ages past,

There are hundreds of thousands still,

The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea…

In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,

For the saints of God are just folk like me

AND I MEAN TO BE ONE, TOO!

Why I Give

Why I Give

* This sermon was not based on a fully written manuscript, but was preached in a more extemporaneous style. What follows is a basic outline of the sermon.

click-to-listenLast Sunday, we explored the way we typically think and communicate about our lives. Most of the time we begin by explaining what we do. Then we describe how we do it. But rarely do we reflect deeply on why we do what we do. And so, last week I asked each of you to reflect on this most basic question, “Why do you do what you do here at Good Shepherd?” What is the fundamental belief that inspires and motivates and drives you to give your life to the mission that God has called us to do? When I walked into my office last Monday, I found this stack of about 200 cards sitting on my desk. I immediately began to read through these cards, and I was inspired – I was inspired because even though each card says something different, together they represent the heart of who we are as the people of God in this place. And I intend to continue to read and “inwardly digest” the contents of these cards, because this is why we here this is why we do what we do – to the glory of God.

But this morning, I want to take this one step further and ask the question, “Why do we give?” Or to make it even more personal, “Why do I give?”  I want to speak to you this morning not simply as your Rector,  but as a fellow pilgrim walking this spiritual journey with you. And so, what I want to share with you is not a formally prepared sermon, but rather my own story, my own testimony of giving – first of all, why giving is important to me and, secondly, why I don’t always do it very well.  

Let me begin by saying that I have been a follower of Jesus for as long as I can remember. And I have been following Jesus in the context of the Episcopal Church for as long as I can remember. And giving has been part of my Christian life for as long as I can remember.

When I was young, during the season of Lent, every child was given a mite box. And throughout the forty days of Lent, we were asked to put loose change into the mite box. I remember being very excited if someone gave me a dollar bill that I could fold up and stuff in the box. At the completion of the 40 days of Lent, on Easter Sunday, the children would process into the church with their mite boxes and in my church, some had built a cross that seemed to me to be about eight feet tall and the front of the cross and the arms of the cross were actually panels that would open up. And we would place our mite boxes inside the cross and as we sang the doxology, the cross would be rolled into the center of church. There might have been a few hundred dollars in that cross, not a great sum of money, but that experience has shaped the way I think about giving – and in particular, that image has helped me to articulate why I give. And it really comes down to three words.

Worship

Worship is the orientation of our lives toward God. It’s not simply what we do here for an hour each Sunday. Worship is not limited to the official liturgical rites of the church. Worship is the orientation, the turning of our entire lives toward God. And so, whether it is my work as a priest, my relationships with my wife and my children, my role as a son, a brother, a neighbor, a friend – how I care for my body and how I use the resources entrusted to me – all of those various facets of my life are part of my worship.

God doesn’t really see a distinction between what we do in here and how we live the rest of our lives. For that 10-year-old boy, placing the mite box inside that cross was an act of worship. It was about the orientation of my life. Several years later, when Shannon and I were dating and we both had part-time jobs, we made the spiritual decision to begin tithing – the commitment of giving 10 percent of income. And for over 20 years, that has been our commitment. It’s a non-negotiable for us. Not because it is an obligation, but because it is an act of worship. Continue reading

Know Your “Why?”

whyweexist.jpg

click-to-listenImagine for a moment that you are attending a reception, a banquet, a business convention, or any other event where you might meet someone for the first time. If you think about it, the script for that initial encounter when you meet someone for the first time is fairly predictable. If the person’s not wearing a nametag, you would begin by asking them, “What is your name?” The most common follow-up question would be “Where are you from?” After perhaps exchanging a few niceties about the event, the next most obvious question would be “What do you do for a living?” If the conversation continues, you might ask the person “How long have you been in your profession?”, “How do you do what you do?”, “Tell me about your job.” Etc. Etc.

But almost never does someone ask the question “Why?” Why do you do what you do?” “Why is that important?” “Why is what you do a significant part of your life?” The reality is that if someone actually started asking us those deeper, more probing, questions we would probably find a way to politely excuse ourselves from that conservation. Because, for whatever reason, we are comfortable with questions about what we do. We’re even okay with questions about how we do what we do. But when we are asked to probe more deeply: to ask ourselves why we do what we do, we are often not so sure and our answers to the question why don’t often flow as easily or naturally. As a result, our typical pattern of communication tends to move from the outside-in – from what to how (and maybe) to why.

As it turns, this is precisely the pattern of communication that dominates most of the businesses and organizations around the world. Over a decade ago, author and speaker, Simon Sinek,  began studying organizational leadership. As part of his research, Sinek looked at a wide variety of examples – he looked at corporations, social movements, and entrepreneurs. And he said, “How do we account for the fact that some of these organizations seem to surge to the top, while others seem to remain status quo and still others just fall by the wayside?” For example, how is it that Apple computers became the tech giant that is today even though there were plenty other very capable and well-organized companies that made computers? Or how is it that Martin Luther King became the face of the Civil Rights Movement even though there were many other passionate & charismatic orators of that day? And how is it that the Wright Brothers successfully flew the world’s first airplane even though there were plenty of other entrepreneurs with more money and resources working on the very same project?

Now at face value, it seems that these three examples have almost nothing in common. They represent different fields. Different times. Different people. Different purposes. And yet, according to Simon Sinek, there is one common denominator that connects Apple computers, Martin Luther King, and the Wright Brothers, and that one common denominator is this – instead of communicating from the outside-in, from what to how to why, they communicated from the inside-out, from why to how to what. In other words, they started with why. They were driven by a fundamental belief that inspired and motivated their mission.

The Wright Brothers were motivated by a belief that flight is an expression of the human spirit and a manifestation of man’s ability to do the impossible.

Martin Luther King believed in a dream – a dream of a world in which love conquers hate, light vanquishes darkness, and all God’s children live in peace.

Steve Jobs was inspired by a belief that the promise of technological innovation has the capacity to dramatically improve people’s lives and ultimately change the world.

You see, when everyone else was starting with what or how and maybe eventually getting to why, these were great leaders who started with why – they started with a fundamental belief that inspired and motivated their mission!

Now this gets me very excited, because everything I have been talking about takes us as followers of Jesus right back to the Bible (I know you were wondering if I was ever going to get there!). But if we look at the life and witness of the first followers of Jesus, those early Christian communities, we find that they were doing a lot, they were extremely busy. They were planting churches, they were developing organizational structures, they were writing letters and creating networks of communication throughout the Roman Empire. That’s the what of early Christianity.

And how did they do it? They were preaching and teaching. They were training and developing a new generation of leaders. They were raising funds to serve those in need to and to build up the Body of Christ. They were providingpastoral care for the sick and those on the margins of society. That’s the how of early Christianity. But the what and the how are not the things that motivated and inspired the first followers of Jesus to give their lives to be a part of that movement. What motivated them and inspired them was why! They believed with every fiber of their being that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus had fundamentally changed the course of human history and they believed that they were living in the middle of an age of profound transformation. The mission of the first followers of Jesus started with why!

Continue reading

Who Do You SEE?

homeless.jpgclick-to-listen

Over a decade ago, a researcher named Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois conducted a now famous experiment which involved a basketball and a gorilla. In the experiment, the participants were asked to watch a video of a group of people passing a basketball back and forth to one another. The participants were instructed to focus on the people in the video who were wearing white shirts and then to count the number of times the basketball was passed among those particular players in the white shirts. In the middle of the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walked into the scene. She turned and faced the camera, pounded her chest, and then slowly exited the room. When asked what they saw, fifty percent of the participants watching the video never noticed the gorilla walk into the room. Fifty percent! The researchers concluded that this was not a limitation of the eye, but a limitation of the mind. When our attention is directed and focused on a particular thing, we can become blind to almost everything else, even something as surprising and unexpected as a gorilla walking into a basketball game. The researchers call this inattentional blindness – what we think we see and what we actually see are often two very different things.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus tells yet another dramatic and somewhat perplexing parable. The first character we meet is “a rich man,” which has become sort of a stock character for Jesus. As with other rich men in other parables, we don’t know this man’s name, but we do know that he has been living the good life, wearing the latest designer fashion and enjoying all the gourmet food and wine he can handle. In contrast to this generic rich man, there is a poor man who actually has a name – and his name is Lazarus. Day after day, Lazarus sits at the gate outside the rich man’s palace. He is thirsty and hungry. His body is covered with sores. Both men die. Both are carried to their eternal destinations. Both men receive their just deserts. Lazarus is accompanied by a throng of angels with the great patriarch, Abraham, and the rich man – well, let’s just say the quality of his living quarters has diminished significantly!

The rich man cries out for mercy, but Abraham says, “It’s too late, a great chasm has been fixed between you and Lazarus, and there is nothing more that can be done.” In his desperation, the rich man pleads that at least his brothers should be warned and thus be spared the same fate. But “Alas,” says Abraham, “even if someone were to be raised from the dead, they would not listen.”

Now at face value this parable appears to be fairly straight forward – the person who is greedy and selfish in this life will ultimately suffer the consequences in the next. Therefore, the moral of the parable is “don’t be greedy and selfish.” But what if there is something deeper going on? What if this parable is meant to challenge us to examine who we see and who we don’t see? What if this parable, just like the basketball players and the gorilla, is about the way we can be blind to something or someone who is standing right in front of us? Someone just like Lazarus.

Continue reading

Reordered Relationships

money.jpg

lucy-player-buttonThis past week a colleague and fellow preacher posed the following the question. He said, “It is ever okay, after hearing the proclamation of the gospel, for a preacher to stand up and boldly tell his or her congregation – I really have no idea what that means!” If there was ever a Sunday when that response would be entirely appropriate, today would be that day. Because, the parable we heard this morning, commonly called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, is perhaps the most perplexing parable that Jesus ever told. In fact, it seems that the gospel writer – Luke himself is not even entirely clear about what it means, because he seems to offer at least four different interpretations.

  1. The children of the light need to act more shrewdly.
  2. Christians should make friends by means of “dishonest wealth.”
  3. If you can’t be faithful with “dishonest wealth,” why would anyone entrust you with “true riches,”
  4. You cannot serve both God and wealth.

Perhaps Luke intended this to be sort of like “multiple choice”and we are supposed to just pick the interpretation we like the best! At the end of the day, this is a parable that has frustrated and aggravated even the most gifted of preachers.

But this week, as I read and re-read this parable, I saw something that I had not seen before. I saw this parable as being primarily about relationships, and specifically, the reordering of relationships. If you think about it, there are basically three relationships that shape and define our lives: our relationship with God, our relationship with people, and our relationship with things. Now these three basic relationships are, of course, all interconnected, but I think we would all agree that there is a certain ordering of these relationships, with our relationship with God at the top, followed by our relationship with people, and finally, our relationship with things. It sounds simple, but the reality is that we often get that ordering wrong, especially when it comes to our relationships with people and things. As one theologian has put it, “we are called to love people and use things, but all too often we end up loving things and using people.”One of the traditional definitions of sin is disordered love. In other words, the brokenness and injustice that we experience in our lives and in our world are the result of this disordering of our relationships with God, with people, and with things. And our parable today is about the potential for these relationships to be reordered.

The central character in the parable is essentially a first century mid-level manager. He has a boss, who is simply referred to as “a rich man.” And then he has a network of workers and servants, many of whom apparently owe large debts to “the rich man.” Now we know that today in the twenty-first century, credit card debt can be subject to outrageous interest rates, sometimes exceeding 25 or even 30 percent. Well, the same was true in the ancient world, only it was likely even worse. Because, this mid-level manager would have very likely charged, not only the interest rate determined by his boss, but a bit extra on the side, which he would slip into his own pocket. In other words, it is quite feasible that this manager is exploiting his workers for his own personal financial gain. But whatever shenanigans this guy is attempting to get away, what we do know is that he gets caught and his behavior is reported to his master, “the rich man.”

The mid-level manager is accused of “squandering” his master’s property. This word, “squander,” is the same word that is used to describe the actions of the prodigal son, who runs off spends his father’s money on lavish parties and extravagant living. So, the implication is clear. This manager exemplifies the ways in which we can easily fall into the trap of loving things and using people.

But when he finds himself in a bind, he recognizes that he is going to need some friends. He needs some people whose hospitality he can depend on if he ends up losing his job. And so, the manager reaches out to some of his workers, the ones that own his master money, and he dramatically reduces their debt, in one case by 50 percent and another by 20 percent. And there may have been other debts that he reduced as well.

But I want you to notice the dynamics of what is going on here –

  1. The manager is no longer exploiting his workers.
  2. In fact, he is providing them with significant debt reduction.
  3. He is now dependent upon their hospitality for his own security.
  4. And thereby, he is giving power to those who were once powerless.

In other words, there is shift happening from the love of things and the use of people to the love of people and the use of things. There is a reordering of these relationships.

Now I know exactly what you’re thinking!  You’re thinking, “but wait a minute, this scoundrel is still motivated by his own self-interests. He is still simply trying to cover his own tail. His actions are not exactly the best moral example of justice and mercy.” And you are absolutely right! Continue reading

Reckless Love & Ridiculous Joy

0053406_the-lost-sheep

When I graduated from college and was about to head off to seminary, I asked my mom if she had a copy of my baptismal certificate. She searched through files and folders and scrapbooks and memory boxes, but she couldn’t find the certificate. Three years later, upon my graduation from seminary, my mom eagerly informed me that she had found my baptismal certificate. When the certificate finally came into my possession, I decided it would be best if I put it away in a “safe place.” You know, the kind of “safe place” that you think you will never forget and then a week late, you forget. For the next twelve years, my baptismal certificate would remain lost. Until in 2016 when I was moving to this small village called Tequesta, I opened a box full of random manila folders and there, in one of the folders, was the certificate. And I’m happy to say it is now framed and hangs on the wall of my office.

At some point, we have all experienced the frustration of losing something and then experienced the subsequent feeling of relief when that something is found. Whether it’s your car keys or your wallet, an important bill that has to be paid or your baptismal certificate, we know the basic paradigm of losing and finding. And so, when hear Jesus is speaking about something being lost and then found, most of us immediately think to ourselves, “Yeah, I get that. That makes sense!” We are relieved that Jesus is finally talking in terms that we can understand and wrap our brains around.

The problem is that when we approached these stories from our own human frame of reference, when we read these parables simply as stories about God’s lost and found department, we actually diminish their power. And we end up missing the radical message of Jesus. And so, this morning, rather than just selecting one element of the gospel reading, I want us to take a deep dive into these parables. I want to invite us to think about these stories not from our human point of view, but from the perspective of the kingdom of God.

Now, before we dive into the parables themselves, we have to first to take note of the fact that these are not just random stories that Jesus just happens to share. These parables are a direct response to religious leaders, who are grumbling and complaining that Jesus is keeping company with tax collectors and sinners. We know, of course, that a large crowd has been following Jesus and apparently this large crowd includes both members of the religious establishment on the one hand and those who were considered outcast and unclean on the other.

And the dominant attitude of the religious leaders toward those on the margins was quite simply, “Get lost!” But Jesus counters and says, “No, these are precisely the ones that I came to find!” So, the religious establishment grows angry and resentful. They begin to grumble and murmur. They begin to complain. And it is in response to their anger and resentment that Jesus tells them to two parables. They are parables that are both about reckless love and ridiculous joy.

Reckless Love

First, these are parables that tell us something about the recklessness of God’s love. Jesus begins a question, “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?” The most rational and reasonable answer is “no one!” No shepherd in his or her right mind would leave ninety sheep to go after one who has gone astray. And note that the sheep are not left in a sheep pen or some other safe enclosure, they are left in the wilderness, they are left vulnerable to attack and at risk of being scattered. By almost any standard, the actions of the shepherd in the parable are reckless and unreasonable.

The woman who loses her coin stays up late into the night and sweeps her entire house. She searches diligently and persistently until she finds her lost coin. Now her actions may not be reckless, but they are radical. I lose coins in the cushions of our couch all the time and I usually don’t find them until the end up in the vacuum cleaner. I certainly don’t stay up all night. I certainly don’t exhaust all my energy searching for one coin.

And so, in both of these parables, the search and rescue efforts of the main characters are extreme, reckless, unreasonable, radical. But that’s not the end of story.

Ridiculous Joy

When the lost sheep and coin are found, the response in both cases is one of ridiculous joy. In both cases, the shepherd and the women throw a party to celebrate the fact that that which was lost has now been found. The response is one of celebration and joy and exuberance. I say it’s ridiculous because shepherds were outcasts living on the margins of society and likely would not have had the resources to host even a modest diner party. And for the women, the cost of a celebration would likely have exceeded the value of the coin that she had just found.

These are not simply stories about God’s lost and found department.  These are stories about God’s reckless love and ridiculous joy. These are parables that remind that Jesus came to search out and find the least and lost. The broken and the vulnerable. The lonely and destitute. God’s love is reckless, unreasonable, and radical. And the joy that results from grace is ridiculous and extravagant.

But there is one more piece of these parables that we can’t overlook. Somehow, they are connected to the process of repentance. Because the love and joy experienced on earth is reflective of the joy in heaven when one sinner repents. Repentance hear does seems to imply a turning away from sin. I mean, a coin and even a sheep, can hardly be described as sinful, in the typical sense of the word. In these parables, repentance is about acknowledging that we are all, in some way or another, lost. Sometimes we are lost because of our own choices, like the sheep that chooses to wander away from the flock. Other times, we are lost because of no fault of our own, like the coin that simply slips between the cushions of the couch unnoticed. Still other times, we are lost in our own pride and resentment, like the religious leaders who failed to see the vision of the Kingdom of God.

Repentance in these parables is acknowledging that we are lost and then accepting the reality that God has found us in Jesus Christ.

These are not just stories about God’s lost and found department. These are parables that take us deep into the heart of God, who’s reckless love will stop at nothing to find us, who’s grace will seek us out even when we don’t know we are lost, who’s mercy will chase us down and bring us home over and over again. And that, my brothers and sisters, is reason for celebration, for ridiculous, extravagant, overflowing joy!