Sunday, May 25, 2008

A: Proper 03 (RCL)

Matthew 6:24-34
Psalm 131

Brenda and I are in the stage of life when our own children are fully grown—hovering either side of the thirty-year milestone—but they haven’t yet produced any grandchildren for us. When we’re out at a restaurant and see a family with a baby in the next booth, we find ourselves paying perhaps a little more attention than we once would have. Sometimes we’ll play a silent game of peek-a-boo, and it’s especially gratifying if the baby starts to jump and giggle as a result of our interaction. But it’s even more endearing, and utterly sweet, when we see a baby fast asleep in its mother’s arms. The sight of a sleeping or nursing infant touches a nerve that connects directly to that place in our hearts where we look for peace and contentment and freedom from all stress and anxiety. It is this very image that the 131st Psalm evokes for us:

O Lord, I am not proud; *
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters, *
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast; *
my soul is quieted within me.

Are we ever so fortunate at any later time in our lives? More than anything else, I think, we crave the sort of deep peace that transcends the ups and downs, the changes and chances, of this life. And the opposite of such peace—consuming anxiety—has our fast-paced and fast-changing society in a vice grip. We not only think that sleeping baby is adorable; envy that sleeping baby!

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus knows his hearers even then suffered from high anxiety. They worried about what they were going to eat—some of them, no doubt, whether they were going to eat or not; others about whether they would have mere food or cuisine. They worried about what they were going to wear; fashion trends, you know, and the desire to keep up with them, go back a long, long way in human civilization. They worried about their social standing, what their peers and neighbors would think of them, whether they would be invited to the coolest parties. And in this sea of anxiety, what do we get from Jesus? We get this: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Seek first the kingdom of God … and his righteousness … and all these things—food, clothing, material security, reputation—all these things shall be yours as well. So quit worrying, and let loose of your anxiety.

Easy for him to say, maybe. Harder for us to do. Most of the time, it feels like anxiety is not something we have a choice about. We’re the victims. It’s something that happens to us. So let’s do a little unpacking of what it might be like to “seek first the kingdom of God.” What does that mean, anyway? Over and over again in the gospels, but particularly in Matthew, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven. Through parables and through direct teaching, he tells us how the Kingdom operates, what its core values are, what God’s vision is for His Kingdom. God has a mission in the world, which is that all people be reconciled to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. God’s mission is to redeem and restore the torn fabric of the universe, to lift the ancient curse that has kept all of creation captive to the power of sin and death. The economy of the Kingdom of God operates under some different rules than worldly economies—stewardship rather than ownership, for example; generosity and abundance rather than scarcity and fear, self-giving rather than self-indulging, the welfare of the whole rather than “I’ve got mine, you get lost.” When we seek first the Kingdom of God, we align ourselves in body and mind, in soul and spirit, in theory and in practice, with God’s redemptive mission. We commit ourselves to pursue lives of self-denial, integrity, and justice tempered with mercy.

But seeking the Kingdom of God doesn’t come easily or naturally. It’s not anybody’s default mode. It takes constant attention, and when that attention lapses, our actual default position is to “seek first” our own immediate welfare, whatever we perceive that welfare to be. Our default position is to make decisions according to what’s going to put the most money into our pockets, because we’re anxious about our material security. Our default position is to order our relationships with other people in whatever way will maximize our standing in the eyes of those whose opinions we care about the most, because we’re anxious about our reputations. Our default mode to is to make political decisions—to vote and to advocate—in ways that we think will advance our self-interests, or the interest of those whom we love and care about most directly, or are most like us, because we’re anxious about our place in a world that seems to be getting more chaotic and uncertain by the day. And what does all this get us? What does this default position accomplish? Anxiety, my sisters and brothers, simply breeds more anxiety. It compounds, like interest on a loan. When we seek first our own welfare, we only jeopardize that welfare even further. By investing in material security and social status, our exposure to loss leaves us wide open to fear, and fear lies at the root of a whole array of nasty and destructive behaviors.

But there is an alternative, of course. Jesus gives it to us. We have the option of “seek[ing] first” God’s kingdom, of putting God’s mission of redemption and restoration and reconciliation at the top of our list of priorities, making it the top window on our mental desktop. Now, without in any way devaluing the heroic witness of people like St Francis, who cast aside wealth and poverty to embrace a life of begging for the sake of the gospel, or soon-to-be St Teresa of Calcutta, who poured out her life among the wretched and the dying, “seeking first” God’s kingdom does not necessarily mean eating bland food and wearing drab clothes and not partying with your friends. It means God’s mission and vision and core values become our mission and vision and core values. It means the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, become the hub of the wheel on which we organize our lives. Food, clothing, friends, 401Ks, new hair styles, NASCAR, soccer games, track meets, career plans, even our own families, not to mention the hundreds of other things that bring light and joy to our lives—these things occupy various points around the rim of that wheel. These are the things that Jesus says will be “[ours] as well” when we “seek first” God Kingdom.

When we make God’s Kingdom our priority, when we pray “thy kingdom come” in the Our Father, and mean it like we’ve never meant anything before, a subtle but remarkable change will occur within us. We will relax! More and more we will relax about all sorts of things. We will relax because we will have begun to understand the character of God’s provision for us, of God’s care for even the littlest details of our lives. The grip that anxiety has on us will be considerably looser. Best of all, we will begin to enjoy the sort of inner peace that we see in a baby asleep on its mother’s breast—completely trusting, grateful for today, and not worried about tomorrow—no pride, no arrogance, no anxiety, just trust in the presence of the Lord who cares even for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday. It's something of an anniversary for me, because it was on Trinity Sunday 1979, twenty-nine years ago, that I delivered my first official, public, Sunday sermon.
Those of you who are familiar with my biography will realize that 1979 was some years before I put on a black shirt and a white collar and was legitimately authorized to preach. Indeed, my first Sunday sermon was as a layperson. It all started one weekday afternoon in early May or late April of that year. At the time, I wore the hat of music director at St Timothy's Church in Salem, Oregon. I was meeting with the rector in his office, as was our custom every few weeks, to pick hymns and otherwise plan the upcoming Sunday liturgies. Father Rick just casually mentioned—half in jest, perhaps; I really don't know to this day whether he was serious—Father Rick mentioned that he didn't think he would give a sermon on Trinity Sunday. After all, what can one say in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity? Well, as an amateur theologian and a strict constructionist of Prayer Book rubrics (even then), I objected. After all, how can one simply say nothing at all in the face of so great and wondrous a mystery as the Holy Trinity? “If you're not going to preach, I will!”, I said—half in jest, perhaps; I really don't know to this day whether I was serious.

I'm kind of fuzzy on just what happened next. But I do know that, come Trinity Sunday, I found myself in the pulpit of St Timothy's Episcopal Church! And, I have to say, I did a masterful job. I examined the theological implications of the doctrine of the Trinity with subtlety and refinement. I read from my own journal, and shared my own inner struggle in my relationship with the God who is one-in three and three-in-one. I quoted from well-known hymns and from the writings of the saints and doctors of the church. When I stepped down from the pulpit, and made my way back to the choir to lead the singing of the Nicene Creed, there was a holy hush over the congregation. “That went pretty well”, I thought to myself. “Maybe I should consider doing it professionally.”

My sense of accomplishment was short-lived, however, for as I was directing the choir during the singing of the Creed, I glanced at my watch, and did a double-take. To my horror, I saw that it was 10:55 in a 10 o’clock service, so it was about the time that communion should be winding down, and we were only at the Creed! Now, most Episcopalians are only too happy to have theological mysteries explained to them, but not if it means listening to a forty-five minute sermon at a Sunday Eucharist! I was mortified, and my fellow parishioners gave me a good-natured hard time for years to come.

I assure you that today I do not intend to be either as lengthy, or, probably, as profound, as I was on this day 29 years ago. So let me just cut right to the heart of the matter. It has often been said that Trinity Sunday is the only festival of the church year that celebrates a doctrine, rather than an event or a person. Don't you believe it! Trinity Sunday is not about celebrating a doctrine.

In a way, I wish it were. I'm personally quite fond of doctrine in general and the doctrine of the Trinity in particular. I enjoy trying to wrap my mind around it, and I believe it is absolutely essential to the well-being of the Church and to a right relationship with God. To my dying breath, I will struggle to confess and uphold the doctrine of the Holy and Undivided Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as it is proclaimed in the scriptures, creeds, and liturgies of the historic Church. So passionately do I feel, and so resolutely am I convinced of the correctness of the traditional doctrine.

But I do not for one instant fool myself that either my passion or the correctness of my belief will deliver me from the power of sin and death and make me worthy to stand in the presence of the triune God! Only the triune God himself can do that. And it is this God, not the doctrine of him, whom we celebrate on Trinity Sunday. The Old and New Tstaments contain any number of commands pertaining to our relationship with God. We are told, among other things, to love him, obey him, serve and follow him, trust and put our faith in him, worship and adore him. But nowhere, as far as I can tell, are we commanded to understand God.

Does that come as a relief to any of you? It certainly does to me! Most of the time, I enjoy trying to understand God, but I'm awfully glad my salvation doesn't depend on how well I do so, because I'm often not very successful! Among the varied gifts of the Holy Spirit is the inclination and ability to penetrate, to a point, the mystery of God's identity, and to articulate that mystery in fresh and compelling ways. Those who have this gift should indeed exercise it for the benefit of the rest of us. We can all enjoy God more as a result. But we will never solve the mystery, and, in the end, our job is to simply rest in the joy of his love for us and in what he has done to reconcile us to him.

Trinity Sunday is not about a doctrine. Trinity Sunday is about the triune God. Doctrines are for understanding. The holy and undivided Trinity is for worshiping and adoring and loving.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,
Praise him, all creatures here below,
Praise him above, ye heavenly hosts,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Let’s take a trip back in time—way back. Beyond the founding of our country; beyond the Reformation and the Renaissance and Middle Ages; beyond the time of Christ and the Roman Empire; beyond the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; beyond the Bronze Age and into the Stone Age, the time of the cave men. Fred and Wilma Flintstone are standing outside the entrance of their cave one stormy evening, grunting in hushed tones about their neighbor, Barney Rubble, whom everyone suspects squirreled away a double share of meat from the wooly mammoth the clan had barbecued the night before.

All of a sudden, a lightning bolt falls from the sky and zaps Barney. Now, what are Fred and Wilma and their fellow cave-dwellers probably going to think? They’re probably going to think that Barney has been tried and found guilty by a higher power. If they live in a northern latitude, they might call that higher power Thor, or Odin. If they inhabit a more southerly area, they might call it Zeus or Ra. They know nothing, of course, about sub-atomic particles and magnetic fields and the meteorological conditions that are likely to produce lightning. All they see is that a man who has behaved badly has gotten zapped from on high. They put two and two together and come up with stone age theology.

Stone Age theology is simple: If there’s no other explanation for something that happens, then God did it. The God of Stone Age theology is a “god of the gaps.” This god fills in the “gaps” between our experience and what we understand about our experience. Fred and Wilma Flinstone’s grandparents may have thought that women had babies purely at the whim of the gods. But Fred and Wilma have discerned a connection between the birth of Pebbles and something that happened between them nine months earlier, so they no longer see any divine presence in the process. There’s no longer a “gap” that a “god” needs to fill. But lightning is another matter, as are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and solar eclipses. So Fred and Wilma are a long way from becoming atheists, even though they’ve figured out where babies really come from.

Humankind may have come a long way since the Stone Age, but Stone Age theology, I’m afraid, is still quite popular. The problem is, there are a lot fewer “gaps” to fill now than there were then. Scientific research is already storming the gates of the inner workings of the brain and human consciousness. It’s been nearly 50 years since the first Soviet cosmonaut got into outer space and presumptuously declared that he didn’t see any evidence of God’s presence or activity while he was out there. Just a few years after that, the American psychologist B.F. Skinner popularlized the notion that human beings are just complicated bundles of electro-chemical reactions, that all human behavior can ultimately be explained physically, and that what we might call “soul” and “spirit” simply do not exist. If we understand God to be the “god of the gaps,” the force which explains the unexplainable, then God is being gradually squeezed out of a job, and we are being gradually squeezed into atheism. The more that science can explain, the less we need God for.

Today is Pentecost, the day on which we celebrate not just “spirit” in general, but God’s Holy Spirit, the one whose power is released in spectacular fashion upon the gathered church in Jersusalem fifty days after Jesus’ Resurrection and ten days after his Ascension back into Heaven. That’s the way the gift of the Holy Spirit is recorded and interpreted by St Luke in the Book of Acts. But in St John’s account, the gift of the Holy Spirit is identified with an earlier event, on the very evening of Easter Day, when the risen Christ appears to the apostles and breathes on them—as routine and unspectacular an act as can be imagined—he breathes on them as says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So we have a dramatic and loud bestowal of the Holy Spirit in Acts, and a quiet and gentle bestowal of the Holy Spirit in John. What are we to make of this contrast?

St Paul addresses this very question in his first letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth. He looks at it not from the perspective of the original outpouring of the Holy Spirit—whether according to John’s version or Luke’s version—but but from the viewpoint of the particular gifts which that Holy Spirit bestows on particular believers. The operative theology here is that the sacrament of baptism conveys not only new birth and the forgiveness of sins, but one or more spiritual gifts as well—gifts which are meant to be exercised, St Paul tells us, not for personal gain, but for the general edification of the church and her ministry in the world.

Let me be more blunt, for the sake of clarity: Every Christian is a minister, and the ministry of every Christian flows from the spiritual gifts he or she was given in baptism. The list of spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12 is not, I believe, meant to be be prescriptive and exhuastive, but, rather, descriptive and suggestive. But the ones he lists are these: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Some on this list—miracles and tongues, for instance—are obviously spectacular, and nobody would mistake them for ordinary human endowments. There is still a little bit of a “gap” here for a “god of the gaps” to sneak into and find gainful employment. But I’m sure that a research psychologist will sooner or later, if it hasn’t already happened, come up with a credible scientific explanation for the phenomenon of speaking in tongues and other forms of religious ecstasy.

Others on Paul’s list—wisdom, knowledge, faith, for example—seem more ordinary, more common to the rest of human experience. We don’t need any sort of god to explain them. We have a difficult time, in fact, identifying them as spiritual gifts at all. We are tempted to say, “I don’t have the spiritual gift of speed, I can just run fast.” “I don't have the spiritual gift of craftsmanship, I just know how to sew.” “I don’t have the spiritual gift of music, I just had a good piano teacher.” “I don’t have the spiritual gift of hospitality, I just like to cook and I’ve always been able to meet people well.” I could go on, but do you see my point? If we think of God only when we’re experiencing something spectacular or miraculous, we will, in fact, become functional atheists, because we will fail to see God present and active in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane, the routine. And this blindness, this failure to see through the eyes of faith, in turn, leads to discouragement, despair, spiritual malaise, loss of faith.

I’ve got good news for you, though! There’s no need to be trapped in spiritual discouragement, because God is present and active in the ordinary and mundane every bit as much as he is in the spectacular and the miraculous. As far as I am concerned, the scientists can close all the gaps they want to, because the God I worship doesn’t need gaps to reveal himself in, he doesn’t need extraordinary occurrences in which to make himself known. He can make himself known in those ways, but he doesn’t need to. Even those abilities and talents which might appear quite natural and ordinary can be understood and appreciated as divine gifts of the Holy Spirit. If you are baptized, you are gifted. That gift may be lying dormant because of your lack of faith, or lack of instruction in Christian discipleship, or you may be exercising spiritual gifts without even knowing it. But the critical reality here is that every Christian possesses and is meant to exercise spiritual gifts.

St Paul takes great pains to point out that spiritual gifts are not to be exercised merely for the self aggrandizement of the one who possesses them. They are, rather, to be employed building up the body of Christ for its mission in the world. Spiritual gifts will never be recognized as such by the world, because they are only revealed and discerned within the context of the Christian community and Christian discipleship. When a soldier is fighting in the jungle, he wears green camoflage to help him blend into the scenery and not be recognized easily by the enemy. But when he returns to the base, and the background is made up of concrete and asphalt and brick, the soldier can be easily spotted and recognized. In the world, spiritual gifts are camoflaged. Wisdom and knowledge look competely natural. Tongues and prophecy look completely crazy. None are recognized as spiritual gifts. Only in the context of “homebase,” the community of believers, is the camoflage renedered ineffective and the spiritual gifts seen for what they are.

This is why it is critical to understand and live out the baptismal promise, taken from Acts 2:42, to “be faithful to the apostles’s teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” It is only in that context that we can discern and develop our spiritual gifts. And when we do so—that is, when the church operates the way God intends for the church to operate—we can be truly effective in the pursuit of our mission. The great metaphor than God reveals to us through St Paul is that of the church as a body—the body of Christ, to be specific. A well-functioning, healthy body is one coordinated system made up of many coordinated systems and sub-systems. When each system does its job, the whole body thrives. When one sub-system malfunctions, all the others suffer. The failure of Christians to be aware of, recognize, and develop their spiritual gifts within the structure and discipline of the church, is a major contributing factor, in my judgment, to our failure to prosecute our mission as vigorously and effectively as we know God wants us to. May God forgive us. It is a failure in faith, a failure in love.

But this Pentecost celebration offers us an opportunity to repent, to change our ways, to head a new direction. That god of the gaps is a mere idol. Put it away. Embrace the God who is already waiting on the top of the mountain, along with all his faithful people, when the scientist and the philosopher finally get there. Claim your gifts, and respond with your fellow Christians to the spiritual hunger of all people, and bring all to unity with God in Christ. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Alleluia and Amen.