Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The graceful ax of God



Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

So, today’s Gospel’s a little scary. You know it’s never a good sign when the first thing that comes to mind when you read the Gospel you plan to preach on is a scene from Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. Because – it’s easy to think that today’s Gospel is claiming that the Advent of Jesus is similar to the Advent of Santa, only a lot more sadistic. I mean is that what John the Baptist is saying? That –

You better watch out
You better not cry
Better not pout
I'm telling you why
Jesus Christ is coming to town
He's making a list
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out Who's naughty and nice
Jesus Christ is coming to town

And then the verse that I wrote:

He sees you when you're sinning,
So I think it’s time you learned;
The wheat he will be gathering in,
But the bad trees he will burn.

So here’s the first thing I want to say about today’s Gospel – the point is not to scare us into a changed life. Right? Because – how does Luke sum up John’s speech? “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Jesus’ arrival is good news, as is every single word that John speaks in today’s Gospel.

And so what I’d have us consider is that today’s Gospel isn’t a picture of Judgment Day, where the sheep and goats are divided, but rather a spiritual formation text where John gives us a clear picture of what Jesus Christ longs to do in our lives: “The ax,” John says, “is lying at the root of the trees; and every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Now, what does this mean? Well, in the backdrop of John’s speech is Psalm 1. And when you get home today I’d encourage you to read Psalm 1, where the righteous person is compared to a tree – a tree that’s planted by streams of water so that it yields fruit in its season. And so psalm one’s metaphor for the spiritual live is that each and every one of us is a tree, which makes us ask the question – where it is exactly that we’re planted. In other words, what do the roots of our soul rely on to find nourishment?

Because – when it comes to life there’s a really big difference between being a tree planted by a riverbank and one that depends on the outside rain to find nourishment and life. And what I think psalm 1 is saying is that there’s a difference between a person whose roots descend deep into God to find nourishment in His goodness and grace, and someone that depends on “outside factors” to make them feel like a worthwhile human being.

And that’s why our great spiritual problem isn’t so much that we’re rebels or misfits but, in the tradition of psalm 1, trees – trees that have been planted somewhere East of Eden and therefore trees that bear the wrong kind of fruit. You see, even though God tells us that we are the object of His love – His very own beloved – we still live our lives frantically searching for someone else to tell us we’re beloved. You see like a tree that depends on the outside rain to stay alive we too rely on outside factors – our I.Q., our sense of humor, what other people think, our portfolio, the feedback we’re getting at work, our own piety and religious observance, our religious tradition (you, know the claim that we have Abraham as our ancestor and that’s what makes us special!). And that’s why John reminds the crowds in today’s Gospel that God can make more children of Abraham from a pile of rocks – that it’s not our heritage or anything else that makes us worthy, but rather God’s commitment to save us, and purify us, refine us with the fire of His Holy Spirit, all to make us more like Himself – that is what makes us worthy.

And it’s this acknowledgement, I believe, that captures the nature of true repentance, which is any shift of the mind that moves us a bit closer to finding our worth and significance in Jesus. And that’s why God’s desire isn’t to polish us up or to work out the kinks in our character, but rather to take his graceful ax, chop us down, burn the chaff, safeguard the wheat, and to slowly but surely uproot us so that we might be replanted in His Son Jesus Christ.

And so while today’s Gospel may not be scary, it is unsettling. Because – nothing inside of us wants to be cut down, and replanted. And yet, for those of us who have already drowned in the waters of baptism, I think it’s good to be reminded that Jesus has no intention of leaving us alone until we are completely and utterly transformed. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

Christ says, “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money … I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, I’ve come to kill it. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. [And so] hand over your whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.”

And so, let me give you a quick example of how this is playing out in my life. There’s a young man I visit weekly in prison by the name of Gerardo. He’s 15 and already Gerardo’s accrued a handful of felony charges. And even though the state will give him a chance to change his life before he turns 18, after two months of walking alongside him I’m not sure that’ll happen, or if Gerardo even wants it to happen. And I tell you this because I began this ministry thinking my call was to get through to him. And what I’m finding is that the person God’s chiseling away at is me. One of the things I’m learning is how scared I am. Truth be told, at this point in life I would never have Gerardo into my home. I’m also learning I have a hard time “wasting” time. If the guard lets me out at 7:04 and not 7 PM sharp I get angry, and if Gerardo’s not happy to see me I’m the one that feels like the victim. “You little jerk,” I think, “do you not appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?” In other words, what God’s showing me is that there’s still so much chaff in my heart that Jesus wants to burn, weeds he needs to pull, branches He intends to prune – all of which is a part of his plant to chop me down and replant me in the goodness and grace of God.

And so here’s the word I’d like to leave you with this morning. As Christmas approaches, when you experience pain – when a relationship breaks down or when a comment breaks your spirit; when your impatience frustrates you or when your anger boils over – stop. Pray. Think about what it is you’re being denied that you’ve been relying on day in and day out to nourish you. Draw an X on that aspect of your soul. And then, invite Jesus to pick up his ax, to bring the baptism of his fire, because something may need to be chopped down and some chaff may need to be burned.

Because – there is no path to spiritual maturity that doesn’t involve pain. Apparently when Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he apparently replied, “Well, I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.” In the same way, Jesus longs to carve away those bits of us that are not really “us” at all. Because – as badly as we want to plant ourselves where our souls can find nourishment in the things of this world, it is good news that Jesus comes to uproot us and replant us in a different world all together, which He calls the Kingdom of God.

And so take heart. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. The ax is lying at the root of the trees; Even now the Master Artist is chiseling, and in His mind, the masterpiece, who you are and who He is fashioning you to be, is finished.

God asks us not to worry,
His wrath we will not face
It’s His goodness that uproots us,
And replants us in His grace.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The glory of Jesus



Jesus said, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Well, good morning. My name’s John Newton and I work for the Diocese as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means for the most part that I’m in a new congregation each Sunday. But St. John’s is the church that my beautiful wife Emily and I call home. And because this feels like home whenever I preach here I’m always a little bit more nervous. And in particular, yesterday, I was a panicky because I woke up and didn’t have a sermon. And not for lack of preparation. I made notes. I read commentaries. I even did a group Bible study. But, you know, nothing clicked. So I browsed through old sermons hoping to recycle one. But I decided you deserve better. Plus, I didn’t have any – first time preaching on Luke 21. And so my heart was “weighed down” as Jesus put it today with the cares of this life.

You see, a little secret you might not know about us preachers: we put a lot of weight in your opinion. We want you to think we’re competent, smart and faithful and far too often it’s actually from you and what you think that we derive our sense of worth and significance. And that’s why I panicked. “What if Sunday rolls around and I don’t have anything to say, what they will think? And if they don’t think it’s good, how will I be able to stand up and raise my head?”

You see, all humans are desperate to know we have significance – to stand tall and raise our head – and far too often we spend our lives chasing after something we think can give it to us.

And it can be anything. What someone thinks of our sermon. Our reputation. A relationship. Our achievements. Our spouse. Our kids. Our portfolio. Our I.Q. Our own moral obedience, piety and religious observances. Being independent. But we all put emotional weight on something hoping against hope that it will help us lift our head in this world and quite frankly give us the cosmic significance we all crave. But what eventually happens is that our hearts get weighed down because intuitively we know that we were created for something more significant, something weightier, than the cares of this life.

Now, today’s the 1st Sunday of Advent and Advent is actually about that Something Weightier, that Something More Significant, arriving in our world not for the first time but for the second. In other words, Advent’s about Jesus Christ coming back not just with power but with power and great glory. And so this morning, I want to answer two questions.

First -- What is glory, and what does it mean to say that Jesus will come with glory?

Second -- What can we do to prepare for this reality so that, as Luke says, when Jesus comes, or we meet Him in death, we can “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence?

And so first, what is glory? Well, the Biblical word glory has two similar meanings. It means weight, or heaviness, but it also means significance or value. The word glory, more than anything, alludes to the real presence of God. The real God is weighty. The real God is heavy. The real God has significance. And that’s why when the real God shows up in the Bible there’s often an earthquake. Mount Sinai’s the perfect example. The real God shows up, the mountain shakes. Right? Because – the real God is so much heavier, so much weightier, than a mountain.

For example, if I drop this pen on the ground (drop pen) it will barely make a sound because the ground has a lot more glory, a lot more weight, than a pen – right? But if a meteorite falls from other space the ground will be crushed because the meteorite has more glory or weight than the surface of the ground.

And so on this first Sunday of Advent as we ponder Jesus’ future return in glory, I’m not sure there’s a more crucial question than this – what’s the weightiest thing in our life? In other words, what’s more real or pressing to our heart than anything else? What do we rely on in this world to stand up with our heads raised? Is it a real, deep and personal friendship with Jesus – and a knowledge of His love, mercy and grace – or is it something else?

Now – a warning to those of us who attend church every week, read our Bible and like to debate the finer points of doctrine – Advent isn’t about getting more familiar with God as a concept, but about standing before the Living Christ in all of His glory and being changed.

You see there’s a problem with the concept of God. It has a lot less glory than our ego. The concept of God is like the pen. And if we drop the concept of God into our life or into our church it will leave us unbroken and will barely make a sound. But in the Bible, when people encounter the Living God, their tiny wants, needs and life-pursuits are always crushed and their life is rearranged.

There was a book that came out in 1972 and twice it was made into a movie – The Stepford Wives. In it the men of Stepford engineer a way to turn their wives into robots. And so women who were once real and able to contradict and challenge their husbands are changed into submissive machines that only exist for a single purpose – and that’s to meet the needs and desires of their husbands.

Here’s the problem with only relating to God as a concept. It’s a Stepford God. If God to us is nothing more than a concept it’s inevitable that we’ll make Him into a robot that only exists to meet our needs and desires. You see a Stepford God has no glory. He can’t contradict us or challenge us. And that’s why the concept of God is light. But the real God is so much weightier than us and our idols. And that’s why it’s not the knowledge of God that transforms us. It’s the experience of God that transforms us.

And so when we talk about Jesus returning in glory, what we’re trying to do is capture the reality that when Jesus returns, we who rest in His mercy and grace will finally have that complete and total transforming experience – what Jesus calls “redemption” in today’s Gospel. You see, the transformation we experience in this life, though real, it still pales in comparison to what will be experienced when we stand before our Lord. And if you think about it, that’s both encouraging and challenging, because when we stand before the One for whom and through whom we were created, we will no longer be able to perpetuate any illusion that we have any significance at all apart from our relationship with Him.

And so as we affirm our belief that our life will culminate with an encounter with the real Jesus – not our concept of Jesus, but the real Jesus – there’s always the question of – “what does that mean for our life” – so that when we do meet Him we can as Luke says “stand up and raise our heads” with confidence without zero fear of being crushed?

And so let me first be clear on what the answer is not. The answer is not “roll up your sleeves and get to work.” There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming -- look busy!” Great bumper sticker, bad theology. Because – if we listened carefully to today’s Gospel, there’s only one thing Jesus says that will last, that has ultimate significance, and that won’t pass away.

And that’s His word to us. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says, “but my words will not pass away.”

And Jesus’ word to us isn’t try harder, or shape up, or “I’m so disappointed get your act together.” No, Jesus’ word to us is one of grace. “Come to me all you who are tired and burdened and I will give you rest. “Fear not little flock,” as He says in Luke 12, “For it’s your Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Or from today’s Gospel – “stand up and raise your heads.”

You see the word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice or good works or good luck trying to please God, the word Gospel literally means good news. And Jesus’ word to us, which will not pass away, is good news. And that’s why Advent reminds us that because Jesus alone is significant and Valuable it’s foolish to put too much emotional weight in anything we do and to shift our deepest hope in what He’s done for us. Because – heaven and earth may pass away, but his word – which is the good news that we are so precious to God that we’re worth dying for – that word will never pass away.

And to the extent that we rely on that word, we will be able to stand confidently before Jesus, knowing that His glory won’t be like a meteor that crushes us, nor will it be like a pen that barely makes a sound. But in a way that’s almost too mysterious to comprehend, because of what Jesus did on the cross, the experience of his mercy and grace and love will be so heavy, so weighty, so glorious, that it will crush our sins without crushing us; and that this experience of God will transforms us, once and for all.

Because – the message of Advent is not get busy being more religious and learn to make Jesus your glory. But rather, it’s rest, watch wait and ponder what it means for you to be Jesus’ glory. For we can only make Him significant to us to the extent that we know how significant we are to Him.

And so, don’t let your heart be weighed down with the worries of this life. Jesus doesn’t want this day to catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. But root your life in Jesus’ word to you, which will not pass away. You are so incredibly weighty to Him. Knowing that will make Him weighty to you.

Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. And so when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Monday, October 1, 2012

save salt IN yourself



Good morning. It’s really nice to look out and see some familiar faces. For those of you that don’t know me my name’s John Newton and I work as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means a big part of my job is to give voice to that process by which God takes us into His arms and makes us more like Himself. But before going to work for the Diocese I was here. And I have say, standing up here, it feels awesome to be back and I’ve been looking forward to this ever since Mike invited me. (Thank you, by the way!)

And so in returning to this place I love, where I learned to be a priest; I had big plans to preach a fluffy, upbeat sermon about love or heaven or puppy dogs, you know something to make us all feel good! But then I got the readings. And they put me in touch with something I’ve been present to in my own life lately – and that’s the massive amount of pain we experience in life. As Jesus once said “in this world you will have trouble.” Thank you Captain Obvious, but what are we supposed to do with it?

Well, I’m reading a book by Daniel Kahneman (KAH-neh-mun) called Thinking (comma), Fast and Slow. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for inventing behavioral economics, but his specialty is thinking about how we think. And what he says is that we’ve two brains (metaphorically speaking) – a fast brain, and a slow brain. Our fast brain, which runs the show, is always generating a narrative about reality and the meaning of our place in it, and our slow brain, or what we call “thinking,” is lazy, limited and typically accepts whatever story our fast brain spits out. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if our fast brain cared about truth. But it doesn’t. All the fast brain cares about is giving a tidy, coherent narrative to the slow brain. And so our brain prefers a coherent lie to a complex truth. But second, pain lingers before our story-telling, “fast” brain much longer than beauty and joy. And because we’re hell-bent on being the hero of whatever story our brain spits out, when we experience pain, our natural programming is to take on the role of the victim. And as a result we control, blame, manage, manipulate and diagnose others because we’re the victim and they – whether it’s our spouse, co-workers, the Democrats, the conservatives, the Aggies, God, Eldad, Medad, someone casting out demons that shouldn’t be – they are the problem and they need to change. The problem of course is that changing people and most of our circumstances doesn’t work, and so as a result we complain, choosing the way of ingratitude.

Now maybe that wasn’t necessary to tell you about Kahneman’s book. Perhaps my “fast brain made me do it” to impress you. But looking at today’s reading from Numbers – makes sense, doesn’t it? The people of Israel are in the wilderness because there are certain lessons God wants them to learn. Because biblically speaking, the wilderness is that painful but good place where God lovingly refines and breaks and shapes us into people more like Himself. But the Israelites don’t want to be refined or broken or shaped – and so they complain, choosing the way of ingratitude.

You see the Israelites don’t like the food. Apparently, the supernatural manna that God’s been sending from heaven isn’t quite up to their standards and so they complain. And because complaining’s contagious Moses starts complaining, too: “God,” he says, “is there a reason you put me in charge of these whiners? I’m not their mother. And so either get a new leader for these people or, if you don’t like that option, kill me.” (Now just so you know, we priests are much holier than Moses and never think that) But here’s Moses – chosen to play the leading role in the great salvation story that’s unfolding – but because the wilderness is painful Moses does what he’s programmed to do. He complains, choosing the way of ingratitude.

And from there the complaining only gets worst. Joshua gets word that Eldad and Medad are prophesying and Joshua wants them to stop. Because if just anyone can start prophesying things will get out of control. (Makes you think Joshua would have made a good Episcopalian). But anyway Joshua complains, choosing the way of ingratitude.

Now, something I do want to be clear about: pain isn’t good, but it reflects the brokenness of creation, and of course God isn’t cruel. In fact, the mystery of our faith is that God endured more of humanity’s pain than we can fathom, and that even now He shares in it. And so pain isn’t good. But, I do believe Jesus’ witness is that God can use it for good, and that whether or not we believe this will decide whether or not we live grateful lives.

You see life’s complex. There’s a lot of heart breaking pain and life-giving beauty and to live in that tension, taking it all in, the good, the bad, the known, unknown, that requires more prayer and thought-full-ness than we often admit. It’s a lot easier to buy whatever coherent, albeit untruthful narrative our broken mind is spitting out – where we’re the victim, and someone else is the problem. It’s easier to complain than to cry. It’s easier to blame than to pray. It’s easier to take up our case than it is to take up our cross. But the latter is always what Jesus invites us to do.

And so here’s the word I believe the Spirit’s given me to speak this week – let me come back during Easter and I promise it’ll be more upbeat.

Let the pain you feel in your own life descend into the center of your heart and trust that in time Jesus will use it for good. I’m almost certain that this is what Jesus means in today’s Gospel when he tells his disciples to “have salt in themselves.”

Because – we’re all deeply wounded and our temptation is to numb those wounds with more stuff or more achievements, or to spend an inordinate amount of time being angry and complaining about the people we think are keeping us down. But you know what we’re not inclined to do? Put salt on our wounds. Because yes salt can heal but it also hurts! But don’t you see, that’s exactly what Jesus is offering in today’s Gospel – which is an extension of what he’s been offering them all along – and that’s the cross, both His and ours.

You see in a world of pain we’re incredibly creative at numbing and blaming complaining, but what I believe Jesus would have us do is run into His arms, like the child in last week’s Gospel, with all of our wounds, warts and pain, so that as we learn to rest in Him we might be healed and transformed. One of my favorite authors, Henry Nouwen, puts it like this.

You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through.

And I think Nouwen’s right. It’s when we live our pain through, or take up our cross, that whatever wilderness we find ourselves in becomes the fruitful soil that prepares us for the Promised Land. You see whenever we break the Eucharistic bread, we’re not just making a statement about what happened to Jesus, but also to God about what we’re asking Him to do to us. For as we eat the broken bread we at the same time ask God to break us: to break us of our self-sufficiency, to break us of the stories we believe where we’re always the victim and not the recipients of God’s love; and to break the stone wall we’ve erected around our heart so that it can become soft and tender like Jesus’.

Apparently when the great Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he replied, “Well, I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.” And I would submit that each one of us is like a wonderful block of marble, and that our job is to run into Jesus’ arms. But God’s job is to chisel, which is a painful image – kind of like having salt in our wounded selves. But don’t you see, that’s why living our wounds through, or taking up our cross, is so important. It’s the primary way God makes us more like himself.

And so I have no idea what’s happening in your life right now, but my guess, because you’re human, is that there’s some place in your life that’s hurting. And again, that’s not good. But do you believe God can use it for good – that the wilderness has a purpose? That’s a different question altogether, which every week we give you the opportunity to answer. You see in a few minutes you’ll be invited to receive the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” And so when you approach the altar, hold out your hands in gratitude – especially if you feel broken – and receive God’s provision for the wilderness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

lose life, find life



“For those who want to save their life,” Jesus said, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.”

“I came that they might have life,” Jesus said, “and have it more abundantly.” “If you want to save your life you’re going to have to lose it.” In other words, I came to give you life; I came to take your life. What are we to make of this tension? I’m not sure Peter knew what to do with it, probably why his response was to rebuke Jesus. But I think we can do better – and so how do we find our live by losing it?

Well, to tackle that question there are two little words we need to look at that capture the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s “if only.” If only I had a newer car, a bigger house, a better paying job, or if only this circumstance would change or that person shape up – if only that would happen all would be well. And so the worldview we inherit might be summed up as follows: “If any want to become fulfilled, let them deny nothing, take up their urge, and follow it. For those who want to save their life will fill it.”

Now in complete contrast to this “if only” me-centered view stands the Christian Gospel. And the wisdom of the Gospel is that if we try and cling to our ambitions, wishes and whatever our “if only” agenda is – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek.

You see in today’s Gospel Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, and seconds later begins rebuking him for speaking of the cross. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like. The Messiah’s supposed to restore the Jewish kingdom by defeating the Roman authorities – not be defeated by them. And so when Jesus says that his strategy is to suffer and to die, Peter decides to intervene. And in Matthew’s account of this same incident, this is what Peter says. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But you know what Peter’s really thinking? “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – he just wants what we all want. To be happy. To be whole. To know who he is and why he’s here. But Peter thinks that in order for this to happen, Jesus needs to start acting like a proper Messiah and supporting Peter’s ambitions and wishes. If only he’d overthrow Rome and appoint me to His cabinet, Peter imagines, then I’ll finally be important, happy and whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here, if only that would happen.

You see Peer didn’t rebuke Jesus because He was looking out for Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because He was looking out for Peter – because he was trying to find his own happiness his own way. And what I want us to see is that even though Jesus’ response seems harsh, what Jesus is actually doing is showing sympathy. Because the point of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus wants us to stuff the deepest desires of our heart. It’s that he wants us to find the deepest desires of our heart in Him and in His mission to save the world. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life are going to lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

And so here’s the primary thing I believe Jesus wants us to give up, and idea I believe is central to lifelong Christian formation. Jesus would have us let go of that “if only” mentality that says it’s possible to have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. This is how CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day: submit with every fiber of your being. Keep back nothing. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this sounds like an impossible task. I know how hard it is to submit to the death of our ambitions and favorite wishes because deep down we cling to the illusion that our ambitions and favorite wishes are the key to our happiness. I’m still learning to do it. But what I’m coming to believe is that God has ambitions and wishes for our life, and that tapping into God’s plan usually requires crucifying our own, but that this is crucial because God’s plan is where abundant life is found.

And that’s challenging work, and so let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so a big part of the process is showing up and acknowledging that formation is a lifelong process. I mean think about it, Peter’s been following Jesus for a while now and he still doesn’t grasp what it means to be a disciple. And in some sense this is true for all of us.

But this morning I do want to leave you with two practical tools that will sustain us on our journey – and that’s take up your cross, and take up Jesus’ cross.

And so first, let the pain you feel in your own life descend into the center of your heart. I think this is what Jesus means when he says, “take up your cross.” You see we’re all deeply wounded and our temptation is to numb those wounds with more stuff or more achievements, or to spend an inordinate amount of time being angry and disappointed at the people we think are keeping us down. To think that “if only” Jesus would fix this person or that situation is akin to Peter rebuking Jesus for not “fixing Rome.” You see, Jesus didn’t come to numb our pain but to permanently heal the collective pain of the world, but because God’s salvation will culminate at the end of time, our vocation, here and now, is to live our pain as fully and courageously as our Lord fully lived His. And this is a big part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Because – if we’re running away from our pain, as Peter ran away from his, we’ll be stuck on that exhausting treadmill of trying to numb our pain or we’ll blame others for it, moving further away from God because we think He should be fixing it. But the Christian’s job is to live it – to allow the pain in our lives pierce our heart so that it becomes softer and more compassionate and more expectant for that future Kingdom. This, I believe, is what Jesus means when he says “take up your cross.”

But second, take up Jesus’ cross. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – that’s the same question the Father asked Jesus. “Jesus, what will you give in return for their life?” And the good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus had an answer. “My own. I will give my life in return for theirs.” You see at the heart of the Christian Gospel is our belief that Jesus’ work is perfect and finished and that we’re saved not because we’re good, but because God is. And that’s why the cross we spend the most time focusing on should not be our own but Jesus’. And that, by the way, is why the daily reading of scripture. Because it’s one thing to “know” Jesus’ cross “here,” but another thing entirely to know it here. And it’s only when Jesus’ cross becomes more real to our hearts than anything else that our lives begin to change.

Because the same question Jesus asked his disciples he asks to you and me – Who do you say that I am? And the mystery of our faith is that He’s God, that He came to both take our life and to give us a new one, and that embracing this process is the only place meaning and happiness and wholeness are to be found. “If only” we embraced this journey with our whole heart.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

faith in WHAT



“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For what good is it if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?”

A couple weeks ago I was with a friend and in a moment of vulnerability he told me he didn’t understand how it is that I, or for that matter anyone, could have faith. Having faith in today’s world, he thought, was altogether absurd.

Clearly it was an upbeat conversation.

But I do want you to sit with this question a bit – is the whole concept of having faith absurd? Is that really how things work – some people have faith, and others don’t?

Because – I would say that answering this question well is central to lifelong Christian formation. Because – when it comes to faith, everyone has it. You see this idea – that some people have faith, and that others don’t, is really popular. But it’s simply not true. Everyone has faith.

For example, I believe that we’re here because of a personal, loving Creator and that the meaning of existence culminates in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. And of course, a lot of people believe that we’re here by random chance – that there is no grand design. But here’s the catch – both are faith perspectives, both are built on systems of belief. Because everyone has faith. And there are no exceptions to this rule.

Now, stay with me for a bit, because it’s really important to understanding what it means to be committed to our own formation. Not only does everyone have faith, but how we act is tied to our faith. In other words, we all make decisions every day about what’s important and about how to treat people. And these decisions, or how we behave, always come from our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world. And so when it comes to how we live, we’re not talking about faith or no faith, belief or no belief. We’re talking about faith in what? Belief in what? And so the question isn’t whether or not we have faith? The question is always, what are we consistently choosing to put our faith in, and how are we taking responsibility for doing that?

And that’s the question that James demands that we wrestle with in today’s epistle. “My brothers and sisters,” he asks – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” You see, James lived in a world where social class was really important – where it was expected that people with wealth, power, and influence would be treated with a certain dignity. And lower class people, it was widely believed, just didn’t deserve the same respect. Plain and simple, that’s just what James’ world believed. And apparently, James’ community – people who claimed to believe in Jesus – drank the kool-aid. And so in James’ community, the rich were treated like kings and the poor were treated like paupers. And so James just has to ask – this community that claims to believe in Jesus – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe?” Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

Now the reason I say all this is because it’s nearly impossible to grow spiritually if we fail to understand what faith actually is. And we do that when we reduce faith to a series of statements that can either be “accepted” or “rejected.” But that isn’t how faith works, which is why he asks do you really believe? Because faith, whether we’re religious or not, is what’s operating inside our hearts shaping how we live our lives. And that’s ultimately what James wants us to wrestle with: what’s shaping our life? Faith in Jesus Christ? Or faith in something else?

Now to be clear, James’ community wasn’t bad or overly-hypocritical or even that different from most churches. But like all of us – myself included – James’ community hadn’t allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts. For example, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, can you hear the audacity of Paul’s claim? His claim is that the King of Creation emptied himself and was treated like a pauper so that we – paupers by nature – might reign for eternity with God as Kings. And isn’t that the Gospel? That God became poor so we might become rich? Because if that’s really true, it’s not enough to accept the Gospel. Or to say we have faith in the facts. Because accepting the Gospel will never change our lives. But really believing it, allowing the truth that in Christ we are Kings and richer than we could ever imagine – allowing that truth to penetrate our hearts – that has the power to change our life. To change our church. That has the power to change our world.

And so with that being said, here’s what I’d like to offer you this week – two things.

First, pay attention to how you live and ask yourself – what does my life tell me about what I believe? For example, say you discover there’s a grudge you refuse to let go of, ask yourself – do I really believe that forgiving others is the best way to live, or do I believe Jesus was naive? Do I really believe I need forgiveness? Or that God also hates the person that I hate? Is that what I believe? Or maybe you find there’s “no time” to devote to your relationship with God, ask yourself – do I really believe that spending time with God – scripture, solitude, silence, service – will change my life? You may say you believe that, but if you’re not doing it, do you really believe God longs to spend time with you?

Again, I am not saying we’re bad or that we’re hypocrites. No, I’m saying that we’re Kings, royalty, adopted children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and that the bulk of our problems come from the fact that this amazing reality hasn’t fully penetrated our hearts.

You see the truth is some of the beliefs that currently shape our lives are absurd. To believe that we should usually get our way, or that we have to look out for number one or that there’s nothing beyond what we can see or touch or feel or my favorite, that we’re always the victim – not one of these beliefs is consistent with really believing in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. And so this week pay attention to how you act to see what you really believe.

Second, take responsibility for becoming a person more like Jesus. You see our transformation may be God’s work, but God does ask us to show up. God will send the wind. But if we’re not in the habit of putting up the sails the boat’s just not going to move. And as Episcopalians there are certain ways we put ourselves in the presence of God to be transformed – through our liturgy, the sacraments, the devotional reading of scripture, meeting Jesus Christ in the poor and needy, silence, solitude, and above all else community. And that’s why this church is so important. You see our faith in Christ may be personal but it’s definitely not private. And so taking responsibility for our lives before God is a communal effort. It means getting involved, taking ownership and rearranging our priorities. But I know you’ve got a rector that’s excited about leading you in that effort.

Because at the end of the day formation is about growing into a salvation that’s we’ve already received. Because already we’re kings, royalty, adopted sons and daughters of God, but really believing that – well, that’s a lifelong journey. And so don’t think that formation is about doing good deeds to make God proud of us. It’s about tapping into the abundance of life that Jesus offers, becoming more like Him from the inside out, and living our lives with increasing purpose, freedom, joy, confidence, fruitfulness and meaning as we become more like Him. After all, Christianity isn’t about accepting Jesus Christ. Christianity is about embracing Jesus Christ.

You see, everyone here has faith. The question is not do we have faith or not. The question is always, what will we put our faith in?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

give more, live more



“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,” Jesus said, “abide in me, and I in them.”

Well, good morning. My name’s John Newton and I serve as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian formation and so a big part of my job is to be present with our parishes and to talk about what it means to risk finding our life, not in this world, but as we consume more of Jesus. And I’m really excited to be here this morning, but, I’m not going to sugar coat it. My theme is stewardship in general, but money in particular.

That being said, I’m present to the fact that already you may not like me. I’ve already counted four frowns. You see money makes us anxious because it’s our safety net, and I get that. When I was a kid I’ll never forget saving my first $100. Any guesses on the first thing I purchased? A $30 safe to secure my $70 fortune. Right? Because – money’s like a high wall around us making us feel safe, which is why the thought of losing it makes us anxious.

And there’s a really good reason for that: we live in a world that says freedom and peace and life are purchased and that money is the key. There’s an old joke about a Sunday school that asks her kids, “Do you know where little boys go if they don’t put their money in the collection plate?” “Yes ma’am,” a boy blurted out. “They go to the movies.” And doesn’t that just sum it up? We’ve been trained to believe that if give more we’ll live less – that upping our pledge or giving more of our self will cost us freedom and peace and life.

You see there are only two views of what it means to experience abundance of life. There’s the view we inherit from our culture, which says abundance of life is about consuming stuff and living a life of ease and convenience. And so naturally, in this view, money is important. It’s our purchasing power – the way we satiate our appetites.

But then there’s Jesus’ view, which says abundance of life is experienced to the extent that we participate in God’s mission, losing our life to advance God’s Kingdom. In other words, Jesus’ view is the exact opposite of what our world would have us believe, for He says that when we give more we live more.

And so I want to be clear. We don’t give more money to make God proud of us. We don’t give to keep the doors open and the lights on. We don’t give to feel better about ourselves. No, we give as an expression of our faith that by taking a risk and partnering with God in His mission we will experience the abundant life Jesus said he came to give us.

Because – you and I are consumers. Not one of us generates life from within, which means we have to take something in if we are to live. And so the question is not, “will we consume.” The question is always, what must we consume to have life in abundance?

And in today’s Gospel Jesus answers that question. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he said, “abide in me, and I in them.” In other words, those who consume me, who digest me, who take Me into the very center of their soul, will experience the abundance of life that I came to give. St. Paul speaks of this in Galatians when he says, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Paul had digested Jesus fully. He experienced shipwreck and stoning and hunger and yet could still say, “I have learned the secret of being content in all circumstances” – words he wrote, by the way, from a jail cell. And so the question is never “will we consume,” but, “What must we consume to truly live?”
And for the Christian the answer is not a bigger house, or a nicer suit or a faster car but the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only when we eat Him and drink Him that we live.

Now, you may be wondering that this has to do with money. Money is not evil. But as Jesus himself once noted, we cannot serve God and money. In other words, we have to choose – every day of our lives – what we will consume in the hope that it will generate life for us? In other words, does giving more mean living less? Or, was Jesus right? Is giving more something we must do to become more fully alive? And to be a person of faith is to take our stand with Jesus and to risk losing our life in order to find it.

And so what I’d like to do now is give you three practical things you can do to risk stepping a bit more into the abundance of life Jesus offers, and that’s – give more, consume more, and be encouraged.

First, give more. And I mean that in two senses. First, give more of your money. If you don’t currently tithe I encourage you to make that a goal and to begin taking steps to move in that direction. You see we don’t give because someone else needs us to give. We give more because we need to give. Again, what’s at stake is abundance of life, and in the Kingdom of God giving more always means living more. But second, give of yourself to the mission of this church! You see the question is never does the church have a mission, the question is always does God’s mission have a church! God is at work – right now! – drawing people’s heart to know and love His Son. He’s at work feeding the poor and clothing the naked. But how will Hope Episcopal be present in that mission? And that’s a question you must give more of yourself to answer faithfully.

Second, consume more. Consume more Jesus. Study scripture, pray, worship, build authentic relationships marked by love, vulnerability and gratitude. Only those who eat Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood will live and as Christians there are certain ways we do that. And consuming Jesus isn’t a hobby or a morning quiet time. It’s a life. And what I am coming to learn is that there is always more of Jesus we can take in. And so consume more of Him.

And then third, be encouraged! In today’s Gospel Jesus says that no one can come to Him unless it is granted by the Father. In other words, you’re not here this morning because your parents were Episcopalian, or because you’re just really spiritual. No, you’re here because God, through His Spirit, has brought you here. And He who began a good work in you, Paul says, will bring it to completion. Our job is to partner with God in completing what He’s already begun and giving more – more of our money, and more of our self – to God’s work should always encourage us. Because – God does not give up on his projects.

And so I want to end this morning by telling a parable that may bring to light some of what I’ve been trying to say.

A certain flock of geese lived together in a barnyard with very high walls around it. Because the corn was good and the barnyard was secure, these geese would never take a risk. But one day a very wise philosopher goose came among them and so every week they listened quietly and attentively to what he had to say. “My fellow geese,” he would say, “can you seriously imagine that this barnyard, with great high walls around it, is all there is to existence?”

“No, for I tell you, there is a greater world outside, a world of which we are only dimly aware. But alas, here we remain in this barnyard, our wings folded, content to puddle in the mud, never lifting our eyes to the heavens which should be our home.”

Now these geese thought this was very fine lecturing. “How poetical,” they thought. “How profoundly existential.” And so often the philosopher spoke of the advantage of flight, calling on the geese to be what they were. After all, they had wings and, “What were wings for, but to fly with?”

And week after week the geese were uplifted, inspired, and moved by the philosopher’s message. They even hung on his every word. They devoted hours, weeks, months to a thorough analysis of his doctrines. They produced learned treatises on the ethical and spiritual implications of flight. All this they did. But one thing they never did.

They did not fly. For the corn was good, and the barnyard was secure.

I know in my own life how tempting it is to stay in the barnyard. But I also know that God created us to fly – here and now as we participate in His mission – and that freedom and peace and above all else life are found in taking a risk and giving more to live more. Because – it is true that freedom and peace and life are purchased, but not by us and not with money. No, Jesus purchased these things for us with his blood on the cross. And the same Lord invites us to take up our cross, and to experience freedom, life and peace as we consume him, digest him, and Him into the very center of our soul trusting that as we give more, we live more.
Only God knows what we can and cannot give, and no matter what God doesn’t condemn us. There is nothing we can do to make God more proud of us than He already is. But God does want us to experience life more abundantly. And He wants us to take responsibility for what we will consume to do so. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me,” Jesus said, “and I in them.” AMEN.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

what the Lord sees



“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

A few years ago I traveled to Burma for a month of mission work with a group of seminarians. And one of the things our team was brought in to do was to lead a country-wide retreat for teenagers from all over Burma. And I have to say, these teenagers were bold and curious, and wanted to know all about us and about our country – were we married or dating, and if not, what was our problem? What do Americans do for fun? And since the latest Hollywood trends were about fifteen years out of date, every Burmese teen just had to know the latest scoop on America’s most celebrated and talented actor – Arnold Schwarzenegger. And so there was a lot of giggling and laughter, and the mood started off really light– that is until one young man raised his hand. After speaking passionately for a few minutes in a language that I did not understand, the translator looked at me, somewhat saddened and slightly embarrassed, and told me his question. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart?

His name was Pwe Thein, and he had traveled for eighteen hours to be with us from a remote village in Burma full of ethnic tension and political persecution. Pwe Thein had experienced the full weight of what stony hearts could do to his family and to his country. And Pwe Thein, a soft-hearted disciple of Jesus, wanted to know why. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart?

Perhaps we’d use different language, but I think we understand his question. After a century shattered by two world wars, the Holocaust, the Atomic bomb, and terrorism, we’ve come to accept that stony hearts are a reality in our world. After all, we see stony hearts in our co-workers, in our friends, and in the people we interact with on a day to day basis. Stony hearts are behind every hurtful word, every rude remark, every silent stare, and every critical comment. And let’s be honest - we see them in ourselves. I’ve got a stony heart. And so do you. If we didn’t have stony hearts, I’m not really sure we’d need a savior.

Now with that in mind let’s look at today’s reading from the Old Testament where God sends Samuel to find a new king for the people of Israel. And just to give you a little background the people of Israel having been living in the Promised Land for a while now, but as Moses predicted, the people have consistently hardened their heart, disobeyed God and things are spiraling out of control. And so the people go to Samuel and demands for themselves a king.

Now, this request actually breaks God’s heart, because the whole point in bringing them to Canaan in the first place was so that they’d be different than everyone else and that their light would draw the world to God. You see God wanted to be their king. And that’s why you may recall God’s words to Samuel from last week: “they haven’t rejected you, but it’s Me they’ve rejected from being king over them.”

But still God does give them what they want and Saul becomes the first king of Israel. And this turns out to be a disaster. Saul disobeys God, mistreats his people and accumulates glory for himself. His heart becomes stonier and stonier over time. And so God, because he loves his people, decides a regime change is necessary. And that’s where today’s story from 1 Samuel picks up, with God sending Samuel to Jesse in search of a new king.

And so Samuel goes to Bethlehem to find Jesse and his sons, and the first man to parade in front of Samuel is Eliab, who’s tall and strong and looks like a warrior. I mean, Samuel’s fooled! “Surely, this is a King!” But, God rebukes Samuel. “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

C.S. once said, “People don’t need to be instructed; they need to be reminded.” And I do not believe it’s possible to be reminded too many times of what God says here. The Lord doesn’t see as mortals see, but God always looks at the heart.

You see our world teaches us to base our worth, and to judge others, on so many transient things – our appearance, our status, our achievements, out net worth, our moral record and the list goes on.

We look at other people, and we look at ourselves, and these are the filter through which we see. But not God; God always sees the heart.

And what this means for the Christian is that nothing is more important than who we become in here, which is what Christian formation is all about. In other words, it is our character, not our skill-set or eloquence or knowledge or moral record, that enables God to use us for His purpose. And what I take this to mean is that we are responsible for becoming soft-hearted people.

Now, I’d like to pause at this point and clear up a few misconceptions. First, no one chooses to have a stony heart. No child chooses to grow up to be cold or distant or impatient. No adult rationally chooses to be weighed down by the stones of anger and pride and contempt. Our world has taught us these things. We’ve inherited these unhealthy behaviors and attitudes that, over time, have made our hearts stony.

Second – our world would have us believe that stony people can’t change. As the old adage goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But in today’s reading from II Corinthians, we see that Paul could not disagree more. In fact, the transformation of the human heart is exactly what Paul has in mind when he says, “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” In other words what Paul says is that God has given His word to renovate us from the inside out and our job is to partner with God in this incredibly important work.

And of course we know why this work is important – it’s because the heart, above anything else, is what God sees. God doesn’t see the mask we wear, or the role we play or the person we pretend to be. But God always sees the heart.

And so for those of us who want to be faithful of us who want to be faithful we can be reminded that God isn’t looking for religious rule-keepers. God isn’t looking for the fearless and the tearless. God isn’t looking for warriors like Eliab, Abinadab, or Shammah. No, our God’s looking people who are willing to be changed; even if that’s someone like David – the person no one ever could have expected.

A long time ago the prophet Ezekiel wrote the following: “a day is coming when I will give you a new heart and a new spirit; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and will teach you to observe my commandments.” If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, please hear me now: Jesus offers us this new heart, this new spirit. He invites us to come to Him, to submit to Him, and to let him reign in our hearts.

And so I’d like to return to Pwe Thein’s question. Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart? The truth is, I really don’t have an answer. I really don’t know why God’s grace radically transforms some people and not others. But what I do know is that if I base my life on the truth that in Christ I am a new creation, and commit my life to the renovation of my heart, that my life will be incredibly rich, meaningful, and eternal, and that everything else will fall into place. I also know that if we’re committed to something more than this – like our appearance, status, net worth or moral record – that like Israel in today’s reading we are rejecting God from being King over us. And I know that far more important in life than what we accomplish is who we become – that character matters. I know we’ll always make mistakes – that even the most committed disciples of Jesus are still clumsy and awkward and stony, which is why you and I need a savior in the first place. And most importantly, I know that we have a savior – that the same God who rolled the stone away that first Easter morning still moves stones – stones of anger and pride and contempt – and that beneath these stones is a soft heart of flesh.

Why is it that some people have a soft heart, and other people have a stony heart? I don’t know why. But I do know that our heart, more than anything else, is what God sees, and that in this stony world, I’d like to have a soft heart like Jesus. What about you?