Tuesday, December 20, 2011

the supernatural conception(s)


And so what exactly is Christian formation? Here’s my definition.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

That’s it! Christian formation is about Christ being formed inside of us. And so notice, Christian formation isn’t limited to a class, nor is it about doing something – it’s about the spiritual renovation of our insides. As the 2nd century theologian Iranaeus put it, out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are to make us what He is. In our words, we far too often forget the second part of the Christmas message. God became man – that’s the first part; but God became man for a purpose; so that we might become more like God. That’s the second part of the Christmas message, and what I’d like to talk about this morning.

After all, that’s what today’s Gospel is all about; Mary saying “yes” – Mary saying yes to God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of her – right? Now, I’m not saying that today’s Gospel is merely a metaphor, or that it didn’t happen. Of course it happened. But the point of my sermon today is that it happens – that as unique as Mary’s supernatural conception was, it’s at the same time normative for the Christian life. And so as Jesus Christ was literally formed inside of Mary, the point of our faith is to have Jesus spiritually formed inside of us. And that’s what Christian formation is about; saying “yes” like Mary did to a God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of us.

And what I see in today’s Gospel is a reliable, threefold pattern that can shed some light on how Christian formation actually works. And that pattern can be stated as follows: God visits us, God favors us and we respond by saying yes.

First, God visits us. God found His way to Mary; it wasn’t Mary who found her way to God. And of course the same is always true of us. You see, Christianity is not a set of teachings that will enable us to climb the ladder to visit God. It’s the good news that in Christ God has climbed down the ladder to visit us. As the author of 1 John puts it, “in this is love not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” It is not we who visit God. It is always God who visits us.

C.S. Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles of gods walking the earth. So what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before giving his one word response. GRACE.

Christianity is about grace. It’s not about us trying harder, or about us doing better, or about us changing the world. It’s about a God that freely chooses to visit us and heal us and save us. Christianity is about grace. God visits us.

But second, God favors us. And trust me when I say that there is nothing more difficult to believe, and at the same time nothing more necessary to believe, than this. God favors us.

It’s difficult to believe because our hearts, and sometimes other people, are always condemning us. We feel small and flawed and sinful and broken and so we come to church and hope that God will accept us. But the good news of the Gospel isn’t that God accepts us. I “accept” paying taxes. I don’t want to pay them, but I’ve got to. That’s what it means to “accept” something and far too often I think we assume that God feels the same way. “I don’t want to forgive them, but Jesus died so I’ve got to.” But notice, that isn’t what the angel tells Mary. “Greetings, favored one.” “Don’t be afraid, you have found favor with God.”

Brennan Manning, who’s one of my favorite authors, tells the true story of an Irish priest who stumbles upon a peasant praying by the side of the road. And so the priest, who’s impressed, says to the peasant, “You must be really close to God.” And this is how that peasant responded. “I am, because God is very fond of me.” You see this peasant knew what Mary did – that he had found favor with God.

How sweet would life be, how many problems would disappear, if we only believed that? If we believed that God is fond of us –not that we’re forgiven, or accepted, or tolerated – but that we are all the apple of His eye.

And so does the God we imagine only favor the right, the respectable, the religious, and the rule-keepers? Because God’s intention in visiting someone like Mary was to demolish that idea. You see in Mary’s culture no one was favored less than an unwed, childless, teenage girl. And God came to her and said, “I choose you. I favor you. Not because your good – but because I am. Not because you’re worthy, but because the Most High will overshadow you and Christ will form within you and that – that will make you worthy.”

God doesn’t just accept us. In Christ, he favors us, loves us, dotes on us, and embraces us. He calls us son. He calls us daughter. There is nothing more difficult, but at the same time nothing more necessary, to believe than this – that we, us! – have found favor with God.

Now, to the extent that we know that, we will respond by saying yes. You see a mature Christian is someone who lives their life with Mary’s words carved into their heart. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the spiritual word for this is submission. Submission begins the moment we acknowledge that God is incredibly invested in how we live, that our need to control things never turns out well, that when God forbids us to take the forbidden fruit it’s because He wants us to be happy, and that the only way to find our life is by losing it. You see what Mary did in today’s Gospel is something God asks us to do every single day. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

The first job each morning consists simply in shoving [all your hopes and wishes for the day] back; in listening to that other voice. We can only do it for a few moments at first. But from those moments a new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because we are now letting Christ work [inside of] us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. (Mere Christianity, 198)

In other words, submission is about saying “yes” to God – not with our lips, but with our lives. And so for example, every time we pray, read scripture, or sit in contemplative silence, we submit God. Every time we feed the poor, befriend the friendless, or greet the stranger, we submit to God. Every time we refrain from judging, show others mercy, or forgive someone who has hurt us, we submit to God. And we do this not in the hope that God will favor us; but in the knowledge that in Christ He already does; because God is incredibly found of us all.

Now, I know that Christmas is a week away, and you have a lot on your mind. It’s a busy time. I also know that in the coming year your rector will ask you to engage in Christian formation in a much deeper way than you have in the past, and a lot that is already underway. In fact, Josephine led an excellent class this morning. And so here’s what I’d leave you with as the 25th approaches.

God became like us for one purpose only: so that we could become more like Him. You see what happened to Mary in the physical sense must happen to us in the spiritual sense – there must be a supernatural conception. Christ himself must grow inside of us. The goal is to be able to say with St. Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Because there is a difference; between us trying to climb the ladder to be with God and us knowing that He climbed down to be with us; between trying to earn God’s favor and knowing that we already have it; between controlling, which leads to death, and submitting, which leads to life.

There is a difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. The point of our faith is to have Jesus Christ soak all the way through.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

It still happens. Mary said “yes.” The question I leave us with today is, “will you?”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011



“Rejoice always; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

A good friend of mine dressed up as a Puritan for Halloween a couple years back. Now, at first I was disappointed. Halloween costumes in my opinion are meant to be scary and so if you don’t have fake scars, fake teethe, fake moles, or fake blood – in my opinion it just doesn’t count. But I have to say she played the part of the Puritan perfectly. She had no make-up, no flashy clothes, but most importantly, no smile. She didn’t laugh the entire night. Her goal was to look completely joyless.

Now, actually like the Puritans and think the costume was a caricature. But it is true - Puritans aren’t really known for being the life of the party. And historically speaking, a lot of Puritans thought laughter was evil. In fact, I heard one man was sentenced to three days in jail for smiling during his baptism. Why? Because the way of Jesus, they thought, was really, serious business. It meant frowning in this life to secure a smile in the next one.

Now, I think a lot of Christians are heir to this legacy. Christianity, we’ve heard, is about doing our duty. It’s about rolling up our sleeves and even stuffing the deepest desires of our heart to serve a much more noble purpose. The problem is that none of this meshes with Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. “Rejoice always.” Paul says. “Give thanks in all circumstances.” “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Now, I have to say, living a joy-filled life is a challenging thing in today’s world, and there are a lot of reasons for this but I’ll go ahead and name three.

1. It’s impossible to be joyful if we’re preoccupied with ourselves. You see what John the Baptist acknowledges in today’s Gospel is actually pretty profound: “I am not the Messiah.” In other words, there’s a direct correlation between humility and joy. And when I use the word humility I don’t mean thinking less of ourselves – I mean thinking of ourselves less. I mean thinking more of God. You see joy is not something we can manufacture for ourselves. It’s the fruit of Jesus Christ being formed in us, which can’t happen if we’re preoccupied with ourselves.

2. It’s impossible to be joyful when we’re preoccupied with things. Psalm 1 actually says a lot about this when it compares a happy person to a tree that’s planted by streams of water. And I have to say I love this image. Because – there’s a difference between being a tree that draws on a nearby stream and a tree that depends on the fickleness of the outside rain. In other words, there’s a difference between drawing on inner resources – that is our own intimate relationship with God – and depending on outside factors that are completely outside of our control. And so think of the things that tend to make us happy – the size of our bank account, positive feedback at work, a clean kitchen, no one we love being sick or depressed, our football team winning, a new car, you get the idea – these are all like “the rain.” And sometimes they fall down on us steadily, and sometimes they don’t come at all. But the psalmist’s point, and the consistent witness of the Bible, is that we can’t depend on any of these things for our sense of happiness and joy. But like the tree in psalm 1 we have to be rooted; we have to be drawing on something that isn’t subject to changing seasons, something greater than our circumstances; and of course that Something is God and the stream is Jesus Christ.

3. It’s really hard to be joyful if we’re always trying to avoid the things in life that hurt. We get rid of our pain by seeking distractions. We get rid of our insecurity by eliminating risks. We get rid of our disappointment by downplaying our deepest hopes. But here’s the paradox of Christianity. Joy isn’t found in avoiding our cross. It’s found in embracing our cross with Jesus and for Jesus. As Paul puts it in Romans, “suffering produces perseverance and perseverance character and character hope.” In other words, pain isn’t good. But God is. And part of God’s redemptive work is to help move deeper into our pain in order to make us more like Himself. And becoming more like God is what increases our capacity for joy.

And so joy is impossible if we’re preoccupied with ourselves, or with things, or with trying to get rid of our pain. And yet Paul commands us. “Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And so the question is, how do we do it?

1. To rejoice always, we have to properly understand God. Because we won’t get joy if we don’t first understand that God is the most joyful being in the entire universe. In fact, it’s important to know that God lives a very interesting life. After all, when God created the heavens and the earth, He didn’t casually remark, “It’ll have to do.” No. God rejoiced when he saw that it was very good. And when God created you, He didn’t say “it’ll have to do.” God rejoiced because he saw that you are very good. And that’s because joy is foundational to the character of God. You see the sorrow of God, kind like the anger of God, is just God’s temporary response to our fallen world. But all sorrow and anger will forever be banished from God’s heart on that future day when Jesus sets our world is set right. And so if we’re going to learn to rejoice always, this is something we have to understand about God. Joy is foundational to the character of God.

2. To rejoice always we have to be obedient to Jesus – the incarnation of our joyful God. And Jesus came as the joy-bringer. Or to quote the Gospel of John, Jesus came so that our “joy may be complete.” You see, it’s not that we have to be joyful before we begin to obey Jesus. Joy is just what happens to us as we move deeper and deeper into a life of obedience. Joy isn’t found in taking the forbidden fruit, as if God were stingy and holding out on us. And so if God tells us not to do something, God’s not holding out on us. That just wouldn’t be consistent with God’s character. This is how the great hymn writer John Newton put it, “Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before; since we have seen his beauty, are joined to part no more.” In other words, Jesus didn’t come to stuff the deepest desires of our heart; he came to grant them. The point of losing our life is to find new life in Him.

And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d leave you with. Practice the discipline of celebration. Allow the Spirit to draw you outside of yourself. Dance. Sing. Be goofy. Live. Love. Lighten up. Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. God wins. You and I are free.

You know that’s what Advent is about, right? Don’t be confused by the purple – it’s not primarily about repentance like Lent; it’s about joyful expectancy. It’s about reminding ourselves that God has already become human in the person of Jesus Christ, that his resurrection has set the new creation in motion, and that a day will surely come when he returns to make all things new. And that’s something worth celebrating.

After all, God built us to celebrate. I mean, what’s the Trinity but one big celebration? Remember, the angel that appeared to those shepherds abiding in the field didn’t just bring good news. The angel brought “good news of a great joy.” And that’s what Advent is about. It’s not just about our Lord coming to meet us. It’s about us coming with joy to meet our Lord.

And so let’s go back to my friend’s Halloween costume – “the Puritan.” There is nothing scarier, nothing more frightening, than a person who never smiles; a person who never laughs; a person who’s completely joyless – especially when they do so in the name of Jesus. Of all people, we Christians should be the life of this party that’s happening on earth.

“Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Prepare the King a Road

A sermon on Mark 1:1-8




Formation is about discipleship; it’s about the renovation of our heart and the transformation of our character. And so my job’s is to help every single person in the Diocese of Texas move from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God: not very hard. And yet – this transition is what Christianity is about. As C.S. Lewis put it, “the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, to make them little Christ’s. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simple a waste of time.” And I would agree. The sole purpose of the church is to form disciples – to draw people closer to Jesus so that Jesus can make them more like Himself.

Which is actually what today’s reading from Mark is all about – the way we become disciples of Jesus. Now, I bet that’s not what you thought. You thought today you had to sit through the prologue so that next week you could hear the good stuff. No, today’s the good stuff; it’s Mark’s thesis statement where everything that’s important is introduced.

And here’s how I’d summarize Mark’s thesis: Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.

You see the first thing Mark wants us to know is what following Jesus will entail – and that’s a trip to the wilderness. Where did Moses meet God in the burning bush? The wilderness. Where did Jacob wrestle with God? The wilderness. Where did the people of Israel encounter God? Not Egypt, but at Mount Sinai, in the wilderness. And in today’s Gospel Mark tells us where we must go to encounter our God and our King: the wilderness.

Now we hear the word wilderness and we think “state park.” When we go to the wilderness we bring water and a tent and shelter and beer and firewood and food and an I-pod and you know, we really “rough it!” Or maybe we hear wilderness and we think Bear Grylls – about learning to survive ourselves.

But in the Bible, the wilderness is opposite; it’s a place where life can’t be sustained naturally. There’s no bread, no water; absolutely nothing natural you can draw on to survive. You see in the Bible’s wilderness, our achievements don’t matter; our money doesn’t matter; our skills don’t matter. Even MacGyver’s out of luck in the wilderness. And yet this is precisely the place our heart must go, Mark says, to meet Jesus.

And so if we are serious about our faith, there’s a question we need to ask. Have we met Jesus in the wilderness? Because it’s tempting, and it’s easy, to just pack Jesus up next to the beer and the I-pod and to have him join us at the state park; or think that we can make it just fine ourselves in life but that Jesus is on standby to help. It’s tempting to think Jesus is like a really good vitamin – something we need to get on with our day. And what Mark is saying in today’s Gospel is “no.” “If we want to meet Jesus, we’ve got to go to the wilderness; where if we want water, it’s going to come from the rock; where if we want bread, it has to come like manna from heaven.” In other words, the point of today’s is to remind us of something important: that we cannot provide for ourselves, that apart from God we are grass, and that the very things we’ve built our lives on – our looks, our spouse, our achievements, our status, our money, our intellect, whatever – they’re fine and wonderful things, but if they’re our foundation, it’s sand.

You see Jesus doesn’t invite us into the wilderness to polish the foundation we’ve spent our live building. He invites us to the wilderness to give us a new one.

And that’s why John begins his ministry by baptizing people, and says it’s a precursor to Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now you may have heard that baptism was already a common practice in Jesus’ day. I did some homework. It wasn’t. The tradition before John had to do with self-washings, ablutions and immersions, and most scholars are too lazy to point out the difference. And so as a symbol for their need to be cleansed, Jews would wash their hands before entering the temple. And if a Gentile wanted in, the rule said they had to pour water over their entire bodies, you know because they were really unclean. But here’s the difference. Before John you always washed yourself. The tradition was self-washing and self-immersion and self-cleansing and what Mark is telling us today is that with Jesus the self-washing done!; that to be a disciple of Jesus we have to let him baptize us, not just with water, but with the very Spirit of God.

The Christian Gospel is not just another self-washing technique. It’s a trip to the wilderness to be washed by Someone greater; and that our job is to prepare for that. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he writes, “make his paths straight.”

Now, a better translation of that word “way” is actually road. “Prepare a road for the Lord,” or for the King – that’s a bit more true to the Greek, which is important to note because a king – back in the day – would send his messenger ahead of him, like Jesus did John, to announce to a city that the King was planning to visit. And the custom of the day was to prepare a new road for that King; you know to support the full entourage that would no doubt be traveling with him. Well, here’s the thing. Making a straight path, building a new road, this was a burden. I mean, people had to stop what they were doing to clear rocks, uproot weeds and level the ground. It was a burden, and frankly meant to be; it was the king’s way of lording his power over others. And so by beginning his Gospel by announcing a King’s arrival and by saying that it’s time to build him a road, Mark’s audience would have started to question – is this King also going to enslave us? Is preparing to meet him just another burden?

Now, I don’t know about you but I’ve asked that question before. If I really try and obey God’s will, won’t I be missing out? I mean, if God says don’t eat fruit from that tree, the only way to really be free is to take it, right? To be our own King? And of course from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we’re told that this King is different – that his arrival is “good news.”

I mean, you know that’s what the word Gospel means, right? It doesn’t mean good advice or good life strategy, the word Gospel means good news, which is why when Mark uses the word road or way from here on out – and he uses it a lot – it’s always a reference to Jesus’ road through the wilderness all the way to the cross. This King’s not coming to enslave. The King comes to set us free.

And so that’s Mark’s thesis statement: prepare the way of the Lord, a new kind of King has arrived, and so clear Him a path in the depth of your heart so the King can set you free.

You see, that heart preparation is what Advent’s about, what formation is about, what this Church is about, and what our life should be about. Because if Jesus is the King Mark’s talking about, it is a silly thing to invite Him into our life as a self-help coach or an encourager or as anything other than a liberating King worthy of our devotion in every aspect of our life. And in some sense that’s the question Mark’s putting before us. We can baptize ourselves, or Jesus can baptize us. We can build our own foundation, or we can come to Jesus for a new one. We can go to the state park or we can go to the wilderness but what we cannot do, once having heard the news, is fail to decide.

And while it is a decision that we all have to make, if we’ve only made it once, I doubt we ever made it at all. Because our King has come and is coming; and although we weren’t worthy to stoop down and touch his sandals, the good news of Christianity is that He’s made us worthy. Because our worthiness is not found at the end of some road that we must walk for ourselves; but at the end of a road that the King’s already walked on our behalf.

And so when it comes to our hearts, let us clear the rocks, uproot the weeds and level the ground. Let’s Pray. Read Scripture. Serve. Love. Bless. Share. Give. Fast. Celebrate. Be silent. Rejoice. Decide. Transition – from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God; because the only reason the church exists is to make us into little Christ’s.

Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a word we can rely on


"Words that won’t pass away"
Mark 13: 24-37

Woody Allen once said that at “more than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and the other to total extinction.” He then added, “let us pray for the wisdom to choose correctly.” There’s an American poet that was quoted as saying that “if we see any light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of an oncoming train.”

I think it’s fair to say we live in a pessimistic world. You know, after a while life just has its way with us. The things we love, the things we rely on, all seem to pass away. And while this experience of the things we love passing away may be unique to each one of us, we all know that gut-wrenching feeling. Because – to live is to constantly change and when everything’s always changing some good things just come to an end. Our time in college ends. Our children grow up, they move out of the house– our time with them ends. Watching the things we love, the things we rely on, pass away is just part of the human experience. And yet, it’s an experience that can cause so much suffering.

Now, to put today’s Gospel in its proper context, Jesus has just finished warning his disciples about a time of great suffering. And to be more specific, he predicts the destruction of the Jewish temple. And for Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the epitome of everything they loved and relied on. For some, the Temple was the sole mediator in their relationship with God. The temple was God’s home, where God literally chose to dwell. It’s also where sacrifices for sin were offered and accepted by God. And so the forgiveness of sin was mediated through Temple. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal! And so imagine what the disciples were feeling when Jesus told them that the temple would pass away. In other words, what Jesus predicts, and what Mark is looking back on, was a real historical event. In 70 AD the Jewish Temple was obliterated by the Romans, which means that from the perspective of many devout Jews, God’s home was demolished. How does one even begin to articulate what it’s like for the center of one’s religious world to pass away? Well, borrowing the imagery of their Hebrew Scriptures, they talk about how the sun and the moon just stop giving light; about how even the stars fell from the heavens. And so today’s Gospel lesson actually isn’t about Jesus predicting the end of the world. But that doesn’t mean that faithful Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t wish that he had. Because when the Temple passed away, so did their hope. After all, it was a symbol for everything they loved and everything they relied on. And it passed away. And it left them wondering, and it leaves us wondering, is there anything good that will last?

As a Church I suspect that’s a question you’re wrestling with. A week from today is your rector’s last Sunday. For the last 10 or so years Fr. Puckett has been your leader. His leadership has been good, and you’ve relied on it. But his time here is passing away. And let’s be honest. Patrick Hall isn’t too far behind. His time at Holy Spirit is also passing away. Now, I know that to most of you Fr. Puckett and Fr. Hall represent everything that’s good and everything you love about this church, and you’re probably having a really hard time imagining the future of this place without them. Well, I think the lectionary was looking out for you because there’s a word or two in today’s Gospel that God would have you hear.

First, when life gets the toughest, when our pain is the greatest, and when our fear threatens to undo us, that’s actually the moment that Jesus Christ is closest to us. As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, “when you see these things taking place” – remember, these horrible, world ending things – “you know that the Son of Man is near.” And so that’s the first word God would have you hear this morning. In the midst of whatever scary change you find yourself in, as a church and as individuals, Jesus Christ is near: “at the very gates.”

Second, because Jesus is near, this is a time more so than ever that as a church you resolve to “keep awake.” It’s a season to expect, to prepare, to work and to wait. More so than ever, this is not the time for the people of Holy Spirit to take a spiritual nap. No, it’s the time to chew on Revelation 21:5, which says “Behold, I am making all things new.” It’s a time to pray, to get intentional about reading scripture, to take responsibility for the future of this parish, to get more serious about leadership and evangelism; this is a time to get more serious about Jesus and about the place Jesus has in our lives. “For you do not know when the master of the house will come,” but when he does let’s not let him find you asleep.

You see, there is no room for pessimism in the Christian faith. The word Gospel doesn’t mean good advice, it means good news. Christianity is news; the good news that heaven and earth may pass away, but that Jesus’ word never will. And what is that word that Jesus speaks to the people of Holy Spirit? As he says in Matthew, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age;” or in Hebrews, “I will never leave you or forsake you;” or in John, “I go to prepare a place for you.” Heaven and earth may pass away; but Jesus’ word never will.

And it’s important to Jesus that we know that, which is what today’s Gospel is about. It’s Jesus reminding the Church that the Temple, the economy, your health, your loved ones, your job, your peace of mind, your marriage, your rector, your associate, your time in college, your time with your kids, heaven and earth itself – they may all pass away. Even the stars may fall and the sun stop shining. Those lights may pass away. But my light, my word, my promise never will.

And that’s why chronic pessimism has no place in Christianity. The promise of God is that with Jesus’ arrival the Kingdom of God has already been launched and that a future day will arrive when the Kingdom of God is all that will last. And so on this first Sunday of Advent – a Latin word that literally means “arrival” – this is exactly what we celebrate. Today we’ve gathered to celebrate because God’s Kingdom has already been established, and because a day will arrive when God’s kingdom will come on this earth as it is in heaven.

And because of this, Advent is a season of hope, which isn’t to be confused with optimism. Optimism is built on the conviction that the old order of things will eventually get better, that we’ll somehow manage to repair it. But hope is much different. Hope is built on the conviction that a new order of things, a new Kingdom, already exists – and that one day the King himself will repair everything that’s good, and everything we love, about the old order of things. And so don’t be pessimistic. Advent’s not the season to be gloomy or sad or scared. On the contrary, it’s time to be intentionally hopeful. It’s a time to expect. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in our midst. It’s a time to prepare for the new thing God wants to do in this community. Jesus has given us his word – he’s at work even now making all things new – and Jesus’ word will never pass away.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christ the King

A sermon on Matthew 25: 31-46; “The sheep and the goats”



I usually begin my sermons with a little depreciating humor or by referencing some catchy cultural happening to segue, which doesn’t work so well with today’s Gospel about the sheep and the goats. And I have to say, reading this story I’m always a little torn. Because – on the one hand, I don’t want to ignore what Jesus says, or to pull the whole “what Jesus really meant to say was,” as if Jesus wasn’t being serious. But at the same time, there are two core beliefs I hold when it comes to how God changes lives, and I don’t intend to compromise either. First, I don’t think you can scare people into heaven, or bully someone into a transformed life. Second, I don’t think we’re saved because of anything we do or achieve. We’re not saved because of we feed the poor or because we visit the sick – that’s just not what orthodox Christians believe. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t primarily here to scare us into “doing something” to be saved, then what is it about, and what does that mean for our life?

You see, today’s Gospel is not primarily a call to action. Will a proper understanding of it overflow into action? No doubt. But this wasn’t told to scare us into building a better world. Not only would that contradict the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, but it wouldn’t even make sense within this story. Because, both the sheep and the goats have one thing in common. Neither was aware that they were serving, or not serving, Christ the King. “Lord, when was it that we fed you or visited you. When was that?” In Jesus’ story they didn’t know. And so to hear this Gospel and then decide to do something because we’re scared of being a goat is to miss the point entirely. The sheep are not the ones that know they’re serving Christ, the sheep are the ones that don’t. And so if today’s Gospel isn’t God’s attempt to scare us into being a little less selfish, then what is it about?

Well in the Episcopal Church today is Christ the King Sunday. It’s a day the church sets aside to remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the rightful king of creation and that a day will come when He alone will reign. What today’s Gospel from Matthew is really about is the character of this king.

You see there’s a question that a story like this on a Sunday like this is asking us to consider – what kind of king do we say that Jesus is? And as I reflect on today’s Gospel two incredibly hopeful and surprising details stand out.

1. Jesus is not a king that reigns on some lofty throne high above the mess of this world and the mess of our lives. As today’s Gospel begins, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory … then he will sit on the throne of his glory.” Then – but not now. Because – now, as today’s Gospel points out, Christ the King reigns in the midst of the world’s mess; amongst the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned; amongst the lonely, the friendless and the needy; amongst the divorced, the burnt-out, and the anxious; with the ones he calls “the least.” Jesus reigns right in the midst of the mess.

2. Christ the King calls the least amongst us – the sick, the naked, and the common criminal – members of his family. As Jesus once said to the Pharisees, “those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; for I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Well, today Jesus ups the ante a bit, calling the sick and the sinful not just to repentance but to acknowledge their status as his brothers and sisters.

Now, are you beginning to see how full of grace today’s Gospel actually is? Because – before it says a word about God’s judgment, it speaks volumes about God’s nature. And the message is that no situation is so hopeless, no pain so unbearable, and no sin so horrible that Christ removes himself from it; Hunger, thirst, estrangement, nakedness, prison – it doesn’t matter, Christ reigns in the midst of the mess.

And so have you ever hungered and thirsted for righteousness only to be crushed by sin and injustice? Have your secrets ever left you feeling isolated and alone? Has shame ever left you feeling naked and exposed, or have you ever felt so scared and inadequate that life felt like a prison from which you couldn’t escape? Has life ever made you feel like the absolute least? Because – if so, there’s a message in today’s Gospel for you. Christ the King calls you family, and He reigns in the midst of your mess.

You see that’s what Christ the King Sunday, and today’s Gospel, is really all about – a different kind of king who endures the shame of his own subjects and saves his sheep by dying for them; a King whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is a cross; a King that enters Jerusalem not on a chariot but on a donkey; not with an army but with a handful of fishermen; a King whose power is revealed not in the breaking of bones but in the breaking of bread. This we say is the King of the universe and to know this king is to be transformed.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that what we do doesn’t matter. What we do matters tremendously. Our life matters, our choices matter, the things that we love, the way we spend our money and time, it all matters to God because we matter to God. And even though the sheep in today’s Gospel didn’t know they were serving Christ, it does matter that we as a church get intentional about seeking and serving Christ in all people, and especially the least. But the goal of the Christian life aims at something higher. The point of Christianity is to become transformed people – people who give in such a way that their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing. And I would submit that this transformation begins not with a decision to act but with a decision to pray; that it begins when we resolve with every fiber of our being to submit to the King who freely submitted to the cross to save us.

And in today’s reading from Ephesians, we find that this is exactly what Paul prays for. He writes, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … as you come to know him.” But what Paul says next is utterly shocking: “So that you may know … the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.” Now, most people read this and mistakenly assume that Paul prays that we would know that Jesus is our inheritance and be thrilled with how great that all is, but that isn’t at all what Ephesians actually says. It doesn’t say that Jesus is our inheritance. It says that we are Jesus’ inheritance. And that’s what Paul wants us to see – that Christ the King sees us in our hunger and our thirst and our strangeness and our nakedness and our prison, the Christ the King identifies with us, that he reigns in the midst of our mess. Why? Because – we are His inheritance, the apple of His eye, the people He longs to heal, restore and save. And so as we go out into the world this week let us not forget that before we can for Christ the King we have to know that Christ the King lives for us. We are his family.

Now, to the extent that we know that Jesus honors us, we will in turn honor him. But our King isn’t looking for calculated, fear-based, sporadic, conscience appeasing humanitarian acts of service by people who think they’re “okay” on behalf of people who aren’t. No, Jesus is looking for people who know Him as He is!

You see, it is not just we who are Jesus’ inheritance, it is also Christ the King who is ours. “And so come, you that are blessed by the Father in heaven and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Because – today’s Gospel isn’t about people who earn their salvation; it’s about people who love their king so much, who know his character so well, that on the last day discover it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

the feast of discipleship



Bible reading: Matthew 22: 1-14

As Canon for Christian formation, my job is to think through that transformative process by which we become more like Jesus. That’s what Christian formation is about – moving from a self-centered focus to a God-centered focus; from autonomy to obedience; from independence to discipleship. And people will often ask, is that hard? Is being a disciple of Jesus hard or easy? Because on the one hand Jesus says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy burdened,” but at the same time he also says “the gate is narrow and the road is hard.” “Anyone who is thirst may come!” “Count the cost before coming!” “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Our Lord says both. And so we have to ask – is Christ being formed in us hard or is it easy?

After all, in today’s parable everyone’s invited to the banquet. As Matthew puts it, they “gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.” But then there’s that poor guy with no wedding robe – he’s cast out. You see, in Jesus’ day a banquet like this would have taken months of preparation, and the first batch of guests have already RSVP’d yes. But when the date of the wedding actually comes, they blow it off. And historically speaking, Matthew is referring to Israel’s initial rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. But there’s also a second group – a group taken from the “main streets,” and this group is diverse. They’re diverse economically (rich and poor); racially (Jew and Gentile); and they’re diverse morally (both good and bad). And this second group is gathered into the feast, save that one man without a robe.

Now, I want to talk about this robe for a bit. The fact that all the other guests were wearing wedding robes tells us something significant – that the King provided wedding robes to his guests at the door. Remember, they’re coming off the streets. No one had time to run home and grab their wedding robe or to go to the store and buy one. And so the King in Jesus’ parable provides wedding robes to each of his guests at His own expense. And one man refused that gift thinking he could before the king dressed as he was.

You see, to ask if being a disciple of Jesus is hard or easy is at the same time to ask another –why is it hard to put on that wedding robe, which is a metaphor for a life of utter dependence on Christ. In other words, to wear that robe is to move from a self-centered focus to a God-centered focus; from autonomy to obedience; from independence to discipleship. And it’s a process that most of us, I suspect, find intimidating or impossible. And so our tendency is to settle less. We come to church. We say our prayers. We give some money. But then we go back to living on the streets. The feast will come later – perhaps when we die. But feasting now – well just that seems hard.

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis claims that the thing keeping us from the feast is our tendency to talk about our self as the starting point, which it’s desires and interests, and then to talk about this thing we call morality, which usually conflicts with what “I” want. And so in an effort to be “good,” we sometimes sacrifice what we want to do the right thing – we wake up early to go to church or make our pledge instead of buying a nicer car. And then we hope that “being good” doesn’t cost us too much money or energy or pride to get on with the real work of living our life. And this is what Lewis says about that.

The Christian way is different; harder, and easier. Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and there, I want the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.’ (197)

God does not offer us tips for better life. But He does offer us His own life, which is experienced as abundant life. Now with that in mind, there are two things I’d like to say about putting on this wedding robe – about transitioning into a life of utter dependence on Jesus Christ.

First, the wedding robe isn’t something we merit or purchase. It’s a gift that God purchases for us. And looking to the cross we know just how much that gift cost. But here’s what we need to see. It’s a gift we already possess. As Paul says in Galatians, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” In Baptism, we were each given our robe. (And today Nicholas and Ansley will be given theirs!). Faithfulness is about growing into that wedding robe. 1 Peter says we are to “grow into” the salvation we’ve already been given. In other words, the wedding robe I’ve been given is a 44 Long and I’m a 36 short. But that’s what Christian formation is all about – it’s a slow, deliberate and lifelong process of dying to self so that Jesus can live in and through us. And for the record, every time we come forward to God’s table we recommit to this process. The Eucharist is our weekly RSVP to the banquet. As Eucharistic prayer D puts it, we don’t come to communion for solace only, but also for strength; for pardon only, but also for renewal. The wedding robe – a life of utter dependence on Christ – is a gift. Christian formation is about growing into that gift.

Second, because we don’t need to get sidetracked talking about how hard this can all be, let’s not forget that Jesus’ metaphor for discipleship is in fact a feast! “I came that they might have life,” he said, “and have it more abundantly.” And so there’s a question we all need to be asking – is there feasting on the inside, at least sometimes? Group number one “made light” of the invitation. But not group number two; “Yesterday I was begging for bread,” there said “but today I’m feasting with a King!” These are two very different ways of viewing our faith. And because we can all act like group one from time to time, I think it’s good to be reminded that the word gospel doesn’t mean “good advice” or “good morals;” it means “good news.” Christianity is news – the good news that says that even though His subjects rebelled, the King of the universe is still throwing them a banquet and that everyone’s invited – good/bad, rich/poor – and that clothes are being provided at the King’s own expense to make us fit for the celebration.

I officiated a wedding last week and was really moved when the bride processed down the aisle to the tune of “here comes the bride.” And in a very real sense, human history is nothing more than one big procession to that very tune! As the parable begins, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” And of course we know that son to be Jesus. But let us never forget that we – the Church – are Jesus’ bride, and that our job is to clothe ourselves appropriately.

Is becoming a disciple hard? Sometimes; but it is so much easier than what so many of us are trying to do – giving God so much of our time and so much of our money when all he really wants is us. And so yes, giving Jesus everything is hard – except for when we actually do it and are reminded yet again that it’s always experienced as a feast.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

subvert the paradigm


A sermon on:
Matthew 20: 1-16

Last week when driving I saw an interesting bumper sticker: “subvert the dominant paradigm.” Now, for some reason this bumper sticker actually stuck. You see we all view life through a particular lens, and we all view God through a particular lens, and if that lens isn’t right, then our lives will necessarily be wrong. And what Christian formation is about, more than anything, is acquiring the right lens so that we see things as they really are. And so here’s the question I’d like to pose this morning. What’s the paradigm, or the lens, through which we’re viewing our relationship with God?

Because there is a dominant religious paradigm, which has its own assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And that dominant paradigm goes something like this. “We get what we deserve. If we’re good, God will reward us. Faithfulness might not be fun, but our God is fair, and he’s going to reward us for our service.” And so whenever we say things like, “I’ve already done my good deed for the day,” or “Why would God let this happen, I haven’t done anything wrong,” that’s the dominant religious paradigm slipping out where God’s seen as the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit.

Now believe it or not, this has actually been the dominant religious paradigm since the time of Jesus, and Jesus’ intention in telling today’s parable was to subvert that paradigm. And in particular, the people Jesus had the most beef with were the Pharisees, because instead helping people see God and themselves as they really were, the Pharisees made people feel bad for not being “religious enough.” You see the Pharisees followed the law to a T, but did so in a way that left them joyless and judgmental. And Jesus’ message to the Pharisees, more than anything, was that they didn’t see things as they really were – that the dominant paradigm they upheld reflected the kingdom of the world, not the kingdom of heaven.

And so that’s why Jesus told this parable about the landowner and vineyard workers – to subvert the dominant paradigm and show us what God’s Kingdom’s really like. It’s not a lesson in economics, nor is it an allegory that asks us to examine who we are in this parable. No, it’s a call to examine our assumptions about God, about ourselves, and about what it means to follow Jesus. And so here’s the question we need to consider – where is Jesus asking us to think differently about God?

Well first, Jesus wants us to understand that working in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore – it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The call of God, it moves us away from a life of idleness and toward a life of purpose and meaning. A life spent working in God’s vineyard is its own reward. In other words, what gives life purpose, what gives life meaning, is our decision to partner with God to advance His Kingdom wherever we happen to be – at work, at home, at a bar, on vacation – it doesn’t matter because the vineyard of God is everywhere. And working in that vineyard – that, Jesus says, is what gives life purpose and meaning. As Kathryn Blanchard puts it, “The workers must recognize the opportunity to work in the vineyard as a gift in itself. There is no room for human pride, since one’s only choice is to answer the call … or to stand idle and waste one’s life.” In other words, the call to work in God’s vineyard isn’t a chore. It’s the reason God created us in the first place.

Second, Jesus wants us to understand that God isn’t a distant and cold hearted book-keeper – that God isn’t sitting back and keeping score. On the contrary, like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, God’s refuses to rest until he’s found every last potential worker that’s still standing idle. Because notice, the landowner in the parable is always searching – 6 o’clock, 9 o’clock, noon, three o’clock, 5 PM – the second he gets one group of workers settled, he leaves again to start looking for more. And this, Jesus says, is exactly what God’s like. God takes the initiative to find us. He’s always looking to draw people in. It breaks His heart to see people standing idle.

What’s the paradigm through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? You see, today we have a baptism. We’re going to baptize Reid into the Christian life, and each one of us will make a vow to do all we can help Reid grow up into a mature Christian – to teach Reid the truth of who God really us, and to teach him the joy of working in God’s vineyard with us. But at the same time, we’ll also renew our own baptismal covenant; we’ll remind ourselves of what that right lens is, of what it means to see things as they really are. And according to Jesus’ parable, there are really only two lenses. Either we know that life and salvation are a gift and that God’s blessed us well beyond what we deserve, or we compare ourselves to everyone else and measure our lives against theirs. We’re either grateful or we’re envious. We’re either God’s sons or we’re his servants. God’s either our Father or he’s our foreman. Paul’s either right, and all things belong to us because we belong to Christ– “co-heirs” as he puts it – or we’re contract workers slaving away in a vineyard to eke out a daily wage. And so what’s our paradigm?

CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles and gods walking the earth. And so what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before answering their question. “Grace.”

The dominant religious paradigm is about merit. God’s the boss, we’re the workers, and payment is rewarded on the basis of merit. But Christianity, Christianity is about grace – about how each and every one of us is made in the image of God, about how God’s generosity is beyond anything we could ever imagine, and about how there’s nothing we could ever do to deserve God’s generosity but that it comes to us anyway as a gift. Christianity is about grace. How different would our lives be – how different would our world be – if we only lived from that paradigm?

At so here’s what I’d like to say in closing. At the end of today’s parable, the landowner asks an interesting question – he says, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Well, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this question’s actually meant to point to another parable Jesus tells about a vineyard. And in that parable, which occurs only one chapter later, the landowner sends his son into the vineyard and when the workers see the landowner’s son they seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” That’s the landowner’s question. And at the heart of our faith is the belief that God does not stand removed, but that He chose to enter the vineyard himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that it cost him his life, and that, on the cross, he became the last so that we could become the first.

May that be the paradigm – the lens – through which we view our relationship with God. Because to the extent that it is, we’re going to get really serious about bringing more people into the vineyard with us, rejoicing that in the shadow of the cross, we all stand together as equals – sons and daughters of God, and co-heirs with Christ. Is Jesus’ work in the vineyard with us and for us the primary lens through which we’re viewing our relationship with God? Because if not, it’s time to subvert the paradigm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

remembering 9-11



Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at Emmanuel. My name is John Newton, and I serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And it’s truly an honor to be with you this morning – and to preach the Gospel on this day in particular, as the attacks of September 11th, 2001 are no doubt weighing on our hearts.

Ten years ago to the day, 19 hijackers took control of four commercial airliners. Both towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed. The third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and the fourth on a farm in Pennsylvania after a few passengers heroically rebelled. In total, 2,996 people died in this horrific event that we now know as 9/11.

I don’t know what you remember about that day – what you were doing when you heard the news or what you felt as you processed the experience. But I do wonder what we’ve chosen to remember – the 411 ER workers who died trying to save others, or perhaps the churches that overflowed the following Sunday morning – maybe that’s what we remember. Or perhaps we just remember the darker emotions – our desire for revenge, for whoever did this to pay. I remember feeling that emotion quite well.

You see whatever 9/11 was to us personally, there’s something it was to us all – a clear and undeniable reminder that all is not right in this world. We were not meant to live in a world where people crash planes into buildings. We were not meant to live in a world where wildfires destroy our homes. We were not meant to live in a world that hurts, injures and violates us. And yet we do. That is exactly the world in which we find ourselves.

And that, more than anything, is what 9/11 is to me – a reminder that all is not well in the world; it’s a reminder that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we’re desperate for Someone to fix things. And it matters little what makes us feel scared and hurt – a terrorist, a parent, a friend, a spouse, a child, our divorce, the media, our mortality, our health, the wildfires, politics, the economy, our loneliness or our dwindling IRA – what’s significant is that we know what it is to feel broken and to long for wholeness. Each one of us has been hurt. Injured. Violated. Wronged. And with this experience of being wronged comes, if only subconsciously, a desire for revenge – for whoever did this to pay.

Well, it’s this desire we have for revenge – this idea we have that to fix pain we need to dish out more pain, that to fix hate we have to out-hate the haters – that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel. And what Jesus would have us understand – the whole point of the parable – is that there are only two ways to respond to the hurt and pain we experience in this life. There’s the way of revenge and the way of forgiveness. In other words, to live in a world where all is not well means that it’s a guarantee that we’ll get hurt, injured, violated and be wronged. And when that happens, Jesus says we’ve only got two options. We can absorb the pain. Or, we can return it. We can pray to the Judge or we can play the judge. We can choose forgiveness or we can choose revenge.

Now, there’s something we just need to name. Our world has chosen the way of revenge. “Getting even” – that, we think, is how we’re going to fix things. A desire for revenge was behind the attacks of September 11th, and, at least partially, behind our nation’s response to those attacks. It’s also present in every divorce, every cold shoulder, and every uncharitable word. And it’s this desire for revenge, Jesus says in today’s parable, that is absurd – that is absolutely absurd from the perspective of God.

And so let’s take a quick look at Jesus’ parable, which Jesus tells to respond to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Because what Peter wants to know – isn’t that what we all want to know? The attacks of September 11th – do we really need to forgive whoever did that? I mean, at what point do we stop forgiving? When is enough, enough?

Well, to respond to this Jesus tells a story about a slave. We’ll call him John. And John owed the king 10,000 talents. Now, 1 talent was about 7 years’ wages in Jesus’ day, and so 10,000 talents, if you do the math, is about 3.5 billion dollars. And so when John can’t pay his 3.5 billion dollar debt, the King forgives the debt out of sheer pity – because the King is good. Now, justice demanded that John and his family be sold. But the King in Jesus’ parable loves mercy, and so he releases John. Well, John then remembers that his buddy Frank owes him 100 bucks, and when Frank can’t come up with the money, John seizes him by the throat and throws him into prison.

Now, the entire scenario is obviously absurd. Who, after being forgiven a 3.5 billion dollar debt, would ever ruin another person’s life over 100 dollars? But here’s what I think Jesus is trying to say. We would. And we do. That from God’s perspective, we look just like John whenever we hold onto our anger, to our grudges, or to any other desire we have for someone else to pay.

You see the point of Jesus’ parable is that each one of us has had a massive moral debt cleared, and that rather than receiving the justice we deserve, we receive the mercy we don’t. What Jesus is trying to show Peter is that in light of the unmerited pity he’s been shown from the King of heaven, His question about forgiveness doesn’t make sense – that compared to the debt he’s been forgiven by God, Peter is essentially owed nothing.

Today we as a nation we remember 9/11 – but there’s always the question of what we’ll choose to remember, of what we will choose to place at the forefront of our minds as we acknowledge that we’ve been hurt, that we’re scared, and that we are desperate for Someone to fix things. And here is what I believe faithfulness to the Christian Gospel demands – that the first thing we remember about the events of 9/11 is the King in Jesus’ parable.

You see the entire point of Jesus’ parable is that it’s the King that absorbs an enormous loss. More than anyone else, it is the King that is hurt, injured, violated and wronged. After all, when the King forgives the debt, that debt doesn’t just disappear, and the King’s forgiveness doesn’t come cheap. No, forgiveness comes with a price tag, and it’s only the King – who must absorb the entire debt himself – that will ever fully understand that cost.

What will we choose to remember on this tenth anniversary of 9/11? My prayer for we who call ourselves Christian is that at the center of our mind will be the King of Creation nailed to the cross – paying the entire debt of sinful humanity himself.

As John Ortberg put it, “On the cross, the entire weight of the un-payable debt owed by sinful humanity would fall on Jesus. He would pay it all. This is why the cross is at the heart of Christianity. It shows us the heart of God. He chooses to pay the debt we never could. He longs to forgive.” In other words, the cross is that place where Jesus took the collective hurt, injury and wrongness of the entire world head on. On the cross Jesus absorbed all of it. The pain of the victims. The pain of their families. The pain of the terrorists. And the pain of their families. The pain of the people who lost their homes in the wildfires this week. The collective pain of humanity. On the cross, Jesus absorbed all of it. And Jesus invites us, his disciples, to do is the same.

You see returning the pain inflicted on us – or what some call revenge – that’s what cowards do. But absorbing the pain of the world with Jesus and for Jesus – that’s what disciples do.

And so let me end by saying this. It is a wonderful and Godly thing to remember the events of September 11, 2001. We need to remember. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to remember all things in light of the coming reign of God. And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I hope you’ll remember.

First, remember the cross. 9/11 in particular and all violence in general, is first and foremost an offense against God. We all owe a massive debt, and on the cross Jesus Christ absorbed all of it.

Second, remember those who gave their lives to save others, and who did so willingly, and remember the many smaller sacrifices people made in the weeks that followed. God created us to pour out our lives to serve other people. We need to remember and celebrate the times we do that well.

Third, remember that Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies – for those who wish us harm – and that in praying for us on the cross Jesus was praying for his enemies, for it is we who crucified Him. The cross reconciled us to God. Jesus intends us to be reconciled to our enemies.

Finally, and this is by far the most important – remember that all pain and death and disease and decay and terrorism and revenge will all come to a decisive end when the Kingdom of God arrives in its fullness. Christ had died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. And when that happens, Jesus will bring with Him the world we were made to live in. But in the meantime, it matters tremendously how we live, how we treat people, and whether or not we choose to forgive the people that hurt us.

Let us pray. O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I never made a sacrifice



Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Catherine’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here. In fact, I was at a conference with Mike in Boston this summer where he gave a presentation on the amazing work that God was doing in this community. And it wasn’t just me who got excited – our presiding bishop was also there and she was excited, and because I work on the bishop’s staff I can say with the utmost certainty that the entire diocesan staff is excited about what’s happening in this community. And so thank you for having me this morning – this is truly a privilege.

There’s a word that I think best describes the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s consumeristic – you and I live in a world that teaches us to consume. And consumerism’s a powerful idea because it feeds on the deepest desires of the human heart. You see, we all want to be happy. We want to be whole. We want to know who we are and why we’re here. And consumerism’s goal is to tell us how to do that – by consuming – what I call the “if only” mentality. If only I had a newer car, a nicer suit, if only I had a bigger house, a better paying job, a thinner waistline or a 52 inch flat screen – if only I had that, then I’d be happy and whole. As Homer Simpson put it, “the answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!” And so the comsumeristic worldview can be summed up like this. “Meaning is found out there, and so 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 me-centered, I need to consume or I’ll never be happy mindset stands the Christian Gospel. And a few years back I came across a quote that’s had a huge impact on how I understand this Gospel. David Livingstone was a 19th century missionary, and this quote’s his response to a Cambridge student curious as to why he’d give up everything to serve the poor in Africa. And this is what Livingstone said. “People talk of the sacrifice I’ve made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is it a sacrifice which brings its own reward in the consciousness of doing good or that brings hope of some glorious reward in the future? Away with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice, say rather a privilege. And then he said something I’ll never forget. “I never made a sacrifice.”

But isn’t sacrifice what Jesus calls us to do? I mean in today’s Gospel Jesus is pretty clear that if our primary motivation is to save our life – to preserve our own interests at all costs – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek. And so here are the questions I’d like to wrestle with the morning. What exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And second, where do we find the strength to make that sacrifice?

Now you may recall from last week that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Well, this week Peter decides to tell Jesus how to do his job. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like, and what Jesus says about the cross doesn’t really jive with Peter’s script. 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, to lose his life, Peter decides to intervene. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But you know what I think Peter’s really saying. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – I think 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 – like the kind that’ll overthrow Rome and appoint Peter to his cabinet. Peter’s thinking, “Jesus will be president and I’ll the VP. Because when that happens, I’ll finally be important. I’ll be happy. I’ll be whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here. But the cross? God forbid it. That must never happen to me.”

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 is 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. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Do you want to know who you are and why you’re here? 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.”

And so let’s go back to that first question – what exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And here’s what I’d say about that. The primary thing Jesus wants us to give up – what he wants us to sacrifice – is that consumeristic lie that says that we can have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. What Jesus asks us to sacrifice is our desire to be happy apart from Him, not because He’s mean, but because it doesn’t work! Jesus loves us, and he doesn’t want us to spend our lives looking for water in the midst of empty wells. But that doesn’t stop us from trying – from investing our ultimate home in our job or our net worth or in what so-and-so thinks of us or in how we look or in our marriage or in our children or in something other than Christ. And whatever that idol is for us – whatever it is that’s out there that “if only” we had we think we’d be whole – that is the very thing that needs to die. 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.

In other words, what has to die in each one of us is our desire to be happy apart from Christ.

But that’s hard – and so where do we find the strength to make those sacrifices? Well, let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning as a community of disciples to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so we start by showing up and just acknowledging that Jesus is not a seven-easy-steps to losing your life kind of Savior. I mean think about it, the disciples in today’s Gospel – they’ve been following Jesus for a while now and it’s today, for the very first time, that they begin to grasp the meaning of discipleship. And so here’s the point I’m trying to make. We never know the cost of following Jesus when we join the church, or when we’re confirmed. The disciples in today’s Gospel sure didn’t. And so we begin by showing up with an open heart, week after week, because the meaning of discipleship is always learned along the way.

But that being said it is learned, which is what formation is all about, and so here’s what I’d like to leave you with this morning. We do not find our life – the deepest desires of our heart – in Jesus by deciding to try harder. No, our heart has to be moved so that we can say with Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.” And so let the focus of your heart be the only sacrifice that is at the center of the Christian Gospel. And I’m not talking about our sacrifice for Jesus. I’m talking about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Because the first cross we’re asked to embrace is not our own – it’s Jesus’. In other words, we’ll never take up our own cross until we first learn to take up His. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – is 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 own life in return for theirs.”

Focus on the Lord who lost His life for you, and you’ll find the strength to lose your life for him. Mediate on Hebrews 12:2, which says, “For the sake of the joy that was set before Him Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.” And then ask yourself the question – what was the joy that was set before Jesus that made the cross seem as nothing? Equality with God? Perfect bliss with the Father in Heaven? The entire creation? The worship of angels? And of course the answer is no, because Jesus already had all these things. And so what was the joy set before Jesus that, according to Hebrews, made the cross seem as nothing – what didn’t Jesus already have? And of course the answer is us. Jesus’ love for you and for me was so great that to Jesus the cross seemed as nothing.

In fact, I love thinking about God the Father, on that first Easter morning, thanking Jesus – thanking him for his willingness to sacrifice His own life for the world; for the sacrificial love of that one singular act. And then I like to imagine Jesus’ response, as He thinks about you and me and this church and the world and then deciding to say this in response. “Father, I never made a sacrifice.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The power of our confession



When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Paul’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here, because whenever you’re ordained in the Diocese of Texas they send you to Curate Camp once a month to be mentored, and Chuck runs that program and played a pretty big role in my formation as a priest. And so aside from just liking him, I have a lot of respect for Fr. Chuck and so to honor the role he’s had in my life, I decided to grow this beard as a tribute. Sadly, I spent a little more time on the beard than the sermon.

What I’d like to offer this morning are some thoughts on today’s Gospel, where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That’s right, Peter – who always misses the point, who speaks before he thinks, who tries to walk on water – Jesus gives Peter power. He gives him authority. He gives him a mission. Now remember, Peter’s that guy who cut off someone’s ear and denied Jesus in his time of need. And Jesus gives the keys to Peter.

You see I, too, was once handed a set of keys I didn’t deserve. It was my sixteenth birthday. And they were keys that, in theory, enabled me to exceed a speed of 100 miles per hour. And at sixteen I tested that theory a lot. But I’m not sure who was less mature – adult Simon Peter or adolescent John Newton – but I got keys to a car and Peter got keys to the kingdom – a symbol for power, authority and mission. And so here’s the question I’d like wrestle with this morning. As a church, what’s the basis of our authority, and second, what’s the nature of our mission?

Well, let’s just go ahead and be clear that our authority is not connected to our merits. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I can be pretty selfish, stubborn and sinful. And so to be a Christian is not to stand in this world from a place of moral superiority, and the people Jesus had the most beef with were the legalistic Pharisees who thought that they could. Perhaps my favorite quote of all time comes from St. Augustine, who was once asked by a seeker what to expect if he went to a church. Augustine responded, “Drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, and assiduous clients of sorcerers.” Now, I’m not saying you should put that on your website, but Augustine’s point is worth noting. Jesus doesn’t give us the keys to the kingdom because we’re good. But how do we get those keys?

Well, in today’s Gospel Jesus asks his disciples a question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And as they begin to tap dance around Jesus’ question – “some say this, others say that” – Jesus cuts to the chase and Jesus gets personal. “Yea, but I’m asking you – who do you say that I am?” You see, there’s something about this question that forces us to take a stand.

As a church, we need to always be asking this question – what are we clinging to as the basis of our authority? And if today’s Gospel tells us anything, it’s that what makes Jesus’ church a rock is not our record. It’s our decision to confess that Jesus is Lord. In fact, a friend recently told me that the words decide and homicide share the same root. And his point was that when we decide for something we at the same time have to decide against, or kill, something else. And that’s what Jesus is asking his disciples for in today’s Gospel, a decision, he wants them to take a stand, which is exactly what Peter does. “You are the Messiah,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.”

I am convinced that there is only one thing we can cling to as disciples of Jesus Christ – our confession that Jesus is Lord – that, and nothing else, is the power we take into the world. And I’m obviously not talking about the kind of power that’s so prevalent in our world. I don’t mean power that’s coercive or violent or self-seeking. I’m talking about the power that’s unique to the Christian Gospel – the power that’s revealed in a Messiah that came not to conquer but to be conquered; that came not to be served but to serve; that came not to judge but to be judged. I’m talking about the power of Jesus – a power that’s unleashed when we answer His question. Who do you say that I am?

And for the record, this is not a question that Jesus asks us only once. It’s a question that Jesus asks us every day of our lives precisely because He wants us to always be taking a stand – not so much on doctrine, but on discipleship. Because like my friend said, the words decide and homicide share the same root, which means that whenever we decide for Jesus, something else inevitably dies – like the idea that we’re in charge, or that we take care of ourselves, or that we even know what’s best for us. In other words, to confess with Peter that Jesus is Lord is at the same time a decision to confess who isn’t Lord: us.

But with that confession comes a mission. “On this rock,” Jesus says – the rock being our confession – “I will build my church.” Now, when Jesus talks about building His church, Jesus is not talking about a building, or an institution, a denomination or a club – He’s talking about a people; a people that know the power and authority that come with confessing His name, and who consistently choose to live in this world relying on His generosity, His wisdom, and His mercy and not on themselves. In fact, the Greek word translated church is ekklesia, which literally means “an assembly of people called out.” And so to be part of that one church that Jesus Christ is building is to be among the assembly of his disciples called out into the world with a counter-cultural, confession: there is one Lord, one Messiah, one Son of the Living God who is in control of my life and this world – and thanks be to God, it isn’t me.

You see, there’s a reason this confession is so important and live giving. We live in a world that’s bought into the myth of self-sufficiency, which runs completely counter to the Christian witness that we’re utterly dependent and in desperate need of the salvation – the wholeness – that only God can give. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the line we bought into the lie that if we just work hard enough we can build the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect life and make ourselves whole. As the late Henry Nouwen put it,

“The world around us is saying in a loud voice, we can take care of ourselves. We do not need God or the Church. We are in control. And if we are not, we have to work harder to get in control. But beneath all the great accomplishments there is a deep current of despair. Broken relationships, boredom, and depression fill the hearts of millions.” In other words, what I think Nouwen is saying is this. You and I were not meant to bear the burden of Godhood, and the first thing God asks us to give up when we confess Jesus as Lord is the burden that comes with trying to be our own.

And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I’d offer as your mission to the world. If only to yourself in the recesses of your heart, decide to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and decide to meditate on what that means for your life. Because every single time we decide to confess that Jesus is Lord there is at the same time a homicide. And what has to die in each one of us is that false notion that we’re in control of our lives, or that we’re perfect, or that we can make ourselves whole if we just try hard enough.

And so let me end by asking you this. Are you frustrated? Burnt-out? Anxious? Angry? A little tired from trying to be your own Lord? There is so much power, so much authority, that comes with knowing we don’t have to please, perform or perfect our way into the Kingdom of God but that it always comes as a gift – not because we’re good, but because God is. Like Simon Peter, God gives us the keys to his kingdom every single time we make our confession. But then again, we all must decide for ourselves. Because some say this and others say that, but who do you say that He is?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

reckless love


Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

A few years back I bought a house here in Austin with a barren front yard. And after doing some research, it dawned on me that planting grass is pretty tough work. I’d have to loosen the ground and rake it into a thousand little furrows. The seed had to be scattered carefully and evenly. I would then put down wheat straw, which I was told would hold in the moisture before watering – which apparently is also a science. Not too much! The seeds will wash away. But not too little or the seeds won’t grow. Now, I never actually did any of this but I did learn a lesson. A careful farmer has knowledge, competency and skill. A careful farmer is diligent, patient and gentle. A careful farmer takes his time.

Now with that in mind, it’s worth asking, what’s Jesus doing in today’s Gospel by giving us a story about a farmer that just throws seed around like it’s confetti on New Year’s? On the path, the thorns, the rocky ground, the good soil – it doesn’t matter. The Farmer in Jesus’ parable throws seed around indiscriminately. He’s reckless, he’s wasteful and even seems to be in a hurry. Which is shocking – right? – Because we know who this Sower represents – God. In today’s Gospel, Jesus likens his Father to a reckless and wasteful farmer. And so here’s the question we need to ask. What is Jesus trying to say about the nature of God, and what’s he trying to tell us his disciples? Once again, what does this parable say about God, and what does this parable mean for us?

Now, you may think you know where I’m trying to take this. Be the good soil – don’t be hard hearted and shallow and materialistic like the other soils, but be the good soil. After all, this is a parable, which according to the dictionary is a short allegorical story that illustrates a well-known truth. That’s also what I was taught in Sunday school –that parables are just stories with moral lessons – and had I been a little older and a tad wiser I would have sued my church for malpractice. Why? – Because Jesus didn’t tell parables to illustrate a well-known truth. He told parables to shatter well-known truths. You see in Jesus’ day everyone thought they knew who it was that God favored – the right, the respectable, the religious, and the rule-keepers. And so to say that Jesus told this parable to confirm that belief, that He’s trying to scare us into being the respectable good soil is to entirely miss the point. Because the God Jesus reveals is not some methodical farmer looking only for the “best soil” to love. No, the God Jesus knows is like this Farmer – reckless, wasteful and in a hurry to sow His love wherever he can – on the path, the thorns, the rocky ground, the good soil – it doesn’t matter. The nature of God is to sow love everywhere!

You see, contrary to what we may have been taught, this isn’t a parable about good soil. It’s a parable about a good sower. And what Jesus is trying to say is that God isn’t cautious, strategic and calculated when it comes to sowing His love. Because He loves when we don’t love back. He blesses when we don’t say thanks. He sows when we’re surrounded by thorns. And that is what Jesus is saying about God – that He loves the rebellious and the religious as if they were the same. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, whether you’re a regular or a visitor, whether you’re on top of the world or stuck in the pit – black/white, rich/poor, old/young, sober/addicted, popular/alone – none of that matters to this indiscriminate and reckless God. He is in a hurry to invest in you. In other words, this parable isn’t Jesus’ way of trying to convince us to be good. It’s his way of trying to convince us that God is good.

Brennan Manning, who’s one of my favorite authors, tells the true story of an Irish priest who stumbles upon a peasant praying by the side of the road. And so the priest, who’s impressed, says to the peasant, “You must be really close to God.” And this is how that peasant responded. “I am, because God is very fond of me.” How sweet would life be, how many problems would disappear, how many rocks would be removed and how many thorns would be uprooted if we only believed that? If we believed that God is fond of us –not that we’re forgiven, or accepted, or tolerated – but that we are all the apple of His eye. I sure hope you’ve heard that before – that God is so very fond of you. Because Jesus was under the impression that hearing this good news and understanding it was half the battle. After all, the good soil in today’s parable aren’t the ones that are perfect – they’re people that hear the word and understand it. Is the God we believe in legalistic? Does the God we know only favor the right, the respectable, the religious, and the rule-keepers? Because Jesus’ intention in telling this parable was to demolish that God. The God He knows is reckless, wasteful and in a hurry to sow His love among thorny, rocky, and hard-hearted people. Why? Because God is so very fond of everyone.

Now, if we believe that, there is a second question we need to ask. What does this parable mean for us, for this community here at St. James? Well, a lot but I’ll mention two things.

First, sow love everywhere. Our God is reckless and generous and He sows love indiscriminately. If you and I are serious about being a disciple of Jesus, we will do the same. I mean, can you imagine how exciting and transformative churches would be if they poured into their community like the sower in today’s parable? Or how rich and joy-filled we would be if we loved and blessed the people in our lives like God loves and blesses us? Now, I know that’s easier said than done. And as we all know, to have our love fall on rocky, arid or weed-infested ground has the capacity to break our hearts. But here’s what I’d like to say about that. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? Did he not offer words of blessing as the crowds mocked him? If we sow love like the farmer in Jesus’ parable it will break our hearts from time to time. But you know what? It’s also going to loosen the soil of our hearts so that the love that God’s pouring in can bear fruit. Sow love everywhere – it will not return to you empty.

Second, this parable is a call to be patient. God is a farmer that sows seeds; not some general that demands change. You see all earthly kingdoms come quickly, visibly and through force, but not the Kingdom of God, it grows slowly, secretly and quietly – like a seed buried in the ground. And so be patient with yourself, and be patient with the people you’re investing in! Because the truth is, each one of us is a mix of good soil, thorns and rocks. And we need to know that God is still working on our thorny, rocky places. In fact, in the Gospel of John Jesus compares God to a gardener that prunes those places in us that need to bear more fruit. But pruning takes time, and only God has the knowledge, competency and skill to do it. And so be patient.

And so here’s what I’d like to leave you with this morning. The point of today’s parable isn’t primarily to convince us be good. It’s to help us understand that God is good. And it’s also a parable about a miraculous yield! Remember, the parable ends by reminding us that God knows what He’s doing – that all this sowing will reap a hundredfold – and of that we can be certain. After all, the Christian Gospel is not about many seeds being sown but about One Seed in particular – about One Seed in particular that embodied the fullness of God’s love and was buried beneath the earth only to be raised that first Easter morning – which is our guarantee of just how fond God is of us all. Black/white, rich/poor, young/old, sober/addicted, popular/alone, thorns/rocks – none of that matters – God is reckless with his love. Be reckless with yours, too. Sow love everywhere. It will not return to you empty. God is good, and He is so very fond of you.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

in the image of (a Triune) God


“So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them.”

I want to begin by introducing myself. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. It is really great to be with you this morning at Trinity Church on Trinity Sunday to preach a sermon on … drumroll … the Trinity. As John Wesley once said, “bring me the worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you the man that can comprehend the Trinity.” Perhaps no Christian doctrine is more intellectually challenging than the Trinity. And so now that we’re clear that I don’t understand the subject matter, let’s dive in.

What I admire the most about kids is their questioning nature, because once they learn the word why they can’t really seem to unlearn it. “Time to go to bed. Why? Because I said so. Why? Because I’m in charge. Why?” Of course, those are all small why questions, but eventually we get to the big ones. Why are we here? Why did God create us? Why were we made? After all, those big why questions are built into our D.N.A.

I’ll never forget the first hopeless answer I ever got to that question. It was my first semester of college, and we had to read a British Philosopher by the name of Bertrand Russell, who got famous for his response to the big why question. “Man,” He said, “is nothing but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.” Why are we here? We’re here because of a molecular accident. A hopeless answer to the why question indeed.

But then again, most people throughout history have given such an answer. In fact, if you had been born in the ancient near east around 1200 BC, just before the Book of Genesis was written, your world would have been an incredibly hopeless one. There were many gods, or so it was believed, and they all were at war. And so as a kid, you probably asked your parents why the gods created you. After all, there’s not a kid in the world that doesn’t ask that question. But every answer had a similar hopelessness. We were created because the gods were bored; because they were lonely; because the gods were lazy and needed free labor. In other words, if you were born in the ancient near east, there was no why.

Well, it was into this horribly hopeless world that these words were first recorded. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good.” And then the kicker – “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” In other words, what we have in today’s reading from Genesis is an answer to that big why question that revolutionized this world. Why are we here? Why did God create us? Why were we made? We were created to reveal God. We were created to reflect God. We were created to image God.

You see contrary to the polytheistic beliefs of its time – where many gods existed that were all jockeying for power – the Bible reveals a supra-personal, loving God – a God that has three distinct personalities on the one hand, and yet at the same time is too unified to be more than one. And of course, I’m talking about the Trinity – that doctrine that says that the God we worship is a perfect community of love. And what our reading from Genesis reveals is that it was this Triune God that created both us and our world. As Genesis 1:1 tells us, “God created,” which we attribute to the work of the Father. And in verse two, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, which is same language the Gospels use to talk about the Holy Spirit hovering over the water at Jesus’ baptism. And finally, Genesis 1:3 tells us that God creates by speaking His Word. Creation is not something that God thinks into existence. No, God speaks His word. And of course in the Gospel of John we learn that this “Word” is expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ. And so it’s important to see that from the outset of our sacred story, we find one God existing in a relationship that is harmoniously intact and perfect.

We were not created because God is bored. We were not created because God is lazy. We are not a molecular accident. No, you and I exist because at the heart of all reality is this wonderful and dynamic life that we call the Trinity, and that because this God is generous and kind and good, He decided to create us to be what Karl Barth called, “a parable of His own life.” We were created to reveal, reflect and image God.

But here’s the catch – because God is a perfect community, we simply cannot reflect God alone. Because if God is a perfect community, and we were created to image this God, that means that the doctrine of the Trinity is not just an intellectual challenge – it’s an ethical one. Because to the extent that we grasp that the very thing that holds up this universe is a perfect community of love, we’re going to be challenged to be more thoughtful about how we relate to other people. After all, we were created for perfect, intact, and harmonious relationships – with God, and with each other.

And course that’s what the second chapter of Genesis is all about. Adam and Eve were both naked, but not ashamed – which apparently means that the Garden of Eden was the first nudist colony. The point being made is that both Adam and Eve were totally exposed and known. No masks. No hiding. No lies. They were in perfect communion with each other.

But at the same time, Adam and Eve were in perfect communion with God. After all, what the Bible suggests is that God was in the garden with both of them the entire time. In fact, a rabbinic tradition taught that every evening God and Adam would take a walk together. And I can only imagine they talked about how beautiful Eve was and about how great it was to be with her. And as for Eve, I bet she felt really safe and loved and cherished – not used or taken for granted – but appreciated and admired for who she was because she knew that she was seen for who she was. That is, after all, what Eden represents – perfect, intact, and harmonious relationships.

Now, I know what you could be thinking. “I’m not sure what world you’re living in, but the world you just described, that’s not the real one!” And you’re right, it’s not. Unless it is.

You see in today’s Gospel Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” What I’d like to suggest this morning is that the Great Commission has two meanings, and what I’d like to do is say a word about the interpretation you probably haven’t heard. You see that Greek word translated baptize – it doesn’t just mean to immerse in water. It also means to overwhelm. And that Greek word translated “Name,” – that’s not just a baptismal formula, because in the Bible, to do anything in someone’s name means to do it with their character – to do it with their spirit. Do you see how that changes our view of mission? “Go and make disciples of all nations overwhelming them with the character of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is our mission as a church – to overwhelm the world with loving character of this Triune God so that the world is irresistibly drawn to follow Jesus as their Lord.

The Book of Genesis revolutionized our world with its answer to the big why question. The question I leave us with this morning is has it revolutionized our lives? Because the world we live in – the people we work with, spend time with and live with – they are so desperate for a hopeful answer to the big why question. And what I would like to suggest today is that the most compelling answer to that question has little to do with what we say and much more to do with how we live. The Trinity is far more of an ethical challenge than it is an intellectual one. When we jockey for power and position, when we run around with a mask, when we use criticism or sarcasm or lies to shield people from seeing us for who we are, we are not imaging the Trinity. It’s when we form deep, vulnerable, and non-violent relationships; it’s when we invest in someone we don’t know; it’s when we stop seeking to live self-sufficient lives; those are the moments when we reflect God most clearly, the moments that make it possible to overwhelm the world with God’s love.

At the center of all reality is a perfect, intact and harmonious relationship. We were made to both experience and reflect that relationship to each other and to the creation in a way that is overwhelming. That is the reason we are here. And so here’s my question. Are harmonious relationships at the center of our lives and if not … why?