Wednesday, January 25, 2012

authenticity (from a christian perspective)


Mark 1: 14-20

I’ve been invited to preach this morning on one of your core values – authenticity. But I can’t help but reference the Gospel because it’s about fishing and Bert, as you may know, is a pretty good fisherman. And whenever I’ve been fishing with Bert it’s always “catch and release,” which, as you know, is when you take some bait, deceive a fish, catch that fish, hold the fish, measure the fish, nearly suffocate the fish, so that you can admire the fish, only to hurl the fish back into the water to be humiliated in front of its family and friends. Sometimes the decision of whether or not to keep the fish is made on the spot. Strong fish are kept, weak ones are not. Now, maybe I’m projecting my own insecurities onto these poor fish, but I can’t help but think that this process of being caught, evaluated, and then released takes its toll on a fish’s soul. I mean, there have to be a few lakes out there where the fish suffer from low self-esteem and bad attitudes because no one wants to keep them. Is it me? Am I not a keeper? Does no one want me? Why did they let me go?

You see what these fish need is to come to St. Mark’s and learn to be more authentic, so that their sense of self isn’t dependent on whether or not some beer-bellied fisherman thinks they’re good enough. And that’s what Bert asked me to preach about this morning – authenticity. To quote your vision, “we are an authentic people, true to our Christian identity, and genuinely thankful for the gift of our gathering and for the sacred space of our church.” And so authenticity; that’s the subject matter of today’s sermon. What does it mean to be authentic?

Well, the word authentic means “not false or copied.” And so when we speak of an authentic Picasso we’re talking about an original Picasso and not some cheap imitation. And while the Bible never uses the word authenticity, the Bible is concerned that we live lives that are true and faithful to how God uniquely designed us. For example, Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees was that they were “hypocrites,” a Greek word that means “play actor.” And when Jesus sees Nathaniel in John chapter one he says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is nothing false!” And so Jesus is quite concerned that we live authentic lives and that we become our “true selves.” But what does that mean – what does it mean to be authentic?

Well, before we can look at what authenticity is we need to be clear about what it’s not; because if we were to ask the “world” how one becomes an authentic person the answer is simple: just look inside. Don’t look anywhere else. Your true self is perfectly intact and is found right in here. I came across a Facebook group this week by the name of, “I march to the beat of my own drum, so if you don’t like the tempo, move on,” which I think captures our world’s view of authenticity quite well. Or as Shakespeare put it, “this above all – to thine own self be true.” Or as Katy Perry put it, “Baby you’re a firework, come on let your colors burst.” But either way, the world’s message is the same. If we want to be authentic, we have to look within and be “true,” above all else, to what we find and then to let what we find come out. Authenticity is found inside of us – that’s the mantra of our world.

I just have one question. What do we do when we look inside only to find a “self” that wants to lie or cheat or procrastinate or worse? Or when we look within only to find a circus of fears, mixed motives, and prejudices? For example, when my duty is to love my wife but from within arises a feeling of love and warmth for another woman should I be “authentic” to that true self? You see we’re not really as unique as we like to think because whenever we look deep within we find not that which is true but a train wreck of what our family, culture, heredity, and the mass media have told us to be. And Jesus’ invitation to us is not, “look inside and be that!” But as he says in today’s Gospel, it’s “follow me, and I’ll make you something else than you are right now.”

You see unlike our world, which says, “if you want to be authentic you’ve got to look inside yourself,” Jesus says, “if you want to be authentic you’ve got to look outside yourself.” As Jesus himself said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” And this word we translate life, it comes from the Greek word psyche, and is also translated soul. And so it’s a word that captures that part of our self that is real – not false or copied – but authentic. The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible, translates the word psyche as “true self.” And so Jesus’ approach to finding our true, authentic self could not be more provocative. If we look for Jesus, we find both Him and our authentic, true self. In other words, authenticity is the byproduct of seeking Christ. After all, Jesus didn’t say “blessed is the one who hungers and thirsts after blessedness,” but “blessed is the one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness.” And so if we want to be authentic we’ve got to look outside ourselves.

And so once again, what does it mean to be authentic?

First, live for Jesus. This is, after all, what baptism is all about – a pledge to find our life in Him. Baptism is a pledge to live not for ourselves for the Him who died for us. You see the mystery of our faith is that we were all created as unique, authentic bearers of God’s image, that this image has been significantly blurred in each one of us by sin, and that to be restored to our true, authentic self we have to go to the only Surgeon that knows how to fix us – and that’s Jesus.

This is how C.S. Lewis puts it. “The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of little Christ’s, all different, will still be too few to express Him full. He made them all. He invented – as an author invents characters in a novel – all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him.” In other words, if we live for Jesus He will show us what it means to live an authentic life.

Second, take your place in Jesus’ body. You see authenticity isn’t like love – something that has value in and of itself, but rather it’s always in service to the Body of Christ and the mission of the church, where if one member isn’t doing its part the whole Body suffers. You see the Bible compares the Church to a Body where each one of us has a specific, distinct and vital function. Authenticity is about coming to grips with our unique contribution to the Body of Christ. And so just as each and every one of you has a unique role to play in this particular parish, so this parish has a unique role to play in our diocese.

Now, today we’re obviously just scratching the surface when it comes to discerning what it means to be authentic people. And ultimately it’s work that only you can do. But as you go about this work, just remember – Jesus is not a catch and release fisherman. He has taken hold of your life and will stop at nothing until His in you in complete. As Isaiah once put it, “we are the clay, God is the Potter and we are all the work of His hand.”

We are all the work of someone’s hand. Authenticity is what happens when we let the Maker make us into what He had in mind in creating us. It’s about knowing that our sense of self is tied to not what we accomplish but to what Christ has accomplished for us. It’s about knowing that we are each and original and so that we don’t try and play a part that doesn’t suit us. Authenticity is a gift of the Spirit.

In happens slowly as we worship, read the Bible, pray, discern, and strive to follow Jesus. But it does happen. And as it does our life and our community become more compelling, and as our community becomes more compelling it grows – in numbers and in depth.

And so as you go about this important work, I’m going to end by leaving you again with something CS Lewis said.

“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.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jesus' Stone Pillow, and ours

A sermon on John 1: 43-51


There’s a lot of wisdom in today’s Gospel about what discipleship is about, which isn’t so much about accepting God or believing the right truths about God or even doing certain things for God, but it’s about the life transformation that happens whenever we know God.

That’s what today’s Gospel is about – Nathanael coming to know God for the first time. And so here’s the question I’d like to ask this morning. What happened in Nathaniel’s life and what has to happen in ours for us to know God and be transformed?

Now first a little background, because today’s Gospel is actually alluding to and building on another story from Genesis 28; And that’s the story of Jacob running away from his brother Esau. Now as you may recall Jacob didn’t have what we’d call a really stable family life. Jacob blackmailed Esau and stole his birthright; Esau then made plans to kill Jacob and Jacob was forced to run away from home. And when Jacob fled he had nothing. In fact, he fell asleep that first night with his head on a stone – a symbol for how hard his life had become. And so Jacob is alone and feels utterly forsaken. But that night Jacob has a dream on that stone pillow, where God stands at Jacob’s side, and tells Jacob that God is calling Him, and in that dream Jacob sees a ladder that connects heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending on top of it. And so it was actually that night, in Jacob’s weakest, most desperate moment, at his very worst, as he slept on a stone, that he saw the heavens opened and God Himself standing at His side.

And then there’s Nathaniel. Like Jacob, his life is not going well. I mean, something had to happen in Nathaniel’s life that made him the sour, curmudgeon that he is. When told that the Messiah’s been found in Nazareth, he sneers. “Nazareth? That back water place? Where they watch NASCAR and wear wife beaters and where everyone’s related?” “Forget the Messiah,” he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Personally, I think he was depressed – not because he’s cynical, but because of what Jesus says to him. “Nathanael, I saw what happened under that fig tree just before Philip called you.” And because Nathanael immediately worships him as the Son of God, we can safely infer that whatever happened under that fig tree was so personal and so private that for Jesus to have seen it and still welcome him was enough to melt his heart. Maybe he had a panic attack or a moment of excessive guilt or threw up a weepy prayer of last resort. But because Jesus goes out of his way to allude to Jacob’s dream, we can safely infer that whatever happened under that fig tree was a low point in Nathaniel’s life, his “stone pillow” that no one else knew about. But when it dawned on Nathaniel that Jesus knew about it, and that Jesus understood, well, that’s what I think changed his life.

Do we know what Nathaniel and Jacob did? That Jesus Christ sees us under our fig tree; that God stands beside us on our stone pillow, that Jesus knows us at our worst and yet still delights in calling us?

CS Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. He responded with a single word. “Grace.”

Christianity is about grace. Jesus isn’t a talent scout looking for strong moral athletes to help his team win. In fact, Jesus does not ask us to change the world. But he does ask us if we’re willing to let Him change our world. And that’s why Jesus isn’t looking for people that know they’re strong but people who understand that they’re weak, and who are willing how to live in this world relying on His strength. And that’s why it’s a spiritually dangerous thing to forget that we too have a stone pillow. You see it is out of that weakness that we hear the call of God.

There’s a humbling verse in the Book of Revelation where Jesus is pleading with the church because they’re rich and prospering and think they need nothing. And Jesus says, “You forget that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” You forget, he says, that Christianity is about grace.

And that’s something easily forgotten in today’s world. It’s easy to stay pre-occupied with projects and people and pop-culture and our performance to live an entire life without ever knowing that, spiritually speaking, we’re a beggar. And if we miss our stone pillow we at the same time miss the Savior that stands beside it – the One who knows us at our worst and yet still delights in calling us.

I mean, have you ever noticed that the Gospels only have two “stock characters?” There’s the religious rule-keepers. I’m thinking of the Pharisees, Scribes, temple officials, etc. And this group is always portrayed as judgmental, joyless, critical, and legalistic. Always; And on the other hand there’s the desperate – the “morally, socially and physically despondent.” These are the prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the lame, the leper, the prisoner, the demon-possessed, and the Gentile. And the second group knows really well what their stone pillow is, and they know that Jesus knows about it, and that He loves them and calls them. And their response is always like Nathaniel! Rabbi, you are the Son of God!
You see the great mystery of our faith is not that Jesus stands beside us on our stone pillow, as wonderful as that is. The mystery of our faith is that Jesus knows what it’s like to fall asleep on that stone – whatever “our stone” happens to be.

And that’s the irony of today’s Gospel. Jesus origin wasn’t Nazareth but as the pre-existent Word that became flesh is true origin is with God. And yet the scandal of our faith is that he entered our world not as a general or a philosopher or a king but as a carpenter; that Jesus was born not in a palace but a feeding trough. You see Jesus knew what it was like to fall asleep on a stone.

“Foxes have holes, birds have nests,” he said, “but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus was homeless. He was abandoned. And as He took His last breath on the cross not one person stood beside Him, as he bore in his body the sins of the world. Not even the Father He so loved and relied on. In other words, Jesus became wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked so that in Him we might be rich and prosper and need nothing.

And to the extent that we know that, we’ll trust Jesus enough to let him show us our fig tree, our stone pillow – a metaphor for our weakness, our fears, our mistakes, our prejudices, and our sins. Because – the “me” that Jesus loves is not the same “me” I now see. As St. Paul put it, “now we see in a mirror dimly.” But not Jesus – he sees us as we are, at our very worst, and yet that’s the person Jesus delights in calling; that’s the person Jesus longs to transform.

And you know what the irony of all this is? Today’s Gospel isn’t just about discipleship, it’s also about evangelism. It’s about becoming the type of person and the type of church that lives in this world with a message, “come and see.” Come and see someone that sees you. Come and see someone that loves you. Come and see someone that stands beside you. As someone once put it, “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” I mean, isn’t that what Philip did for Nathanael?

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said to Nathaniel, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

What happened in Nathaniel’s life and what has to happen in ours for us to know God and be transformed? Well, here’s what I’d offer. There is a ladder that connects heaven and earth; and it isn’t a ladder we climb up, it’s a ladder that God’s climbed down so that He could live and die as one of us and to save us. What this means is that we do not need to save ourselves, or to hide from ourselves, or to hide from God. Jesus sees us under our fig tree. Jesus stands beside us on our stone pillow. Jesus knows us at our worst, and he knows us at our best, and yet still delights in calling us.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why was Jesus baptized?

A sermon on Mark 1: 4-11

To listen to audio version:

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates “the Baptism of our Lord,” which also happens to be the focus of today’s Gospel reading from Mark. Here’s the question I’d like to frame today’s sermon – why? Why was Jesus Christ baptized?

Because frankly it’s a problem; baptism is for people who identify with sinners. According to Mark, John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism is for sinners and according to the Bible that’s not what Jesus was. According to John, he’s not worthy to touch Jesus’ sandals. Baptism is about entering God’s life, but Jesus is God. Baptism’s about being cleansed from sin, but Jesus knew no sin. And so again, why was Jesus baptized? And what, if anything, does his baptism mean for our own?

Now, a little background; Today’s Gospel records the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The past few years he’s lived quietly as a carpenter. It’s today, for the first time, that Jesus goes public as Israel’s Messiah and this baptism is Jesus’ manifesto.

“If elected president, what’s the first thing you’ll do?” If you’ve been watching the presidential debates you’ll notice how often that question’s asked. Because the question’s more of a symbol than anything; what will your presidency be about? What are you going to do on day number one? And so what today’s Gospel actually looks back on is Jesus’ first day in office where a public, symbolic statement is made about what His government or His Kingdom will be about. And Jesus’ statement was a symbolic one. He chose to be baptized.

Now, to help us understand what’s happening I’d like to tell you the story of a guy named father Damian, a young Belgian priest that lived in the late 19th century with a ministry to lepers. In the 1860’s the Hawaiian legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” which resulted in about 8,000 people being banished to a leper colony. And so Father Damian, though not a leper himself, left the comfort of where he was and made his home among the lepers. And for the next twenty or so years Father Damien served these sick, banished, forgotten people. He embraced them. He loved them. He got close. And on a Sunday morning in 1885 Fr. Damien opened his sermon not with the customary “Brethren” but with two simple words: we lepers. “In other words, I’m not here to stand above you. But I’m here to stand with you in your disease.”

When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, where the scum of humanity went to repent, Jesus Christ made a similar statement. We sinners. This is the statement Jesus made on his first day in office – that as God’s Messiah he would identify fully with sinful humanity. You see, unlike our baptism, which fully identifies us with God; Jesus’ baptism unveiled God’s quest to fully identify with man. In other words, I think Jesus knew what he was put on earth to do, and as Oswald Chambers once put it, “at His baptism [Jesus] visibly and distinctly and historically took upon Him His vocation.” Now what this all means is that the point of Jesus’ ministry was not to set a good example – as if a role model were all we needed; nor did Jesus come to teach us how to love, as if the world had never heard of it. But in his baptism what Jesus actually did was preach a two word sermon. We lepers. We sinners. I am not here to stand above you. But I’m here to stand with you in your disease.”

There’s a second century theologian by the name of Iranaeus who said something that really captures what I’m getting at. “Out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is.” Or as St. Paul put it in 2nd Corinthians, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, Christ became what we are for a purpose – to make us beloved children of God like Himself.

Now, this is where our own baptismal identity comes into play. You see the words the Father spoke to Jesus – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” – aren’t these the words each one of us longs to hear? We build our lives around hearing these words! How can I be accepted? How can I be loved? What must I do for people to be pleased with me? And the world’s answer is simple. Do something that’s pleasing. Be funny. Be smart. Get a tattoo. Make money. Be outgoing. Don’t have a bad game. Do something that makes you worthy! Stand out, be unique, make a difference, don’t be boring, do something pleasing, and only then will you be accepted and loved. Maybe. That’s the way our world orders things. Do something pleasing first. Experience love and belong second.

What our baptism does, and what Jesus’ baptism represents, is a complete reversal of that order. We say know that you’re loved and that you belong, and to the extent that you know you will live a life that’s pleasing to God.

And that’s why it is a good and fitting thing that we baptize infants. Before they do anything good we mark them as Christ’s own forever. We tell them they’re beloved sons and daughters of God and that, because they are in Christ, that God is so very pleased with them. And you know what? Sin, anxiety and fear – these are really nothing more than symptoms of us forgetting that we belong to God, that in Christ God identifies with us fully taking even our sin upon His own back. That is, after all, what the cross is all about – God making Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that in Him we might become the beloved of God. “Out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is.”

And so it’s a fitting thing to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Because on His first day in office, by choosing to be baptized, what Jesus did was replace traditional religion with the Gospel. Your see religion says, “Do something well pleasing, and then maybe you’ll be acceptable.” But the Gospel says that in Christ we’re acceptable, and that to the extent that we grasp our beloved-ness we’ll please God as a byproduct. Religion is about morality and our faithfulness. The Gospel is about grace and God’s faithfulness. Religion is a wagging finder that screams, “try harder!” The Gospel is Jesus in the Jordan saying, “We lepers.”

There’s a great verse in the Book of Isaiah that says, “surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; he was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” Now as Christians, we believe that this verse was meant to point to Jesus. But here’s the reason I share it. Going back to Father Damien, by the time he actually died Fr. Damien had contacted leprously. Could he have taken some sanitary measures to prevent that? I suppose he could. But what Father Damien felt called to do was to give these sick, banished and forgotten people something that had been lost: dignity, worth, love, belonging, and a sense that someone was “well pleased” enough with them to embrace them, to love them and to get close. But if that was to happen, metaphorically speaking, Father Damien had to stand with them in the Jordan. Out of his boundless love, Damien became what they were, lepers, so that that they might become what He is, fully human. God made Fr. Damien who knew no leprously to be a leper for them, so that in Damien’s presence they might experience a dignity, love and belonging they had never known before.

Why was Jesus baptized? Well, I suppose that all depends on how we view our selves. If all we really need is a good example or a little ego boost and we assume that’s what Jesus provides, than I don’t know. But if Jesus was right – if “those who are well have no need of a physician but only those who are sick” – if despite the myriad ways we try to convince the world that we’re all just fine what we really need is a savior – than Jesus’ baptism is nothing less than God, the ultimate Public Servant, making a statement to the world that he came to embrace us, love us, get close, and bear our disease for us, even to the point of dying on a cross.

You see baptism is for people that identity with sinners. And thank God that Jesus was someone that did.