Including and Transcending

Mark 1:1-8, NRSV

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Have you ever experienced yourself (or some part of your life) as completely and totally unacceptable? Something that, if it were known publicly, would cause you so much shame that you’d probably just go ahead and spend the rest of your life hiding under your bed, eating Cheetos? I think we all do.

We all have some parts of our life that we think about and go, “If anyone ever knew about this, they’d never speak to me again!”

A lot of the time, we don’t even like to think privately about the fact that these parts of ourselves exist.

And, even though we believe theologically that God knows everything and God’s love is unconditional, a part of us is still terrified that even God would look away in from us in disgust if such a thing became known.

And so we hide… whether we’re under the bed eating Cheetos or covering ourselves with fig leaves like Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, we ashamed and afraid of being exposed, so we hide these parts of our lives.

Looking at our gospel text this morning, the narrator (who is named ‘Mark’ by tradition) opens his story with the announcement that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

But the story is not just Jesus’ story alone: Right here, at the beginning, the narrator goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the story of the gospel includes parts of all different stories.

First of all, there is the Jewish story. This is not surprising, especially since Jesus and his earliest followers were all Jewish. So, it makes perfect sense that the story of Jesus would have a particularly Jewish feel to it: Jewish memories of the past, Jewish hopes of the future.

We can see Mark intentionally including those elements in the way he tells Jesus’ story:

For example, there is his use of the word Christ. Contrary to popular opinion, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Christ (Christos in Greek) is a Greek word that translates the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah). The English translation of both of these words is Anointed. It refers to a part of the ritual for crowning kings in ancient Israel when a prophet or a priest would pour olive oil on the head of the new king. This anointing was a sign that the person in question was God’s choice as leader. In Jesus’ time, this idea had developed into a national hope for a coming king who would liberate the Jewish people from occupation by the Romans. So, by calling Jesus the Anointed (i.e. Christ, Messiah), Mark is including the Jewish story (with all of its memories and hopes) in Jesus’ story.

There’s another way that Mark makes this connection:

It’s not with Jesus himself, but with this other important figure: John the Baptist. When Mark introduces John, he spends a great deal of time describing what John is wearing – “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.”

These are all very important visual cues that Mark is giving his readers, but we 21st century people are likely to miss them, since we’re not from the same culture as Mark’s readers. However, we can get an idea of what he is talking about: If I were to use visual cues to describe a fat man in a red suit coming down a chimney, who do you think I would be talking about? Santa Claus!

We recognize those visual cues because they are deeply embedded in our own culture. In the same way, Mark is giving his audience visual cues about John the Baptist by describing what he is wearing. When he says that John is “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey,” people in his culture would immediately recognize that as the prophet Elijah, whose return to earth was supposed to foreshadow the coming of the Messiah, God’s anointed king.

Mark reinforces this idea by quoting a verse from the book of the Jewish prophet Malachi:

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”

That’s all that Mark quotes, but if we kept reading in the book of Malachi, we would quickly come to this verse in the same section – “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

Again, we encounter this idea of Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, God’s anointed king. Between these visual and verbal cues, Mark is actually laying it on pretty thick that John the Baptist is Elijah, so when John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me,” Jewish readers would get really excited, because that means that the promised Messiah is about to come. And we, as Christians, believe that’s exactly what happened when Jesus appeared on the scene.

So again, Mark is including these Jewish memories and hopes in his presentation of the Christian gospel. The Jewish story is part of Jesus’ story.

But wait, there’s more:

Mark doesn’t just include the Jewish story in Jesus’ story, he includes the Roman story as well. This is really surprising. After all, the Romans were pagans who didn’t worship Israel’s God at all. Also, they were foreigners: an invading army that was occupying the lands of Judea and Galilee. One would certainly not expect the story of the Jewish Messiah to also include the memories and hopes of pagan foreigners, but it does.

Mark begins Jesus’ story by calling it “the good news” (euangelion), which is also where we get the word “gospel” from. The term was not initially a religious term, but a Roman political one. An euangelion was an imperial proclamation that a royal child had been born, that a new emperor had ascended the throne, or that Caesar was victorious over his enemies.

Also, Mark refers to Jesus with the title Son of God. These days, we’re used to that title being applied to Jesus, but in Roman times, it was a title reserved for Caesar alone. By using the terms euangelion and Son of God, Mark is intentionally including elements of the Roman story in Jesus’ story. He’s saying that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for the Jews; it’s good news for the whole world.

However, even as the gospel of Jesus includes elements from these other Jewish and Roman stories, it also transcends them.

First of all, using Roman imperial images to refer to Jesus sets him up as another authority figure who will compete with the power of Rome. When the early Christians proclaimed, “Jesus is Lord!” they were making the dangerous and subversive implication that “Caesar is not.” That, to a large degree, is why the Roman Empire perceived Christians as a threat to national security and subsequently hunted and executed them.

The Caesars of Rome had a particular agenda that they were advancing: the Pax Romana. Their goal was to achieve world peace through conquest. They would impose Roman order over the face of the entire world under the leadership of Caesar. The dangerous claim of Christians is that they would achieve the same goal, but Jesus (not Caesar) would be the head of the global household. Also, the Roman vision was “peace through conquest” but the Christian vision was “conquest through peace.” The harmony of creation would be restored, not by imposing order from without, but by nurturing peace within. The Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) reigns in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples by the power of God’s love, not by the power of the sword. The story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Roman story.

In the same way, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends the Jewish story. The Jewish idea of the coming Messiah was that of a revolutionary leader who wields political and military power to liberate the Jewish homeland from foreign occupation and usher in a Jewish golden age of national security, prosperity, and fidelity to the Torah of Moses.

But the gospel of Jesus is much bigger than that. The gospel of Jesus is not just a Jewish story; it includes the Gentiles and all the nations of the world (even the Romans). So, just as it was with the Roman story, the story of Jesus includes, but also transcends, the Jewish story.

When it comes to our lives, I think the same principle applies. The Christian gospel includes, but also transcends our personal stories.

Nothing is left out: all that you have, all that you are, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you’ve made happen is part of what God is doing in your life.

This is a message of total acceptance. You are loved and accepted, radically and unconditionally, by God. God loves you, not just in spite of your mistakes, faults, character flaws, quirks, and wounds, but with them. God loves you, just as you are. Full stop. No exceptions. God’s love for you is an act of free, radical, and sovereign grace. There’s nothing we can do to earn it or lose it. As the theologian Paul Tillich was fond of saying, “All you can do is accept that you are accepted.”

Like you hear me say every week: God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is a powerful truth (which is why I make a point of saying it every week). If we were to let the significance of this truth sink into our souls, it would change the way we live our lives. I dare say that it would even change the world.

The story of Jesus’ work in your life includes all parts of your own personal story. Nothing is left out. Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that!” Nothing ends up on the cutting room floor, as it were. Total acceptance. Total inclusion.

And just like the Roman story and the Jewish story, even as every element of our personal stories are included in the story of the gospel in our lives, every element of our personal story is also transcended.

Nothing is left out. Just as Christ looks at every part of your life (no matter how bad) and says, “I can work with that,” Christ also looks at every part of your life (no matter how good) and says, “Let’s work on that.”

God loves us just as we are, and loves us too much to let us stay that way. When I was a kid, there were recruitment videos for the U.S. Army that called soldiers to “Be all that you can be.” But Christ is calling us to be more than that.

One of my favorite hymns in our new hymnal is “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The second verse of that hymn addresses this subject of transcendence and transformation directly:

O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

By including, but also transcending, all the various elements of our personal stories, Christ is calling us to a destiny that is bigger and more magnificent than we can possibly imagine. Just like the Transformers, there is “more” to us “than meets the eye.” Jesus is calling us up into that “more.”

What does it look like? Well, the answer is complicated.

We know that each person is unique. We believe that each person is made in the image of God. Therefore, it stands to reason that each person will reflect the image of God in their own unique way.

Christ is calling you to be more than you are now, but never calls you to be what you are not. God’s calling on your life will not look exactly like God’s calling on someone else’s life. Whatever you’re called to be, you’re not called to be exactly like them.

It’s like stained-glass windows in a church: each one is different from all the others; each one is hand-crafted by a master artist. But when the sunlight shines through them, it is the light of the one and only sun.

In the same way, our lives and callings in Christ will look very different from one another. We come with our own unique gifts and struggles. When the light shines through us, it shines differently, but it is the one Light of Christ: including and transcending all the various parts of our personal stories and making them part of the one Great Story: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Your Story Isn’t Over Yet

Back when I was a substance abuse counselor, my clients would sometimes come to me when they were working on the “Higher Power” part of the Twelve Step program. They heard that I was a member of the clergy, so they would say, “I want to read the Bible, but I don’t know where to start.”

For these people so early in their recovery from debilitating addictions, many of whom had lost jobs, families, health, and freedom in pursuit of compulsions that now made them feel ashamed of themselves, I could recommend no better place to start reading the Bible than at the very beginning: the book of Genesis.

I told my clients to pay special attention to the story of Jacob. I tell them, “Genesis (Jacob’s story in particular) is one of the only books I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gives up on them. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, chances are that you will be able to read about the people in the book of Genesis and feel a whole lot better about yourself.”

As for Jacob, here’s his story:

He lied to his own father and cheated his brother Esau out of everything that was rightfully his. When we encounter him in today’s Old Testament reading, he is a fugitive, on the run from the law and a brother who has sworn to kill him. Even after having this visionary experience of God, Jacob would go on to another fourteen years of lying, cheating, and stealing from his own extended family in the foreign country to which he flees (and from which he will once again flee after another bout of deception).

All in all, Jacob comes across as a pretty bad guy. If I were God, I wouldn’t bother with such an untrustworthy character, who more often than not chooses the wrong thing, even when presented with every opportunity to do the right thing. Fortunately for Jacob, God has much worse taste in people than I do.

Just like the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds, God is content to let the good and the bad grow together in Jacob, accepting him as he is for the sake of what he might be.

God shows up in the middle of Jacob’s dream while he is on the run. Like a drunk who got kicked out of the bar at closing time and missed the last bus, but is too ashamed to call home for a ride, he lies down to sleep outside and cuddles up to a rock for a pillow.

If anything, one would think that this would be a prime moment for God to stage an intervention. One can imagine the Almighty appearing to Jacob in his dream and saying, “Jake… what are you doing, man? I mean, come on… look at yourself! You’re sleeping outside; you’ve got no place to go. You have no job, no home, no blanket, and a rock for a pillow! You seriously need some help and if you don’t stop destroying yourself and ruining life for everyone else, then I can’t be around you anymore.”

Sadly, there are plenty of parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and children who have had to have that very difficult conversation with someone they love. Some of us have even been on the receiving end of that kind of tough love.

From a human perspective, it’s sometimes necessary because each of us has only a limited amount of resources in time, money, and emotional energy. Everyone has a breaking point when they just can’t handle any more trauma.

But God isn’t subject to the same kinds of human limitations we are. God quite simply has no ego to bruise. The reservoir of divine love is literally bottomless. I’m inclined to believe that divine omnipotence is rooted, not in the ability to dole out eternal hell and punishment, but in the ability to take it.

That’s why God is able to show up in Jacob’s dream entirely un-phased by Jacob’s penchant for self-destruction. There is no “my way or the highway”, “shape up or ship out”, ultimatums, or threats of hellfire and damnation. God wants Jacob to know only one thing:

“All the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

To sum up, God is saying to Jacob: “I’m not done with you yet. Go ahead and do what you need to do and go where you need to go, but we’re going to put a bookmark here and come back to this because your story is not over yet.”

For a surprising number of the folks I’ve worked with, whether they are homeless or unemployed, divorced or destitute, chemically dependent or mentally ill, convicted by their conscience or a court of law, these are the precise words they most long to hear: Your story is not over yet.

Sometimes, all it takes to unleash great potential is for another person to look at us with more faith, hope, and love for us than we have in ourselves. That’s what Jacob needed. Before Jacob could believe in God, he needed to know that God believed in him.

Jacob’s response is one of amazement: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Although there’s no evidence to indicate that this is the case, Jacob (or someone very much like him) easily could have written Psalm 139, which we also read this morning. He ran as far and as fast as he could in the opposite direction, but still couldn’t outrun or out-sin the infinite love of God. Here is the song of Jacob’s heart:

Where can I go then from your Spirit; *
where can I flee from your presence?

If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.

If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”

Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.

Jacob would certainly nod his head in agreement with these words from St. Paul:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

On the night when he had his dream, Jacob had given up on himself, so he naturally assumed that God had as well. Perhaps he assumed that he was so far outside God’s good graces that no prayer would help him now. Maybe he had even stopped believing in God’s existence altogether. The text doesn’t say. What is clear, however, is that God is last person Jacob expected to encounter as he lay down to sleep.

It would still be several years before Jacob’s heart would turn and his life would start to turn around. In the intervening years, he would go through multiple marriages, lost jobs, false accusations, intolerable in-laws, house full of kids, and enough relationship drama to rival anything one might see on Reality TV.

In fourteen years’ time, Jacob would find himself once again alone in the desert with nothing left but the shirt on his back. On that night, he and God would have it out for real this time and Jacob would be changed forever.

But for now, Jacob isn’t there yet. This isn’t the big moment when all becomes clear and everything changes for good. This isn’t the moment when Jacob finds what he’s been searching for finally gets his life together. He’s still a lost soul for now.

All Jacob has for now is this hunch that came to him one night in a weird, foggy dream: the hunch that his story is not over yet, that he is loved, that God is still with him, and isn’t finished with him yet.

The Deeper Yes

I find it to be a matter of common sense that you and I live in a fragmented world. We’re divided and scattered. Relationships are broken: between nations and neighbors, between races and religions, between partners and parties. Why, we’re even fragmented within ourselves: doing what we don’t want to do and unable to do what we most deeply want to do, as we heard St. Paul say in this morning’s reading from his letter to the Romans. We’re fragmented. Things are complicated. We don’t quite know what to make of it. We’re lost and we need to find our way again. We need to get our bearings, so to speak. We need context: we need to understand where it is that we are, how we got here, and how we can get to where we ought to be as individuals, as families, as communities, and as nations. This is the state of our generation on planet earth: fragmented, lost, Paul calls us “wretched.”

Into this maelstrom, enter Jesus. To quote Paul once again: “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And Jesus shows up in our gospel reading this morning with his usual wit and insight that cuts to the core of who we are and lays our souls bare for the healing. Here, Christ the great physician (Doctor Jesus) is practicing a kind of spiritual surgery in order to get inside us and expose what we are so that we might become what we ought to be.

And his surgeon’s tools, the scalpel and forceps he uses to simultaneously wound and heal his patients, are twofold: Questions and Stories. Anytime Jesus asks a question or says “Let me tell you a story…” smart people will head for the hills because they know it isn’t going to be pretty. And in today’s passage, Jesus does both. He asks his listeners, “To what will I compare this generation?”

He’s making a comparison: using the rhetorical art of analogy to provide insight and context. He’s showing us how to recognize the patterns of thought and behavior that we have become so unconsciously accustomed to by force of repetition and reinforcement by societal values.
And here is his comparison: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”.

Children sitting in the marketplaces. Can you imagine anything more out of place? What if the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street had an annual “Bring your kids to work Day”? What would it be like to have kids playing games and chasing each other around the trading floor? What would it be like to have a bunch of whiny babies throwing temper tantrums on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives? It would be chaotic and disruptive. They would constantly be under foot. Nothing could get done.

“Children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another”. According to Jesus, that’s the fragmented state we’re in as individuals and as a society. We’re tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way, and disrupting the divine plan with all sorts of mindless chaos and petty selfishness.

Jesus said that we’re “calling out to one another.” What is it that we’re calling out? “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance”.
That’s an interesting one to me, especially in this consumerist, hedonistic, entertainment-addicted society. The world is always “playing the flute for us” in one way or another, isn’t it? We are bombarded with advertisements from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we close our eyes at night. Every single product and service promises a long and happy life, but none can actually deliver on that guarantee. Sensationalist media headlines are specifically designed to get our attention and provoke a reaction from us. They force our emotions out of us by making each new experience faster, funnier, sexier, scarier, or more intense than the last one. They keep us on the hook. The world plays the flute and we are expected to dance like puppets.

What else are we, as a society of “children in the marketplace” calling out to each other? “We wailed, and you did not mourn.”

This one is the mirror image of the last disruptive cry. Once again, the world is trying to provoke a reaction from us, trying to throw us off of our spiritual center of gravity. But this time, they’re using pain instead of pleasure, the stick instead of the carrot. If you follow current events (from either the right or the left), you’re probably familiar with this “wailing” tactic: there’s no such thing as a small problem in Washington. When is the last time you can remember either Republicans or Democrats sitting down together around a piece of proposed legislation and saying, “I guess we have a few minor disagreements about this bill” or “I’m sure we can figure out some kind of compromise”? Does that ever happen? No. Every little problem is an apocalyptic crises. Every opponent is a demon and every ally is an angel. It’s all just another form of sensationalism and manipulation.

When the world isn’t playing the flute for us, it’s wailing at us. It wants to provoke a reaction in us so that we’ll keep on playing these little games and sending our money to the big shots on Wall Street, or in Washington, or in Hollywood. Their game is simple: if we play, they win.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t play. That’s what Jesus said. He said: “John came neither eating nor drinking”.
Here Jesus is speaking, of course, of his cousin, St. John the Baptist. John was a prophet: the greatest of prophet who ever lived, according to Jesus. John was kind of like a monk: he lived a very simple, ascetic life in the desert and people would come to be baptized and listen to him teach.

The thing about John the Baptist is that he didn’t play the world’s game. He said “No” to the flutes and “No” to the wailing. He didn’t participate. He boycotted. He was a resistor. He was a fiery preacher who wasn’t afraid to call a spade a spade. He criticized the religious establishment and he called out political leaders.

And what did the dominant powers-that-be do to him? They demonized him. They arrested him. In the end, they killed him.

His experience reminds me of the Civil Rights movement: people marching in the streets, speaking truth to power, boycotting the bus system, sitting in at lunch counters. They said “No” to racism, segregation, and inequality. Like John, many were arrested and some were killed. They too were demonized with the worst possible insult one could think of in the 50s and 60s: “Communist.”

If St. John the Baptist had lived during the 1960s, they would have called him a Communist too. John said “No” to the world’s childish games and they said, “He has a demon.”

Saying “No” is an important step in the prophetic ministry. We have to do it if we ever hope to regain our moral and spiritual footing in this life. We have to say “No” to what the world is offering in order to say a deeper “Yes” to what God is offering us instead. And what is that deep “Yes” that we are called to say with our whole hearts?

Jesus shows us: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking”. Notice the dichotomy with John’s ministry: “John came neither eating nor drinking” (he said “No”) but “The Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself, it really just means “human being”) came eating and drinking” (Jesus is saying “Yes”).

Jesus, if you remember, got his start by working with John in his ministry. John baptized Jesus and Jesus’ message, in the early days of his ministry, is almost indistinguishable from John’s: Both of them baptized people and told them to “repent and believe the good news, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

But then a shift began to happen after John was arrested and killed. Jesus branched out on his own and took the movement in a new direction. As John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.”

Rather than disengaging from society and staying out in the desert, Jesus ventured back into the city streets. He got involved in people’s lives, loving without judgment. He scandalized the dominant powers of this world in a different way: by practicing such open acceptance, he defied their nicely defined ideological categories and the boxes into which they so conveniently put people and God.

As a result, they reduced him to the lowest common denominator and called him “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Ironically, they couldn’t be more right. The reality of God’s love in Christ was far deeper and broader than they could imagine. Jesus envisioned a community where all people would be welcome at heaven’s table, not just those who passed theological or ethical muster. This was more than the powers of this world could handle. They just couldn’t imagine sharing heaven with such pathetic riff-raff.

During this time, the disciple’s eyes were gradually opened to the truth that this Son of Man is also the Son of God. The Church, after reflecting on this reality for centuries, came to affirm that Christ is both “fully human” and “fully divine”. The theological term for this is Incarnation – the belief that God has taken on flesh, that through Christ, God is present with us in the very stuff of this universe. Therefore, the stuff of this universe is sacred. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the Source from which all things come and the Destiny toward which all things are going.

In Christ, the universe itself finds healing and wholeness. Our broken world is fragmented no more. We are free to eat and drink once again, having overcome the clatter of this world’s childish wailing and flute-playing. We are now able to approach life with new eyes, the eyes of faith, strengthened by Christ’s Word and Sacraments, which point us back to the deeper truth of hidden wholeness beneath the fragmented surface of the world. All things come from Christ and return to Christ by way of Christ.

With that knowledge, we are able to put our worried minds at ease and our weary souls at rest, as Jesus himself said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Reclaiming Repentance

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Repent is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian religious vocabulary.  The sound of it typically conjures up images of wild-eyed, Bible-thumping preachers screaming about hellfire and damnation from atop a soapbox on a street corner.  Even those who know better still tend to associate repentance with feelings of guilt and shame over past failures.

Jesus uses that word in this morning’s gospel reading when he says to the people, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  I don’t think he was trying to lay a guilt-trip on his listeners, nor was he trying to frighten them into becoming disciples.

When Jesus uses that word, repent, he is inviting his listeners into an experience of expanded consciousness.  The word repent in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) is metanoia.  It literally means “to change one’s mind.”  Jesus is trying to get his listeners to think differently, think bigger, think outside the box.  Specifically, Jesus is inviting us to change the way we think about three things: God, ourselves, and the world.

First, Jesus is inviting his listeners to think bigger, think differently about God.  In the world of first century Judaism, people thought of God as being far away.  Moreover, they thought there were certain things that people needed to do or think in order to get God’s attention.  They thought God had to be appeased by certain rituals or impressed with good moral behavior and theological belief.  This is what groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees did with their time: they worked hard to get God’s attention/approval.

All of this is pretty consistent with what I call the human religious instinct.  In just about every human culture, on every continent, in every part of history, people have had some kind of belief in a Higher Power (e.g. God(s), Brahman, Tao, etc.).  Likewise, they have also had some kind of system in place for contacting, relating to, garnering favor with, or even controlling their Higher Power(s).  This is how religions are born.  Some scientists have even done studies that indicate our brains might be hardwired for forming religious beliefs and rituals.

One of the really interesting things about Jesus is that he takes this whole human religious enterprise and turns it on its head.  All religions present us with a way to find God, but Jesus presents us with a God who finds us.

He says in today’s reading, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Other English translations read, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Think about that: at hand.  Hold your hand out in front of you and look at it.  Think about those words: “The kingdom of heaven/God (i.e. the place where God lives) is at hand.”  Later on, Jesus would take this idea even further and say, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

This is a radical, prophetic, and mystical shift.  If it doesn’t blow your mind, then you weren’t really paying attention.  This turns the whole human idea of religion upside down.  God is not far away, God is close.  How close?  At hand.  Within you.  Taking a hint from Jesus, St. Augustine of Hippo says that God is closer to you than your own heart.

The other part of this is that there is nothing we have to do (or can do) to get God’s attention or gain God’s approval because we already have it.  Theologically speaking, this is called grace.  Grace is the unmerited favor, or unconditional love, of God.  Grace is God’s basic orientation toward the world.  It can’t be earned any more than a baby can earn the milk that comes from its mother’s breast.  It’s just there, free for the taking, because that’s just who God is in relation to the world.

This is how Jesus changes the way we think about God: he turns the whole human religious enterprise on its head by presenting us with a God who is close by and accepts us as we are.  The importance of this shift cannot be overstated.

As one might imagine, this change in the way we think about God would naturally have a profound effect on the way we think about ourselves and the world.

Under the systems and institutions created by our own human religious instinct, membership in the community of faith is intentionally kept exclusive.  There are certain things one has to do, think, or say in order to be let into “the club.”  The privileges of membership are reserved for the few who prove themselves worthy.  There is always an us and a them, insiders and outsiders, the saved and the damned.  This is the way that our human religious instinct has trained us to think, but it’s not the way that Jesus thinks.  To him, there is only us, there are no outsiders, no one is damned, and all are destined for salvation.  This is the good news that Jesus preaches.

And he doesn’t just preach it, either; he practices what he preaches.  For Jesus, the community of faith is not exclusive but radically inclusive.  They literally let anyone through the door of this party.

Jesus demonstrates this first of all in his ministry of table fellowship.  Sharing a home-cooked meal with someone in the ancient near east was a powerful thing.  It meant that you accepted this person as is, with no strings attached.  So, it was quite the village scandal when Jesus gathered a reputation for eating with “tax collectors and sinners” in the towns where he traveled.  The religious leaders of his time were constantly up in arms over the bad example he was setting by his willingness to accept and love all people unconditionally (even the losers, rejects, ne’er do wells, freaks, geeks, and criminals).

Another way that Jesus demonstrates the inclusive nature of his ministry is in the calling of his first disciples, which was also part of today’s gospel reading.  Look at this text with me, if you will.  What kinds of professional or spiritual qualifications does the text say that Andrew, Simon, James, and John had before Jesus was willing to call them to be his disciples?  Does it say anything about an interview process?  Do they have to attend classes first?  Does the text of Matthew’s gospel say anything about how often they went to synagogue, prayed, or studied their Torah?  No, it doesn’t.  Jesus just calls them and something within them responds, feels drawn to this person.  As I once heard someone else say, “Jesus doesn’t choose the qualified; he qualifies the chosen.”  That certainly seems to be the case here, even when it came to Christ’s apostles.

In the centuries since then, the Christian Church (in its better moments, anyway) has tried to embody the same kind of open inclusivity in its community that Jesus demonstrated in his.  In the early days of the Church, the big controversy was over the question of whether or not to let Gentiles (non-Jewish people) join the Church.  This might not seem like such a big deal to us, but I assure you that it was to Christians in the first century.  The debate got so heated that it almost split the Church.  They fought about it for a long time, but eventually landed on the side of inclusivity, saying that their faith would be a global faith with room for “every tribe, language, people, and nation.”

In more recent times, we’ve seen Christians reach out in the name of our inclusive faith to bridge the gap between denominations and religions.  We’ve worked hard to make room in our congregations for people from every race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, and disability.

Right now, at this divided and polarized point in our nation’s history, when the spirit of community seems to be breaking down at all levels, the inclusive gospel of grace is one that people particularly need to hear.  In spite of the fact that people in our age are more electronically connected than ever, we have never been more spiritually isolated from one another.  We, the people of Christ, have been called to carry his subversive, disarming gospel to the nations.

We are called by Christ to repent (metanoia – “change the way we think”) about God, the world, and ourselves.  The gospel of Christ calls us to let go of our efforts to get God’s attention by doing, thinking, and saying the right things.  Christ calls us to rise up out of our polarized, divisive, and tribal consciousness shaped by the human religious instinct.  We are called to be a light to the world and show them by our gracious living that there is another way to be human.  We are called to lift up every voice and preach the good news of salvation: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Amen.

The Heartroots Revolution

411px-Sacred_Heart_CurrierThe famous author and Presbyterian minister Eugene Peterson tells a great story about something that happened to him when he was growing up in Montana.  Eugene used to have to deal with a bully named Garrison Johns.  Garrison used to pick on him and take cheap shots.  All along, the adults in his church kept telling Eugene to “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.”  When Garrison found out that Eugene was a Christian, he started calling him “Jesus-sissy.”  Finally, the day came when Eugene decided that he’d had enough.  He was walking home from school with Garrison beside him, hurling his usual barrage of jeers and jabs.  I’ll let Eugene Peterson tell the rest of the story in his own words:

Something snapped within me. Totally uncalculated. Totally out of character. For just a moment the Bible verses disappeared from my consciousness and I grabbed Garrison. To my surprise, and his, I realized that I was stronger than he. I wrestled him to the ground, sat on his chest and pinned his arms to the ground with my knees. I couldn’t believe it – he was helpless under me. At my mercy. It was too good to be true. I hit him in the face with my fists. It felt good and I hit him again – blood spurted from his nose, a lovely crimson on the snow. By this time all the other children were cheering, egging me on. “Black his eyes! Bust his teeth!” A torrent of vengeful invective poured from them, although nothing compared with what I would, later in life, read in the Psalms. I said to Garrison, “Say Uncle.” He wouldn’t say it. I hit him again. More blood. More cheering. Now the audience was bringing the best out in me. And then my Christian training reasserted itself. I said, “Say, I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” And he said it. Garrison Johns was my first Christian convert.

          (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 134-136)

This story is a great example of a Christian doing the right thing in the wrong way.  We Christians are famous for that.  Ironically, it seems like we tend to be at our worst when we try to do something really big and beautiful for God.

Take, for example, the story of the Roman emperor, Constantine I.  Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian.  He legalized Christianity and ended centuries of persecution against the Church.  That was a good thing, as far as Christians were concerned.  However, he also started the process of merging church and state into one institution, a state of affairs that would eventually lead to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials.  From Constantine’s point of view, he was establishing the kingdom of heaven on earth in the form of a Christian government.  But when that government (and its successors) started to operate, it started to look less like the kingdom of heaven and more like all the other kingdoms of the world.  In the end, the Roman Empire became just another superpower, but with the name of Jesus tacked on it.

That’s part of the problem with us humans: we assume that our ways are God’s ways, that a good end justifies bad means.  We think that, in order for right and good win to out over evil, we have to use power and violence to force our will (or God’s) on others.  But that isn’t how God works in the world.

We’re talking a lot about authority and kingship today.  First of all, we’re wrapping up our six week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve covered the first five already: the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; and the promotion of social righteousness.  This week, we’re looking at the final Great End of the Church, which is the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world.  We’re going to talk about what it means to “exhibit” “the kingdom of heaven.”

Today also happens to be Ascension Sunday, the holiday when we celebrate Jesus returning to heaven to sit at the right hand of God, as it says in the book of Acts.  The meaning behind this image is the sovereignty of Christ as ruler over all creation.

So the subject of kingship is our central theme today.  You might have picked up on this theme in our first reading from the letter to the Ephesians where the author talks about Christ, who is seated “at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”  Obviously, this is an image of supreme authority.

Based on what people tend to experience from the corrupt powers and authorities of this world, one might imagine a person with supreme authority to wield it like an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case with Jesus.  His idea of kingly authority is very different from most others’.  In our gospel reading, Jesus described his idea of what God’s kingdom, God’s ideal society might look like as it becomes established in the world.

It doesn’t look like an invading dictatorship or a hostile takeover by a competing corporation.  There’s no violence and coercion in this kind of kingdom.  Jesus said the coming of God’s kingdom is like “a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs.”  A little later, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

According to Jesus’ model, the kingdom of God is a growing thing.  It works slowly and subversively beneath the surface of society.  I especially love the image he uses about the kingdom being like yeast that leavens a loaf of bread.  For those who might not know about bread making, yeast is alive.  It’s a little microscopic organism that causes bread to rise once the yeast has infected the entire batch.

Did you get that?  God’s kingdom is like a microbe: the smallest kind of life-form.  It’s the exact opposite of dominating power and overwhelming violence.  The various authorities of this world depend on violence and power to preserve order and get things done, but Jesus’ kingdom of God seems to work on the exact opposite principle: smallness and weakness.  The greatest way to exercise power, according to Jesus, is by exercising service and mercy.

Jesus seems to have had some very upside-down ideas about kings and kingdoms.  I would daresay that Jesus also seemed to have some very upside-down ideas about life itself.  When Jesus first shared these radical ideas, he wasn’t just talking about a new system of government; he was talking about a new way to be human.

Jesus’ vision for the transformation of the world was a grassroots vision.  In fact, the term grassroots isn’t even sufficient to describe it because it doesn’t go deep enough.  We might have to make up a new word for this: how about heartroots?  Jesus’ vision for establishing the authority of the kingdom of heaven on earth is a heartroots vision.  It’s not imposed from the outside or above, like a bureaucratic dictatorship or an invading army: it changes the world from the inside out.  Like a mustard seed or yeast.

Few of Jesus’ followers, even among Christians today, have ever accepted his teaching about nonviolence, service, and mercy in the Heartroots Revolution.  By most accounts, these crazy, impractical should have been dismissed long ago, but they weren’t.  For some reason, they continue to chase, disturb, and haunt us to this day, slowly transforming our hearts from the inside out… just like yeast slowly leavening a batch of bread dough.

I believe that we are called to be like that yeast in Jesus’ parable.  In contrast to the violent and coercive way that power is exercised in the governments and corporations of the world, the citizens of the kingdom of God use the gentle skills of presence and persuasion.  We work our Heartroots Revolution from the inside out.

We’re kind of like mothers in that way.  They say a mother’s work is never done.  I’ve certainly been reminded of that truth this week as my own mother has been staying at my house and helping me take care of my kids while my wife is out of town at a conference.  Her help has been most appreciated.

But the real work of motherhood happens as her unconditional love and deeply held values shape the persons and perspectives of her children.  That’s how God works in the world as well.  That’s what it looks like when God’s kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Unlike the young Eugene Peterson, God will not pin us to the ground and punch us until we agree to follow Jesus.  God doesn’t work through violence and coercion.  Neither should we do so as citizens of the kingdom of God.  We will not establish God’s kingdom by forcing our will on others through direct violence, or the threat of violence, or behind-the-scenes manipulation.  The arrival of the kingdom of heaven on earth is not to be equated with the success of our country, our political party, our business, or our church.  God’s vision is bigger and deeper than those things.  God, like a mother who will neither forget nor forsake her children, works the Heartroots Revolution from the inside out, moving slowly and patiently across time.  We Christians show ourselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom when we work in the same way: when we show up to work or school each day, consciously carrying the Holy Spirit in our hearts and letting our words and deeds act like yeast, leavening the loaf of our community with faith, hope, and love.  That’s what God’s Heartroots Revolution looks like.

I want to send you out this week with that image in your mind.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, think of the Holy Spirit living in your heart, leading you to act like an undercover agent, infiltrating the dark systems of this world with the light of love.  Let Jesus be your model for how to do this.  To the best of your ability, say and do things the way you imagine him saying and doing things.  If you’re not sure what he would do, try picking up a Bible and reading from one of the gospels.  Maybe one of those stories about his life will spark your imagination.

May your life, like Jesus’, exhibit the kingdom of God to the world.  May others look at you and hear through your words and deeds the message that brings us together and carries us into the world each week: “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Preservation of the Truth

“What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

These are the words that rattled around inside Peter’s head.  They were troubling, even disturbing.  The implications of these words would shape the future of Christianity and the world for millennia.

These words came to Peter in a vision he had while meditating one morning on the roof of a house.  The Bible records his vision as a very clear and vivid experience, but I tend to think it was probably more fluid and subtle when it first happened.  I bet it started with a hunch, a nagging feeling in the back of Peter’s head that just wouldn’t leave him alone.  In time, this hunch gave way to a particular mental image, which was then summed up in this single phrase, arising from the depths of Peter’s subconscious mind.

Peter’s vision, as the Bible records it, went like this:

He was meditating on the roof of his friend’s house when he saw a sheet come down out of heaven with several ritually unclean animals on it.  Then a voice came from the sky saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

This was a big deal for him.  This voice, which Peter identified with the voice of God, was telling him to go against the cultural traditions of his people.  There were certain animals they just weren’t supposed to eat.  It wasn’t “the way they’d always done things.”  Even more than that, the vision went against everything Peter had been taught from the Bible in his youth.  According to Jewish dietary laws in the Torah, known as Kashrut, there were certain animals that God had commanded the Jews not to eat.  So, from Peter’s perspective, the voice of God in this vision was asking him to do something that went against everything he’d read in the Bible.  This was a problem for a good Jewish boy.

Just think about that: even today, we continue to look to the Bible as the primary source of inspiration for our faith.  The Bible holds an honored place in our churches and our worship services.  Its authority was at the center of the Protestant Reformation and continues to sit at the center of our Presbyterian tradition.  What would we say if some preacher showed up denouncing the Bible’s authority on a Sunday morning?  We’d be pretty upset.  So you can imagine how Peter must have felt when he heard God’s voice telling him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.”

As it turns out, the vision wasn’t actually about food at all.  Coincidentally, just as Peter was having this vision, there was a knock at the door.  A group of people arrived who would take Peter to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, not a Jew, who wanted to convert to Christianity.  Cornelius’ conversion turned out to be the tip of an iceberg that would transform Christianity into a truly multicultural religious movement in the early centuries of the Church’s existence.

Peter determined pretty quickly that his vision wasn’t really about kosher food at all, but kosher people.  The message he took from his experience is that the kingdom of heaven is a community where all people are welcome, regardless of their ethnic origins or adherence to Jewish ritual laws.  This welcoming event, far from being accepted by all, became the Christian Church’s first controversial debate in history.  Church leaders back then were as divided over the issue of Jews and Gentiles worshiping together as current church leaders are now divided over the issue of same-sex marriage.  After two thousand years, the issues have changed but the process remains the same.

I made us of Peter’s vision this week because this is the fourth week in our series on the six Great Ends of the Church.  We’ve already looked at the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind, the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God, and the maintenance of divine worship as three Great Ends of the Church.  This week, we’re looking at a fourth one: the preservation of the truth.

Now, this is an aspect of church life that Presbyterians have specialized in over the centuries.  We’ve always been an intellectual bunch.  We like to bring our brains to church.  So, you can imagine that questions of truth tend to factor rather highly in the Presbyterian mind.

In the past (and sometimes in the present), we’ve done such a good job at caring about the truth that our theological debates have led to fights, which have in turn led to church schisms.  At one point, there were so many different Presbyterian denominations in the United States that people started jokingly referring to our tradition as the “Split P Soup” (P is for Presbyterian).  Each and every one of these separate denominations claimed to be the one true Presbyterian Church while all the others were simply heretics.

Starting in the mid-twentieth century,  the largest group of American Presbyterians, then called the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, came up with a new way of expressing its relationship to the idea of theological truth: they adopted a Book of Confessions in place of a single statement of faith.

Before the 1960s, American Presbyterians had almost uniformly looked to a series of documents called the Westminster Standards as the summary of what they believed and taught.  The Westminster Standards included a confession of faith, two catechisms for teaching theology to young people in Q&A format, and a directory for planning and leading worship.

These documents, so it was said, presented the summary of Presbyterian teaching in a single voice.  But the problem is that Presbyterians, going all the way back to John Calvin himself, have always acknowledged that there are other legitimate believers in other churches around the world who don’t necessarily know about or follow the Westminster Confession.  In fact, John Calvin himself never read the Westminster Confession or called himself a Presbyterian.  In recognition of this fact, American Presbyterians in the twentieth century adopted a collection of multiple statements of faith from various times and places around the world.  Taken together, these documents present a composite picture of what we value and believe.  All have equal authority as confessions of the church.  No single statement perfectly summarizes what we think.  Many of these statements even disagree with one another.  Moreover, our Book of Confessions is not a closed book; it can be added to.  The last document to be added was the Brief Statement of Faith, which was added in 1991.  As recently as 2010, our denomination has contemplated adding yet another document: the Belhar Confession from South Africa, although this document failed to achieve the 2/3rds majority vote to be included in the book.

The many documents that now comprise our Book of Confessions are taken together as “subordinate standards” and “expositions” of what the Bible teaches.  We acknowledge that these documents are not perfect, they can be mistaken in their interpretations.  Nevertheless, we include them in our book because we feel they are important.  They are the first, outer layer of church tradition that we embrace and honor as our own.

The next level down from the Book of Confessions in our preservation of the truth is the Bible itself.  This is the big one for most Protestants.  We view the Bible as the inspired and authoritative witness to the Living Word of God revealed in Jesus.  Some have supposed this means that the Bible itself contains no errors of a doctrinal or historical nature.

While I respect such folks’ reverence for the biblical text, I’m not inclined to agree with them about the Bible being inerrant or infallible.  These folks claim that the Bible speaks with a single voice on all matters and serves as the final, debate-ending source to quote in a theological argument.

However, reality is much more complicated than that.  First of all, the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice about anything because it’s not a single document.  The Bible is a library.  Like the Book of Confessions, the Bible is a collection of many different documents produced by different people in different places and different times for different reasons.  Parts of it contradict one another.  Most of the documents are stories, poems, and letters that have been preserved over millennia.  This collection is much more central and important to our identity than the Book of Confessions, but it too falls short of the modern ideal of a once-and-for-all source of accurate information.

What we have in the Bible and the Book of Confessions is conversations within conversations about conversations.  Like late-arrivals to a cocktail party, we present-day believers walk into the room, pick up on the nearest conversation, and try to get involved while catching up on what’s already been said.  Chances are, the party and the conversations will still being going on when it’s time for us to leave.  The best we can hope for is to contribute meaningfully to the best of our ability and bond closely with our conversation partners in the time we have available to us.  At no point does anyone seem to have the last word on any part of this conversation.

How then can we be preservers of the truth?  By admitting that we don’t hold all of the answers.  Truth is not a commodity that can be owned, bought, or sold in the open market.  The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth is something that is known only to God.  The rest of us are obliged to listen to one another if we are to enlarge our understanding of truth.

Preserving the truth, for Presbyterians, means continuing the conversation about God, the church, the Bible, and morality.  We often disagree about what the truth is about any given matter.  I would dare to say that it’s okay.  Faith is not about having all the answers.  Faith is about reaching out beyond what we know in order to touch the mystery of existence.  Faith is the trust that transforms our lives to look more like Jesus’ life.

In Peter’s case, faith meant trusting the voice in his heart that said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  For him, faith meant opening the doors of the church to welcome those who were not previously welcome due to someone’s authoritative interpretation of the Bible and religious doctrine.  Preserving the truth, for Peter, meant keeping an open mind toward the new thing that God might be doing in the world, in spite of the fact that it went against what felt familiar and sounded orthodox to him.  Preserving the truth and possessing the truth are mutually exclusive of one another.

When Jesus’ ministry was coming to an end, he said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  Even Jesus admitted that there are truths that could and should be spoken but didn’t pass through his lips.  He entrusted that ongoing work to the Spirit of God living in the hearts of his followers.  He told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, [that Spirit] will guide you into all the truth”.

A church that preserves the truth is a community of people who continually listen for the still, small whisper of that Spirit in their hearts, who keep open minds toward the mystery of truths they do not yet know, and who welcome the presence of outsiders in their midst as potential messengers of truth, insight, and discovery.  May we be such a church and may we preserve the truth to the best of our ability.

Why We Worship

dzhokhar-tsarnaevWe may be New Yorkers, fans of the Yankees or the Mets, but this week we’re all rooting for Boston!

When I heard the news about the atrocity at the marathon, my first inclination was to change this week’s sermon topic.  These are the moments when collective trauma demands a response from the pulpit.  I’ve done it before, especially after the shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT.  My first thought was that I should diverge from our current series on the Great Ends of the Church and use our time together this morning to offer words of healing.

But then I remembered something that happened to me on September 11, 2001.  I was a senior in college then.  It was a Tuesday and I was late to my 11 o’clock class.  I didn’t usually turn on the news in the morning, so I had no idea what was going on in the world.  I remember looking over my shoulder as I rushed past a conference room and seeing a group of people huddled around a television and there on the screen was the image that would forever be burned into my consciousness: the burning towers of the World Trade Center.  I immediately stopped in my tracks, walked back, and sat down with the others in the conference room to take in what was happening.  Needless to say, I never made it to class that day.

The next day, I went to see my professor, Dr. Hauser, and apologized for missing class.  He had a strict attendance policy and I wanted to explain why I had missed class.  “I understand,” he said, “but your absence will still count against you.”  When I asked him why he wouldn’t excuse my absence, Dr. Hauser said these words, which I will remember for the rest of my life: “Because the goal of terrorism is to disrupt and I refuse to allow them to accomplish that goal, so far as my class is concerned.”

And so, borrowing a page from Dr. Hauser’s book, I have decided that I will not give the Tsarnaev brothers the pleasure of disrupting our church service this morning.  We’re going to continue with our regularly scheduled sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church.  In fact, their actions will only serve to illustrate my point, as you’ll soon see.

This week is the third in a six-week series on the Great Ends of the Church.  We’re using this old Presbyterian document to answer the question, “Why does the Church exist?”  On the first week, Easter Sunday, we said the first Great End of the Church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”  Last week, we said the second Great End of the Church is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”  And this week, we’re saying the third Great End of the Church is “the maintenance of divine worship.”

I actually think today is the perfect Sunday to talk about worship because it is moments of crisis, like this one, that so often lead us to lean more heavily and stand more firmly on the foundation of our faith.  When one part of our identity is attacked, we humans almost instinctively look to ground our collective sense of self in some deeper and stronger source.  I think it’s no surprise that people flocked in droves to churches, mosques, and synagogues in the days after 9/11.  I also think it’s no coincidence that we saw so many ecumenical and interfaith worship services going on at the same time.  Even if it was just for a moment, labels like Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu were being set aside in favor of some larger reality that embraces and connects us all.  This week, we’ve even got Yankees fans wearing Red Sox jerseys (which is the biggest miracle of all, if you ask me).

When we talk about worship, we’re using a word that comes from the Old English term worth-ship.  We’re talking about that which has ultimate worth or value in our eyes.  In worship, we direct our attention toward that which is most important to us in life.  We stop for a moment to orient our little lives within the larger context of the big picture.  It is from this exercise that we draw strength, hope, and courage for facing the days ahead.

Drawing from the resources of our Judeo-Christian heritage, I picked out two passages of scripture that illustrate the act of worship and its power to sustain us in times of crisis.

I’ll start with our New Testament reading.  It came from the book of Revelation, at the very end of the Bible.  Here we read about a vision of what worship looks like from the perspective of heaven.  The author saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”  The author is told that these people are the ones “who have come out of the great ordeal”.  Having passed through life’s hardships, they exist in a state of constant, ecstatic worship before God’s throne in heaven.  As Charles Wesley wrote in his famous hymn, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, they are “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”  The angel serving as the author’s celestial tour guide says:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’

This is the effect that worship has on their lives.  They want for nothing.  They fear nothing.  We’re used to thinking of passages like this one as descriptive of the afterlife, but I see no reason why we cannot experience at least a taste of that heaven in this life.

This morning’s Old Testament reading from the book of Daniel tells the famous story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young men who refused to bow down to the idols of the society they lived in and were made to pass through the fire by the powers that be.  It was their worship of God that put them at odds with the values of the dominant culture around them.  They saw their lives as part of a bigger picture than the one made up of the demands and concerns of the Babylonian Empire.  So, when the reigning powers of that empire demanded their allegiance, they said no.  The full weight of imperial sanction was brought to bear against them, but still they refused.

When they were finally cast into the fire, the reality of their faith was vindicated as it became plain to see that these three young men were not alone in their struggle.  Someone was walking through the fire with them, some mysterious person who had “the appearance of a god”, according to those who saw.

As it was with them, so it is with us.  As we pass through the fires and ordeals of this life, worshiping as we go, we discover that we are not alone.  Our God walks with us in the fire.  As it says in the book of Revelation, God shelters us and shepherds us, guiding us toward “springs of the water of life” where “God will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”

The purpose of worship is to open our hearts and minds to this grand reality in which we live, move, and have our being.  In worship, we lift our vision higher than our visibility.  We look at our circumstances through the eyes of faith.  We gather the fragments of our myriad little stories and lives into one Great Story told in prayer, creed, scripture, sacrament, and song.

This is why worship has the power to get us through times of crisis like the ones we lived through this week.  Through it, we come to realize (or are reminded yet again) that the deepest part of ourselves is connected to the deepest part of the universe.  “Deep calls out to deep,” as it says in the psalm.

We reach out to feel the bond of this deep connection in moments of crisis.  What we need to do is nurture that same sense of connectedness in our regular, everyday living.  That way, when crises happen, large or small, we have a well of spiritual resources from which we can draw the water of life.

Those who learn how to live from this deep center are often the very same ones who are ready, willing, and able to share their abundance of spiritual strength and compassion with others.  They are the ones who can walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with them.

That’s what the worship-life of the church is here for: to nurture that strength in believers.  We do it together in our weekly services of public worship, but I hope we also do it individually during the other six days of the week.  This is why it’s so important to have a regular, daily practice of devotional prayer and Bible reading at home.  These spiritual disciplines, far from being rote religious exercises, are as essential to the health of our souls as food and water are essential to the health of our bodies.

We need to maintain that sense of deep connection, not just during moments of crisis, not just on holidays, not just weekly, but daily.

That sense of community bonding we saw in Boston this week is available to all of us, all the time.  The purpose of the church’s worshiping life is to maintain that sense of connection in the normal, boring seasons of life so that we can be ready to spring into action as heroes and leaders when these moments of crisis arise.  We can face the flames unafraid because we know that our God walks through them with us.

This week, I believe we saw God walking with us through the flames.  The stories of heroism, goodwill, and sacrifice cannot undo our grief and anger, but they can exist alongside it, reminding us that evil, chaos, and darkness are not, in fact, the only forces at work in this world.  Furthermore, they will not have the last word.  So long as there is still one good person in this world who’s willing to run toward explosions for the sake of other, wounded human beings, we know that “the light [still] shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The worshiping life of the church reminds us of this truth and seeks to grow in us that same kind of strength and compassion, in hopes that we too might become beacons of hope and justice in this world, people strengthened by faith to stand up for love and walk through the fire, trusting that God walks with us.