Tag Archives: Christian Life

The Sweet Smile of Moderation

“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” St. Paul writes in his Second Letter to Timothy, “but rather a spirit of power and of love and of moderation” (1:7).

It has become commonplace to say that America is a highly polarized place. There is a tug of war going on between the alt right and the alt left for the soul of the nation. As hard as one team pulls, the other team tugs more fiercely. And for the rest of us the challenge of these times is to find a place to stand, as far away as possible from the fundamentalisms of the far right and the far left. Because one is not the opposite of the other–they are both simply different forms of barbarism and fanaticism. And moderation is the opposite of both, the only place where there is peace in a world where peace is in short supply.

Moderation is not a faith, nor a political party, nor an ideology; it is a way of dealing with the dizzying complexity of our divided times. It copes with the complexity in the world outside by acknowledging and nourishing the diversity within ourselves. People who follow the path of moderation are never just one thing—always many.

I had the great good fortune to grow up in a household where moderation was the rule, not the exception. My parents were many things at once–a complicated mixture. They were deeply conservative and devout in matters of religion, strongly opposed to strong drink and tobacco in all its forms, and generous almost to fault. And at the same they were shockingly liberal when it came to social issues; they were strongly anti-big money, pro-labor, pro-civil rights, and pro-choice. They were both pietists and socialists at the same time. They taught me the importance of having many identities, not just one. And the possibility and even the desirability of holding two opposing ideas at the same time. You can believe that abortion is a sin, as they did, and at the same time believe just as strongly that it is also a sin to force a woman to bear an unwanted child.

At our house we were dyed-in-the-wool moderates, but there were fundamentalists in our larger family, people who were just one thing with a vengeance. That was the reason that at Thanksgiving children were never allowed at the main table, because inevitably an unseemly argument would break out among those who were just one thing religiously or politically. As a child I wanted more than anything to sit at the adult table and listen to what my father referred to it as ‘the Thanksgiving food fight.” But it was forbidden, and neither of my parents took part in it. When it began my mother would go into the kitchen and my father would become stubbornly silent and focus his attention on her excellent food.

The Thanksgiving food fight was always a battle for something called “The Truth.” Radicals regard “The Truth” as singular and their own possession. Moderates understand the truth about “The Truth,” that it is plural and endlessly complex. There is no single formula that embraces all that can be said about the universe or human life within it, no set of doctrines that excludes all others. On my desk I have a Coptic icon of Christ the Good Shepherd and a head of the Buddha. They both look down on me as I write, both wearing the same calm, sweet smile of moderation. They say to me–No question can be settled once and for all in this world. Everything is partial and impermanent. The only thing that lasts is love, and in this violent time love is another name moderation.

And like love, moderation takes courage. It means standing on the deck of the ship and facing the storm rather than locking yourself in a water-tight compartment below. It means opening yourself to many different visions of truth, some of them uncomfortable and upsetting. Radicals of all kinds see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. They want to impose their particular vision of reality—called “The Truth”–upon everyone else. And it takes courage to stand up against these fundamentalisms of the left and the right, and to say that everything is not cut and dried. There is always room for another opinion.

So moderation also demands humility, a clear vision of yourself. No one knows all the answers. Every earthly arrangement is temporary and contingent upon the circumstances—and that is very good news, beloved, because every earthy arrangement would be hell if were extended forever. There is no right polity, no pure doctrine, no perfect government, no absolutely correct way to worship the Eternal—only ways. The best that can be said is that God wishes to be approached “with humility and gentleness,” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians (4:2). But his heaven is not located in the past or the future. Things should not stay the same, nor should they change too quickly. Heaven is present here and now, where ever there is tolerance, balance, self-discipline, and humility.

Moderation is not an easy path, but it is always a blessing to know where you stand, beloved—with both feet planted on solid ground and your eyes fixed on the only thing that lasts. The byproduct of such a well-balanced life is peace.  And the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah says, “will be the stability of your times” (33:6).  Not you yourself.


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Whence comes all this beauty. 1 Chron. 16:29

We are having a really frightful time of it, beloved. It seems as if lately the shocks just keep on coming—Boom! Boom! Boom!—one right after another, and you and I are forced to seek out whatever shelter we can find from the shocking venality of our government, from the appalling vulgarity of our public discourse, from our muddled, messed up lives. So in this frightful time what comfort is available to us?

Well, none at all, if we choose to focus our attention on the nasty business that confronts us daily in the newspapers and on television.  If we set our eyes on the destruction of the natural world upon which humanity seems so hell-bent, or if we listen only to the “organ concert” of our infirmities and diseases, there would indeed no hope. Ugliness—moral and physical–is inescapable. But if we make a decision to see it, the beautiful is also all around us. Whether we find the comfort that it offers is up to us to decide; whether to see the world as a hideous mess or suffused with eternal grace depends upon whether our eyes are really open.

There is a wonderful passage about—of all things—the flowers in “The Naval Treaty” by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the midst of solving a particularly puzzling case, the author has Sherlock Holmes pause to indulge in a very uncharacteristic meditation:

“He walked past the couch to the open window and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, [says Dr. Watson, Holmes’ fictional biographer] for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion,’ said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.’”

So what hope does the great detective derive from the rose? In practical terms its beauty is useless–useless but not meaningless. It is “an extra”—not a necessity but “an embellishment of life,” a necessary unnecessary. It will not feed us or satisfy any of our ordinary physical needs or desires, but its beauty is a powerful sign of something beyond itself. It is not good for anything, it is good in itself and its goodness comes from outside itself, from what Sherlock calls “the goodness of Providence.”

It is a glimpse into another world which makes sense of this one. If our eyes are really open we cannot help but ask—Whence comes all this beauty? In the Nicene Creed we profess our faith in the God who is the maker of all things, “seen and unseen.” The real world—the night sky, the birds, the flowers–transmits the beauty of the unseen world behind it, the Really Real, where this world’s meaning is revealed. We presently see it “through a glass, darkly,” as St. Paul writes,  but it holds the promise that that eventually we will see that meaning “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

If I were given a choice among all the most beautiful places I have ever been, I would choose Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It was the chapel of the early French kings, and it contains the most extensive collection of 13th century glass in the world. The effect of the sun shining through those windows into the gilded interior of the chapel is nothing short of heavenly. But the guide will tell you that the chapel was used as an administrative office during the French Revolution, when its windows were obscured by enormous filing cabinets. The cabinets both hid them and saved them. And in the same way our view of the beautiful is often obscured by the ugly realities of our human situation. The light behind the windows, however, continues to shine.

It shines whether we see it or not. Beauty is not simply in the eye of the beholder—it comes from somewhere else, beyond the world of the things it illuminates. Evil does its best to soil and destroy it, and it often succeeds. But beauty is both fragile as a rose and as tough and resilient as the roots of wisteria vines which cannot be rooted out. It keeps coming back and back and back for more. It no sooner does it die in one place than it breaks through somewhere else.

At this stage of my life my calling, as I see it, is to give hope to the perplexed—most particularly to myself–and encouragement in a world that seems to have gone mad. Hope for what exactly? Hope that things that currently seem to be falling apart will eventually come together in a more harmonious form. Beauty is a product of fitness and rightness in nature and art, every part of something working together to make a graceful whole. That’s what beauty is. A rose. A sunset. A common butterfly. A rare bird’s wing. The windows of Sainte Chapelle. A concerto for strings played there. It makes no difference. And to those who see it and give thanks for it, the beautiful offers the promise that things can and will someday work together that way, in harmony. And  that which seems to be falling part is really coming together in a more apt and fitting whole.

But we are helpless to make that happen, beloved. On one level you and I are called to change things, but the beautiful silently it asks us–Can you separate what is precious from the desire to possess it? Can you smell the rose without plucking it? Can you let it bloom on the bush? Can you be patient and let God, the original artist, finish his work? Can you be content to wait until the Really Real is fully revealed? The beautiful is a glimpse of that a transformed world. It is, like goodness and truth, a form that eternal grace takes. Without it this world would be hell, beloved, but filled to over-bursting with beauty, it indeed gives us “much to hope for.”


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Dodging the Bullet Luke 13:1-9

It was a shocker all right. But with no CNN or New York Times to carry the story, the news of those Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” had to travel by word of mouth. That’s how it came to Jesus. Now Judean Jews of Jesus’ time had a pretty sorry option of Galileans generally, and knowing that he hailed from Galilee, and they were no doubt interested in hearing his take on this gruesome attack upon his countrymen. Probably those nameless Galileans—we aren’t even told how many–were killed by the Roman soldiery in the course of putting down a riot within the temple precincts. Otherwise, we know nothing about incident, or what they got up to that triggered such a violent response. But did they deserve such a terrible death? “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks, and then answers his own question—No….

Then he poses a further question, also based on the breaking news of the day: “And those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” It was probably an earthquake that caused the collapse of that tower. Or it may have been an act of terrorism. It was a time of terrorism, and the tower had some strategic importance. But again, apart from this brief notice, history tells us nothing more about its fall, though it was probably big news at the time. But did those nameless victims deserve to be buried alive in the rubble any more than those who dodged the bullet and lived to hear about it? Again Jesus answers—No…

Last week’s New York Times carried this brief notice: “At least 29 people died when an island in Fiji took a direct hit from a powerful cyclone, officials said on Tuesday. A government spokesman told Radio New Zealand that Koro Island had been ‘pretty much flattened’ by Cyclone Winston over the weekend and that very few buildings were left standing.” Nothing more. So much suffering and grief distilled into two brief sentences! But did they in some way deserve it? No…

But it happened anyway. Like most of the victims of political violence and natural disaster, those nameless Fijians were no worse than ourselves, beloved. Perhaps even better. Or at least they were good enough for all practical purposes, which is to say that they were human–a mixture of good and bad. So why did they have to die? What does their suffering mean in the great scheme of things? Well, that’s the million dollar question. If I had an easy answer to it, I’d sell it by the bottle. There isn’t a simple answer, however–just a difficult, partial one. But here it is….

As I am writing to you, beloved, our cat, Tiberius, keeps wanting to sit on my computer keyboard. Tiberius is a lovely cat, a good friend—if a sometimes annoying one–and I would do whatever I could for him. I provide him with food, attention, and a safe place to live. And I often tell him he is a very wonderful cat, which seems to please him. Tiberius trusts me, but I can’t save him from the fate we both share. We each have our own little tragedy to play out in a world that seems hell bent upon its own destruction. We see it all around. All things—suns, flowers, animals, our own selves–appear, mature, grow old, and then die, or are devoured by other things that are themselves devoured. The cosmos is always in the process of creating and destroying itself. And as infinitesimal parts of our vast universe we are pitifully vulnerable to its forces, both men and cats.

And its Creator does not seem to care a fig about what becomes of us. Towers fall. Cyclones howl. The innocent are swept away with the iniquitous. The ugly and the lovely perish alike. And our world hurdles on endlessly, heedlessly, toward its own ultimate destruction. Our great human tragedy is that we are aware of being carried along with it. And we recognize our shared anguish and sense of abandonment in those anguished words of Jesus upon the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But ironically, those of us who have been captured by the strange good news of the cross find in that despairing cry our deepest comfort. Because for us the cross of Jesus, the symbol of meaningless suffering, is what makes some sense of all those little tragedies we hear about–the bullets we dodge–as well as that last bullet, which none of us can dodge. The death of the one who was so like God he was God reveals what could never otherwise have known, that the creator is himself vulnerable to the destructive forces of his creation. In his own way he is at least as helpless and limited as we are. He—the male third-person pronoun sounds rather ridiculous to use in this context, but we have to use something—suffers with the world he is has made, and for those who think on it, there is comfort to be found in that. Something in the universe is tragically haywire–in the world we call it evil; in ourselves we call it sin–which the Maker is at any cost struggling to mend. So will he manage to get control of it all? Is the creation repairable? For three days, the scriptures tell us, that ball was up in the air.

And it would have remained forever up in the air were it not for the even stranger good news of the resurrection. Because those of us who have really heard and heeded it, the news that Christ is risen is an answer to the problem of suffering that is neither easy nor complete, but even for that still joyful and life-giving.

Horace Walpole, the eighteen century English politician and man of letters, wrote: “The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel.” For us believers in the good news the world will always partake of both. Oh, yes, there will always be the endless news stream about all those tragedies, great and small, that are being played our right now across the world and across the street, and planted in the midst of it all the cross still stands with Jesus still writhing on it.

But at the same time on the very same stage something else is going on. A comedy this time, buried in the tragedy. The crucified Lord appears from the wings to tell us that everything it going to work out wonderfully well in the end, that the universe, which so often appears chaotic and indifferent, is in truth both orderly and loving, and his appearance proves this to be true. There are gasps of wonder and even laughter, because the restoration of all things has begun.

And in God’s restoration comedy you and I each have a part to play, just as by our sinfulness we played a part in the tragedy of this world. In our lesson Jesus calls upon us to repent, to readjust our lives. We should work for order in our world and harmony in our relationships, seeking with love and good sense to overcome the chaos and malice around us. There is still so much that stands in the way of God’s happy ending. But it is coming, beloved. More surely than anything else, the restoration of all things is coming. I know it in the waters of my being.

What I can’t tell you is what that ultimate resolution will look like, beloved, how it will feel, and what part you and will have in it when it arrives. But it is coming, when it does, by golly, I know I will recognize it.


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Looking for a Better Crown Luke 13:31-35


The evangelist Luke tells us that some Pharisees once came to Jesus to warn him, “Get away from her, for Herod want to kill you.” But he replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work . . . .’”

There are at least two types of courage I know of. The one kind belongs to those reckless young motorcyclists who zoom helmetless up and down US 19, darting in and out of traffic at the speed of sound. Their utter contempt for dismemberment and sudden death is the type of courage called “daring.” Daring is most appropriate to the young, and most sensible people grow up and out of it, like acne. Some, however—and they are mostly men, though not exclusively–never really do, and they often end up with shattered bodies and a string of memorable if broken relationships. Over their third beer they are likely to say they were born with “a lively sense of adventure” or “a thirst for excitement.” They are “the players,” “the boys who will be boys,” “the girls who “just wanna have fun.” But what they call themselves hardly matters—they possess the kind of unreasonable, pointless adolescent boldness that measures life by its intensity and not in hours and days. Either you were born a player, beloved, or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you’ll probably live longer–or at least it will seem longer. And there isn’t really much more to say about daring, except that it doesn’t wear well.

There is, however, another, better variety of courage that grows more attractive the longer we practice it and flourishes with age. Fortitude is reasonable courage, courage with a purpose, and fortitude is something we should nourish in ourselves and cherish in others, because it is both rare and precious. And daily more necessary in a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Considering the dangers of the present and the uncertainly of the future, all sensible people are at times afraid. But to give way to our fears is cowardice, and cowardice is what fortitude overcomes—consciously, purposefully, intentionally.

Fortitude is a grown-up courage. It was a habit my father had in spades. As a man he was widely and greatly liked–but not universally, mostly because he also had the habit of telling the truth. He called stupidity and evil by their right names. And that is a habit always gets you into hot water with ignorant people who prefer lies. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody hates you,” daddy used to say and laugh. But experience has taught me the sober truth of it. Fortitude and the habit of telling the truth go together. They cannot be separated, beloved.

And Jesus also had the habit of telling the truth–he showed how. He not only told the truth, he was the Truth. And for that reason our Lord was likewise widely loved and deeply despised. He was crucified for it. He experienced the consequences of truth telling, and from beyond the resurrection he says to those of us who try to follow him, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Take courage.

Every human being is afraid at times. Jesus was no exception. To fear is part of what it means to be fully human. But fortitude is the gift that overcomes our fear, and it comes preeminently from the Spirit of the risen Lord which has been poured out upon us. It comes first of all from the lively realization that our lives are finite, limited in time. Jesus told those Pharisees, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He was aware of the shortness of his life. And whenever you and I reflect upon the undoubted fact that sooner or later we are going to die anyway, the question always arises–So what else can happen? That our lives are limited in time is not a sad thought at all—for followers of Jesus it is an encouraging one, even a joyful one. We can “take courage,” or as the old translation renders it, “be of good cheer.”

So we can go on and live with cheerfulness in this dangerous and uncertain world because the death and resurrection of Jesus has placed our finite lives in the context of God’s infinite life. “I have conquered the world,” the risen one says. Apart from that cheering news of his resurrection it would do precious little good to say “take courage” or “buck up.” Fortitude is not a decision we make on our own. But the good news of the third day–that nothing whatsoever that will happen to us, in life or in death, can disrupt of eternal destiny in Christ–makes fortitude possible. As my daddy used to say—“Check your shirt, Billy. If there’s no blood on it, you’re all right.” We have been all right so far, and we always will be—far better than just all right. In this world the smart money is always on evil. But you and I have a tip from the stable. We have inside information. We know that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus death is dying. Jesus has overcome the powers of darkness for us. And we will also rise.

So be of good cheer, beloved, and let me hear you call things by their right names. This is not the moment in time to keep our mouths shut. For us right now nothing is more important than to purposefully display the courage of Jesus. In the face of bloody-minded authorities and wicked institutions, both religious and political, he did not step back. Tyrants like Herod are not nice. Handing them sweeties just tends to make them worse. So when some Pharisees came to warn him of what was essentially a death threat, Jesus didn’t miss a beat—“Go tell that fox. . . .”

And you and I, in our own small ways, need to stand up against the evil powers we see at work around us. It is not recorded that Jesus was never cruel, but neither did he ever roll over and play dead either. And neither should we. Because what we fail to do and say in time, beloved, we will regret in eternity. We cannot waste our short years worrying about what other people might think of us. You know I have had reason before to scold you—and myself—for being too nice. Because niceness may render you harmless and liked by all, but it will not make you like Jesus. We are looking for a better crown than Miss Congeniality.

True bravery, which goes beyond mere daring, is a great mystery. We should by all rights be cowering under the covers, but it is inside us—the strength to go on and do what you know needs doing—the bravery to speak out against evil and cope with loss. So where in the world does fortitude come from? Well, from nowhere in this world, strictly speaking. It comes from somewhere else. True bravery is always a first degree miracle. And when we see it displayed in others or discover it in ourselves, we really should indeed marvel. Because it shouldn’t be there, but there it is.



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Living by the Spirit based on John 6:51-69

August 16, 2015

In the Gospel of John the risen Lord says to his grumbling disciples: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”

I grew up on a cattle ranch in western North Dakota, and my father spent a lot of his time and energy building fences and then mending them. Good fences are necessary for raising cattle, to enclose pastures and pens, and they keep the stock from wandering off into the wilderness. But strangely enough cattle don’t seem to mind being penned up–for the most part they appreciate fences. They prefer to stay inside with the rest of the herd, even though they could break through their barriers if they wanted to and be free.

Fences are actually quite fragile human constructions of posts and wire, and beef cattle are big, strong, beefy animals. They could walk right through their confines at any time, but for the most part they respect the barriers that keep them in, because they feel safer there, with a barrier of posts and barbed wire between themselves and the wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties. And although the comparison may not be very flattering, many people are like that–they fence themselves in with their limitations.

You know some people like that–folks who build up barriers to confine and narrow their lives. You can hear them saying–Oh I can’t do this! Oh I won’t do that! It’s too scary! It’s too difficult at my age. I suppose I could but I’d rather not chance it. On and on and on. . . .

Our human lives are by nature finite and limited—that’s very true. We can’t be or do everything. But we have infinite God, and his Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to be more than we are and do more than we do. By his transcendent power we are always able to transcend the confines of our situation, whatever that situation may be, if we let him.

This week I got a note from a woman named Rachel from my congregation in Savannah. She is in a nursing home. Her body is crippled by arthritis. “I’ve been in bed for years,” she writes. “I don’t count. I just love and enjoy life.”

Some people magnify the constraints of their flesh, and other people, like Rachel, transcend their limitations by the power of the Spirit, who gives life. And asked myself when I read her letter—Do you magnify your restrictions and constraints, or do you rise above them? And I must admit that at times rather than trust in the Lord I use my limitations as an excuse. It is a natural tendency for all of us to dwell upon the restrictions our flesh places upon us, and that tendency grows stronger as we get older, and we experience more real incapacities. It’s easy to come to relish them, even enjoy them. So you hear them saying–Salad makes me windy. I get heartburn from onions. Waiter, does this salad contain eggs? I can’t have eggs. And red wine makes me nervous. And asparagus disturbs my sleep. But then I don’t like to go out after dark. And I would never fly! Never, ever! And so on and on and on, to anyone who will listen, dwelling upon what they cannot eat and what they cannot do.

But then young people can be just as bad, making up excuses to keep from attempting what is tough or complicated or scary. All of us have a tendency to do that, beloved, glorify our limitations, magnify our obstacles, and build up the fences between ourselves and wide world with its manifold dangers and uncertainties, and then live inside the barriers we build for ourselves, like cattle in a pasture.

It is what the risen Lord in the Gospel of John calls living by the flesh, letting the limitations that our humanness places upon us—our scruples and our fears and our incapacities–rule our lives. And Jesus is always contrasting our tendency to live by the flesh with another, better kind of existence–life in the Spirit. “It is the Spirit that gives life,” he says in our Gospel lesson, “the flesh is no help at all.”

And the risen Lord Jesus is here right now asking us a searching question–What is governing your life—your obstacles or your faith in the power of God to transcend them? And all of us…all of us, if we are absolutely honest with ourselves, will have to answer him—Lord, in the past I have often let my limitations triumph over my expectations. I have sometimes preferred to hide behind feeble excuses rather than live in the freedom you died on the cross and rose again to give me.

Now our lives are finite and limited, this is most certainly true. But that is not a good enough reason for us to spend our finite days like that, in a pen of our own making. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians—“It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

School started again this week for our grown-up son Paul, who is the vice-principal of an elementary school in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a charter school in a poor neighborhood and the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary has to exploit every opportunity to make the students care about their school and value the education they receive there. The children are all required wear uniforms, and Paul stands at the front door in a suit and tie to shake to hands with each student every morning and greet him or her by name.

And as a way of expressing school spirit, he acquired as a school mascot a little yellow hamster. The children named the hamster “Little Griz,” in homage to Memphis Grizzlies, the wildly popular local professional basketball team. And Little Griz is also wildly popular.

She visits the classrooms on a regular basis to observe progress. She gives out prizes and when the children try to pet her she seldom bites. But Little Griz does not like living in a cage. In fact, she is an escape artist par-excel-lance. She is a veritable hamster Houdini. She regularly trips the fasteners and jimmies latches of her cage and goes on the lam for days at a time. She is a hamster of seemingly limitless imagination and ingenuity.

Now hamsters don’t live long—two to three years at most—and Little Griz seems to sense this. Her life is finite, and she seems determined not to spend it in a narrow cage if she can help it. And although her daring escapes drive the staff of Georgian Hills Elementary School crazy, everyone is forced to admire that hamster’s spirit. The word “impossible” is not in her lectionary.

But how about us? Life can become a narrow cage if we let it. And the difference between those who live by the Spirit, and those who are still trapped in the limitations of the flesh has to do with their ability to imagine things they have never seen and trust God to accomplish in their lives what seems impossible. Those who live by the Spirit may be frightened, but they are not afraid.

Now I would suspect that in your life, as in my own, there are a multitude of issues that are still pending. We all each carry around with us a thick file marked IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEMS– DO NOT OPEN MORE THAN ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY. There are seemingly hopeless tangles we struggling to undo. There are walls that stand before us in which we are trying desperately to find an opening. There is a wide, swift-flowing river at our feet, and we stand on the edge of it, waiting for it to run out before we try to cross it, but the river never, ever does run out.

So we need to hear the words of Jesus to his grumbling disciples—“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” We can’t do everything, beloved, it’s true, but God can—and will do something if we if we give him room.

You and I often read the miracle stories in the scriptures, and then wonder at the lack of miracles in our ordinary lives. But if we don’t see miracles it is because we don’t expect any. Actually wonderful things are happening all the time, all around us, in this world where literally anything can happen. But our hearts are not expectant. We do not see the glory of God, we do not see the Son of Man ascending, because our eyes are always fixed on the ground, upon our limitations and our barriers.

But the Lord is always calling us to imagine what he could do, and then he is ready to accomplish even more than we can imagine in our wildest daydreams. He will address the problems that we have long ago marked IMPOSSIBLE. He will show us the low door in the wall, and he will unlock it for us. But for our part—in the Spirit of Jesus and in the light of his example—we need to step forward into the swift-flowing river of life at our feet and stop hiding behind our limitations.

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Letting it Go 1 Kings 19:1-8

Letting It Go   A sermon preached August 9, 2015

In 1 Kings 19:1-8 it says that “the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched [the prophet Elijah] and said. ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ And he arose and ate and drank, and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

This day to day world we are living in right now is actually a school, beloved, a school in which we are enrolled for a few years to acquire the lessons we need to prepare ourselves for what is coming next, for our graduation into Eternity, into that life that really is Life. And the lessons we fail to absorb in this one, we will have to mug up in the next life. Here or there, they must be learned.

So if going to church doesn’t help us absorb those crucial lessons we need to learn before we die, beloved, what good is it? If we aren’t here to learn something eternally useful, why on a Sunday morning you and I could just as well be at Dunkin’ Donuts drinking coffee and eating those plump donuts filled raspberry jelly we used to call Bismarcks. But we can’t sit around eating Bismarcks our whole lives long; we need something more substantial. So we come here to listen to the Spirit of Jesus who says—I am the living bread that came down from heaven. The Spirit has a lesson to teach us this morning, beloved, so let’s get right down to business.

We have before us a part of the life’s story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. At the moment when we catch up with him, the prophet is caught between a rock and hard place. Obedient to what he regarded as the LORD’s command, Elijah had first defeated and then slaughtered the prophets of the pagan god Baal. Now Baal had an awful a lot of prophets. They were even greater in number than those who have announced they are candidates for the presidency of the United States.

There were four hundred and fifty of them, the Bible says, and they were under the protection and patronage of Queen Jezebel of Israel, who made the wicked queen in Snow White look like Betty Crocker. So when Jezebel found out that Elijah had put all her prophets to death, she sent a message to him saying—“So may the gods do to me and more also, you wretched, disgusting little man, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (I added in the “wretched, disgusting little man” part so you would get the idea that Queen Jezebel meant business.) She was not a woman to be trifled with. Elijah knew it, and it says, “He was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life.”

So it is against this background which our story takes place. Elijah is between a rock and hard place, almost literally. He is out in the stony wilderness all alone. He sits down under a solitary broom tree and says, “It is enough, now, O LORD, take away my life.”

So what is enough? Well, you and I both know perfectly well what enough is. Enough is a place, a wilderness place where we have all been at one time or another. Elijah had reached enough. He was oppressed by his own violent past and sapped by the hatred of the wicked queen Jezebel. She was strong, and a hatred like hers drains the life blood out of you. And at the same time Elijah was disgusted with himself, ashamed because in the face of her threats he had turned tail and run. “I am no better than my fathers,” he says. Furthermore he was alone and hungry, and hunger and isolation always make everything seem worse even than it is. But most of all Elijah was just mortally tired, tired of trying to be stronger than he really was, tired of trying to change the things that resist change, tired of trying to do the will of the LORD in the face of overwhelming evil. And you and I can certainly identify with that. We too have been to the place called Enough.

“LORD, take away my life,” Elijah says. He just wanted to die. Now whereas suicide demands a particular sort of person with a despairing courage few of us have, and relatively few people seriously contemplate it, all of us get to the place where the prophet was, the place called Enough. It is a wilderness where we can’t see any reason for going further, where we look back on our lives and see only failure, where are so dead tired all we want is just to lie down and die.

But instead of dying we lie down and go to sleep. And that’s exactly what the LORD’s prophet did. Depressed and exhausted, he lay down under the broom tree and slept. What happened next was strange, but it was real, and not a dream. An angel touched him and he awoke to discover that the LORD had provided him with food, not coffee and jelly-filled donuts, but something more substantial–bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And the messenger from God said, Get up and eat. No please. Just a simple command. Get up and eat something. You’ll feel better. I can hear my mother saying it—It’s not that important. It doesn’t matter. Let it go….

When you are in a foreign city your ears are always alive to the sound of your own language being spoken. We were in the lobby of our hotel in Paris a few weeks ago when I caught the sound of two women speaking English. They spoke, as Americans often do, just a little too loudly not to be overheard. They were discussing some problem they had had with their baggage. Something was broken or missing or hadn’t shown up when it should have. It wasn‘t clear what was wrong exactly, but something surely was. One woman was angry and she all for going back to complain and seek some sort of restitution—an apology at the very least. “It isn’t right!” she kept saying. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that sort of carelessness!” The other woman heard her out, but she was equally determined to let the matter go. “We’re in Paris,” she said. “We may never be here again. I don’t want to waste our time here with things that’s don’t matter. Just let it go.”

So they went off together, still arguing about their baggage. It didn’t sound like a resolution was in sight. Now I love to travel, but I am convinced that the best way to travel is carelessly. Bad things are going happen along your journey. It’s inevitable. Your baggage will sometimes get misplaced, lost or damaged. You can’t always ignore the bad things that happen, but the best way of dealing with them is by just letting them go and moving on. The journey is so much more important, beloved, than the baggage we take along on it. So let it go.

Let it go. “Get up and eat,” the angel had to say to Elijah a second time, “otherwise the journey is too great for you.” The command has two parts: First of all–Get up–and then—eat something. In life, which is the journey we are all taking, we are constantly being presented with a choice whether to fret and brood about our baggage and cling to it like grim death or get up and let it go. Our anger and our guilt, the memory of our past failures, the pain of our present heartaches, and the anxiety of our future fears are nothing but dead weight. If we drag all that baggage along, the journey will be too great for us. So what are you carrying, beloved? Whatever it is, let it go.

There is a story told of two monks, a master and his disciple, who were on a journey. It had been raining for the past two weeks—we can identify with that!—and there were deep muddy, greasy puddles everywhere. As they passed through a town along their way the monks saw a richly dressed woman trying to cross the street. She had apparently been shopping and had gotten caught by the rain, and now she stood there, looking very cross and impatient—like Donald Trump in a frock–scolding her servants. But she couldn’t step across the deep muddy puddles in the street without spoiling her beautiful yellow silk dress. And her servants were so loaded down with parcels and packages that they couldn’t help her. So without further ado the older monk picked the woman up, put her on his back, and carried her across the muddy street, setting her down gently on the other side. But she didn’t bother to thank him. She just pushed him aside and went on her way.

The younger monk saw all this happen and all that day he brooded on it. Then at last he could contain his indignation no longer. “Master,” he said, “that woman back there was very rude to you. You picked her up and carried her across the street, and she didn’t even bother to thank you.”

“I set that woman down hours ago,” replied the master to his disciple. “So why are you still carrying her?”

So, beloved, why are you still carrying whatever—or whoever–you are still carrying? This is the place you need to set your baggage down. And now is the time to get up and leave it behind. Each week the Lord says to us–“Arise and eat.” We each have excess baggage we are dragging along, but this is the place to leave it, and Holy Communion is the time.

We can’t set our baggage down once and for all, not in this life. It is always being restored to us. It is always being returned to us out of the Lost and Found. That’s why we have to come back here each week to leave it behind again. And here the Lord provides us with a meal, not of donuts and coffee, but of his own self, the bread of heaven. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” the psalmist says. Holy Communion gives us a place to set our baggage down and the strength to do it. So hear the Lord saying to you, “Arise and eat, otherwise your journey will be too great for you.” Then come and let it go.

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Anger Management. Turning the Tables. John 2:13-22

Turning the Tables       John 2:13-22

“Ira furor brevis est. (Anger is a short madness.)”

–Horace, Epistles

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand,” the evangelist John tells us, and Jesus, upon entering the temple, “found those selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”

It didn’t change anything, of course. You can be sure that the next morning they were at it again. The animals were penned up again and the tables neatly piled with silver coins, ready for business as usual. If they gave it any thought at all, most of those who were present for the purification of the temple surely regarded it as nothing more than hooliganism pure and simple. But to Jesus’ disciples it was something else–an event of deepest significance. It defined who he was. After his death and resurrection Jesus’ followers remembered the day he “went postal” as a prediction of the Day of the Lord, a time when, according to the prophet Zechariah, there “will no longer be traders in the house of the Lord” (14:21). It was a messianic housecleaning. It was a foreshadowing—“prolepsis” is the fancy word—of the scouring of the world, for which you and I, together with all those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” are anxiously waiting.

But to everyone else it was and still is patently absurd. A senseless act of vandalism. No wonder the Jewish authorities angrily demanded to know by whose authority Jesus had made this terrible mess—and got an answer that must surely have seemed as absurd as the act itself—“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Apart from a belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord of All, his purification of the temple makes no more sense than the good news of his cross and resurrection.

After all, those sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers had a prefect right to be there that day. They were simply performing services demanded by ritual practice of the time—in the expectation of a reasonable profit, of course. So why the explosion. This story has always been source of an embarrassment to those who feel the need to sanitize and sentimentalize the person of Jesus. Those who want to turn him into a divine Lone Ranger, a proponent of law and order, like to explain away his “short madness” in the temple by suggesting that Jesus was outraged by the corruption he found there. Of course, there is always a certain amount of “funny business” going on wherever business as usual is conducted, but there is no evidence that an unacceptable level of dishonesty was present. The purveyors of sacrificial animals were just obeying the old law of supply and demand. And if they were charging whatever the traffic would bear, what of it? That’s just capitalism. What’s wrong with that?

When you are in business you have to make hay while the sun shines. And the sun was indeed shining on business during that week of Passover. Contemporary witnesses tell us that during that Feast of Feasts Jews flocked to Jerusalem from the furthest corners of the then-known world. The city was glutted with pilgrims, and when they arrived they found everything arranged for their convenience. Merchants were on hand to provide an acceptable offering, and priests were there to help them kill their sacrifice in the prescribed manner. Just business as usual.

The only difference was the scale on which it was being practiced, which was stupendous. During Passover the temple was transformed into a slaughterhouse. When Jesus and his disciples appeared on the Day of Preparation they would have been deafened by the bleating and bawling of the thousands of frightened beasts. The air would have been thick and heavy with the stench of blood, and the gutters would have been running deep with it. It required a torrent of blood to wash away a myriad of sins, both trivial and horrendous, and renew the ritual holiness of Israel.

Pledges and temple tithes also needed to be paid, and the money changers were there in the temple courts to sanctify the coinage.  Pagan coins bearing the image of the divine emperor and the pagan gods of Rome needed to be changed into sacred shekels—clean money for the tax. It was a necessary arrangement, strictly regulated by the temple authorities and all pretty much on the up and square. Just business as usual–as ordinary as a Monday night pot roast at the diner.

But when the elements of ordinary human behavior—our conventional indifference, our institutionalized greed and our horrendous bad taste–come into direct contact with the all-consuming purity of the living God—there will be—if the right catalyst is present–a violent explosion. That catalyst is Jesus, and the reverberations of what happened that day in the temple can still felt in the moral and spiritual lives of those who want to follow him.

The Purification of the Temple is one of the very few incidents in the life of Jesus recorded in all four of the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before his arrest and trial. For them Jesus’ attack upon the profit motive being applied to holy things was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final act of defiance that the pushed Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities to the sticking point. After that, as Mark’s gospel puts it, the chief priests and the scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18). The evangelist John, however, places this story at the very beginning of his gospel, using it to set the stage for the sort of life Jesus would live, a life of absolute integrity that defied pretention and turned the tables on conventionalized evil. It was a life lived by the light of those words of the psalmist, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus burned. He not only told the truth—he was truth itself. And you and I, beloved, are called and enabled by the power of his Spirit to share with the same fire. The story of the Purification of the Temple teaches us as much about the nature of our discipleship as the Sermon on the Mount.

Oh, yes, I can almost hear what’s going on in your head, beloved. You’re thinking—I could never do anything like that—making a whip of cords to chase the sheep and oxen out of the temple and overturning the tables of the moneychangers and scattering their coins. I’m  much too nice, too well-brought-up, too agreeable a person for that. And I would reply that that is just exactly the problem with us, beloved—because I would certainly include myself in this–we are much too nice. That is good part of the reason the world is such an awful place, because decent people are too nice—too polite, too tame–to call evil and its best buddy stupidity by their right names and do something—even something ineffectual–in protest against the things we know in our hearts to be wronged-headed or just plain wrong.

And if I were to follow the example of Jesus, would that alter things? The day after he purified the temple, the sellers of animals were no doubt back to doing business as usual, and the money-changers had righted their tables. Would my telling the truth and acting on the truth have any tangible effect on the deeply ingrained evils of this world? That’s not the right question to ask, beloved. The question we need to ask of ourselves is this: How am I personally called to be the truth in a world of compromises?  Living with the integrity of Jesus does not always change matters—at least not in any apparent way–but it is still necessary for us to live as if it did. That’s what it means to follow the Master.

Of course, it is always easier not to do that. Who could pretend otherwise? In a poem called “The Second Coming,” the Irish poet W. B. Yeats wrote prophetically about the moral and spiritual lethargy of our time:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

We need hardly look beyond the morning paper for evidence that in our world and in our nation the “worst are full of passionate intensity.” The vulgarity of our manners, the loss of any standard of decency in the arts, the arrogance and corruption of the political class—you know it all as well I do. You can see the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor as well as I can, beloved. Speaking of his employees, I heard one wealthy businessman saying to another—“I don’t know how they live on what I pay them.”  The only moral response to such a statement is outrage. The church also seems to be in the hands of those who know nothing but how to compromise with the prevailing culture.

But outrage is a dangerous emotion. It can get you into all kinds of trouble–if we need proof of that, we have the example of Jesus on the cross always hanging before us. But the outrage of good people is also the symbol of God’s judgment, as the outrage of Jesus was, and expressing the anger that his Spirit stirs up in us is the duty of those who follow him.

The problem is that anger—even the most justifiable anger—needs some rehabilitation. “Be angry,” the psalmist says, “and do not sin” (4:4). That means stilling our instinct for revenge and refusing to hold a grudge. Anger can indeed be a sin if takes root as hatred. But outrage is the just and right response to injustice, callousness and cruelty, and you and I need to acknowledge and express it openly, as Jesus showed us how.

Anger is an energy like any other. Recall your high school physics. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy on an isolated system remains constant and is conserved over time. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but it can and will change form. So the energy present in a certain combination of chemicals can be converted into kinetic energy by the explosion of a stick of dynamite. BANG! And the anger that you and I feel, confronted by nasty human business as usual, has to go somewhere. The danger is that within the closed system of our hearts and minds, we transform our justifiable anger into guilt, self-loathing and what used to be called melancholia. The modern word for that condition is depression, and it is a disease both of the soul and of the body.

It is always a mistake to generalize from one’s own particular experience. Every person is a separate universe. And when you get to be sixty-five years old it’s certainly time to stop blaming your parents for your problems. But I know that like a lot of people of my own generation I was brought up believe that anger is always an inappropriate and shameful feeling. I learned a number of bad lessons early on, both implicitly and explicitly, about anger management. My parents were good people, but they were themselves highly controlled. They taught me that anger is inappropriate to nice people and a feeling that always needs to be suppressed. So rather than express it openly, you need to look instead for something inside yourself upon which to blame your feelings.

In my middle years I suffered from clinical depression, and for a while even took medication to control it. And these days suppressed anger is almost certainly a contributing factor in the high blood pressure—controlled but very real–from which I suffer. If I had learned early on to deal more constructively with my anger maybe I would not have to take those bitter white pills I swallow every morning.  Or maybe not. Who knows? High blood pressure is congenital in my family. (Big surprise there!) In any case, the pills now seem to be necessary. High blood pressure is a fact of my life. But it is possible—and better late than never—to do something better with your anger rather than swallowing it whole like one of those bitter white pills. You can express it honestly, and better still you can do something about it instead of turning it in on yourself.

Unfortunately in my own case—and in the case of a lot of other people who were brought up to be too nice for their own good–in dealing with their anger the church and its ministers have been part of the problem rather than of the solution. I once heard a sermon—I could tell you exactly where and when if I wanted to because it was one of the most memorably bad sermons I have ever heard—wicked as well as stupid–in which the preacher said in so many words that depression is a choice.  People who struggle with feelings of sadness and anxiety and helplessness are indulging those feelings in themselves. They enjoy being depressed, that’s why they are that way. If you are depressed it is your own fault. So get over it. If you want to, you can be a picker and a grinner like me, the preacher said–though not, of course, in those exact words. What utterly misguided foolishness! People who suffer from depression are trying harder than anyone can imagine to be good.

But that struggle is not good at all—for anyone.

That’s why I have taken the trouble to write this to you and to myself, by the way, beloved. The worst possible thing we can do in our misguided attempt to be “nice” or “Christian” or God knows what, is to try to manage our anger by absorbing it and blaming the resulting depression we feel on ourselves. Rather than saying and being the truth like Jesus, we try to be nicer, sweeter, politer than we really are. But unexpressed anger is a corrosive. It eats away at our bodies and souls like acid eats at our stomach lining. And furthermore managing our anger that kind of self-destructive way robs us of the energy we need to really be disciples of the Lord who purified the temple with a whip of cords. We need to hear and take to heart the words of the hymn we have so often sung–“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

Some Christians have been forced by their righteous outrage in the face of injustice to commit acts of violence, and they have suffered terribly for them. Acts like his purification of the temple are what inevitably brought Jesus to the cross–the gospels make that perfectly clear. But our problem—yours in mine–is not that we are liable to do something violent that will get us into trouble—our problem that when confronted with corporate injustice and individual cruelty we are liable do nothing at all. And then by an evil alchemy the energy of our outrage at injustice should give us is converted into regret, sadness and self-loathing.

So what should we do? Well, something, beloved. Something rather than suffering in bitter silence. I would recommend what I would call “measured outrage.” Say what you really think in language everyone will understand. Then do something. Scare the powers that be a little. Shake things up. The damage done by overturning a few tables and a chasing some animals out of the temple is in the end far less destructive the swallowing your anger and letting the nasty business go on as usual. As much as possible we need to direct our anger at the abuse and not at people who practice it, at the tables. We are all sinners in need of grace. Don’t indulge your bitterness. Don’t let dead cats sit on your porch, as my father used to say. Let your anger out and then let it go. Still your instinct for revenge, but nourish your hunger for righteousness. The author D.H. Lawrence, who had a tendency to express everything in terms of sex, wrote: “The profoundest of all sensualities is the sense of truth and the next deepest sensual experience is the sense of justice.”

And the poet was on the right track. Lawrence was a virulent critic of conventional niceness. He faulted the Christianity of the churches because it kept people from living passionately, spontaneously, acting on their deepest emotions, expressing love and anger openly. Now I wouldn’t want to get any of you in trouble, beloved, but a bit of trouble is not the worst thing that can happen to any of us. The worst thing that can happen already has. Jesus died on the cross so that you and I might be set free to be kind of people he was—albeit in miniature. What we could be if we truly followed his example is always something yet to be determined. The possibilities of discipleship are infinite and largely unexplored. But this much is most certainly true, Jesus did not die on the cross to make us nice.

Anger isn’t nice—not one bit–but that’s my whole point, beloved.  Anger isn’t nice, but it can be righteous nevertheless. It can be the mirror of the justice of God.  And even when it is gets nasty, it is always infinitely better than sitting around and stewing in our own juices.

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