Sermon: “Freedom From, Freedom For” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25)

fieldofdreams

There is a wonderful moment in the movie “Field of Dreams” when the Iowa farm family that is at its center attends a PTA meeting because someone in their community wants to have a particular book banned by the local school.

The woman behind the proposed ban is acting out of a misplaced Christian impulse, and what quickly comes into the picture when she speaks is a whole slough of harsh invective about morality that is meant in the movie to be more or less a parody.

Well, getting increasingly agitated as the woman speaks is Annie, the wife of Ray, the main character. She is a now settled down mom. But she was a flower child in her youth, and she has a decidedly different opinion of the book that the other woman wants to see banned—perhaps even burned.

Annie loved that book. But maybe more than that, Annie has a different opinion about the idea of banning books, in general, whether or not she agrees with them.

And the two women get into a furious argument there in the school gym, which the other parents watch go back and forth like a tennis match.

Ultimately, it is Annie who prevails, after an impassioned speech about love, understanding, and peace—good values to be sure, which, personally speaking, she doesn’t happen to embody very effectively at that particular moment.
Of course, nor does the other woman seem very much like a disciple of Jesus in that particular moment.

I say this just to note that, in our reading from Galatians this morning, if it sounded to you like the Apostle Paul was one of those people from the 80s, standing in front of a school board, talking angrily and judgmentally about moral turpitude (they actually expressions like that back then)…well, you are to be forgiven.

It is a little bit of a blast from the past.

And as someone who loves Paul—as someone who gets a lot of important sustenance for the journey from Paul—I have to tell you that the mean church lady misinterpretations and misuses of Paul are still a cause for great sadness in my life.

Because there is so much there, and it’s so beautiful, and so important.

But even today, it’s easily obscured by the use and abuse of a kind of “thou shalt not” version of Christianity that still speaks with a megaphone in so many places.

Sometimes it is hard not to wonder if we Christians are more inclined to shout down Jesus rather than listen for his voice.

I worry that we might be.

This week, I’ve wondered if maybe Paul didn’t worry about that in his own day, too, truth be told.

That’s why it’s important to read Paul closely here.

When you do, what you notice is something interesting.

You see, Paul isn’t simply signing off on the danger of the vices he names.

Don’t get him wrong. He still sees them as dangerous, to be sure.

You don’t need to be particularly faithful to see that licentiousness—doing what you want when you want how you want as much as you want with whomever you want—is a precarious and often destructive way to live.

But Paul’s deeper point is that if avoiding the bad is all our faith is, well, then we have missed the mark.

Because for Paul, what it means to have a new life in Christ is not simply that we find the strength or summon the shame to avoid the bad.

For Paul, what faith really is comes down to a newfound power to choose the good.

It’s not simply the power to walk the narrow path of righteousness. That’s not what faith is, for Paul. That’s important, but it’s only the beginning of what faith is.

It’s not that we are perfect, either.

It’s that because of faith, somehow, in what we do, in who we are, a brighter light shines through.

And when you put it that way, I think what Paul is saying is actually meant as a criticism of much of the religion in his day—and perhaps in ours, too.

Because important as it is to seek freedom from sin, the deeper point of faith is to give us the freedom for love, the freedom for good, the freedom for the hard work of building and sustaining the whole human family.

In the early days of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther would speak of what he called “the bondage of the will,” his sense that our shortcomings make it impossible for us to live faithfully without God’s help.

Luther believed that our wills themselves are bound by sin.

But he also believed that when our wills are finally freed—freed by the light of God that shines through even in the darkest of places—then at last, a different path is possible.

When that happens, he argued, we are freed for a very different kind of life.

Paul would have understood that.

Unlike Paul’s list of vices, his list of virtues gives us much more to aspire to.

Paul talks about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And that’s what life looks like when we are finally freed. When faith finally takes hold and begins to grow.

It’s not that we are freed from the snares of sin. It’s that we’re freed for the joy and challenge of a very different, deeper kind of life.

I remember when I was seventeen, I was studying for a year in France, and some friends of mine and I decided we would take an Easter trip to Italy for just over a week.

And it was certainly a wonderful trip.

But at one point, I remember, I realized something that I’d never thought of before.

I realized that for the very first time in my life, I was entirely without adult supervision of any kind.

For the very first time in my life, there was nobody waiting up for me. Nobody worrying where I’d been.

I was completely, totally free.

I celebrated this by having a triple serving of pistachio gelato, which is something my parents would never have permitted.

Italy, schmitaly. No way.

Now, I know that others respond to their first taste of freedom from parental constraint in other ways. I’m not here to point fingers.

But if all that trip had been was a scrupulous avoidance of the things I’d been taught to avoid, it would not have been much of a trip.

I mean, yes, except for the gelato, indeed, I did avoid all those things.

But the point of the trip was not that.

The point of the trip was to see new things. The point of the trip was to have new experiences and to build bonds with new people.

And the reason I still remember that trip so fondly all these years later is because I was able to do those things.

It was not only my first taste of freedom. More importantly, it was a small glimpse into what freedom for can be like, as opposed to freedom from something.

All by itself, freedom from is a kind of settling.

And what Paul wants for the Galatians, and what he wants for us, is the freedom for a life that never feels as if it’s settling for anything.

Friends, these are days when our fears may focus our attention on freedom from any number of dangers, toils and snares.

These are difficult days.

But the promise of life in Jesus is a promise of healing and wholeness even in the midst of the world and its brokenness.

It is a freedom for lives of peace and hope, no matter what the world might bring.

The love of God shines through.
And wherever it does, God’s people are transformed, and mobilized.

Where the love of God shines through, everyone else may see a minefield.

God’s people see a field of dreams.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: “New buds”

snowtopia

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Each spring, I am all promises when it comes to the hanging plants in our backyard.

Liz focuses on getting the girls to grow a few vegetables in the sunny corner by the gate, and on selecting plants that are pretty but hearty. She knows that these are probably not the years when Greenwich magazine will come calling, looking to do a full color spread on the parsonage garden. She plans accordingly.

But I can’t go to a plant nursery without feeling like the biggest morning glory basket—I like the ones with the mossy exteriors—needs to be ours…mine.

While Liz and Grace are dutifully waiting in line to buy tomato seeds, I take Emily off to the hoop houses and ask her which plant she thinks is the prettiest one. Then as a loving father, I feel duty-bound to get it.

After four years, she’s finally started to figure out what I like, which is gratifying.

Unfortunately, I am not as good at watering as I am at purchasing, so there are years when my joy at the garden is short-lived.

This year looked like one of those.

I’ve been very faithful to watering the lobelia. Love that blue. It’s losing its elegant shape but remains electric.

But last week, I realized on Monday evening that I hadn’t attended to the snowtopia…since the Friday before.

The snowtopia wasn’t happy about it. I sheepishly applied water. But to no avail. After a few days, except for one improbable, bright, cheery blossom, such flowers as were left looked like the color of old newspapers. The elegant trailing stems were more like brown shoelaces. The water seemed to run right through the hanging basket without stopping.

I kept watering it, anyway, mostly out of guilt. I tried debudding the shriveled buds. I told it I was sorry. Nothing.

Then yesterday, I noticed the beginning of new buds. At first, it seemed like only a few. But as I looked more closely, I saw that all of the stems had perked back up. Every tendril seemed to have new buds preparing to blossom.

The snowtopia is coming back.

As summer begins, I think a lot of people feel as if they’re dragging: that they’ve been cut off too long from whatever it is that sustains them: rest, affection, inspiration, peace of mind, a sense of grace. Maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten to water—to care for ourselves and for others who depend on us. Maybe someone else has not been faithful to the task of our nurturing.

But life being what it is, a power beyond all our imagining, it emerges again and again, even in the most delicate forms and in the most hostile places.

No matter who’s to blame or what we’re up against, new life breaks forth, even under the care of the weakest of hands and nourished by the thinnest of streams.

Beauty remains ready to blossom.

May we all find some of the beauty in ourselves in these coming weeks, and give thanks to the Creator who placed it there to flower in due season.
See you in church,

Father’s Day 2016

baseballdad

About ten years before I became a father, myself, I got a window onto fatherhood that got me thinking about the kind of dad I hoped I would be when the time came.

Many of the dads here will probably agree with me that the most important training we get in that department is from our own fathers.

That is certainly the case with me.

But I don’t think I had given that much thought, particularly.

Until one day.

It was spring, and the JV baseball team at the school where I was teaching was having a lackluster season.

But the catcher of the team was in my C block English 10 class, and he’d been trying to get me to come all season, and I felt guilty for not having gone, so, on this particular May afternoon, there I was, with a handful of other parents out to see the game…and an away game, no less.

It was a lovely, spring afternoon in Wilmington, with the trees in full flower and the sky impossibly blue.

Or, I should say, it was a lovely afternoon until the bottom of the fourth, when one of the parents from the other team playing started loudly complaining about umpire.

Now, I have to say, speaking for myself, I don’t particularly notice that kind of thing right away.

I’m from Brooklyn. People from Brooklyn talk back. Most of the games I’ve been to involve seats so far away from the field that you get nosebleeds up there. In seats like that, you can say whatever you want, and that’s kind of part of the fun.

But this was different. We were all right there. And so it wasn’t long before everyone in our little group was uncomfortably aware of the man in the Titleist visor loudly complaining. And it really wasn’t fun.

“Oh come on, Ump,” he burst out loudly at one point when the umpire called a strike.

Then when that batter went down a few pitches later, he said, “Oh for crying out loud.”

You know that look you sometimes shoot each other? The one that says, “What on earth is going on?” Well, there were a lot of those looks pinging back and forth through our section of the bleachers right then.

And then with the next batter and another couple of pitches, he said, “This guy’s an idiot.”

“Whoa, sir,” said one of the moms on our side loudly at that point.

But it turns out that this was all just the prelude.

It was at the bottom of the next inning when guess who’s son came back up to bat?

“All right, P.J.,” he shouted, “All right!”

Well, poor P.J. whiffed the first pitch.

The man stood up in the bleachers. “Come on, son, come on. DO IT,” he said.

The next pitch game. P.J. swung like he was going to hit that ball straight to New Jersey, whiffing again. Strike two.

“COME ON, SON,” he shouted, “GET IT TOGETHER.”

At that point, the other coach turned around over on his bench. Our parents were about to call DCFS.

Well, thanks to a decent pop and the fumbling from our shortstop, who tripped, P.J. actually made it to first base. The man in the bleachers celebrated with characteristically poor form.

I wondered for a moment if anyone over there was so lame as to actually let him share a high five with them, and was reassured that the answer appeared to be no.

But as happens in baseball, this dad’s joy was short-lived.

Because on the very next pitch, the batter knocked the ball back toward our shortstop, and this time our shortstop didn’t trip. He scooped up the ball and tossed it over to second just in time.

P.J. was tagged out.

You know those moments when everything just seems to sloooooow dowwwwn?

Well this was one of those, because I could see that the dad was leaping off of the bleachers and running onto the field to start shouting at the umpire like Billy Martin in the t.v. baseball of my childhood.

I saw his son’s coach leap up and try get him back to his seat.

But it’s the next moment that I really want to remember.

Because it was then that I saw our coach, like Atticus Finch in the trial scene of To Kill a Mockingbird, slowly, calmly, collectedly, get up from the team bench, and walk over to the home plate umpire with a weary smile.

He waited a moment. Stood just to the side.

The face of the man, the umpire, and the other coach were all various shades of red and purple…and you couldn’t make out the words…well, except for, you know, some….

“Excuse me, sir,” our coach interrupted at least.

“Coach….” said the umpire warily.

“Sir,” he repeated. “I think we’ll take our run now.” He smiled again. And then he went back and sat down.

And it was as if, all of a sudden, something else managed to kick in.

It’s like when you are trying to jump start a car and suddenly the sputtering engine revs like it’s supposed to.

The umpire nodded. Then he turned, faced the bleachers, pointed to our bench and said, “Score one home run. Sanford.” Then he turned to the man, “Sir, you’re ejected from this game. Get off my field. NOW.”

And after another moment, with his son’s coach taking him by the arm, off the man went to sit out the rest of the game in his car.

You see, I don’t know what the rule is here, but in Wilmington, Delaware, when a parent charges onto the field, it’s an automatic home run for the other team.

But I hope that you’ll see that in that moment, it wasn’t about a home run, or winning a baseball game. It was about quietly making sure that something else finally kicked in.

That’s what made it a moment of moral grandeur. It was a moment when somebody finally stood up to say, “Enough.”

It was a reminder in an unimportant game during an undistinguished season that fair play matters. Because fair play always matters. And character always matters.

Actually, those are the things that really matter, whatever the game may be.

And I thought to myself, that when I’m a dad, I want to be like that guy.

Of course, not all fathers out there do.

As we know all too well, P.J.’s dad isn’t the only one who didn’t seem to get the memo, and the children of those Great Santini types often have the baggage to show for it.

Also, it will probably not surprise you to learn that for many people, their relationship with God begins as a kind of extension of the relationship they had with their parents—and in particular, their relationship with their fathers.

So many of the people who decide to reject faith altogether, and who speak of God as angry, judgmental and supremely to be feared are remembering the flaws of human fathers they have known.

I find it hard to blame them.

Imagine, for example, what P.J.’s understanding of God must have looked like.

But the instinct of Scripture is to try to describe God not as angry, or as simply a remote, stern, lawgiver. The instinct of Scripture is not to imagine fatherhood, or God our Father, as the guy who shouts at us from the stands.

If you read the Bible attentively, what you find is a God who is more typically like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son—a God who worries sick about us when we’re off doing our thing. But who nevertheless gives us the space to do our thing.

The God of the Bible is much more like the God in our reading from Isaiah this morning—a God who calls and calls for us, who reaches out to us, who wants good things for us, who gets exasperated with us, and who winces in those moments when, for whatever reason, it seems as if we can’t get out of our own way.

But God never stops loving us.

There are a lot of people who would be astonished to learn that God’s fatherhood isn’t really about control, or about pushing perfection.

God is more about dusting us off when we fall and sitting us back on the bicycle.

God concern is about teaching us to try. And to keep on trying.

God knows that we aren’t perfect now, and that we never will be.

But that’s not meant to be cause for punishment or shame.

If you read the Garden of Eden story, or Tower of Babel story, or the Noah story, or the David story, I think you’ll conclude that God must have made His peace with that a long time ago.

And God’s definitive response is the Gospel story.

God responds to us at our worst by loving us, anyway, and working even harder to show us the way to the life He promises us in Him.

God works to bring something good out of the worst and darkest things we humans go through. No matter what it takes. No matter how high the price.

That’s the kind of father He is.

That’s the God that people need to hear about.

Especially in these days, I think…these days when we’re remembering Charleston and still mourning Orlando, and watching the news in the meanest political season anyone can remember.

We need to tell people about the love of the father, which does not condemn us, but forever reorients us, and believes in us, and counts on us.

God knows that, despite our imperfections and our undeniable shortcomings, each of us can still be a force for good, a voice of reason, and a source of kindness.

His delight is to see what we do with His gifts.

That is God’s understanding of what it is to be a father.

On Father’s Day, may we be especially grateful for all the men in our lives who heard God’s call to go and do likewise.

Amen.

From the Newsletter: “Orlando”

pulse

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Earlier this week, I was honored to represent our church at two local events to honor the victims of the shootings in Orlando.

I was also moved to learn that yesterday, a trained clergy crisis response team from the Connecticut UCC—first formed after the shootings in Newtown—was already on the ground down there, with another UCC team due to arrive today.

As you might imagine, pastoral care for the LGBT community in Florida is both profoundly important and immensely tricky in the wake of last Sunday’s violence. The need for comfort and a sense of God’s love could not be greater. Yet so many have been turned away from their families and home religious communities. In light of that experience, it can be difficult for some to believe they are in a safe space, much less on holy ground, and still less that God wants to offer them tender healing at this time.

Indeed, part of the reason that places like the Pulse nightclub are important in the LGBT community is that, for many, they are islands of acceptance and safety in a world that offers little of either.

But in times of great lament and fear, the Church also has a tremendously important role to play.

It is Scripture that teaches us that God’s dream for the world is a dream of peace, where nation shall not rise against nation, and neither shall they know war, anymore. It teaches us that God is already at work in the world, bringing light from darkness, and hope from despair, patiently working for the day when the lion shall lie with the lamb.

It’s Galatians that says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s a reminder that our life in Christ is a call to see and know one another in ways that reach across our differences. We’re called to affirm one another as children of God, deserving dignity and care, and to work for a world that is one, as God made it and always intended it to remain.

This is a story that vulnerable, scared people need especially to hear right now.

It’s a story that they need to see all of us living out as peacemakers, healers, and people of good will.

Sadly, not all churches seem to understand this. I can’t help but think of grieving parents, calling their pastor to arrange for a child’s funeral, being told that the church will not participate because of that child’s lifestyle. There are too many stories like that, even today.

That’s why I’m so heartened to know that our denomination is sending thoughtful people to help wherever and however they can. Even if it is only to weep alongside those who weep.

In times of great darkness, it is so important that we affirm the power of light. May we seek to bring that light to those who dwell in the darkness of their grief and fear. May we work for a world where each and every child of God finds a place to live and love with joy.
See you in church,

Reflection at the Greenwich Vigil for Orlando

rainbow

This evening I am thinking about the day, just over a year ago, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges, making same sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

Do you remember it?

All those images of landmarks across the country, lit up in the colors of pride and inclusion. All those parades. All those grinning families with two moms, or two dads.

For those of us in the United Church of Christ, it was also the opening day for our national synod, and the mood was so profoundly joyful.

It was a remarkable moment.

And for those faith communities that have witnessed on behalf of love in the lives of all God’s children…for those who have stood on behalf of love in its many expressions as something sacred and to be honored…there was a particular power.

Church people are often such hopeful and positive people.

But even so, there were so many of our LGBT sisters and brothers, women and men of deep faith, who never expected that they would live to see that day.

Standing with them at that moment was to be a witness to something so personal…and typically, so private…and yet it was the spirit of that day to come together, and to celebrate, and to share, and to feel a part of God’s beloved community together.

It was a moment when it felt as if the world was finally catching up to God’s own vision of how it ought to be.

And yet even then, even at that remarkable milestone in our history, there were those who were quick to remind us that there was still a great deal of work to do.

They reminded us that vulnerability doesn’t dissolve with the stroke of a pen.

And of course, that’s absolutely true.

Because while rights are important, and fairness is important, the ultimate goal is beyond just rights and fairness, or some quiet agreement that you stay in your corner and I’ll stay in mine, and that we will learn to coexist.

Our faith teaches to work for something much more noble than just coexisting.

Because the ultimate goal is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.

You remember that, right?

The ultimate goal is that, even across our differences, we will find ourselves united, not only with one another, but finally, with God.

The dream is that, different as we all are, shaped by different loves in different ways as we all are, nevertheless, we will learn to love and lean on one another.

That we will learn to look to one another to help us become whoever God has called us to be.

It’s a good thing when we start trying to add seats at the table. But we’re not going to get where we need to go until we start working together to build a bigger table.

That’s a higher standard.

And reaching it is going to take everything we have—all our heart and soul and strength and mind.

That doesn’t leave much for us to hold back.   And indeed, we can’t hold back.

In these days, we know we’ve gotten closer, here and there, but we’re still so far from where we need to be. We’re still so far from home.

The shootings in Orlando remind us of just how far we still have to travel.

They remind us of how vulnerable our sisters and brothers in the LGBT community remain.

They remind us of how powerful fear remains, especially in their lives.

But also, the shootings remind us of the fears that fester so dangerously in the hearts of so many.

So many people feel so threatened.

The world is changing so rapidly.

And people who once had to focus all their heart and soul and strength and mind on flying carefully below the radar of intolerance are now learning to live out loud–growing in voice, growing in strength, growing in pride.

Dignity is a remarkable thing. When someone finally claims it, there really is no going back.

And so the only solution is to scare them from claiming it in the first place.

We can’t let that happen. Not in Orlando. Not in Laramie, Wyoming; Seattle, Washington, or New York City. Not in Greenwich.

That would not be the faithful thing to do.

So yes, these are profoundly fearful times.

But at the end of the day, our faith teaches us that we have a choice: we can look on as some lash out in anger, hoping that we will ourselves be shielded from it somehow—hoping that it will burn itself out before it decides to come for us.

That’s one option.

Or we can reach out and stand with the vulnerable, and show them tenderness and love before all the world, and model the love of a vulnerable God who loved extravagantly and defiantly even in the face of the world at its worst.

My prayer is that tonight, not only here but in so many sanctuaries around the country, we will recommit ourselves to reaching out.

Tonight we do so in grief.

Tomorrow, may we reach out in hope and promise.

Let us pray, let us work, and let us learn to love with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind.

It begins with a candle. May it become righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, sweeping us all to the ocean of God’s love.

Amen.

Sermon: “The Call of New Life”(Luke 7:1-10)

bosun

This morning, I’m remembering a scene from “The Sound of Music.”

It’s an early scene, just after Fraulein Maria arrives at the Von Trapp estate.

Maria meets Captain Von Trapp, whom you’ll recall is profoundly stern at the beginning, and clearly not impressed with this nun who has shown up with her straw hat and her guitar to serve as the new governess for his thoroughly awful brood of children.

She doesn’t seem destined for success.

But be that as it may, she’s whom he’s got, at least right then, and so he summons the children to meet her.

And you’ll remember that he does this with the help of a bosun’s whistle.

He blows the whistle and the children all march down to the entrance hall on command.

You’ll also remember, of course, that Maria is immediately and permanently not into the whistle, which she makes abundantly clear.

What’s never said, though, is that the captain, for all his stern exterior, is a man still deeply grieving the loss of his first wife, the mother of his children.

What soon becomes clear is that their misbehavior is tied to their own grief, and also to the fact that their father is too lost and sad to be the kind of presence they so desperately need him to be for them.

What’s happened is that he has fallen back on the training of a different kind of world—the world of the Imperial Navy—the world of bosun’s whistles, and schedules and structure, and strict orders followed without delay.

It isn’t working. That becomes obvious within minutes. But it’s all he has. It’s the only thing he knows to do. So that’s what he’s doing.

There’s a proverb that goes, “To the man who only has a hammer in his tool belt, everything in the world looks like a nail.”

And that’s kind of the Captain’s situation.

Acting like a naval captain is the only thing he’s got in his tool belt.

O.k., so I hope I didn’t just ruin “The Sound of Music” for you.

But I think most of us know what that can be like—that sense that life has thrown something at us that we’re really not equipped to deal with.

Let me just say that when that happens, there can be this impulse to dig into our old routines with a vengeance and hope that, somehow, they’ll turn out to be the right approach to the situation—the right tool for the job.

Of course, we know that it rarely turns out to be so.

In most cases, we have to learn something new—we have to learn how to live in a new way.

It’s not easy, and when life is hard, it can feel as if the last thing we have energy for is learning to do something differently.

Someone once told me that one of the hardest things about his wife’s stroke—and it was hard on both of them—was that now he had to do all the cooking.

Maybe that sounds selfish. It’s not.

He was quick to explain that it was hard to say who had it worse: his wife, who had to give up doing something she loved and did wonderfully well, or him, who hated standing at the stove and could barely boil a hot dog.

“I was no good at this back when I was in my prime,” he said. “What on earth happens now?”

And that’s really the question, isn’t it?

When life takes a turn: “What on earth happens now?”

There are no easy answers to that.

But much of the time, part of the answer, anyway, is that we learn to live in a new way.

Over time, we learn to do things differently.

More broadly, we learn also to find meaning, to take joy, to feel gratitude and delight in new ways, and often in smaller, more immediate things—in the great blessing of a good day: a day when our taste buds, or our sense of balance, or our energy seem to be working.

We see the miracle of how we are strangely and wonderfully made, as the psalmist puts it.

That’s not everything, of course. But it’s a good start.

And when life gets challenging, I think we find a new appreciation for the good start whenever we manage to catch one.

We see it for the gift it surely is, and always was.

This helps me think about this morning’s reading—this story about the centurion from Luke’s Gospel.

Because for starters, there is a lot in the story that I wish I knew more about.

For example, I’m perplexed about this centurion—that is, a Roman soldier, I assume—who has decided to live in occupied territory, among a people who profoundly hated their occupation, as occupied peoples tend to do.

After all, you don’t hear of Colin Powell deciding to retire in Kuwait, now do you?

I’m also fascinated by the centurion’s even more profoundly counter-cultural decision to be a good neighbor, even to the tune of building a local synagogue, when he himself was not Jewish, nor likely to convert to Judaism.

This isn’t a case of someone buying a whole lot of land and then building a big fence around it so they can just hole up in their compound in peace and solitude for the remainder of their days.

And the best I can do with it is to say that something must have happened to this man.

Something must have shaken him out of the typical flight-path for a centurion.

Army duty in Ancient Judea was not generally considered a primo kind of assignment.   Far from it.

Army duty in Ancient Judea was hard time, the kind of assignment that made you harder, more weary, more guarded. You saw things and those things stayed with you.

Yet here he is, staying on when he had the choice to go, and he’s making a life, and proving in his own small way that not all Romans were cut from the same cloth.

His army buddies must have thought he was crazy.

All I can say is that something must have happened to him—something that made the old answers, the army answers, the Roman answers no longer really work for him.

But you know, it’s not as if you can just decide to forget the army.

That being the case, it probably should not surprise us that he falls back on the army’s ways when he sends word to Jesus about his servant needing healing.

Now note it well: Jesus is surprised and moved when the centurion follows up by saying that the Master does not need to come himself, that he is used to giving and following orders, and that Jesus should just give the order for his servant to be well and so it would be.

His faith is moving. It’s surprising even to Jesus.

But where Captain Von Trapp fell back on that bosun’s whistle as a way of hanging on to what he knows in a time of great uncertainty, for the centurion, something else seems to be going on.

Make no mistake: he still sees the world in an army kind of way.   Of course he does. How could he not?

But what’s more important is that he has a new understanding of the chain of command.

He has a new understanding of the orders he has been charged to follow.

Within the world of the centurion’s disappointments and wounds, something new has started to happen.

And he has found a way to bless it. He has found a way to recognize that, in all truth, this new life is how God is blessing him now.

The story is too short for us to ever know for sure, but in my version, the servant is not the only one who’s found healing here. The servant’s not the only one who has found new life, or who receives a new awareness of the gift of each new day.

And the point that’s worth making here is that you and I can find it, too. You and I are being offered that same gift.

It isn’t hating life to say that the kingdoms of this world so often seem to frustrate and disappoint us.

It’s to say that the Kingdom of God is all around us—that new life, and new purposes, and new gratitude are all being offered to us, and that Jesus himself is here to testify that God wants to share them with us urgently.

God shares them with us in the presence of his own son, who came to join our lives so that we might finally see that we are all part of the life of God.

That’s the path forward. That’s the healing he offers us.

In all our fears, in all our shortcomings, nevertheless he comes.

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace,” it says in the Book of Isaiah.

Jesus comes to bring peace for heart and mind and soul. The peace of God. The peace of new life.

The hills are alive with the sound of his music.

 

 

Amen.

2CC Sermon: “The grace of being an old bag” (Romans 5:1-5; John 16: 12-15)

old bag

So, two weeks ago, I had the strange experience of taking delivery for two big ticket items in my world.

I got a new briefcase, and I got a new laptop.

The first one was a birthday present from my parents. The second one was for work, which means that it was from Gordon Ng. (Thank you, Gordon.)

I am getting used to both.

Both of them look brand-spanking new. Out of the packaging new.

Of course, in a laptop, that’s considered a quality.

Not that looks are everything, mind you. I’d guess that when it comes to a computer, speed and weight and memory are everything.

But there’s a connection there. We’re all used to the idea that, the newer a laptop looks, the safer it is to assume that it’s as fast and as light and as capacious as they could make it then.

I bet there are people who are into technology and can look at a laptop and say, “Ohhhh. A MacBook Pro early 2015 model. Man, you know, back in its day, that was a great computer….”

It reminds me a little of my dad, who is one of those people who can see an old car in a movie on t.v. and tell you the exact year that car was made because of the shape of the tail-fins or the chrome grille on the front.

Americans have always had a real appreciation for the new thing.

But it is part of the challenge of life today that there is so much that feels so new, so quickly.

Do you ever feel that way?

It is hard to keep up.

Speaking of which: it’s probably also true that in a world that seems determined to go entirely paperless, buying a new briefcase is kind of an old-school move.

Who’s going to need one of those?

Well, I do, and I will.

But here’s the thing that struck me.

In a laptop, being brand-spanking new is considered a quality.

In a briefcase, that’s not necessarily so.

Forget the nylon Land’s End jobbies that were popular in the 80s as a sign of high fashion, like wallets with velcro. I’m not talking about those.

In a briefcase, it’s all about the wear and tear. It’s all about the weathering…the gradual breaking in that comes out of being used—that comes out of being caught in the rain, or left out in the sun, being bungee-corded to the back of bike or scrunched under the seat of an airplane.

Something like that is more than just a tool for taking things from one place to another.

If that’s all you see, you’re missing it.

Because the point is that, over time, a briefcase starts to take on a kind of character.

The more beaten up it is, the more of a treasure it becomes.

If it’s stained, and curled at the edges, and all that, it is all the more highly prized.

It represents the idea that life can be hard on us, day in and day out, but this doesn’t wreck us—far from it. Somehow, that daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within us.

I’ve been thinking about that this week, as I’ve been carrying the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans back and forth in my new briefcase.

Do you see where I’m heading?

Because Paul says, “…we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

The King James Version puts it nicely too, saying, “…we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope” (5:3-4).

Jesus himself had been somewhat reluctant to speak so directly.

We heard just a little bit from John’s Gospel of his final speech before the disciples at the Last Supper.

And the part that caught my attention was when Jesus said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12-13).

He knew hard days were ahead.

I don’t know about you, but if I’d been there, I would have wanted Jesus to tell it to me straight—whatever it was about him or me, or what was going to happen.

And here’s where Paul’s words come back in.

Paul wasn’t a guest at that particular party. But when his time came, he would know all too well what it was like to suffer. He knew what it was like to be a disciple in the hard days. He was there in the thick of it.

And what he wants to ask is how we get from the suffering of now to something like the promised future that we’ve just heard Jesus talking about in John’s Gospel.

And what he wants to affirm is that, yes, life can be hard on us, day in and day out, but even so, this doesn’t wreck us—far from it. Somehow, that daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within us.

If Jesus speaks to his disciples about the power of truths they cannot yet bear, it’s Paul who says that those truths—those hopes—come only in our sufferings, in our losses, in the painful lessons we are called to learn.

Some have said over the years that Paul is a glutton for punishment, and I admit that sometimes, he can sound like one.

But there’s a deeper point.

I don’t think Paul is telling us to go seek out the chance to suffer.

Paul’s point is to tell us not to be afraid of suffering. Not to be afraid of life’s challenges and setbacks. Even the big ones. He’s telling us not to let them stop us.

Certainly, yes, they won’t last. They will not be the final word. That is comforting to hear.

Paul’s point is more nuanced: he’s saying that it’s through suffering—through the strength that it can teach us—through the “tribulation that worketh patience” that we develop the strength to become the kind of hopeful people Christ calls us to become.

For Paul, it’s not that we should be hopeful despite our challenges—it’s that we can scarcely hope to become truly hopeful people without them.

To put it in the church’s language: for Paul, it’s only life’s wear and tear that brings out the patina of the character we form in Christ through the patient teaching of the Holy Spirit.

Unless we learn from life in its hardness, we will scarcely know how to stand for life in its goodness.

It’s important to remember that.

It’s especially important to remember it now.

In so many ways, we live in a laptop kind of world—a time when all around us, many feel the deep attraction to what is newest, what is fastest, what is lightest, what is easiest.

Americans have always had an appreciation for the new thing.

And there’s no question that the benefits of the new are many.

But as Christians we are called to live in a certain amount of tension with that kind of world, and to view it with a fair bit of suspicion.

As faithful people, we’re called to see the beauty, and the character, and the hope that all come with learning to keep going, despite what life throws at us.

We’re called to rejoice in how we’ve learned to be tough, old birds when it comes to serving, and loving, and working for the good.

Part of it is seeing through the false promise that life can be painless, or effortless, or easy.

We’re also called to remember that it’s those who pretend otherwise who often end up doing the most damage.

Instead, Paul calls us to remember that the only the way we will work to make the world as it should be is for God’s people to find the strength to endure the world as it is, and to keep going.

More remarkable still, the way he sees it, this isn’t just a tough job that somebody has to do.

For him it’s a joy. It’s a blessing. It’s an honor.

It’s a life we should look forward to living.

That’s not the way that most people talk about their hopes for the future in a laptop world.

But this morning, Paul reminds us that for Christians, as for a new briefcase, it is the daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within.

With God’s help, each one of us is on our way to becoming an old bag.

May it be so.

 

Amen.