There Your Heart Will Be

I am posting the sermon I would have preached tonight at our Ash Wednesday service. We had to cancel due to weather. It is based on the Gospel reading Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. I invite you to read the text prior to the sermon, and spend some time reflecting on its meaning. We will have elements from the Ash Wednesday public worship service this Sunday, including the imposition of ashes for any who choose to receive them. Blessings to you all as we observe a holy Lent.

It has always seemed a bit strange to me that the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday every year is this passage from Matthew where Jesus warns his followers to “beware practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

On the day when Christians around the world will do the very thing Jesus says not to do – walk around in public practicing our piety with ashes smeared on our foreheads – we hear this cautionary note.

At the beginning of a season when followers of Jesus will take on various fasts – from chocolate to Facebook to alcohol to various and sundry bad foods, bad habits, or bad language, and everyone will want to know “What did you give up for Lent?” – Jesus himself warns about the dangers of calling attention to our fasts.

At the outset of a forty day season that sees a steady increase in worship attendance, with a popular spirituality center that invites all ages to pray with water and stones and art work and a labyrinth, a sanctuary kept open for people to come and pray, and lots of folks taking on spiritual disciplines, we hear Jesus say to pray in your room with the door shut in secret.

We could be excused for being a bit confused by these mixed messages. Lent seems at one and the same time a very public display of spirituality with a label plastered across it like those black box warnings on some prescriptions – Beware, Lent could cause unexpected side effects.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Ash Wednesday arrives on an icy Middle Tennessee this year, forcing the cancellation of the evening service. The weather has forced most of us into the very position Jesus commends – to practice our spirituality out of sight of others, locked in our ice-covered prayer closets, the only ashes available the homemade variety, and no one to see except perhaps our closest family. It has forced us to begin our fasts – whatever they are – in secret.

Note that Jesus doesn’t issue a blanket condemnation of public prayer and fasting, but instead addresses motives. Do not practice your piety in order to be seen. Do not give alms that you may be praised by others. Do not pray that you may be seen by others. Do not fast in such a way as to show others you are fasting. In doing these things, Jesus says, the ones doing them are seeking a reward – the reward of being seen as righteous, pious, and generous by other people. Jesus condemns faith practiced as self-promotion, as performance for other eyes. If that is the reward they seek, says Jesus, it is the reward – the only reward – they will have. It is as if they are storing up treasures on earth, instead of in heaven, and everyone knows the earthly treasures are temporary and vulnerable, and, like us, destined for the ash heap.

It seems to me the key verse in this text, and for all of Lent, is the last one – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If our faith, our spirituality, is all about being seen and heard by others; if our ego becomes more important than our service; if our life of faith is motivated by the equivalent of Facebook “likes,” then our heart is precisely there in those “treasures,” rather than in God. It is not really about whether we pray in a locked room or in the sanctuary or the spirituality center; nor is it about whether we receive ashes or fast or take on spiritual disciplines; it is not even about whether other people see us – no, the fundamental question of Lent and of Jesus’ teaching here is why do we do these things, the question is the location of our hearts.

Today many of our brothers and sisters are walking around wearing ashes. Far from a public display of piety for the purpose of being seen by others, it is actually the very opposite. The ashes are a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. On the very first day of Lent we are reminded that our faith is a gift, not an accomplishment; that our lives, including the next breath we take, are gifts; that we are sustained not by our religious practices, but by the grace of God to which these practices point.

And we dare to say that this is good news. It is good news to know that we are dust sustained by God. It means we can finally put away the pretense of perfection, we can be done with the need to impress, we can banish from our consciousness the soul-killing, heart-displacing idea that we are the sum total of our success. I am dust. You are dust. The Pope is dust. The wealthy are dust. The poor are dust. No matter your race, your nationality, your gender, your sexuality, your politics, your righteousness or lack thereof, your success or failure, you and I are dust.

Ash Wednesday is the great leveling day when we are invited to look deeply into our hearts and see beating in that center of our being not our ego, not our carefully constructed selves, but simply God’s grace – which holds all things together.

From this posture we are prepared to walk into Lent meaningfully, to take on disciplines, to lay down distractions, to pay attention to the placement of our hearts, knowing that we are sustained in this practice not by the praise and attention of others, not by our ability to do it right, but only by the God who breathes into our dusty selves the breath of life which is true life.

I have been troubled all week by the heart-breaking news of a family who in the process of stopping to help a motorist on the icy interstate were killed. Much was revealed in that event. The clearest revelation is the fragility and vulnerability of life and how easily and unexpectedly it can be snatched away – we are dust.

But something else was also revealed on that highway. Beating beneath the dust were hearts focused not on themselves, but on the stranger, on the other whom they did not know. There is no doubt where their hearts were located. We are more than the flesh and blood bodies we possess – so much more. And when we awaken to this reality, we can be agents of God’s transformation of the world.

Yes we are dust.  And we belong to God, who made us and in whom we live and move and have our being.

So this year, in the cold and quiet landscape of this rare Tennessee ice and snow, let us take Jesus up on his challenge and receive the gift of this most unusual Ash Wednesday to go into our prayer closets, take up our fasts, and take on our disciplines… with very few witnesses. Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and quietly align our hearts with the only treasure worth pursuing.

Let us observe a holy Lent. Amen.

And…

I just completed a Doctor of Ministry class entitled, “Stop Making Sense: Searching for the Hidden God: Judaism after the Holocaust.” It was taught by a rabbi in Austin who is also an accomplished jazz musician, Neil Blumofe. As you might imagine, the subject was intense, and it brought out lots of emotions and strong opinions.

He had a phrase he used over and over as we discussed topics that were often painful or controversial. Someone in the class would offer a few words, either in response to the professor or to someone else in the class, and he would respond:

“Thank you for sharing that. I really like the way you are coming at this issue…and…”

The and was followed by another way of looking at the issue, another perspective that could be brought to bear, or an alternative voice that might argue with the one just presented. It was his way of reminding us, especially when we became sure of ourselves and our positions, that there is almost always an and

It was our professor’s way of acknowledging that the things we were discussing were complex, with multiple points of view, and no easy resolution. There may be a “right” answer, but it would be hard for us in our human limitations to arrive at one on which we could all agree. So, instead of searching for the right answer, he invited us to consider that there might be more than one right answer, that instead of saying “I heard you, but you’re wrong,” in situations of great change and controversy, we might try saying, “I heard you, and here’s another way to look at it.”

These ands opened up a gracious space where real learning occurred. We valued each voice at the table and together tried to uncover the larger truth we were exploring, while knowing we could never, as limited human beings, arrive at absolute truth.

I thought quite a bit during my time in Austin about our meeting of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, which occurred on the Saturday before I left for Austin on Sunday. The presbytery took up several amendments to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of which, having to do with the definition of marriage, was complex and controversial. We ended up voting in favor of all the amendments The process we used to arrive at that vote included several small group discussions, worship with communion, and very careful and respectful listening to each other, even when we did not agree. I came away from the meeting encouraged that it is possible for us to address the issues of our day in a manner that models the way of Christ, who built a church marked by reconciliation and peace in the midst of diversity.

Some left the meeting overjoyed. Some left the meeting sad and perhaps even angry. All left the meeting as part of the Body of Christ, committed to living together in the tension and uncertainty of our changing times, knowing that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. In that affirmation, we are freed to say, “Yes, I hear you, you are by brother/my sister…and…”

I left the meeting grateful to be part of the congregation I serve and the denomination to which we belong. In many ways, First Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a model for how people can come together from a variety of places and hold a range of views while still remaining one body. We can disagree, even significantly, and yet we realize that our unity is not an achievement we can boast, but a gift from God, a sign of grace. As we continue on this journey that seems to involve great change all around us, may we be ever mindful of the quiet center that never changes – the presence of Christ, who claims us in Baptism, addresses us in the Word, and nourishes us at the Table. It is only from that center that we are able to speak with each other in honesty and love.

I didn’t realize at the time, but the professor was conducting our class like a jazz concert, unafraid of improvising, welcoming the discordant note, making room for all the instruments, and striving to make of this diversity a unity that reflects, however imperfectly, something of the beauty and truth of God. May it be so for this church that God calls to be a blessing to the world

The Word of Light – A Sermon Preached January 4, 2015

Barbara Kingsolver writes, “I never knew what grand really was until I saw the canyon. It’s a perspective that pulls the busy human engine of desires to a quiet halt. Taking the long view across that … abyss attenuates humanity to quieter internal rhythms, the spirit of the ice ages, and we look, we gasp, and it seems there is a chance we might be small enough not to matter. That the things we want are not the end of the world. I have needed this view lately,” she writes.”[1]

We know what she’s talking about.

Hiking a trail on the edge of the mountains in the Appalachians in the early morning and seeing the mist hugging the treetops like the smoke from a hundred hidden chimneys, you can feel it.

Standing on a craggy spot high above the Pacific and allowing your eyes to go from the waves crashing along the cliffs to the expanse of sea until the horizon will not let you see any more, you feel it.

I remember standing on the white sands of the beach looking out at the Gulf of Mexico and telling Caleb, then three years old, “As far as your eyes can see, nothing but water.” The look in his eyes; he felt it.

You feel it when you hold a baby sometimes, especially if you witnessed that baby arrive in the world. I feel it every time I hold a baby at this font.

Perspective, some might call it. Holiness is the word others would use. Anne Lamott says in those moments she is inspired to pray with just one word, “Wow!” When we can say it, she writes, it means “we are not dulled to wonder.”[2]

The feeling can come not just from natural expanses of beauty or wonderful experiences. Sometimes the feeling comes to us when those same forces of nature turn brutal. On a quiet Christmas in 2004, tourists and residents along the beautiful beaches of Thailand looked out and saw a wave coming that would eventually kill almost 228,000 people by some estimates. It caused some to ask the same question Kingsolver pondered at the Grand Canyon, that there’s a chance we might be small enough not to matter.

Sitting by a bed while someone you love slowly succumbs to sickness will give you that feeling. I’ve heard more than one person in that situation say that they feel helpless; that the doctors and the nurses and all the technology at our disposal – none of it can stop this thing that is happening, so out of their control. It brings a terrible kind of perspective, but perspective just the same.

What all these experiences force upon us is a widening of the lens, so we can take in the largest possible view.

John – writing some three generations after Jesus’ life, when the church has had experiences of great beauty and tragedy, and the memory of Jesus grows dim – widens the lens as far as possible.

John doesn’t begin with a birth story. There are no shepherds, no manger, no angelic host or wise men. He doesn’t begin with a baptism, like Mark. He has no genealogies like Luke and Matthew, no stories of a young Jesus getting separated from his parents in Jerusalem.

Mark, the earliest gospel writer, starts by saying, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

John, the last gospel writer,  just says, “In the beginning…”

A good Jewish audience would immediately hear echoes of the very first words in the Bible, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…” But John wants to widen the lens even further, even before that beginning, there was the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Albert Einstein searched in vain for what he called “the theory of everything,” which he believed if he discovered it, would make the explanation of all things possible. The philosophically-educated Greeks would have called that thing he was searching for the Word. In Greek, the word is translated “logos,” and it was widely used to mean the rational principle of the universe, the thing that holds all other things together and makes them make sense. If there had been a God particle search in the first century, they would have called it the logos particle search.

John takes this Greek word that served as an explanation of all reality and points with it to Christ. Jesus is the one who expresses the Logos of God. The universe makes no sense without Christ, who was present with God at the beginning of all things and who is now the thing that holds all existence together. Christ is the life and the light of the world. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This, for John, is the first thing that must be said. It is the largest possible perspective.

And I don’t know about you, but it makes me feel small. How dare I stand in this pulpit and speak about this Word with anything approaching comprehension? It is a theological Grand Canyon, a mountain range in whose foothills I wander while the peaks loom large above, a vast sea stretching out in all directions out of which I gather up a small cup on a Sunday morning and hold it up, saying, “Here…this.”

I heard a Jewish rabbi say recently that whenever someone dies in his congregation, he is called to the house or hospital while the body is still there in order to perform the rites of death. He never knows what he will walk into, what form the grief will take – sometimes the numbness of shock, sometimes denial, sometimes blaming, sometimes anger – often directed at God, sometimes at him as the representative of God. He says, “I always say the same four words: ‘There are no words.’ And then I hug them or find some other way to touch them, because in the touch are the words the mouth cannot utter.”[3]

There are no words. We are so small. In these moments, it seems there may be a chance we might be small enough not to matter.

But John’s story does not end with this beginning and this Word remaining high and inaccessible, a canyon we cannot cross. “The Word became flesh.” God came to us, and the words we cannot speak God spoke to us; God touched us, because in the touch are the words our mouths cannot utter. We cannot grasp God, we cannot speak God – God has grasped us, God has spoken to us life and light which the darkness cannot overcome.

And so what is this Logos? What is the rational principle of the universe, the theory of everything, that which holds all things together? What was that thing that was with God and was God and was the thing that brought all other things into existence?

I think it is what you feel when you look out across the Grand Canyon or over a mountain vista or at ocean that spreads as far as the eye can see. It is what you know when you hold a newborn baby. It is what brings tears to your eyes when you hear of tsunamis or tornadoes or plane crashes or famine or disease, and it causes you to want to help, to give, to serve. It is what you feel when you hold the hand of someone who is dying and you can do nothing to stop it, and yet you continue to hold the hand.

It is what we search high and low to find, it is what gives our lives purpose and meaning, it is what reveals that even though we are small, we matter, and all of this wondrous experience of life matters – ultimately.

The Logos is Christ, and what Christ reveals about God is love.

Love.

Great theologian John Lennon famously said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but he perhaps unknowingly captured the essence of the Word Jesus is when he wrote, “All You Need is Love.”

The love we experience in this life is in many ways a dim reflection of the love that Christ reveals, but each time we experience it, we catch a glimpse of the mystery of the universe, through which all things were made and which sustains all things – the light that shines in the darkness is love.

It is this Word, Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church. Today we ordain and install a new class of ten elders. They come onto our church session at a time of great change and transition in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the church in general of all denominations, change we have certainly felt in this congregation. To say it is an anxious time for many is an understatement. Everyone fears decline, fears conflict over issues as wide-ranging as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to same-sex marriage to worship styles and everything in between. Some wonder if the church can survive at all. I thought I would share that now, just in case any of you want to pull out.

I for one am confident in our future. I am not the Head of the church. The elders we install and ordain today are not the Head of the church. The One who is the Head of this church and all others is Jesus Christ. And he is more than the Head of the church; he is the Word of God. He has shown us that love is the thing that holds all things together, that love will have the last word, that no darkness can extinguish the light of love.

So if I err – and I will – if we as a congregation and a denomination err – and we will – let us err on the side of love. Let us err on the side of grace. In this time of polarization, let us err on the side of cultivating a community of faith that holds within itself multiple perspectives and does not feel the need to set up congregations and denominations of the like-minded.

In a stunning new book entitled Station Eleven which was on the short list for the National Book Award last year, Emily St. John Mandel writes about the end of the world. 99.99% of the population is destroyed by a virus, and all that is left are pockets of humanity. But in contrast to so much writing in this genre, which paints scenes of unrelenting hopelessness, in this book, Mandel bucks that trend by having a group of actors travel the decimated landscape and perform Shakespeare plays. The group is called the Traveling Symphony, and spray-painted on the lead wagon of the group is a line from another group of great theologians, Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.”

When I think about the future of the church, so many voices are asking if we are going to survive. I’m not interested in mere survival. It is insufficient. I want to thrive. And I believe the key to thriving is in the quality of our love – for God, for one another (especially those with whom we disagree), for this world that God loves, and in which the Word has become flesh. We may be small, but we are loved. Amen.

[1] Kingsolver, Barbara. Small Wonder: Essays. (New York: Perennial, 2002), page 22.

[2] Lamott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), page 71.

[3] My paraphrase of  a broadcast on NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook, entitled “How We Grieve” http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/01/02/grief-mourning-tom-ashbrook-family. The rabbi on the broadcast is Earl Grollman.

Ed Farley and the Present/Absent God

Ed Farley made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic faith in God. He embodied for me the phrase “God is God, and I am not.” He also made it hard to rest easy with a simplistic unbelief in God. He wrote in his book, “Divine Empathy: A Theology of God:”

“The task of setting forth the way God arises into belief-ful conviction faces the same problem that confronts any and all language that would concern itself with God. Every available term sounds too strong. One hesitates to claim ‘knowledge’ of God or ‘experience’ of God. One hesitates to say that God is simply ‘present’ or that a ‘revelation’ of God has taken place…To say God is present only reminds us that God is ever absent…To say that we experience or know God only reminds us of the vast difference between what we in fact do experience and know and the way we relate to God.”

Dr. Farley introduced me to the poet Wendell Berry, whom he quoted frequently, including this prayer/poem:

“That we do not know you

is your perfection

and our hope. The darkness

keeps us near you.”

Ed Farley is not often lumped together with those who are called “Reformed” theologians, but he was consummately Reformed in the way he absolutely refused to allow God to be minimized or contained in any doctrine (including Reformed doctrine) or ideology, no matter how popular. The reality of God is a problem for faith and for people of faith, because the subject continually slips our grasp and will not allow us to capture God, but only be captured (Dr. Farley would say “founded”) by God.

This refusal included the doctrines and ideologies that inform what Farley called “genuine atheism.” He wrote, “An act of denial, rejection, or the withholding of belief is never merely general or contentless. Like belief it requires a referent. Here the atheist is in the same situation as the believer.”

God simply is. In the end, believers and unbelievers are in the same boat regarding the God who simply is. They cannot capture this God. They cannot dismiss this God. They can only approximate in both their beliefs and their rejections the God who will forever elude.

Dr. Farley’s teaching opened a world to me, and in my current Doctor of Ministry studies I find myself coming back to his work again and again. He has enriched my ministry and given me language for my own experience of the God to whom I long to keep near.

I think Dr. Farley was in many ways ahead of his time. One of the best things that can be said about him in the public arena is that none of the so-called “new atheists” ever deign to deal with his work. If they ever did, their straw-man arguments and inadequate images of God would be exposed as the secular idols they are. Farley didn’t mind exposing idols – his, mine, the church’s, the nation’s, and yes, the atheists.

He also sang bass in his Presbyterian church choir for decades, was a favorite high school Sunday school teacher, and a committed participant in the ministries of his congregation and his presbytery. The fact he knew he would never know all of God there was to know did not stop him from faithfully acknowledging God’s continually “coming forth as God” (another of his frequent lines) to him. It seems he knew it is only when the idols are cleared away that the human heart is ready to welcome the God who comes to us.

Dr. Farley died on Saturday. May he experience what Paul proclaimed, “Then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

One

star2

Matthew says it was just one star.

I can only imagine what the evening sky looked like in those days, when there were no electric lights to hide the brilliance of millions upon millions of stars and galaxies. It must have been like a Hubble photograph every night, free to anyone who took the time to simply look up.

But Matthew says in the midst of this brilliance, the magi noticed only one. When they saw it rise, it captured their imaginations, stirred an ancient hope, and sent them on a long journey. After a rather naive and deadly stop in Jerusalem to ask the current king of the Jews where the new king of the Jews had been born, they make their way to Bethlehem.

And that’s when this one star the magi’s trained eyes had spotted in a sea of stars does something stars don’t do. It leads them along the desert road like some kind of flare for five and a half miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. And then it stops. The lone star stops right over the place where the child was, like an ancient Google Maps flashing that blue dot right over the house.

This is one of those stories that drives some people crazy. You have to suspend all kinds of rational thought to believe it, not least of which is the idea that stars behave in this way. Lots of ink has been spilled trying to explain it, or apologize for it, or add it to a rather long list of all the reasons why people of faith are knuckle-dragging morons clinging to an obscure myth in the face of reality.

I love nothing better than engaging in lively conversation about this and lots of other stories with friends and family who would identify as conservative believers and hard-core atheists and befuddled agnostics.

But in the end, I don’t think Matthew wrote these words to engage us in an astronomy lesson or to convince us that stars move about in the night guiding travelers to specific locations. No, I think Matthew’s words are meant to guide us like the star to a very specific place in the text:

“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Before they ever go in the house, they are filled with joy. Before they verify anything, they allow their hearts to open in anticipation. Before they know, they risk belief.

And what they believe is not that a star is capable of leading them. What they believe is that somehow the hopes and fears of all the years are met in whatever child is waiting for them in the house bathed in starlight. The star itself is not the thing. The child is the thing.

I want to count myself as part of the company that allows itself the joy of believing that in this child love overcomes hate, and peace overcomes violence, and hope overcomes despair. And that has nothing to do with stars that defy the laws of physics and everything to do with this one star, shining off the pages of Matthew’s story, pointing to the child who still brings joy to the world.

Holy Family

I wrote this piece after Room in the Inn at First Presbyterian. We had as guests a young couple and their infant child.

I saw them earlier in the evening,
He with the baby on his hip –
Eyes wide and distracted
By the steady hum and easy jostling
Of church-folk in a food line.
Soon someone offered to hold
The Little One
So dad could more easily
Get enough hot ham and cheese
Sandwiches to sustain his little
Homeless family of three
One night more.

So many were perplexed,
Surprised at such vulnerability,
An infant and young parents
In from the cold,
Looking for a room in the inn.
As if we hadn’t heard,
As if we didn’t know
He would come.

The children take the stage
Singing Rudolph and Jingle Bells,
And the fragile baby,
Passed around like found treasure,
Held tightly among them.

Silent night, holy night
Sleep in heavenly peace.

“Awake My Soul: Selected Sermons from Year B”

Parson’s Porch books has published a book of my sermons. I’m honored that they thought these words would be helpful for folks beyond those at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, and I couldn’t be happier with what they have done.

Parson’s Porch has a mission of “Turning Books into Bread.” All proceeds the publisher makes from these books go to helping the poor in the Cleveland, Tennessee area.

Sermons are written more for the ear than the eye, and they are by nature contextual. Even so, I hope these words will have meaning for those who read them and communicate something of the grace and peace of God in a world hungering for both.

You can purchase the book directly from the publisher here:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=PHQ3JCYB2TTLU