Sunday, August 19, 2018

Come to the Table and Renew Your Vows

Sermon for Aug. 19, 2018
John 6:51-58

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. Last Saturday, Ann and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary.  It’s not a round number, so it’s not particularly noteworthy, I guess.  And it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the marriages of many of you, but still – 28 years is 28 years, as my wife likes to say.  Especially as the fall wedding season gets underway, and I meet with couples about to take the plunge, I feel especially grateful for the love of God that I’ve seen come to life in our marriage. 
A couple of weeks before our anniversary, Ann and I made the trek to Springfield for what’s become an annual family gathering at the church where my sisters and I grew up, Christ Episcopal.  We began these gatherings several years ago to celebrate my parents’ 60th anniversary.  This year – in fact, just a few days ago – they celebrated 66 years of marriage.  I can’t even imagine what that’s like, but I can imagine what underlies it.  It’s love, of course; but by that, I don’t mean a feeling.  I mean a decision – a decision to live out a commitment to something beyond themselves, day in and day out. 
One of the things we always highlight in premarital counseling is what the theologians like to call the covenantal aspect of the sacrament of marriage.  At its core, here’s what I think that means:  Marriage is more than a contract, more than an agreement by two parties that benefits each one.  If I make a contract with someone to replace my driveway, I get a new driveway and the contractor gets my money.  If the terms are met, both parties win.  And the contract is there to ensure it, naming the parties’ obligations and protecting the interests of each.
Where a contract focuses on terms, a covenant focuses on a relationship, with each party pledging commitment to it.  And honoring that deep commitment to the relationship is what keeps the parties together through the tough times.  After all, as every married person knows, spouses always end up falling short; and if marriage were a contract, any sane person would simply note that the terms were broken and make a new agreement with someone else.  But in deep relationships, the commitment overrides the terms.  In fact, the commitment takes on a life of its own, forming you as the marriage goes on, shaping you into someone who gives yourself away rather than someone who meets obligations.  Ultimately, that commitment makes you into someone with the capacity to work a miracle – to live out the impossible vow to love another person with “all that I am and all that I have” and thereby be an outward and visible sign of God’s unconditional love.  Through that mutual commitment, the couple loves each other into submission – not submission to each other’s will but submission to God’s purposes for them. 
So, whether it’s been 66 years, or 28 years, or whatever, an anniversary is a moment to remember the sacramental nature of that covenant, making it real and tangible in a way it can’t be every day.  On an anniversary, we bring the marriage covenant into active and living memory; and in doing so, we bring it to life anew. 
So, you may wonder what all that has to do with our readings today.  Well, to me, the kind of deep relationship people enter into in marriage – that’s the kind of relationship that Jesus is asking us to make with God.  You might think of what Jesus has to say today as a divine proposal.
The Gospel reading today picks up where we left off last week, with Jesus trying to explain to the crowd what it means for him to be the “bread of life.”  He reminds them that, centuries ago, God gave the people of Israel manna to eat in the wilderness.  It kept them going as they journeyed to the Promised Land, but that was as far as their deliverance went.  Now, Jesus says, there’s a new promise, a new covenant of relationship between God and humanity.  And he is its sign.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus says.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51)  And the crowd’s probably thinking, “OK, great – the rabbi is talking about spiritual nourishment.”  The symbolism of the bread begins to make sense. 
But then, Jesus takes it up a notch and confuses the crowd again.  “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he says, “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh….  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (6:51,55)  Ick.  Did he really say that?  Eat his flesh?  Yes, and not just that:  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. …  Whoever eats me will live because of me.”  (6:53,57).  No wonder some of his followers started walking away afterwards.  There’s a pretty significant “yuck factor” to what Jesus has to say.
The people listening to him don’t get it because they can’t fathom the terms of God’s proposal.  This “bread of life” won’t just keep us alive as we wander from one day to the next.  This bread is literally God in the flesh; and through Jesus’ body and blood, God is offering us God’s own life, eternal life – right here, right now, and forever.  “Just as I live because of the Father,” Jesus explains, “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (6:57).  It’s so straightforward we think it must be more confusing than it seems.  He can’t really mean what he’s saying, right?  Well, yes.  Eat my flesh and drink my blood – take my life into your own life – and I’ll empower you with eternal life. 
OK.  There’s God’s part of this covenant.  What’s our part?  What are the vows we’re asked to make in this eternal relationship?  As the crowd asks Jesus earlier in John’s gospel, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (John 6:28).
I think what God asks of us is both much simpler, and much more demanding, than we’d expect.  Again, it’s less like a business contract and more like a marriage covenant.  Our part of the commitment is to match Jesus’ commitment to us.  “[B]elieve in him whom [God] has sent” (6:29).  That’s it.  There’s no specific to-do list, no contract to check for compliance.  Instead, Jesus says, remember what you’ve seen the Father doing through me, and commit yourself to it.  Remember, and believe. 
That’s a lot easier said than done, in the midst of life that distracts us with constant input and overwhelms us with impossible expectations.  When all I can see is everything I have to do, how can I remember my covenant with God and actively believe in Jesus?  We need concrete reminders.  We need signs to help us remember who and where we are.  It’s why the crowd asks Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, that we may see it and believe you?” (John 6:30).  Now, the irony is that, 24 hours earlier, the same crowd had watched him feed thousands of people with five loaves and two fish.  What more do you need?  But that was then; this is now.  That day, they were full; but now they’re hungry again.  And when you’re hungry, in whatever sense, it’s hard to remember and believe.
That’s why we’re here today.  That’s why we’re here every Sunday.  That’s why we do basically the same thing here every week.  It’s what Eucharist is all about:  Remember, and believe.
Go back to what you heard in Confirmation class or newcomers’ class.  What happens in Eucharist is called anamnesis in Greek, and it means living memory.  It means remembering, but with flesh and bones on it.  It means bringing a past reality into the present reality as a foretaste of a future reality.  It means making Jesus present in your hands and on your lips, bringing you the power of divine life in the here and now.  It means making eternal life tangible so we can remember and believe.
And from that memory and belief will come the “works of God,” in the sense we’d typically understand that.  Filled with the bread of life, we become the conduits through which eternal life flows.  As Jesus gives himself to bring life to us, so we give ourselves to bring life to each other and to the world.  Nourished with the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ – bread for a hungry world. 
Every Sunday, we gather to celebrate the anniversary of a marriage – the marriage of heaven and earth, the marriage of Christ and his Church, the marriage of God with each one of us.  So, consider every celebration of Eucharist an opportunity to renew your vows, a chance to remember and believe.  And then, in the power of that memory, recommit yourself as a partner with God in the project of loving the world into submission.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tragic Love

Sermon for July 22, 2018
Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34,53-56

Hearing the Old Testament reading, the psalm, and the Gospel this morning, you may have noticed a theme – that God cares for us like a shepherd cares for his sheep.  For many of us, that notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a stock image, almost religious clip-art.  Picture Jesus, and there’s a good chance you’ll see him with a little lamb on his shoulders, having searched for the lost one and brought it back to join the flock.  It’s warm and fuzzy and comforting … and it’s true.  Jesus does just that, going out to find us when we’ve stumbled away, sure we can stand up to the wolves and the bears on our own. 
In Vacation Bible School last week, I told that parable of the shepherd who leaves the flock to save the one who’s lost.  It’s a great illustration of the theme the kids learned all through the week:  that when we’re lonely, when we worry, when we struggle, when we make mistakes, when we’re powerless – Jesus rescues us.
I would tell you that’s a true statement.  And I said so to the kids during the Bible story on Monday.  And then … something happened. 
It happened a couple of hundred miles away, but it strikes home for many of us who grew up, or who now vacation, down in the Ozarks.  You’ve seen the news stories:  Two duck sightseeing boats went out onto Table Rock Lake on Thursday evening, despite severe thunderstorm warnings.  Of course, the point of the duck boats is that they drive you along the highways and then drive you out onto the lake – amphibious vehicles that, like their namesakes, are equally at home on the land and the water, rain or shine.  I remember the “Ride the Ducks” signs along the highway near Branson when I was a little boy.  The ducks have been there forever, taking countless people safely onto Table Rock Lake … until Thursday.  Two duck boats and their passengers went out on the water, though a storm was brewing.  One boat made it back to shore.  The other went down, killing 17 people and injuring others.
And yet, there we were in VBS that week, telling stories of the Good Shepherd who saves lost sheep from the wolves and the bears.  We confidently assured the kids, “When we’re powerless, Jesus rescues.” 
Psychologists call a situation like this “cognitive dissonance.”  Others of us might simply be wondering how churches can dare to make such a claim in a world where tragedy leads the news every blessed night.
Now, the secularists would have an easy explanation.  They’d say that, since there is no God who intervenes in the world, the notion of Jesus rescuing us is bunk from the start.  That’s one way to make sense of tragedy, intellectually at least.
On the other hand, people from the church side would offer a variety of responses.  There are Christians who would imply, at least, that some deficiency on the part of the people involved helped lead to the tragedy.  This is the same line of thinking that led televangelists, after Hurricane Katrina, to argue that New Orleans had it coming because of the supposed sinfulness of its culture.  It’s also the same line of thinking that leads people in hospital rooms, searching frantically for explanations in the face of awful news, to imply that if people had just prayed harder, their loved one might have fought harder against that cancer.  So far, I haven’t heard anyone implying that the 17 souls on that duck boat died as a consequence of God’s judgment or their inadequacy.  But I’ll bet you that kind of drivel is coming out of some pastor’s mouth somewhere this morning.
Others of us from the church side would take a different perspective.  Here’s how I see it, at least.
First and foremost, I would never pretend to tell you I know how God intersects with tragedy, suffering, and death.  That’s because, first and foremost, God is beyond our knowing; and anyone who tells you they’ve got the inside track is someone you probably shouldn’t trust with your favorite pen, much less with your soul.  But to me, understanding God’s place in tragedy involves three sometimes unsatisfying facets of God’s heart, and here they are: freedom, compassion, and redemption.  And all three of those realities are part of the ultimate truth about God’s nature, which is that God is Love.  God is Love.  And that’s true even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and even when that passage is long and brutal.
So, first, about freedom.  To me, living in the world seems to tell us pretty clearly that God allows bad things to happen, and Thursday’s tragedy is just one more example.  People have several drinks and then get behind the wheel.  People flick lit cigarettes into tinder-dry forests.  People go out onto a lake when the weather forecast makes it pretty clear they should just refund everybody’s ticket and send them home.  It’s tempting to look to God and ask, “Why did you let that happen, if you love us so much?”  And I imagine God – like a mother trying to explain why she didn’t stop her daughter from dating that worthless boyfriend – I imagine God saying something like this:  “A puppet can’t love its puppeteer.  I have made you in my image, gifted you with minds to think and hearts to love – and love is my bottom line.  But you must be free in order to love, or else it’s just manipulation.  So,” God might say, “to make you free enough to love, I’ve made you free enough to suffer.  If I turn off the car when the driver is drunk, or stop the boat about to venture into the storm, then you are not free.  And if you are not free, love disappears.”
So, the first facet of the Shepherd’s heart is freedom.  The second, I think, is compassion.  Remember what that word means, when you break it down: To practice compassion is to suffer with someone.  One of our most basic and craziest claims as Christians points to this part of God’s heart.  We believe that the creator and sovereign of the universe chose to enter into human life – being born in poverty, crying in the dirty straw, disobeying his parents, earning a living with his hands, being homeless, pouring out his healing heart (as we heard in today’s Gospel reading) when he badly needed rest instead, watching his friends desert him, being tortured by an oppressive government, and dying in a horrifying public execution.  When tragedy happens, the Shepherd’s heart breaks, with the force that comes only for people who’ve been there themselves.  God was there with those people on the duck boat as it sank.  God was there comforting those who died.  God was there strengthening those who survived.  God was there with the first responders and nurses and doctors and chaplains, treating the injured and comforting the families of the dead.  That kind of compassion is palpably healing – and if you’ve been there, you know it’s true.  I will never forget the presence of God I knew one afternoon, 17 years ago, waiting in a hospital consultation room as Ann was having emergency heart surgery.  I knew that God was “there,” in the abstract.  But my healing started when one of my best friends showed up, and hugged me, and wouldn’t let go.
So, that second facet of the Shepherd’s heart is compassion.  The last one, it seems to me, is redemption.  All that suffering Jesus endured was not suffering for its own sake.  It was suffering that led to victory over sin and death, suffering that opened the door to the fullness of life in God’s presence for each one of us.  Easter morning is the last act in passion week for a reason: because death is not the end.  Like spring buds at winter’s end, resurrection comes – and deep in our bones, we know it.  In Branson, the day after those people drowned, folks from the city and other vacationers started bringing flowers to the Ride the Ducks office, leaving them on the windshields of
cars whose owners weren’t coming back.  Before long, the flowers were overflowing.  Others gathered to pray, an act of remembrance not just for lives lost now but for lives continuing forever.  It’s an expression of solidarity – and that’s great on its own.  But it’s also a reminder that the God who comes to us always does so with new life in hand, transforming tragedy into love.  In God’s promise of life made new, suffering is turned inside out.  The journey through the valley of the shadow of death comes to its end at the table God has prepared specifically for you, the banquet of eternal life that begins even right now, at this Table, as goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives and we dwell in the house of the Lord – now and forever.
          So, at the end of even this week – in the cognitive dissonance of senseless tragedy alongside faith in a God we claim rescues us – I can still say, “Yes, it’s true.”  We don’t get to order up the details of our rescue.  Salvation doesn’t come from the a la carte menu.  In that hospital consultation room 17 years ago, after I’d watched Ann’s blood pressure plummet, the news just as easily could have come back differently.  And you know – we would have been OK.  Eventually, we would have been OK.  For I was borne up by the arms of the Shepherd, who came into that room with me and would not let go.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The War of Incivility and the Better Angels of Our Nature

Sermon for Independence Day (transferred)
July 1, 2018
Matthew 5:43-48; Hebrews 11:8-16

Sometimes, you hear people saying we’re living in America’s most divisive moment right now.  I’m certainly not happy with the way we’re talking to each other, but I don’t think today quite measures up to 1856.  In that year, the issue of the day was something literally very close to home for us here in Kansas City.
On the floor of the United States Senate, Charles Sumner, senator from Massachusetts and a
Rep. Preston Brooks caning Sen. Charles Sumner, 1856
leader of the abolition wing of the new Republican Party, rose to speak about the admission of Kansas to the Union and whether Kansas should be slave or free.  Arguing against his colleague, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who was present in the room, Sumner charged Butler with having taken a metaphorical mistress, and I quote: “a mistress . . . who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; [a mistress,] though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight.  I mean,” said Sumner, “the harlot, Slavery.”1  And we think today’s rhetoric is divisive.
But with Sumner’s speech, the dysfunctional drama had only just begun.  Congressman Preston Brooks, fellow South Carolinian and friend of Senator Butler, came into the Senate chamber at the end of business that day.  He walked up to Sumner, still sitting at his Senate desk, and Brooks began beating him over the head with his metal-topped cane.  Brooks beat him until Sumner bled profusely and had to be carried out.  His assault complete, Brooks himself simply walked calmly out of the Senate chamber.  Both men became celebrities and heroes to people on their respective sides.  Appallingly, a censure resolution against Brooks failed, and he won re-election.  Brooks died soon thereafter, at 37 years of age,2 but the stage for Civil War was being set.
Onto that stage came Abraham Lincoln, a minority president whose election in 1860 triggered the secession of the Southern states, seven of which had already left before Lincoln took office.  As Lincoln came to Washington in early 1861 for his inauguration, he understood his work as being even greater than George Washington’s – not the work of creating, but the work of reconciling, his nation.  He was tasked with holding together the fabric the founders had stitched, even as it was actively rending.  Most of Lincoln’s inaugural address was an argument for calm deliberation rather than hasty action, appealing to the small remaining center and arguing for legislation to “adjust … all our present difficulty.”3 
But for his ending, Lincoln offered hope for reconciliation even in the face of secession.  He tried to remind the 30,000 people gathered there4 how much greater were the forces unifying them than dividing them.  He said, “We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.  The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”5  Of course, Lincoln’s beautiful call fell on the deaf ears of both sides; and five weeks later, South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter.
Today, we’re not waging the Civil War.  Instead, we’re waging the War of Incivility.  Last week, a Democratic member of Congress called on people to harass cabinet members in public establishments and tell them they aren’t welcome.  A restaurant owner in Virginia told an administration official she wasn’t welcome to dine there.6  A billboard recently went up on a Texas highway telling liberals to leave the state.7  Really?  That’s what we’ve come to?
So, what do we hear from our Lord and Savior about all this, as we celebrate our nation’s birthday?  Let’s look at the Gospel reading for the feast of Independence Day.  This passage comes in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, part of a string of teachings where Jesus is redefining “what everybody knows” about how they’re supposed to live faithfully.  Over and over, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…,” and then he redefines the conventional wisdom on topics like violence, adultery, divorce, swearing oaths, and retribution.  Then, at the end of this section, Jesus takes the furthest step – redefining the conventional wisdom about how we’re supposed to treat our enemies.  
So, what would that conventional wisdom have been?  Probably not so different from our own.  Even Scripture can take us down the wrong path: Psalm 139 says, “O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me….  Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?    I hate them with a perfect hatred, I count them my enemies.” (139:19,21-22)  That may be Scripture, but it’s probably not great material for the next Youth Group t-shirt.  So, Jesus teaches, you’ve heard that this was said.  But I say to you, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). 
Pesky Savior.  That’s not what we wanted to hear.  Righteous indignation is so much more satisfying.
But wait – this teaching gets even harder when you dig into Jesus words.  First of all, love in this sense isn’t some warm and fuzzy feeling; love is action.  It’s about how we treat one another, regardless of how we feel.  And that’s not all.  Here’s our lesson in Greek for the day.  There are three different Greek words in the New Testament translated in English as “love.”  One of them is stergo.  It means to have a benevolent interest in someone, to wish someone well.  That’s not the word for love Jesus uses here.  The second is phileo, which means to like someone a lot, to consider someone a friend, a brother, a sister.  That’s not the word for love that Jesus uses here.  The third is agapao, whose noun form is agapĂ©.  This is God’s love for us, the love Jesus shows in giving himself for us, the love of foot-washing and healing and sacrifice.  And yes, this is the word for love that Jesus uses here. 
It hardly seems fair.  I mean, on our own, maybe we could get to the point of treating our enemies with benevolent interest – and honestly, in our national discourse, that would be a huge improvement.  But agapĂ©?  How do we do that? 
Well, we do it the hard way because that’s the only way.  We do it by being present with our enemy, relating to our enemy, knowing our enemy – not through someone else’s talking points but over a beer.  And then, we’re supposed to go even one step further, Jesus says.  Once we know our enemy, we pray for him.  And mean it.   
Now, I doubt that many of us here would consider someone else in this church an enemy.  But I’ll tell you: If you take it seriously, church life is pretty darned good training for the self-giving love Jesus is talking about here – especially when we do it intentionally.  Last Sunday, we began a discussion of Scripture, interpretation, and immigration, and there were a couple of moments when things got a little heated.  One person said one thing, and another person heard something slightly different, and some anger rose.  For those of us who don’t love conflict, those moments can make us stop short.  But we can’t let them make us stop talking.  So, we picked up the conversation again this Sunday.  People there certainly disagreed with each other, but I believe in our ability, led by the Holy Spirit, to disagree without dividing.  In fact, I believe in our ability, led by the Holy Spirit, to disagree and begin healing.  And that’s the work of reconciliation.  That’s the work of the better angels of our nature.
And I think we’re called to move that work forward.  So, this conversation about Scripture, interpretation, and immigration won’t be our last gathering like this.  I think we need something regularly, maybe monthly, where we can practice reconciliation by loving one another even as we disagree.  It’s a chance for us to build our muscles as reconcilers, and it’s a chance to offer a haven of sanity and blessing in a divided culture.  It’s a chance to let our better angels rise. 
What’s most important about this call we’ve heard is that neither Lincoln nor Jesus was talking just to the “good” people or the “important” people.  They were both talking to us all.  Lincoln may not have been a Christian exactly, but he understood the mystery that sin dwells alongside the beauty of being made in God’s image.  Lincoln knew we all wallow in depths of darkness, and we soar to heights of light.  He was calling on the better angels within each of us, and within the character of our nation.  He was calling on the senator from Massachusetts and the congressman from South Carolina; the small farmer in New York and the slave-holder in Missouri; the ironworker in Pennsylvania and the blacksmith in Mississippi.
Today, the same truth holds.  It’s not just the leaders of our political parties who’ve got to figure out how to listen to each other, in order to lift our nation out of the muck and into functional governance.  It’s us.  We’ve got to turn off the cable news and choose not to react to the daily outrages of social media.  We’ve got to love each other enough to speak with each other, and listen to each other, and pray with each other, and pray for each other – and mean it.  As it is for individuals, so it is for nations:  When we love, we thrive.  When we disdain, we suffer.  When we reject, we wither.  “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” as both Jesus (Mark 3:25) and Lincoln8 said.
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  Living that way is how we’ll find what we seek, our “better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16).  It’s the holy choice to which the better angels of our nature still guide us.  So, as we head back out into our divided land, back out into our nation of indignation, ask yourself:  How can I change the conventional wisdom?  Whose voice do I need to hear?  For whom do I need to pray?  What enemy is Jesus calling me to love? 

1.       United States Senate.  “The Caning of Charles Sumner.”  Available at:  Accessed June 29, 2018.
2.       United States Senate, “Caning.”
3.       Lincoln, Abraham.  “First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861, Washington, D.C..”  Available at:  Accessed June 29, 2018.
4.       Kaplan, Fred.  Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  325.
5.       Lincoln, “First Inaugural.”
6.       Gomez, Luis.  Zero tolerance? Maxine Waters says Trump cabinet ‘not welcome anymore, anywhere,’ sparking backlash.”  San Diego Union Tribune, June 25, 2018.  Available at:  Accessed June 29, 2018.
7.       Shannon, Joel.  “Texas billboard that tells ‘liberals’ to keep driving will come down.”  USA Today, June 20, 2018.  Available at:  Accessed June 29, 2018.
8.       Lincoln, Abraham.  “House Divided Speech, Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858.”  Available at:  Accessed June 29, 2018.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Jesus to the Church: Show the World How It's Done

Sermon from June 24, 2018
Mark 4:35-41

I want to speak with you this morning about a topic that, in one sense, I know nothing about but that, in another sense, I live out a lot more than I’d like.  I want to speak with you about being in peril amidst the chaos of the raging sea.  I believe we find ourselves in a moment very much like the Gospel reading we heard this morning – that story of Jesus, and the disciples, and the storm on the Sea of Galilee that almost swamps their small boat.
Now, as I said, I have no experience navigating storms at sea.  I don’t even have any experience navigating storms on a lake or a river.  But I want to tell you about an experience from our vacation to New York that’s had me thinking about tempest-tossed seas a little more than usual.
One of the places Ann and I visited was Ellis Island, which is now a national monument
The Great Hall, Ellis Island
devoted to the history of the immigrant experience in the United States.  I walked up the stairs into that stunning great hall, which looks more like a church than a government building; and I could imagine it teeming with people seeking new life in this country – that huge, echoing space, with thousands of voices speaking scores of languages.  For the government officials trying to make sense of all those stories, it must have felt like complete chaos.  And yet, that chaos was nothing compared with the crossing each of those 12 million immigrants had experienced – most of them selling their possessions and coming in steerage, sharing cramped space and all kinds of diseases, to journey to a land where they saw hope and opportunity.  That’s chaos on the storm-tossed seas I can’t even fathom.  (And if that’s true, by the way, just try to imagine the chaos endured by people enslaved and brought across that same ocean, enduring the monstrous injustices of kidnapping, torture, and death.)
But what really struck me at Ellis Island was part of the facility most visitors don’t see.  We had arranged for a special tour of the hospital wards where sick immigrants were housed and treated before being admitted to this country or sent back home.  The hospital wards look very rough today because they haven’t been preserved.  But in the day, the hospital on Ellis Island provided arguably the world’s standard of care, particularly for infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis.  The immigrant hospital pioneered innovations like housing contagious patients separately, sterilizing instruments and bedding, designing wards to allow in light and fresh air, and studying disease both clinically, like a medical school, and epidemiologically, like a public health service. 
The Ellis Island hospital had a tremendous cure rate and remarkably low mortality.  And all this care was offered for people who weren’t even American citizens.  It was for people who had endured the stormy chaos of the Atlantic passage and were living in the frightening limbo of being citizens of nowhere.  Our government cared for these strangers with the best technology available, treating them as full human beings, full children of God.  Now, you can make a good argument that doing so was in the nation’s pragmatic interest, to bring in healthy people for jobs we didn’t have enough workers to fill.  True enough – and in the process, the individuals themselves were also blessed, and made well, and given new lives.  For them, the storm was stilled.  And because of the care they received, they became the ancestors of millions of us today, perhaps some of us sitting in this very room.
Today, in our historical moment, the metaphorical storm-tossed seas continue to rage and foam.  Immigration is among the issues dominating our news and dividing our loyalties.  How do we do what every nation has to do, establishing safe and secure borders?  We’ve had to figure that out across our history, whether the focus was on Ellis Island or, now, on the southern border.  Part of the challenge is that immigration is not just an issue of public policy but also as an issue of ethics because there are real, live people involved – which is also something we’ve struggled to figure out across our history.  How are we called to treat the stranger at our border and the stranger in our midst?  And for us as Christians, we are required to ask the question this way:  How would Jesus have us treat the stranger at our border and the stranger in our midst? 
Recently, the attorney general moved into that question of Christian ethics, too, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans to back up administration policy.  This morning, between the services, we had a discussion about Scripture, interpretation, and the treatment of immigrants.  It was great, and you’re invited to come as we continue it next week, same time and same place.  We’re doing this because we can do this here.  We can have great discussions in this congregation.  We are a family of folks with wide-ranging points of view who can trust each other enough to share them, and learn from each other, and still come together around this table to be empowered as Christ’s body in the world.  This is a big-tent moment in our national life, and I believe Jesus is asking this parish family to lean into it – to be a contrast presence to the divisiveness of the culture around us.
Of course, immigration isn’t the only stormy sea that the Church and our nation have been navigating.  Other waves also beat against our boat, and, again, I want to be direct with you about one of them.  We’ve been interviewing candidates to be our new assistant rector, someone to take on Mother Anne’s formerly full-time duties in pastoral care, parish life, and worship management.  This search follows three other searches that have brought us three stellar people to serve as our minister for younger adults and families, our community coordinator, and our engagement coordinator.  And each of those new hires is doing a fabulous job, even in their first two or three months with us.  We had a gathering for younger adults last Friday, and even in the summer, with folks out of town, we had 25 people there.  HJ’s is seeing use every day by parishioners, community groups, local businesses, nonprofits, and people just wanting a cup of coffee – and paid bookings are over $7,000 already.  Newcomers are receiving not just an immediate welcome but solid follow-up; our greeter ministry is growing stronger; and parishioners are being contacted to get involved in new ways. 
Of the people we’ve called to serve in those three positions, two of them have spouses of the same gender.  The search committees didn’t recommend hiring any of our new staff members because of their sexual identities, and I didn’t hire any of them because of their sexual identities.  We called the three best people we could find for the work Jesus is asking us to do here.  And I believe we are richly blessed to be part of a Church that embraces the ministries of all people and allows us to consider any qualified candidate for a job. 
Now, at this point, we’re close to calling a priest to take on leadership of our ministries of pastoral care, parish life, and worship management.  And, as it happens, one of the two finalists for that job also has a spouse of the same gender.  If the Holy Spirit leads us to call that candidate, it will be another example of our seeking the very best person we can find for the work God gives us to do here.  I hope to have something to share about that search in the coming week.
Now, a lot of the people in our national boat have felt frightened by the storms we face.  There are immigrants who fear the prospect of detention and deportation – and there are Americans who fear what they see in other countries whose immigration systems have weakened their economies and changed their societies.  There are LGBT Christians who’ve felt marginalized and silenced for decades – and there are other Christians who tell me they don’t recognize the Church that, not so long ago, taught them homosexuality was a sin and who don’t want to feel left behind by a family they love.  This is a time of change and uncertainty on so many levels in our world and our Church, and rapid change is maybe the most frightening storm of all.
I will be honest with you.  As the captain of this ship of souls, I am afraid sometimes.  I find myself right there with the disciples in today’s reading, fearing that the wind and the waves will tip us over.  When the tension torques up – when harsh language or divisive actions hit the news – I struggle with what I can say, and what I should say, and what effect saying something will have on this church family, and yet how Jesus commands us to put loving God and loving neighbor ahead of anything the world tells us.  I sometimes worry about just how great a storm our nation and our Church can navigate without the boat becoming completely swamped.   
So, help me out here, Jesus.  Like all of us in this room, I’m trying to do the right thing.  Wake up, and give us a hand!  Do you not care that we’re taking on water?  Do you not care that we’re afraid?
And Jesus looks at me and says, “Really?  You fear that I don’t care, and you fear I’m not engaged?  Look,” Jesus says, “I’m right here in this ship of souls with you.  Now, I could silence all your worried arguments with a single word – and I will; that’s what the second coming’s all about.  I’ve already defeated sin and death, and given you eternal life,” he says, “and I’ve called you to represent me in the world.  You know who you are – the family of God; gathered under this big, beautiful tent; called to grow into the fullness of who I’ve created you to become.  Work it out, and show the world how it’s done.  Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”
In the hymn we’ll sing at the end of today’s worship,1 we’ll pray for all those in peril on the sea.  We’ll remember our eternal Father, whose arm hath bound the restless wave.  We’ll remember Christ, whose voice the waters heard and hushed their raging at his word.  We’ll remember the Spirit, who didst brood upon the chaos dark and rude, and bid its angry tumult cease, and give, for wild confusion, peace.  And I pray – in the midst of the chaos of Church and state, when it feels like our boat is being swamped – I pray that we’ll remember who we are and whose we are:  that we have Jesus with us in the boat, that we can love each other through our differences and teach the world to do the same, and that we need never be afraid.

1.       Whiting, William.  “Eternal Father, strong to save.” In The Hymnal 1982.  New York: Church Pension Fund, 1985.  Hymn number 608.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Greatest of All Shrubs

Sermon for June 17, 2018 (Father's Day)
Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17; Mark 4:26-34

I want to begin this morning by telling you what I’m not going to preach about, and why.  If you’ve followed the national news this weekend, you know we’ve come to a peculiar moment in which the interpretation of scripture has become newsworthy. It’s not every day the attorney general appeals to the Bible to defend public policy.1 Now, it’s tempting for me to toss out the sermon I’d prepared for today and preach about using scripture to defend one’s position on immigration.  I’m not going to do that, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to address the question, because we are. 
For me to stand up here and tell you what I think would make some of you happy and infuriate others of you.  I’d get some supportive emails, and I’d have several angry coffees.  But the fact that a sermon is basically one-way communication means that we wouldn’t really have much conversation about scripture and public policy – and, worse, a number of you would just go away quietly upset, the disagreement distancing your relationship with the church. 
So, instead, I’d like to invite you to a conversation next Sunday, between the services.  We’ll use the presenting situation as a case study, looking at the scripture that the attorney general cited, as well as passages others would cite in disagreement.  I’ll have some things to say about those passages and about how to interpret scripture responsibly.  And then, God willing, you’ll share your minds and your hearts.  If we need to, we’ll extend the conversation to the following Sunday, as well.  I believe this congregation – and the Episcopal Church, at its best – can be a big tent, a contrast community to the divisiveness of our nation and the predictable outrage of social media.  If you agree, I hope you’ll come for the conversation.
So, instead of politics for now … Happy Father’s Day.  And thank you for honoring your heavenly parent as part of your Father’s Day celebration.  For me, leading up to Father’s Day, I’ve had baseball on my mind.  As many of you know, my father and I take a short trip to St. Louis each year to see a couple of Cardinals’ games.  You’ll have to forgive me for the destination; I grew up in Springfield, watching both the Royals and the Cardinals, never having to worry about issues of loyalty, at least not until 1985….  We still have a couple of months before my father and I head off for this year’s trip, with my son, Dan, but we’re looking forward to it already.
I’ve also had baseball on my mind because I was blessed to make a pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York, when Ann and I were out there to visit our daughter, Kathryn.  I’ve always wanted to go to the Hall of Fame and see the holy relics of a game that, for me, captures our lives – and, if you’ll allow it, maybe even our path to God.  Baseball calls us into the green pastures of ball field to find our lives and our hearts in all their complexity, our virtues and our brokenness.  It’s a game we can easily see ourselves playing; even old short guys with spare tires can imagine ourselves blooping a single at Kauffman Stadium.  Because all could play, we know all should be welcomed to play, though our sinful tendencies made us slow to bring people of all colors and backgrounds onto the field.  And the game itself is a showcase of humankind’s potential for glory and brokenness, side by side: walk-off home runs and missed calls at first base in the World Series; chivalrous commitments to excellence and records tainted with steroids; the perfectly executed double play and the grounders that roll between our legs – and, despite all the ways we fall short, there’s always the hope of “next year.”2
Anyway, the visit to the Hall of Fame was one of the highlights of our vacation for me.  The only way to improve the visit would have been if my father had been there, too – to see the shrines of the players we watched together, people like Bob Gibson and George Brett, players whose passion and drive made them saints in the church of baseball.
My father would never say this, but he’s an all-star in his own right, in the world of collegiate debate.  As an undergraduate, he and his partner won the national debate tournament, not once but twice.  When he served as debate coach at what’s now Missouri State, he led teams to national titles often enough that they named the program after him.  But for my father, what mattered most – and what my sisters and I would hear about when former students told stories years later – was his consistent excellence as a teacher and mentor, as well as his investment in the lives and the well-being of his debaters.  For my father, his career wasn’t about making it to the hall of fame.  It was about helping his students figure out who they were and helping them make the most of what God had given them.  Not surprisingly, the same was true, to an even greater degree, for my sisters and me, as we grew up and for years thereafter.  Our father has been all about sowing seeds and nurturing their growth, year after year after year.
At its core, baseball is also about being the best you can be precisely where you find yourself, rather than achieving success in the world’s eyes.  A great example of that is the movie Bull Durham, about a minor-league catcher named Crash Davis.  He’s a very good ballplayer, excellent by minor-league standards.  In fact, through the movie, Crash Davis is flirting with the all-time home-run record for a minor-league player.  Now, that sounds great, at first – but being the best in the minor leagues isn’t exactly how a player wants to be remembered.  He wants to go to “the show” and play in the cathedrals of the majors.  But instead, Crash Davis ends his playing days mentoring a young, out-of-control pitching sensation, a kid who desperately needs to find both a father figure and the strike zone.  And in the end, Crash Davis sends the young man on to the majors, while Crash makes his exit as the minor-league home-run champ.  But the point is that redemption comes, too, as Crash finds love and purpose along the way.
You may be wondering what any of this has to do with our readings today.  But think about the parable Jesus tells about the mustard seed.  Now, we find this parable in Matthew and Luke, as well as the version we heard from Mark’s Gospel this morning.  But Mark’s version is the most interesting to me because it’s the most honest.  Jesus says the reign and rule of God is like a mustard seed:  It may be tiny and seemingly insignificant; but once it’s planted, “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs” (Mark 4:32).  In Mark’s story, the mustard seed doesn’t grow into an impressive tree, as both Matthew and Luke say (Luke 13:18-19; Matthew 13:31-32).  Instead, that mustard seed grows into “the greatest of all shrubs.”  It’s like being the minor-league home-run champ – the king of the second tier.
But here’s where my father, and Crash Davis, and Jesus all come together.  A good father, or a good role model, doesn’t insist that those who follow him take precisely the same path he took.  (And thank God for that, because I’ll tell you, there was no way I was ever going to compete in debate.  I wouldn’t even take public speaking in college.)  Nor does a good father, or a good role model, insist that those who follow him must accomplish great worldly success in order to live a holy, purposeful, valuable life.  A good father inspires his children to become the greatest of all shrubs – to bloom where they’re planted, as the saying goes; to live into the fullness of whom God has created those children to be. 
I believe our heavenly Father takes the same pattern to the ultimate degree.  The kingdom of God isn’t about a powerful earthly nation, even though the ancient prophets saw it that way.  As we heard in the reading from Ezekiel, the prophets were waiting for Israel to become the greatest of all kingdoms in the ancient Near East, the earthly manifestation of God’s power and glory, with God’s own Son coming to rule as king.  But Jesus reveals God’s reign and rule coming in a different way:  It begins like one of the smallest of all the earth’s seeds, insignificant in appearance but stunning in potential.  And God’s kingdom requires someone or something to sow it, to take that stunning potential and place it in the good soil that God has provided and prepared.  Then, once it’s sown, that tiny, insignificant seed grows up and becomes “the greatest of all shrubs” – the minor-league home-run champ; the coach who wins but whose passion isn’t winning. 
That’s hope and success on God’s terms:  Learning to love the people around you and the life God has given you, learning to live into the fullness of whom you’ve been created to be, because that’s what brings God’s kingdom to life in the here and now – your life.  And I’ll tell you: When God gives us glimpses of what’s coming next, the heavenly kingdom in all its fullness, our later chapters of eternal life – those glimpses of heaven don’t come when we look at our trophies or our bank accounts or our cars or our houses – or even our plaques in the Hall of Fame.  We get glimpses of God’s kingdom when we live as new creations in Christ: making the most of whom God has made us to be, loving the world with the love that’s first transformed us, our lives offering branches of nurture and sustenance for the birds of the air around us.
So, it may not sound like much of a compliment, but – you are a mustard seed.  You bear greatness on God’s own scale.  So don’t miss your opportunity to be the greatest of all shrubs.

1.       Jacobs, Julia. “Sessions’s Use of Bible Passage to Defend Immigration Policy Draws Fire.” New York Times, June 15, 2018.  Available at: Accessed June 16, 2018,
2.       See Sexton, John, with Thomas Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz. Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Jesus Movement Crashes the Royal Wedding

Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-11
May 20, 2018

There aren’t many times when literally millions of people get up stupidly early in the morning to watch a church service.  But yesterday was one of them – the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Americans love the British royals.  It’s part fairy tale, part soap opera, and part the special relationship between Britain and the U.S.  But for us, as Episcopalians, there’s an even deeper connection, of course.  We’re the American expression of the Church of England, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – so, in a real sense, it’s our church service that millions of people got up stupidly early to watch.
But in this royal wedding, the connection didn’t stop there.  Not only did we witness a marriage very much like one that happened at this altar a few hours later.  We also heard our Episcopal presiding bishop preach to the royal couple – and to the world.  Michael Curry was a surprise choice as the preacher.  I don’t think an American has ever been invited to preach at a royal worship event.  But if you’ve heard Michael Curry preach, you know why he was chosen: He pretty much puts every other Anglican preacher to shame.
Perhaps coincidentally – or perhaps not – all this happened on the eve of Pentecost.  This is when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers, letting them speak in different languages and empowering them to be apostles, which means those sent to bring Jesus’ good news to people who don’t know it.  If you’ve been a Christian a while, you may have heard Pentecost described as the birthday of the Church, and that’s true.  Because Jesus’ followers received the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, they were able to turn a story about a resurrected Jewish leader into a global movement.
So, listening to Michael Curry preach at the royal wedding, one might have forgiven him for taking a moment to mention his Episcopal Church, on the eve of the birthday of the whole Church.  How many opportunities does he get to talk directly to millions of Americans who have never even heard of us?  It was a public-relations dream come true.
But, if you’ve heard our presiding bishop preach – say, when he was here in Kansas City last year – you know he has a very specific way of talking about this denomination of ours.  Michael Curry almost never talks about “The Episcopal Church,” the institution he leads.  Michael Curry talks about a movement – the Jesus Movement.  And he calls this entity he leads “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.” 
So, there he was, at the center of the institutional Anglican Church.  He was in the royal chapel at Windsor Castle, for God’s sake – at the wedding of a prince, sharing the liturgical duties with the archbishop of Canterbury, representing the American expression of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  His role as presiding bishop doesn’t get much more institutional than that.
But because words matter, Michael Curry never even mentioned The Episcopal Church in this homily that reached millions of Americans.  Instead, he talked about the Jesus Movement.  He said, “Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history.  A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world, and a movement mandating people to live that love.  And in so doing, to change not only their lives but the life of the world itself.”1  That’s the Jesus Movement.
So, what difference does that make for us, here at St. Andrew’s?  And what difference does it make for you? 
First, let me ask: How many of you are inspired by the idea of being part of an institution?  That’s what I thought.  Oh, boy – bureaucracies, and entrenched cultures, and personal fiefdoms – and paperwork!  Sign me up. 
I think Jesus feels the same way.  That’s why he never said anything about creating an institutional church.  In the Gospels, Jesus mentions the word we translate as “church” a grand total of three times, so it’s not exactly a priority.  And even more important, the word he uses actually doesn’t mean what we hear in the English word “church.”  In Greek, the word is ecclesia, which means an assembly, a gathered community.  Here at St. Andrew’s, we often refer to the same thing as a “family.”  The church Jesus has in mind, and the kind of churches the apostles went out and gathered – they were not institutions with Vestries and committees and budgets … or buildings.  They were communities, households of the family of God.  They were nimble and responsive to the problems and needs and passions and dreams of the places where they rose up.  They were outposts of the Jesus Movement in their times and places.  They spoke and lived the good news of life and liberation and love for the people around them.  Now that’s something I’d like to be part of.
How about you?  What difference does any of this make for you?  Well, as we celebrate Pentecost, I would say what happened to those followers of Jesus in the upper room 2,000 years ago matters deeply for you – including the seven new members of the family we’re about to baptize today.  The power of the Holy Spirit that God poured out on the disciples then is the same power of the Holy Spirit that God pours out on you. 
At every baptism, we ask God to bless and inspire those who are coming into the family – and we trust that God hears us and gives us what we ask in Christ’s name:  delivering us from the way of sin and death, filling us with God’s holy and life-giving Spirit, loving others in the power of that Spirit, sending us into the world in witness to God’s love, and bringing us into the fullness of God’s peace and glory (Book of Common Prayer 305-306).  That’s our birthright as God’s children.  When we come through the waters of baptism, dying to sin and rising again in the power of resurrection, the Holy Spirit fills us with everything we’ll need to be part of this Jesus Movement – and change the world. 
Just as all politics is local, so is all transformation.  We’ve received the gifts of the Holy Spirit to bring the kingdom to life in this time and place that God has given us.  You hold that power.  You have everything you need to heal and bless and renew your corner of God’s kingdom.  For you’ve been baptized into the death and life of Jesus Christ.  You’ve joined the family of God.  And you’ve been sent out as a witness of these things.
As the presiding bishop said at the royal wedding yesterday, so he says to you:  “Love is the way” – unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love.  And it’s not just God’s way but our way of life.  “When love is the way,” Michael Curry said, “people treat each other as if they actually were family.”  And when we re-discover that fire of love – as the apostles did on the first Pentecost – when we re-discover the fire of love, Michael Curry said, “we will make of this old world a new world.”1  Sign me up.  Now.
Though the service at Windsor Castle yesterday was beautiful, and though the service here today is beautiful, too, the service of God’s people actually begins the moment we walk out those red doors.  Today is not the birthday of an institution but the spark of a movement.  We know what that movement was – a network of communities that spread from Palestine to the ends of the earth.  But even more important is what that movement is:  A movement of the Spirit in your own heart.  A movement spreading the balm of Gilead to make this old world a new world.  A movement empowering you to be the mouth and hands and feet and heart of Jesus to bless God’s people – today.

1. Associated Press.  “Love and fire: Text of Michael Curry’s royal wedding address.” Available at:  Accessed May 19, 2018.

Parenthood: Life Lived Outward

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension (transferred) and Mother's Day
Acts 1:1-12; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53
May 13, 2018

I think it’s a bit awkward preaching Mother’s Day sermons because, very quickly, high praise for mothers can slip into implicit and unintended contrasts with fathers.  I have to tell you – and this is something of an article of faith for me – I believe both men and women are capable of equal depths of love, and I don’t believe it’s true that a mother is necessarily a better parent than a father.  But that being said, we do often find truth in popular expressions; and when you’re looking for a way to describe someone who loves with fierce loyalty and protection, what do you call that person?  Is it “papa bear”?  Nope, it’s “mama bear.”  So, I’ll have to grant you that, generally speaking, moms deserve that reputation of being the unswerving, undying champions of their children.  And if you want to test that hypothesis, just insult a kid in her mother’s presence … but wait until I’m out of the room.
Being a parent, and especially being a mother – how does that change you?  I remember a moment of parental transition for Ann and me, one of those times from which you can never quite go back.  Ann was in relatively early labor with Kathryn.  And coming from the next delivery suite, we heard screaming – not the mom but the newborn baby.  The fact that we could hear that tiny person’s voice so clearly through the wall made me wonder just how loud it must have been inside their room.  I looked at Ann and said something intended to be romantic and reassuring about how we’d have one of those little voices with us before too long.  But the look on her face made me think she was imagining the sleepless nights to come.  Like many of you, we soon found out out just how much our lives would change with a baby and just how much the experience of parenting would change us.  For parents, everyone’s path is different as we stumble blindly into the unknown, but this much every parent learns: The practice of love is the practice of sacrifice.  And if you take parenthood seriously, that sacrifice changes you.  You don’t just make sacrifices for your children.  Your life becomes sacrifice.  Parenthood changes your direction.  Parenthood makes you live outward.
So today, as we celebrate the love of those who’ve been mothers to us, the liturgical calendar deals the preacher a wild card among the flush of hearts.  Today, we’re also celebrating the feast of the Ascension, which was last Thursday, 40 days after Easter.  Ascension reminds us of what we would politely call a mystery but what people in other faith traditions would call a scandal: We claim that the God who became human in Jesus of Nazareth also returned, as the human Jesus, back into the divine relationship of the Trinity.  Having returned into the fullness of heavenly glory, God the Son now rules all creation, what we call heaven and what we call earth, awaiting the day when Jesus returns at last, and heaven and earth are reunited into God’s new creation.  Like I said, this claim is pretty scandalous, compared with other religions: We don’t say that a spiritual God inhabited a human body and left it behind.  We say that the God we call Trinity, who exists as relationship, came to dwell as a human and took that humanity back into divinity. 
And though it may sound radical – even crazy – to say it, I believe that action changed God, in the same way learning changes us.  God chose to embrace the love of sacrifice – taking on a lesser form, living as an inferior being, experiencing our brokenness, and dying our death, all in order to heal that brokenness, and overcome sin and death, and bring the experience of being human into God’s own life.  That crazy choice to shed divine perfection helped God know even better the creatures God created and redeemed and still sustains. 
And in the meantime, as we await Jesus’ return, God’s love for us humans only grows.  Why?  Because the Trinity itself now knows what it’s really like to be a person.  It’s like being a parent, in a sense.  If you’re a parent, it’s one thing to be aware that you love your child as you watch him playing at a distance, across the room.  It’s something else to get down on the floor and wrestle with him.  And it’s something even more to hold him close when he cries.  And it’s something even more to give up things that you want, to give parts of your life away, so you can give your child loving presence he wouldn’t have had otherwise.  That’s life that becomes a sacrifice.  That’s parenthood – life lived outward.
There’s a theological catch phrase that might help make sense of this.  Centuries ago, Gregory of Nazianzus was writing about the Incarnation, the doctrine that Christ brought the fullness of humanity and divinity into one.  Gregory wrote, “What is not assumed is not healed.”  What that means is that any part of human experience Jesus didn’t take on, by definition, wasn’t redeemed – so he must have taken it all on in order to heal us completely.  Well, by the same token, I think it’s true that what is assumed – what is taken on – also changes the one who enters into someone else’s experience.  Sacrifice molds the heart and grows its capacity for love – even God’s heart.
Mothering is like that, I think.  We enter into the experience of another who has literally nothing to offer in return.  There is no payoff for the exhausted mom who gets up to nurse a screaming baby in the middle of the night.  We can romanticize it all we want, but at 3 a.m., it just stinks.  It’s just sacrifice.  So is cleaning up the bed after another bout of stomach flu.  So is holding the little boy who’s crying because the kids at school pick on him.  So is holding the daughter who’s crying because her boyfriend treats her like dirt.  So is lying in bed and crying to yourself because you fear the grown kid’s depression will get the better of him.  It’s all sacrifice – and that is love, in the flesh.
That sacrifice changes us forever, growing the capacity of our hearts.  If you’ve mothered someone, you probably get that.  But what we may forget, and what the Ascension might help us remember, is that God experienced something similar – and that God’s love is even deeper, even fuller, even more all-encompassing because of that human experience.  Oddly enough, this combination of Ascension and Mother’s Day is not just a time to remember that Jesus rules in heavenly glory, nor just a time to remember your mother’s love.  It’s a time to remember something fundamental about yourself – your first and foremost identity, regardless of whatever you may have become.  And here it is: You are God’s beloved child. 
Now, you may have heard people say that so often that it’s lost its meaning.  Or maybe you hear it only as a metaphor, a poetic turn of phrase.  But I want to push on this just a little bit.  I want you to try on the idea that this isn’t just a nice sentiment but an objective reality – in fact, that it’s the fundamental reality of your life, the starting point for everything else that matters.  You are God’s beloved child.  You matter as much to the creator of the universe as a baby matters to the mother who brought it into the world.  And that’s true not despite the sacrifice God made for us, becoming human and dying on the Cross, but because of it – because the creator of the world experienced the brokenness of life as we live it, letting that direct experience of humanity grow God’s heart. 
There may be times when you fear that no one understands you.  There may be times when you fear that you have no one to help carry your burdens.  There may be times when you fear that, at the end of the day, you’re on your own.  I think that’s our deepest fear.  And you know what?  That’s precisely why God came to experience life as we know it: So that what we have been through, God has been through.  Every time you hurt, every time you grieve, the sovereign Lord who shared your life also hurts and grieves.  Just as a mother feels her child’s pain, so does God.  Just as a mother’s heart grows watching her child’s suffering steps, so does God’s.  So, the promise of the Ascension is this: Like the best mother you could ever imagine, God will never forget you.  And you need never walk alone.