Who are you?

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There is a natural tendency to place oneself inside a story.  This is perhaps especially true in the parables that Jesus tells.  I suspect it is because they are both generic and hyperbolic, it is easy to read oneself into the story, to stay there for a while, and to feel what is happening.  Of course, who we think ourselves to be in the story will have a large impact on how we interpret it.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the meaning of the story can change drastically if you think of yourself as the injured traveler or the Levite, rather than everybody’s favorite Samaritan.

As we read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this week, I can’t help but think that the gut reaction of most listeners will be to place themselves in the role of Lazarus.  Very few people actually consider themselves to be rich.  It is very easy to push that title at least one tax bracket above our own, and given the erosion of the Middle Class and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots in the last 40 years, it isn’t too difficult to place oneself as a beggar, lying outside the gates of those who wear purple, and step over you in order to feast sumptuously everyday.

Very few of us will place ourselves in the position of the rich man, and to be Abraham would be awfully presumptuous, but this morning, as I read my usual preaching resources, I realized that I’ve always missed a character in this story.  Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points out in her commentary that maybe our place in this story is the brothers and sisters of the rich man.  We have Moses and the Prophets.  We even have one who proclaimed a ministry of compassion and rose from the dead.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?  Or, are we too busy making excuses for our lack of compassion; pretending  instead to be the sore-covered beggar by the gate?

Who are you in this story?  The answer seems to be of eternal consequence.

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You reap what you sow

It has been a little over month since JCC passed on to larger life.  Throughout the course of his illness and in the 30+ days since his death, his partner and friend VG has commented on many occasions how amazed, even surprised, she is at the care and compassion she’s received from her church family.  I’ll admit that I’m pretty proud at how Saint Paul’s has stepped up to support VG and her family over the past few months, but I’m keenly aware that her case is a special one.  I’d like to think we’d rise up in the same way for everyone, but the reality is that people have been willing to go above and beyond because J and V have spent the last two decades sowing joy and gladness everywhere they went.

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It isn’t just that our church has stepped up, but every community they’ve been a part of from social clubs to doctors offices have reached out in loving support for VG during these difficult days.  J and V sow the Spirit.  They bring with them smiles, laughter, compassion, and the occasional hard truth.  When I was down and out with the flu, it was V and J who dropped chicken soup at my front door.  When I missed V’s 80th birthday party, she wasn’t afraid to let me know of her disappointment.  I had missed an opportunity for community.  When volunteers were needed at Foley Elementary, J went, even as his eyesight failed him more and more each day.

As Paul told the Christians in Galatia, those who sow in the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Even as she mourns, V is experiencing eternal life through the Spirit here on earth.  Paul doesn’t leave us on our own to figure out what sowing the Spirit looks like.  It isn’t dependent upon personality.  You need not be an extrovert to make it happen.  Instead, it is quite simply doing the right thing.

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”

Knowing God is Eternal Life – a sermon

Audio is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

As a child of the 1980s, one of my favorite cartoons of all time is still the short lived G.I. Joe series.  Running for only ninety-five episodes over two years from 1985 to 1986[1], I still have vivid memories of the battles between the good guys of G.I. Joe and the bad guys of Cobra, “a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”  I’d sit on the carpet in front of the television with my action figures of Flint, Shipwreck, Duke, Sargent Slaughter and their nemesis, Cobra Commander, and live out the episode using blocks and whatever G.I. Joe vehicle I had at my disposal.  What I remember most about those old episodes however, aren’t the battle sequences or the cool toys, but the tag line from the National Child Safety Council’s Public Service Announcements that ended many episodes, “Now I know!  And knowing is half the battle.”

There was some good, lifesaving information in those PSAs, things that every kid should know.  It was through G.I. Joe that I learned that if there was a fire in my house, I should check if the door knob was hot before leaving my bedroom, or to never get in an old refrigerator, or to pinch my nose and lean forward when I get a bloody nose or that girls could skateboard just as well as boys.[2]  As I’ve gotten older and presumably a little wiser, however, I’ve come to realize that knowing is a lot more than half the battle.  In fact, this week we come to learn that knowledge is eternal life.

For the third straight week, we find ourselves listening in on Jesus’ final conversation with is disciples.  We are still in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion, but now Jesus has finished his concluding instructions and has begun his high priestly prayer.  Like so many prayers that happen in a public forum, this one is part earnest conversation with the Father in heaven and part sermon for the people who are listening in.  Jesus understands that his death is going to make it hard for his disciples to believe in his claim of eternal life, and so he is very intentional about making it very clear just what eternal life is.  “And this is eternal life,” he says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

This is, for several reasons, a striking definition of eternal life.  First of all, it comes from the lips of the only human being who really knows what eternal life is like.  For every book and movie ticket sold about “90 Minutes in Heaven” or telling us “Heaven is for Real,” is only Jesus who came to earth having experienced the fullness of eternal life.  Secondly, this version of eternal life has nary a mention of Saint Peter guarding the pearly gates or streets paved with gold, or rivers flowing with milk and honey, or angel choirs singing their unending hymn of “holy, holy, holy.”  Here in ascension week, when we hear the story of Jesus ascending on a cloud from the first century flat earth to the heavens above, it seems very strange to think that for Jesus eternal life has nothing to do with a place, but rather it is about a relationship.

Despite our modern day fascination with heaven as a place to go after we die, the idea that knowing God is eternal life has been affirmed over and over again in the Christian tradition, be it in the prayer written in 1549 that we prayed just two weeks ago, “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life…”[3]

So, if eternal life really is knowing God, then the obvious follow up question is “how do I get to know God?”  It seems to me there are three distinct ways we can come to know the Lord: through study, through service, and through prayer.  The first way to get to know God is through study.  The Bible is the story of God’s interaction with his creation, and so, it stands to reason, that through reading and studying the scriptures, we’ll begin to discover the things that are close to God’s heart: things like justice, compassion, and love.  As we move deeper into study, it becomes important to not become isolated, but to check ourselves against the rich history of the tradition.  Studying what the great theologians have come to know over the centuries can seem daunting, but like that friend who introduced you to a future spouse, sometimes learning what someone else has to say about God can open your eyes to something you had never seen before.  Of course, studying comes with a major caveat.  There is a tendency in study, be it biblical or theological, to get to know an awful lot about God rather that actually getting to know God.  What I’m advocating this morning isn’t the gobbling up of information so that you can recite all sorts of facts about God and win The American Bible Challenge[4], but instead study is about learning everything we can about the things that are important to God.

As we come to learn the things that are in God’s heart, it seems obvious then that we would take part in those things.  The second way to get to know God, then, is through service.  Just last week, we heard Jesus tell his disciples that the Father would reveal himself to those who followed his commandment to love.  We come to know Jesus in a deeper and more meaningful way when we reach out to the world with the love of God.  Whether it is through Meals on Wheels or volunteering at Foley Elementary School or taking a mission trip to Honduras on the Dominican Republic, a deeper knowledge of God is most often found in acts of care and compassion.  This is affirmed in my favorite Collect from Morning Prayer.  The Collect for Mission from Morning Prayer, written by Missionary Bishop Charles Henry Brent who served the people of the Philippines from 1901 until 1918, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you…”[5]

Finally, the third way in which we come to know God is through prayer.  Not the sort of prayer that includes the laundry list of things we’d like God to do for us, but rather the type of prayer that feels more like a conversation with an old friend; prayer that includes a great deal of listening.  I’ll be honest and tell you that this is, for me, the hardest part of getting to know God.  I’m a doer.  My mind is always whirling around with items on my to-do list or sermon ideas or random television trivia, and it is really difficult for me to just stop and listen for that still small voice of God.  Over the years, I’ve tried all sorts of ways to chill-out and listen: centering prayer, prayer beads, meditation, and found very little success.  Instead, I’ve found God’s voice is most active when there is silence in the midst of corporate worship.  Those fifteen seconds after the sermon and before the creed that get glossed over at 9 o’clock, I’ve come to know more about God there.  The sometimes interminably long silence before the confession, I’ve come to understand what God desires of me there.  The quiet that follows the distribution of communion, God has revealed himself to me there.  It doesn’t work the same way for everyone, but I’m certain that God will find a way to help you come to know him better through prayer.

“This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “to know God and his Son whom he sent.”  Knowing is a whole lot more than half the battle, it is the whole enchilada, and it is a gift given to us by sheer grace.  Of course, like all relationships, this one takes some work, but I promise you, study, service, and prayer are nothing compared to the glory that is eternal life in God.  Amen.

 

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Joe#Cartoon

[2] http://www.gametrailers.com/videos/s7x099/all-gi-joe-psas

[3] Collect for Easter 5, note on date from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 182

[4] http://gsntv.com/shows/the-american-bible-challenge/

[5] Third Prayer for Mission, note on date and authorship from Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book pg. 128.

Knowing God is eternal life?!?

Two weeks ago, we heard this prayer as our Collect for the Week:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, we’ll hear Jesus say this in the midst of his High Priestly Prayer:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

And I’m thinking a lot this week about how different the 21st century American version of the Christian faith would be if we really believed that knowing God was eternal life.  It is almost impossible to fathom.  We’re so inculturated by the Enlightenment that knowledge has become either an object of worship or something to be scorned.  We’ve lost the sense of truly knowing someone: intimately, deeply, carefully.  That, and we’re obsessed with visions of the afterlife in books like “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is for Real” that we can’t think beyond how heaven will just be a like a much longer, cooler, life-like experience: like the best virtual reality has to offer.

But what if eternal life is nothing like that?  What if, as Bruce Milne and NT Wright have both said, eternal life isn’t about quantity of life but quality of life?  And what if that quality of life is simply the overwhelming love that comes from a deep knowledge of God?

Honestly, if I hadn’t just recently given some real thought to the Easter 5 Collect, I probably wouldn’t be so hung up on this, but here I am, at 4:30 on Thursday, when my sermon is supposed to be in the books, still pondering how to preach this paradigm shifting statement by Jesus.