Sermon for Clergy Renewal of Vows 2018

from-boquillas-mexico-looking-across-the-rio-grande-into-texas-where-the-wall-would-go--88099The Scriptures for Monday in Holy Week can be found here.

I’ve spent most of my life living in border states – first Texas, then Arizona. If you’ve ever spent time in a border state, and driven right down to the border, you know the borderlands are their own country: not really one thing or the other thing, not just the US or Mexico, but a glorious multi-cultural mix of both, a place where people switch easily back and forth between two languages, sometimes twice in the same sentence. The borderlands are a place where, yes, there’s a bright line between one place and the other, but it’s a porous line, where the cultures leak easily back and forth across the border.

My introduction to border country was years ago in Big Bend National Park in Texas, at a place called Boquillas. At Boquillas, I’m not sure you can still do this, but 20 years ago you could walk down a little dusty path to the Rio Grande River, ring a bell, wait a while, and a thin old man with a creased face and a bowed back would pole a little raft across the river, smile and hold out his hand and help you on board the raft, and you could pay him a couple of dollars to pole you across to the other side. There were no border guards, no walls, no signs, no passports, just a smiling man to pole you across. And when you get to the Mexican side, you see mountains that look the same as on the US side, the same dusty path leading up from the river, but the path is lined with children wanting to sell you a rock for a dollar. And in the tiny dusty town, there’s a cantina where you can get a bean burrito and a Dos Equis, and while away the afternoon while a giant fan blows hot air out of the corner, and a man tries to drown out the noise of the fan with a guitar.

And then you walk back down the dusty road to the river, and the same thin old man as before smiles and holds out his hand, and poles you across again, and you’re back in your home country, knowing that it’s a different place, yet not so different. People who live in the border country know that people move across it all the time, and yet if you look at the border in larger perspective, over centuries instead of years, you realize that it’s not just the people who move, it’s the border that moves, so that the same piece of land can be sometimes in one country and sometimes in another, which explains why the border country is a land of its own, with constantly shifting language, customs, and culture.

Bill Countryman, in his book Living on the Border of the Holy, says that’s the kind of land we live in as priests and deacons – we live in the border land between the physical, material world we are so accustomed to, and the greater spiritual reality that surrounds us at all times and in all places. He writes about this border country we live in: “It is a country in which, at privileged moments of access, we find ourselves looking over from the everyday world into another, into a world that undergirds the everyday world, limits it, defines it, gives it coherence and meaning, drives it. Yet this hidden world is not another world, but the familiar world discovered afresh. It is the everyday world seen at new depth, with new comprehension…. In the border country one discovers connection, roots, limits, meaning. To live there for a while is like having veils pulled away. In the long run we find that the border country is in fact the place we have always lived, but it is seen in a new and clearer light.”

In one sense, there’s a bright line between us and God, between life and death, between humanity and divinity. But in another sense, this borderland we clergy live in is a porous country, with the reality of one world constantly pouring through into the reality of the other. If we’re lucky, we sometimes get to take a day trip to the other side and see what it’s all about, and on our best days we priests and deacons can manage to catch a glimpse of the greater spiritual world, through our prayers and our Bible study, through the great privilege of standing at the altar of our Lord Jesus Christ, through our constant witness at the border of life and death with the people we pastor through baptism, marriage, illness, and burial, through our adoption as best we can of the ministry of loving our neighbors as Jesus has loved us. In all these things we are living on the borders of the holy. We enact the sacraments, we allow the sacred to pour through the ordinary things of this world, we interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.

I remember about a month after I was ordained a priest, I had been through the whole thing: COM and CPE and CDSP, and rounds of approvals and exams, and two ordinations, and I was finally a priest. And about a month later, I had a dream, in which I went back to medical school and became a doctor, and in my dream I was thrilled and happy because I was finally doing something useful with my life. Now, I have never wanted to be a doctor – but I think that dream pointed to a deep insecurity that we clergy sometimes have about our calling – that it’s not really much use to anyone. There’s a part of what we do as clergy that seems impractical, ridiculously romantic, absurdly non-useful for the pressing urgency of our human lives. And yet I think living on the borders of the holy could possibly be the most useful thing any of us could do for the sake of the people we serve. It is our great service to the world – to live in the border country and to constantly call people’s attention to the greater reality that lives on the other side.

If you look at Mary of Bethany in the gospel today, that is what she is doing. Here is Jesus, who Bill Countryman says is not only the true high priest, but “is the very border country in which our human priesthood is lived out; Jesus is the HOLY made flesh.” Jesus lived constantly in that border country, in fact he WAS the borderland, where human and divine are both fully present.

But Mary is the priest, the deacon, the border dweller, who sees the truth of what is happening and who takes priestly action to embody it with ritual. People say women weren’t ordained till 40 years ago; I call BS (as Emma Gonzalez would say), because if there is any clearer picture of a priest than Mary today, I don’t know what it might be. Most people would see an ordinary dinner with friends; Jesus though is busy planning his next day’s arrival into Jerusalem, his great demonstration on a donkey (a donkey!). And Mary understands what no one else sees: she sees the truth of what is coming, she somehow knows he is on his way to the cross, and she anoints Jesus for his death.

And haven’t so many of us been there? Haven’t many of us stood in the border country, seen the death of a beloved parishioner coming before the family understood that was the story being enacted? Haven’t many of us anointed our beloved friends for their burial, prayed over them for them to see and know the greater reality surrounding them, felt the presence of God with them, been the one to declare the moment of their crossing that border? I know I have. And it has been an incredible privilege to stand with people in the moments of their greatest reality – to give thanks for them at their birth, and to anoint them for their death, and to walk with them through all the times in between, and to declare the truth that God is present in all of it.

And haven’t we priests and deacons declared other truths too, the truth of God’s love for us in Jesus, the truth of our calling to love one another, the truth that the border we see between life and death, between us and God, between the ordinary and the transcendent, is not so much a clear bright line, but rather a porous boundary, with God’s love pouring across it and surrounding us at every moment of our lives?

And so many of us have enacted the truth of that love by crossing other borders – by entering into prisons and being the visible presence of Jesus. By working amidst heartbreak, poverty, and disaster, and bringing life and hope and healing. By healing the sick and feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. By standing at the altar of our Lord and declaring that the common things of bread and wine are the very body and blood of our Lord, given for us. By being a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind and bring God’s people out of darkness.

Bill Countryman says “The only absolute qualification of a priest” (by which he means all baptized Christians who are called to minister to others) “is insight, an insight that comes from some encounter with the arcana, some time spent in awareness in the border country.” And haven’t we had the privilege to be called to that ministry of insight, to be priests and deacons (and even bishops) as Mary was, to proclaim the truth of what is happening in our world in the midst of the everyday and ordinary? That’s the truth of God’s love that is not separated from us by some great divide, but is living and present and pouring across into our lives through the borderland that is Jesus, fully human and fully divine.

So much of our lives as clergy are filled with the mundane – the budgets, the bulletins, the vestry meetings, the people who have urgent complaints about the flowers and the music and the way someone didn’t clean up the coffeepot right. Sometimes this calling can be, let’s face it, irritating and draining. Sometimes people can focus on us in unhealthy ways, blaming us for their problems with God, or else elevating us to a holy status we don’t deserve. Sometimes we can start to believe our own press. And sometimes it’s easy to forget the truth of our calling, our citizenship in this border country.

But the truth is, Jesus was the ultimate deacon (who said, “I am among you as one who serves.”) Jesus was the great high priest, the great shepherd of the sheep. Jesus was the breaker of barriers, the crosser of borders, the builder of bridges, not walls, between God and this ordinary everyday world.

And thank God for this calling of ours – this calling to live out the ministry of Jesus in this holy border country called the church. This is a calling that, for us too, means building bridges instead of walls, breaking down the divisions between people, looking for the sacred in the everyday, respecting the dignity of every human being, doing loving acts of service, speaking the words that bring the gospel to life in this world, reenacting the ritual acts that make the everyday sacred. Re-forming our world in the image of Christ, the crucified one, the borderland between the human and the divine.

And thank God for the one thing that we ultimately know is true: the absolute truth of our faith that we proclaim this Holy Week and Easter. The truth that one day we will approach that border for a final time, that border that is a bright white line between this life and the resurrection life that is promised us through our Christian faith. And we will find that it is not a wall, but only a border, and it will be our turn to cross over that border from life into a new kind of life that we don’t yet understand. And we will look, and the man poling the boat across the river, holding out his hand to us in welcome, smiling as we approach the border, will be Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon for 5.7.17

Scriptures for this Sunday are Here.

I learned the 23rd Psalm by heart as a child, and maybe you did too – and like the Lord’s Prayer, the words never fully leave you. If you’ve ever been with someone in a time of crisis, you may have seen how deeply Psalm 23 enters their hearts. God leads us into green pastures and beside still waters, God restores our soul, God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death so that we don’t need to fear any evil, God promises we will dwell in house of Lord forever. People who are very ill often seem to recover briefly when they hear those words, they sometimes speak them along with you if you begin to pray this psalm – and people who are not ill, but in a crisis, often find them immensely comforting.

And even for those who don’t know the words by heart –when we live our lives in awareness of God’s presence with us in valley of the shadow of death as well as the green pastures and still waters, we are changed and comforted. So often I have spoken with people in that valley who are overwhelmed, yet even so, their cups run over with gratitude at God’s blessings even in times of crisis and sorrow. They know that God is with them to care for them, even when life is difficult and the path we are walking is stony and dangerous and dark. They find gratitude, and joy even in sorrow, in their relationship with God, who is their good shepherd.

Jesus-Good-Shepherd-06Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, which happens every year the 4th Sunday of Easter – the Sunday when we get to read the beloved 23rd Psalm. And when we read it, we often think of its images as soft pastoral things, in pastel colors with sweet lambs frolicking in green fields. But the truth is that the 23rd psalm is utterly realistic about the dangers of our lives – about the valley of the shadow of death that we all travel through at times, that we need a shepherd to help us face. Many people believe that this psalm was written by David himself, the shepherd boy who grew up to be the great king – and of course he knew about herding sheep, its dangers, its discomforts, the fact that the shepherd must be prepared to face wild beasts and dangerous rock ledges and all kinds of perils for the sake of his sheep. But the striking thing about this psalm is that King David does not claim to be the shepherd of Israel – he knows God is their shepherd. He knows that human leaders fail, but God can be utterly trusted. And so he puts his trust in God to lead him through the many valleys of the shadow of death of his own life, his own mistakes, his own heartbreaks. And when God does lead him through those valleys, David’s cup runs over with gratitude, and he knows that he will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever – God will never abandon him.

The image of sheep and shepherds became an important part of Israel’s history – the Jews knew that while King David was a shepherd, he had many failings, and later kings of Israel would be called wicked shepherds by prophets. But no matter who their earthly shepherds were, Israel’s tradition continued to emphasize that the ultimate good shepherd of the 23rd psalm and of Israel’s story as a people was God. And their job was to listen and obey the voice of their divine shepherd.

In John Chapter 10, Jesus is continuing this image of shepherd as the leader of Israel. Again, we tend to think of this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd as a soft, warm, pastoral, feel-good kind of image. But like the Old Testament, Jesus is using it here to criticize the people in power in his day, and contrast human leaders with the ultimate shepherd. Facing human leaders who are taking advantage of the people and plotting to kill him, Jesus calls them thieves and bandits, and points to a different kind of leader – himself. He says that he is the good shepherd who will protect his flock – he will lead them into the sheepfold and lay across the gate to keep out the thieves. And he will lead them out of the sheepfold so they can live an abundant life.

Which is really what I think this gospel is all about – abundant living: In contrast to the ways of this world that lead to death, Jesus promises that he has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly, beginning right now and leading to eternity. If we are going to start living that abundant life right now, we need to be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, follow. But how do we hear this voice?

Jesus uses the image of sheep and shepherds because he used everyday images that people would understand and recognize. Unfortunately, it tends to be a bit lost on us, because not many of us here know a whole lot about sheep outside a petting zoo! But I heard a story that helped. A couple of months ago, a group of us traveled in Israel, and you see these little bands – 10 or 20 sheep with a ragged-looking shepherd, often a Bedouin, walking through the hills. The story I heard was that an American was traveling in Israel, out in country, and saw several bands of sheep converging on a water hole. Apparently this was social time for the shepherds, because as their sheep stepped into the water, mixing and mingling with sheep from other flocks. The shepherds stood to one side, talking together, not paying much attention. But after a while, their conversation ended and it was time to go. And first one shepherd, then next, then next, called to their sheep and set off in different directions. And the sheep sorted themselves out magically from the confused mixed-up group mingling in the water, each sheep recognizing its own shepherd’s voice and following the correct shepherd without question.

Which is the everyday experience for people of Jesus’ time that he refers to when he says, “the sheep hear [the Good Shepherd’s] voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Like sheep who will not follow the wrong shepherd, we get to know Jesus’ voice by listening, practicing, and hearing that voice in every part of our lives.

And note that Jesus’ voice doesn’t always sound sweet and kind, like the image we tend to have of the Good Shepherd, or Psalm 23. Sometimes Jesus’ voice is unexpectedly challenging, sometimes it takes us in new directions, sometimes asks us to do things we wouldn’t have done on our own. Sometimes it challenges our deeply-held beliefs, as it challenged the beliefs of the temple leaders who believe that Jesus is an ungodly lawbreaker who needs to be put to death – Yet we as Christians believe that this supposedly law-breaking person is the Son of God, THE Good Shepherd of sheep, the one whose voice we must listen to.

So how do we learn to recognize that voice? Beloved 20th century spiritual writer and RC monk Henri Nouwen writes (in Spiritual Direction), “Being formed in God’s likeness involves the struggle to move from absurd living to obedient listening.” “Absurd” comes from a word that means “deaf,” so he says, “Absurd living is a way of life in which we remain deaf to the voice that speaks to us in our silence. The many activities in which we are involved, the many concerns that keep us preoccupied, and the many sounds that surround us make it very hard for us to hear the “sheer silence” through which God’s presence is made known.”

BUT, he says, “The obedient life develops our abilities to hear and sense God’s presence and activities.” The word obedience” comes from a word that means “listening.” He writes, ‘The obedient life is one in which we listen with great attention to God’s Spirit within and among us….To be obedient means to be constantly attentive to this active presence and to allow God, who is only love, to be the source as well as the goal of all we think, say, and do.”

So how to be attentive, and listen? There are three disciplines, he says, that “help us overcome our deafness and resistance, and become free and obedient persons who hear God’s voice even when it calls us to unknown places. These are: First, the discipline of the Heart – introspective and contemplative prayer that helps us pay attention to the God who dwells in the center of our being. Nouwen says that praying is not only listening to, but listening with our heart, that as we set aside times of solitude to pray and listen, share our lives & daily concerns with God, we will learn to recognize our shepherd’s voice.

Second: The discipline of the Book – reading and meditating on scriptures in a way that leads us to prayer. We know that God speaks to us through the Bible – we learn the cadences of God’s voice, Jesus’ voice, as we read those words. As we read and then pray about Bible, God’s voice takes on flesh in our lives and in our actions.

And Third: The discipline of the Church – which requires us to be in relationship to the people of God, witnessing to the active presence of God in community. The rituals of the church through the Christian year remind us of the events of Jesus’ life among us, help us make those events part of our day-to-day life. “The more we let the events of Christ’s life inform and form us, the more we will be able to connect our own daily stories with the great story of God’s presence in our lives,” Nouwen writes.

And the more we let Christ nourish us with his body and blood, the more his life takes on flesh in our life, as we go out from here to live as Christ’s people in the world. That’s how we are led into green pastures, that’s how our soul is restored. That’s how we practice hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. That’s how we follow where he leads.

And that’s how we know that no matter where we are in our lives, in green pastures or beside still waters, or walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t need to fear any evil, for Jesus the Good Shepherd is right there with us.

Sermon Notes for 3.5.17

Scriptures for today are Here.


We live in a death-defying culture. I don’t mean so much that we take risks, like jumping out of airplanes or walking tightropes across the Grand Canyon, though some people do those things. I mean that we do everything we can to lie to ourselves about the reality of death. We revere youth and beauty, we invent things like Botox and age-denying makeup and surgeries and hair dyes to cover the gray. Unlike some cultures that honor the wisdom gained with age, we are always looking to see what the next youth fashion invention will be. The advertising campaigns that appeal to us promise not so much that this product is a quality product – advertisers don’t really talk about the product any more – but they claim that this product – this car or this medication or this new technology – this will give you a lifestyle of eternal youth, happiness – we’ll be so beautiful in that expensive new car!

It’s as if the death-defying things we do to our bodies and the products that we subconsciously hope will make us cool, hip, young, happy, are all part of a conspiracy to bring new meaning and purpose to our lives. Because our culture has lost sight of ultimate meaning and purpose. If you believe what our culture tells you, you work toward things like youth and fame, celebrity and wealth and power, and you hope you’ll be remembered by a few people after you’re gone.

But ultimately those things don’t bring satisfaction. As John D. Rockefeller supposedly said when someone asked him how much money is enough? He said, “Just one dollar more.” No matter how much we have, it is never enough. That’s the human condition. We are never satisfied – we are always somehow empty, questing for more–more money, more power, more meaning and purpose. The 17th century French mathematician Blaise Pascal said: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in humanity a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This we try in vain to fill with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God alone.”

That lost true happiness, that emptiness we suffer, is what the Garden of Eden story tells us about: the truth that in humanity there is a deep unsatisfaction that is always looking for more. We need to be clear that this story was not written as history or science – the people whose wisdom recorded this story would have been puzzled and confused by our modern notions of history and science. This story is in our Bible in order to convey a much deeper truth than mere facts – the truth about humanity, and God, and who we are in relation to God. The truth about humanity is that we have been given everything – a garden full of anything we could ever need – and yet we always want more. Faced with a symbolic choice between trusting God and trusting ourselves, we so often choose to trust ourselves – to believe in ourselves, do things for ourselves, defy death for ourselves – to put ourselves in the place of God.

That’s what the serpent’s temptation is: you will be like God, knowing good and evil. And note that the serpent lies: he says you will not die.

We don’t want to trust God, we want to be like God, we want to put faith in ourselves, we want to know that we can make it all on our own, we believe we have the capacity to judge for ourselves what is good for our lives and what is evil. And that desire to trust ourselves in the place of God is that modern, human disease of functional atheism – that is, declaring that we believe in God, but acting as if it’s all up to us, and therefore we better start making ourselves younger, hoarding our money, gathering power, etc.

We can’t trust God to care for us, so we put ourselves in place of God. That’s the original sin, the first sin of humanity – trying to be our own gods. And if you read on in the Garden of Eden story, you can see how that first sin, that first failure to trust God, that first action to put ourselves in place of God, spreads and becomes a disease that infects everyone. God discovers that Adam and Eve (don’t blame it on Eve, it’s clear that Adam was with her the whole time, and fully part of the decision) – God discovers that they have disobeyed, and asks them about it, and they start blaming each other. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent, the harmony they had in the garden is broken, they are now full of the knowledge of good and evil. The kick to this is, in biblical language it means, they are intimately familiar with both good and evil, which is indeed a picture of the human condition.

They start a new life, a harder life, where getting what we need will be hard work and there won’t always be enough, because we hoard and save instead of appreciate and share – and they live in mistrust, always blaming each other, always trying to outdo each other, to force each other to submit, each person on his or her own, trying to trust each other just enough to stay alive. All of these misunderstandings and blames – the very same things we still do to each other in families, communities, politics, churches today – eventually lead to the first murder – one of their sons in jealousy murders the other. The first sin of not trusting God becomes an epidemic of sin and death that infects all of human society, and no one can escape it.

Until Jesus comes along. Into a world of mistrust, where people continually try to fill that empty space inside of them with the false gods of self, money, power, success, where all the blaming results all too often in hurting and killing each other – into this dark and sin-infected and death-afflicted world comes Jesus Christ, the Beloved Son of God. He resists – he knows how to avoid infection by the disease of humanity.

In the final sentence of the baptism story which happens just before this one, God declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” In the very next sentence, which is the beginning of our gospel story today, Jesus is led into the wilderness and the devil says “IF you are Son of God….” God assures Jesus of his identity in baptism and Jesus is immediately tempted to question that identity, to get more for himself, to worship something other than God, to amass power for himself instead.

Just look at his temptations:

A very hungry Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread – Israel is full of stones, on our Holy Land trip Dr. Wayne kept looking out a the stones and exclaiming that if Israel could only figure out a way to sell stones, they would solve all their economic problems! In other words, that would be a lot of bread – this temptation means hoarding, saving up material possessions. Jesus says no – the word of God is more important than any material possessions.

A Jesus who has left the God he loves in heaven is tempted to throw himself off the pinnacle of Temple – to call down that God to love and protect him. But Jesus refuses to test God, chooses to trust God instead, without a test.

A Jesus who is destined for kingship is tempted to take it now, without pain, without the cross, without death, to be the most powerful person in the world if he will just worship the devil. Jesus proves faithful to worshiping only God, Jesus refuses to put any other gods, including himself, before God.

And note that later in the story, Jesus receives all of these gifts anyway, in the backwards and upside down way of the gospel – he turns a few loaves and fishes into enough bread to feed thousands; when he is lifted up on the high pinnacle of the cross and killed, God yet resurrects him from the dead; when the sinful powers of this world try to kill him to do away with any kingship he might claim, he is raised by God to become king of kings and lord of lords. God gives him all the devil promises, but gives it to him truly, in a way no human could have imagined, eternally, in a way that saves not just him but all of us. Jesus trusting God gives him immunity to the human sin that infects us all, and allows him to effect the cure: the cross, the death, the resurrection.

That’s a cure that extends to us as we are baptized into Christ’s Body, as we come to an awareness of our identity in Christ, and also of our own limitations, our inability to be our own gods, our own mortality. Because as we realize our own mortality, we begin to understand that on our own we are incomplete. We still have the human disease. We spend our lives searching and hoping, always looking for that thing that is missing, the thing that perfectly fits the emptiness we feel inside us. And we try to fill it with things that will not last. But it doesn’t work. Ultimately our emptiness remains, we are still incomplete, insufficient, insecure.

Pascal is the one who said that we have a God-shaped hole in hearts. Yet he saw that hole not as a curse but as a blessing. It is the tether that keeps us throughout our lives attached to God. It is the thing that keeps us from believing we can be completely self-sufficient – a belief which in the end can only bring us death.

We can deny death, but we can’t avoid it. And the way to transcend it is, not through our own power, but through Jesus Christ. Only God can fill that God-shaped hole in our hearts.

And so here we are, beginning the season of Lent. It is a season that remembers our human emptiness – when, with Jesus, we commit ourselves to spending 40 days in the wilderness. If we take Lent seriously, we do with this season what Jesus did: we empty ourselves, we fast from the things that fill us up falsely – things that don’t fit that God-shaped hole in our hearts. What things present themselves to us as the perfect shape to fill that God-shaped hole? What lies is the devil telling us, what lies are we telling ourselves? Lent is a time for truth-telling about life and death.

And what disciplines do we need to take on, to train our longing hearts to grasp onto God for our identity, like Jesus in his desert, and not the empty things that tempt us to put them in the place reserved for God alone? This time of Lent becomes our time to remember who we are – not gods, but beloved children of God – and ask Christ who we are intended to become.

And Lent is our time to journey through this desert, this dry and dusty wilderness, with Christ. Because those words of Ash Wednesday – remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return – are balanced by the refreshing, life-giving words of baptism, which makes us beloved children of God: There is one Body and one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all.

Sermon for 1.15.17

Scriptures for today are Here.

Long ago, when I was a young junior accountant working for a major accounting firm, the brightest spot of our working day, for me and the other junior accountants, was when we would head out to lunch. We had several favorite restaurants, one of them a fair hike to the other end of downtown Houston. On the way to this restaurant, we always passed a particular street corner that one street evangelist had chosen as his own. He would stand there and yell about the coming apocalypse, pointing at people and calling them to repent. And his favorite line, which in his mind somehow made perfect sense, was, “Queen Esther saved the Jews!” Now I had grown up going to Sunday school, but somehow missed the story of Queen Esther, and now that I know it, I still can’t really fathom what he was talking about and what connection it has to salvation or the apocalypse (for one thing, notoriously, it’s one of two books in the Bible that doesn’t mention God). But every time we headed that way to lunch we’d hear the same line, screamed with force and conviction – we needed to repent because “Queen Esther saved the Jews!” – to the point where it became a joke, and anytime we wanted to explain something that made no sense in our workplace (and that was definitely a Catch-22 kind of workplace), we would all start laughing and calling out, “Queen Esther saved the Jews!”

The thing about it is this: if anyone needed evangelizing, it was me at that point in my life. Yes, I’d grown up in the church, I’d heard the stories of Jesus, I’d loved the idea of a savior who could calm the storm and heal the sick and give his life because he loved me so much. But by my mid-20s, I’d forgotten all that. I had devoted my life to my personal self-interest – to advancing in my career and making more money and leaving all my competition behind me in the dust. If anyone needed to meet Jesus, it was me – to remember that he loved me, to remember what was most important in life, to repent of the empty and unfulfilling direction my life was taking and reorient to the most important things in life – love and caring for God and for other people. I needed an evangelist – but yelling at me to repent because Queen Esther saved the Jews did not address my needs, to say least. That kind of evangelism was way too easy to resist. The kind of evangelism I needed was someone who would care about me and my rapidly shrinking heart, who would help me get in touch with what had always been most important to me, who would help me see that what would bring meaning to my life was not success in my career, but abiding with Jesus.

What is evangelism? At heart, it’s bringing good news to people – good news of salvation, of reorienting one’s life, of a relationship with God that will bring deeper, even ultimate meaning to human life, that will transform people from inside out. Evangelism is not beating people over the head with your ideas. Evangelism is not knocking on people’s doors and demanding whether they know where they’re going when they die. Evangelism is not convincing people to pray a particular prayer that acts as some kind of magic spell that will allow them to get into heaven. Evangelism is not yelling a catch phrase over and over, like Queen Esther saved the Jews! Evangelism is simply sharing good news of something that makes a difference in your life with someone you care about. And today’s gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism there is.

Today’s story is the first time we hear Jesus’ voice in John’s gospel. John begins his gospel with his own version of the Christmas story – which has nothing to do with Bethlehem or shepherds, and everything to do with the Word of God, who was one with God from before time began, taking on human flesh and coming to dwell on earth. Then, like the other three gospels, John tells us the story of another John – the Baptizer, who appeared in the wilderness and began preaching and baptizing. And then, like in the other gospels, Jesus shows up – rather quietly and unassumingly, just mingled in with the other folks listening to John the Baptist preach. In John’s gospel, we don’t hear the story of Jesus’ baptism – instead, we hear John the Baptist testifying about what he saw when he baptized Jesus – the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus and remained with him. That’s an important word, remain, and we’ll come back to it. And by that sign, John the Baptist understood that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of world, and he started sharing that news with everyone.

John the Baptist understands who he is and why he is there – and his ministry, beyond preaching repentance and baptizing, is to point to Jesus and share what he knows, tell people what he has seen, urge people to follow Jesus, not himself. The second time he does this, a couple of his curious disciples follow Jesus. In the other three gospels, the first words of Jesus are words of power or prophecy. In John, Jesus’ first words are a question: What are you looking for? This question falls flat in English – but in Greek, its what are you seeking? What’s important to you? What’s missing in your life that you are hoping to find? It’s the question that evangelists yelling about Queen Esther or demanding that we repent to avoid flames of hell never ask – what is really important to you?

It’s a question we all should be asking ourselves, as individuals, as families, as a congregation: what are we seeking? What holes, what empty spaces are in our lives and in our communities? What is it we really need, not just our physical needs but our emotional, relational and spiritual needs, at the very foundation of who we are? The first key to evangelism is finding out what people are actually seeking, caring about what’s missing, understanding how a relationship with God can help.

The disciples answer Jesus’ question with a question – Where are you staying? Like most things in John’s gospel, this is a question with many layers. “Staying” in Greek is the same word as “remaining” – meno – and it appears five times in this passage: twice in speaking about the Holy Spirit remaining on Jesus, three times in talking about where Jesus is staying. And the same Greek word appears at numerous other crucial points in John’s gospel: after Jesus miraculously feeds the crowd with bread, he tells the people not to work for food that perishes, but for food that remains for eternal life; he promises that he will abide (remain) with those who abide in him; he says that wherever he stays or remains, people have the opportunity to believe.

So when the disciples ask where he is remaining or abiding, they are asking not about his motel or where he’s pitched his tent, but about where the Son of God is. Where can we find you? What can we do to be with you, to abide with you, to receive the gifts you are giving, this bread of life that remains for eternal life? Where can we go to remain, abide, stay with the Lamb of God? And that’s the real question, isn’t it? The question is, what is the meaning of life and how can we find it? If God has come to abide with us in Jesus, how can we abide with him? If we are truly abiding in the presence of the Lamb of God, how does that change us and how does that call us to act in the world? I am convinced that abiding in the presence of God, in prayer and worship and in our thoughts and beliefs about the world and in the actions we take as a consequence, transforms us from the inside out. It fills the empty holes in our souls, it reorients us toward the things of ultimate significance, it gives us love to share with others.

And that’s the key to evangelism, which is the calling of every Christian. Evangelism begins with noticing – as John the Baptist noticed Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit remain on him; as the disciples noticed John the Baptist’s words and decided to follow and discover more; as Jesus noticed the disciples and invited them to come see. Evangelism begins with noticing where God is in our lives, how God has transformed us. It means thinking back in our own story, remembering key moments of God’s presence with us. So:

  • I remember a moment in my life at the altar rail, when I was deeply troubled, but had a sudden overpowering sense that God was there with me.
  • I remember the baptism of my daughter, feeling the presence of a loved one who had died recently, and realizing this was a moment of deep holiness that tore open the curtain between heaven and earth.
  • I remember witnessing a miracle of healing, realizing God had used me as God’s agent, completely unsought and undeserved.
  • I remember standing in the middle of a stunning view of creation, feeling tiny in a vast landscape, yet realizing God was with me in my very smallness.

You have moments like that too, moments you’ve known God was present without a doubt. Those moments are the reason you continue to seek Jesus, continue to look for the ways he can fill you with the bread that remains to eternal life. The first step in evangelism is to notice where and when God has been with you.

The second step of evangelism is speaking. Supposedly St. Francis said preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words – well, I don’t like that saying. For one thing, St. Francis never said it. And certainly our lives should speak our values, but I believe words are necessary for people to know why. Francis devoted his life to preaching with words, John the Baptist pointed way to Jesus with words. Speaking the gospel with words doesn’t require any theology or argument – it’s simply sharing how your own story has transformed you, telling your own story.

The third step in evangelism is to Invite – as Jesus said to the disciples seeking ultimate meaning – just come and see – come and spend some time, come and experience what it means to be in presence of God, come and let God’s love seep into you from a community devoted to sharing God’s love. And as Andrew went and found his brother Simon and invited him along to share the experience with him – changing the world as Simon became Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built his church – We can’t change people, it’s God who changes people and fills the empty places in their souls – but we can invite people to discover what’s changed us.

Queen Esther saved the Jews? Well, maybe. That’s a pretty exciting adventure story if you read it in the Bible. But more exciting is this: Jesus loves us. Jesus saves us. Jesus wants to abide with us, and us with him, to eternal life. That’s good news.

Sermon for 1.8.17

Scriptures for today are here.

obrotherWhy was Jesus baptized, and what does his baptism mean for us as baptized people? One of the all time great baptism scenes in movies shows us one particular theology and idea about what baptism means: O Brother, Where Art Thou. The three escaped convicts, led by George Clooney, are walking through the woods when suddenly mysterious figures, adressed in white, begin to appear. They are singing a classic gospel song and walking down to the river. The convict Delmer says, “Appears to be some kind of a congregation.” They watch as one after another of the white-robed owiokw walks into the river and gets dunked by the pastor. Delmar gets inspired. He goes running down into the water, pushes his way to the front, and in his dirty brown clothes, gets dunked. As he comes up out of the water, he shouts out, “Well, that’s it, boys, I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.” George Clooney says, “Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry!” Delmar says, “The preacher said all my sins been washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.” George Clooney says, “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.” Delmar says, “Well, I was lying and the preacher said that that sin’s been washed away too! Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now. Come on in, boys, the water is fine.”

This classic scene, comical as it is, shows us one understanding of baptism: it’s the washing away of sins, our assurance of forgiveness and heaven everlasting. And if you read about John the Baptist, it seems pretty clear that he agrees that that’s what baptism is all about. Matthew tells us that John appeared in the wilderness, preaching one important message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. He knows that God is doing something new; he seems to echo the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading today: See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare. In preparation for the newly arriving kingdom of heaven that he knows is near, he cautions everyone to repent and be cleansed of their sins, adapting a Jewish cleansing ritual that is used for many different purposes.

His message is tremendously popular, and people flock to him from all the towns – but when he sees Pharisees and Saduccees among them – that is, powerful people aligned with the Temple, he shouts out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” He has no respect for the Temple and its monopoly on the whole mechanism of forgiveness – animal sacrifices that allow a person to be forgiven and restored. We’re not sure why he has no respect for the Temple and thinks people associated with it are snakes – especially because his own father is a priest – but he presents the people with a new, more direct way to be forgiven – simply come to the Jordan River, confess their sins, and be cleansed and forgiven and restored to new life.

The problem happens when in the midst of all the people lined up for baptism, John sees his cousin Jesus. Now apparently John knows perfectly well that Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven of his sins – either he’s known Jesus’ identity since birth, since Luke tells us they were cousins, or he simply recognizes who Jesus is the second he looks into his face. A baptism for forgiveness doesn’t apply to Jesus – so why does he do it? Jesus says it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” – fulfill being a favorite word of Matthew’s – in Matthew’s view, Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets, he is the culmination of everything that has come before in Israel. And we see how he fulfills all righteousness as he comes up out of the water, sees the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and hears an affirmation of his identity: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus was always God’s Beloved only-begotten Son – this isn’t the moment when he becomes the Son of God. Yet it seems that growing up as a human, he might not always have known it – Jesus had to learn gradually who he was, by prayer and studying Scripture and worshiping in the ways of the Jewish people – and that this moment of baptism may be the crowning moment of a lifetime of learning – the moment when he truly hears and understands his identity. And it’s a crucial moment. Because Matthew tells us this is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. If he lived a quiet life as a carpenter in Nazareth before, his baptism changes everything. Beginning with what happens directly afterwards: the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to have that sense of identity tested and tempted, as the devil says to him: IF you are the Son of God, command these stones become bread. And it’s a question he will face also at his trial, as the high priest questions whether he believes he is the Son of God, and he refuses to answer. And again on the cross, as passers-by taunt him, saying, if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. And it is only at his death that the centurion in charge of his execution finally recognizes the truth Jesus had known ever since this moment when he emerges from the waters of the Jordan River: Truly this man was God’s Son.

This sense of identity and belovedness as God’s Son is crucial to everything Jesus does throughout his ministry. It is the basis for his ministry as Messiah. And so for Jesus, his baptism is not about forgiveness of sins and cleansing for new life: instead, it’s about identity, affirmation, belovedness, commissioning for ministry.

So back to the question I started with: why was Jesus baptized, and what does that mean for us as baptized people? For us, baptism is about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God – but it’s about much more than that too. For us, baptism is our adoption into the family of Christ – our recognition that God loves us so deeply and so completely that God will never let us go. Delmar and the boys in O Brother Where Art Thou might have believed that baptism was primarily about forgiveness of sins, and been comforted by that. But for many of us, baptism can, should bring a profound sense of comfort in our own belovedness, our own adoption, our own identity as children of God. It’s said that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, in his darkest days of rejection by the church, used to go around saying, “I am baptized.” – reminding himself that no matter what went wrong, he would always be beloved.

For us, we may not be imprisoned in castle, at risk of being burned at the stake for heresy. Yet we live in a world that constantly calls our identity as God’s Beloved into question in profound ways. From the first time we were picked last for the Dodgeball team in PE, to the first time we were bullied on the school bus, to the first time we struggled through Math class, to the time we didn’t have a date for Homecoming, to every time our parents reflected imperfectly God’s love for us: we hear the message in our society that we are not good enough, not worthy of being beloved. In Anne Lamott’s book, Operating Instructions, she tells how her friend, Father Tom, lists the 5 rules of our society:

  • #1. You must not have anything wrong with you or different about you.
  • #2. If you do have something wrong or different about you, just get over it as soon as possible.
  • #3. If you can’t get over it, you must pretend that you have.
  • #4. If you can’t pretend, you shouldn’t show up at all.
  • #5. If you are going to show up, if you insist on it, at least have the decency to feel ashamed of yourself.

We internalize these messages, we begin to feel that we are not worthy, we think maybe we would be worthy if we were a little bit better, a little bit smarter, fit in a little bit better to the expectations of people around us, and our own expectations of ourselves. We have setbacks in life and assume it’s God telling us we’ve messed up. Sometimes this personal feeling of unworthiness turns into attacks on others – I might be unworthy, but look at that guy over there who is so much more awful. We make ourselves feel better by making others feel worse.

When the fact is, none of that is necessary. We are Beloved. Our God has said so. There is no question about it. We are worthy because we are Beloved. No exceptions. As Richard Rohr says in his book, The Immortal Diamond: “Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. Our name has always been Beloved.” We have always been beloved, and our baptism, like Jesus’ is an affirmation of that fact. Nothing can ever change our belovedness; as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: Nothing can ever separate us from love of God. We are God’s children.

And so for us, as for Jesus, baptism is our assurance that God loves us, recognizes us as God’s children, and nothing – no sin, no error, no unworthiness – can ever change that fact. And for us, as for Jesus, our baptism is also a commissioning for ministry. Resting in the assurance of our belovedness, we can then move through this world, sharing that belovedness with others. In our families, in our workplaces, in our schools, we can recognize that we are beloved – and so is everyone else we meet. The person we meet might be different from us, but they are God’s beloved too. And when, in our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and “respect the dignity of every human being,” we are recognizing their belovedness, and sharing our own belovedness with them – the belovedness we were assured of in our baptism. As Delmar says – Come on in, boys, the water’s fine.

Sermon for All Saints 2016

Scriptures for today are Here.

Earlier this year, I decided to take up a new hobby: knitting. Now, I have never been a crafty person. But I came to a point where I felt that I was spending all my time with words – reading, writing, talking, praying, preaching, teaching. So I decided to learn to do something that engaged a whole other part of my brain. I took a class, I bought some yarn, I started learning. And as it stands now, my family has been deluged with knitted scarves and hats – I mean, we live in Phoenix, but maybe they’ll wear them someday! But I get great satisfaction out of watching something tangible and beautiful take shape before my eyes, something my own hands have made.

What we all know about material that is knitted together is that all the parts are connected – if you press over here, the cloth over there will be affected. What I didn’t realize until I started knitting things myself is that a knitted thing is really just one long, patterned sequence of slip knots – every stitch is connected to the one above it, below it, to the left, to the right – every stitch is connected to every other stitch, so that if one unravels, the whole thing falls apart. Something that is knitted together is composed of many vulnerable, individual bits, that all together become strong, warm, beautiful, useful. Because the whole is much stronger than the sum of the tiny parts.

I don’t know whether the person who wrote our collect for All Saints – the prayer that we said at the beginning of the service – was a knitter or not, but now that I’m a knitter the collect is much more meaningful to me this year than it has been before. It begins, Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord. In Jesus, we are knitted together into one whole cloth – Jesus is the thread that binds us together, we are the stitches that stay strong as long as connected. The cloth of the church of Jesus is an interconnected network of people and churches, saints and sinners, that stretches back through the ages and forward to eternity, and every part of that cloth is dependent on every other. If you touch one part, the whole is affected; if one bit falls apart, the whole cloth begins to unravel – we are dependent on each other and on Jesus, the one who knit us together into one Body, the communion of saints.

Today in the church we celebrate All Saints’ Day – the day that celebrates the fact that we are bound together with every Christian in this church, and every Christian who has ever lived, in an unbreakable cloth knitted together by the love of Christ. During the week of All Saints, we remember three kinds of saints. We remember great heroes of the faith like Francis of Assisi, people who were leaders and martyrs and examples for all time of how Jesus asked us to live. We also remember all those who have died in faith, who are now in the arms of God’s mercy, and we rejoice for that mercy which is our destiny also. All Souls’ Day, Nov. 2, is the day when we pray for all the dead and give thanks for the love they have given us, which will always bind us together with them. And third: we remember that all of us are saints – every single one. If we are baptized (like Beckett Moyer will be in a few minutes), we too have been knitted into the communion of saints; we are holy and sacred members of Jesus’ family, and the Bible calls us saints.

But sainthood can be confusing, especially if we think that a saint is someone who lives a perfect life. And especially when we look at today’s gospel as an example of the perfect life of a saint – Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Matthew’s gospel is much softer and more accessible for a lot of people. But in Luke’s gospel, the Beatitudes are hugely challenging: Jesus says “Blessed are the poor,” and “Blessed are the hungry,” and drives the point home with “Woe to you who are rich” and “Woe to you who are full now.” Given that most people in this country enjoy a standard of living far higher than most people in the rest of the world – this is very challenging stuff. If we are rich by the standards of the world & world history – and middle-class Americans surely are – then should we give up on being saints, resign ourselves to eternal perdition?

Well, no – we misunderstand Jesus if we think that in this gospel he is laying down the rules we have to follow to get into heaven – God’s grace does this for us. It’s already been done. What Jesus is doing is way more radical than that: he is calling each one of us who are baptized children of God, otherwise known as saints – to join him in his quest to live out the kingdom of God right here on earth. To live as saints right here and now. I firmly believe that God has a special calling for each one of us, a special way he asks us to live out our sainthood right here in this life.

You know the old saying: if you were arrested and put on trial on charges of being a Christian – would there be enough evidence to convict you? Jesus wants us to live our lives to show evidence of our sainthood every day. And yet, in the world we live in, that is exceedingly hard to do. We live in a world that values possessions, money, success, achievement, more than almost anything else – certainly more than sainthood and connection to God. We live in a world where people brag about how busy they are, and where our busy-ness consumes our lives so that we fall into bed exhausted each night with no time even to think about God or about how God might be calling us. We live in a world that feels more anxious and fearful by the day – as the divisive election season we are in surely demonstrates, to people on all sides of the political spectrum.

I think it’s to people like us that Jesus is talking today. He is saying, why are we filling ourselves w worries that take all our time, energy, and attention? And forgetting that it is God who truly can fill us up with the joy of heaven? St. Augustine said: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their home in you.” Someone else said it more simply: We have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We try all kinds of things to fill that empty hole – possessions, busyness, worry, politics. But ultimately, only God can fill that hole.

And this gospel today – blessed are the poor, woe to those who are rich? I think it’s telling us that God’s kingdom is an upside-down world, where wealth, power, satisfaction, achievement can be misfortunes that separate us from God by encouraging us to believe that our own efforts are enough to get us whatever we want, without regard for others around us. And it’s telling us that good fortune instead comes in the shape of self-emptying that reminds us that true blessing comes from God alone. Good fortune – blessing – comes in recognizing that no matter how wealthy and powerful we are, being knit together with every other believer means that we are part of them and they are part of us. We are called to care for each other – rich or poor, black or white, and yes, Republican or Democrat.

Which means that Christian sainthood recognizes that we are knitted together into a colorful, interconnected whole, the Body of Christ that calls us to rank the welfare of our neighbor just as highly as we rank our own good fortune. To devote our time, money, resources to the well-being of others, and to God’s mission. To do the hard work – the really hard work – of loving our enemies, praying for those who abuse us, doing only good to those who do bad things to us. To participate in our work, our families, our communities – as if everything we do affects the common bonds of our life as an interconnected, knitted-together whole, as if every action we take affects every other part of the colorful cloth that Jesus has knitted together.

And in a time of a divisive election, I do think that Christians have a special vocation. I can’t tell you how to vote on Tuesday – knowing that faithful Christians can come to different conclusions on that. But part of our calling as Christians is to pray for our divided country. So Nativity’s sanctuary will be open all day Tuesday for prayer, and Wayne and I are offering prayer services at noon and 5:30.

Our calling as Christians is to care for those around us, whether we agree with them or not, and to respect and learn from those with whom we disagree. To work, on the day after the election, for reconciliation in this divided country, so that we can come together to confront the problems that face us. To build up each part of the Body of Christ so that no part is weaker or more stressed than any other, but so that all of us support each other. Because we are saints of God, baptized in Christ Jesus into the promise of everlasting life, and God has knit us together into a colorful, beautiful, interconnected, interdependent, cloth, which is the Body of Christ.

Sermon for 10.16.16

Scriptures for today are Here.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature this week – a surprise, unconventional win. Hearing about his win reminded me of a cell phone I had years ago, back when they first let you choose a song for your ringtone instead of just a ringing sound. On my phone, there were about 10 songs to choose from, and being a priest, I thought it was funny to choose Dylan’s song, “Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” To be honest, like a lot of Dylan songs, I actually have no idea what that song is about. But what it reminded me of was one of my ordination vows – all Episcopal priests take a vow to “persevere in prayer.” And that song has always reminded me of the poor widow in this parable in today’s gospel, banging on the door of the unjust judge, demanding justice till she got it. When I vowed to persevere in prayer, I believed that’s what I was vowing to do – to bang on God’s door without relenting, praying without ceasing, asking and demanding and challenging God to bring justice and healing to this world.

But I’m not sure about that any more. Because there are some odd things about this parable, and for me it takes some work to understand it. Here is an unjust judge, who neither fears God nor respects anyone else. Lacking love of God and love of neighbor, which Jesus says are the two great commandments all of us should follow, the natural result plays out in his treatment of others and his abuse of power in this world. This judge has no interest in granting justice. He’s in it for himself. He doesn’t care about whatever request the widow is bringing before him.

Which is a real problem in the Bible, because all through the Bible, both Old & New Testaments, but especially in the gospel of Luke – widows are code for the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and the most defenseless people there are. And therefore, for the Bible, widows and the other two classes of people often named alongside them – orphans and aliens – are the most to be protected, the most to be helped and supported. Because in the upside-down land of the Kingdom of God, those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. The Bible says so over and over.

Another thing to understand is what “justice” means in the Bible – not what we often mean, which is punishing the guilty – but something more like fairness, like building a world where everyone can live with abundance and no one is poor or oppressed or lives without respect or regard for their needs. That’s what Jesus describes when he talks about the Kingdom of God – a world of perfect justice. Jesus’ message seems to be clear – for this poor widow demanding justice, it is her persistence that gets her case finally heard. The judge says, in our English translation that we heard today, “Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice.” Literally, in Greek, she’s not just bothering him, she’s giving him a black eye – hurting him personally and professionally, ruining his reputation, embarrassing him in front of others. So to protect himself, he finally gives in to her demands.

So – Is this how we’re supposed to act toward God? Is God an unjust judge who can’t be bothered to listen to us unless we get so embarrassing that God finally has to send us away? Is God like an inattentive parent who finally gives the kid a cookie just to make him be quiet?

Well, no – the argument isn’t that God is like that – the argument Jesus makes here is, if the unjust judge could finally grant justice, how much MORE would God, who is NOT an unjust judge, grant justice to God’s children, whom he loves and cares about? If we read this parable as an analogy, then God is the just judge who will listen to all the unfortunate widows who come before him demanding justice. Our persistence in prayer will mean that God will listen to us.

Well, but immediately some problems present themselves. Doesn’t God already know about whatever problem we’re bringing before him? Isn’t God motivated to love and grant justice to God’s beloved children, with or without our persistence? Is prayer some sort of test, where if you do it enough, you ace the quiz and get an A?

And furthermore, no matter how much we pray, isn’t there an incredible amount of suffering and injustice in the world that hasn’t yet been relieved? Isn’t God supposed to care about every sparrow and every grain of sand (another Dylan song, but Dylan is quoting the Bible)? What’s God up to, up there? Why isn’t God listening to all our prayers? And what does prayer accomplish, anyway?

I was listening to an interesting interview on NPR the other day that helped me. (Unfortunately I didn’t catch the name of the interviewee, so I can’t give proper credit.) The interviewee was a psychologist, a family counselor, who said that during this election season, he has seen a noticeable increase in unhealthy, hateful, angry, immature behavior between married couples. The interviewer said, you mean when couples disagree on the election? The psychologist said no, they may be in absolute agreement on the election and the candidates – and it makes no difference which candidate they’re supporting. The problem is that this election has made a lot of people angry at whichever candidate they’re not voting for, or some issue, or some group of people, and so people on both sides of the election are carrying around a low level of anger.

In the same way, if something happens at work that makes you angry, or on the way home someone cuts you off in traffic and you’re still on edge about it when you get home, you are more likely to snap at the kids, or the dog. He says the same thing happens if you’re driving, and either you hear some news on the radio that gets you riled up, or you are listening to a song you love and you start singing along at the top of your voice. Then suddenly you look down and realize you’re going 15 mph faster than you should, or you find you’re tailgating the car in front of you. That’s because the excitement of the song or bad news or whatever got your heart beating faster and your muscles tensed up, and it moved you from adult brain into your emotional brain. And when you are in your emotional brain, you react to things emotionally, you lose some of your adult judgment, you start tailgating or you snap at the kids or you have blaming, angry, emotional arguments with your spouse. He says that low level of anger many people are carrying around has caused them unconsciously to lash out at people around them in immature ways.

The interviewer asked, how do you correct this if you realize it’s happening to you? The psychologist said, you have to consciously move yourself from your emotional brain into your adult brain. Your adult brain is where you act in mature ways. Where you control your emotions, where you keep your anger where it belongs and don’t direct it at your spouse and kids, where you move into the area of nuanced understanding and mature judgment and values. So how do you lift yourself into your adult brain? He says you do it by thinking about your values, by making plans, by thinking about things in complex ways, by asking yourself, this thing I’m angry about, what can I do personally to make this better?

Which brings me back to prayer. That, I think, is exactly what prayer does for us. Prayer lifts us away from our emotional brains into the realm of values, of nuanced judgments, of caring about our neighbors and loving God – the exact things the unjust judge was unable to do. Prayer connects us with something greater than ourselves; prayer requires us to think about what God wants from us and not just what we want from God. Prayer reminds us of God’s demands for justice and compassion.

Prayer changes us. As Kathleen Norris writes in her book Amazing Grace, “…prayer is not asking for what you think you want but asking to be changed in ways you cannot imagine. To be made more grateful, more able to see the good in what you have been given instead of always grieving for what might have been.” Or, as Frederick Buechner said years ago, persistence in prayer is a key, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before [God will] open it, but because until you beat the path, maybe there’s no way of [God] getting to your door.”

Which is maybe reversal of everything we think about prayer: maybe prayer is not a matter of us knock, knock, knocking on God’s door – maybe prayer is a matter of opening the door to the God who is always knock, knock, knocking at our door. Maybe God is the one banging on our doors, demanding to be allowed in.

Maybe God is actually the poor widow coming to us continually, demanding justice. It’s not out of reach to believe it. We do tend to automatically put God in the “powerful” slot in these parables, and read them allegorically so that we think God must be the judge. But remember that God is the one who came to us in Jesus, a poor peasant in an insignificant country who was incredibly vulnerable to the unjust powers of this world from the day he was born, who was ultimately given a humiliating and painful slave’s death on a cross.

So maybe this parable means the opposite of what we think it means – maybe God is the poor widow and we’re the unjust judge, and God is banging at the door of this unjust world and asking us to take action to help the poor, the vulnerable, the oppressed, those without power.

Years ago, I remember seeing a cartoon: a man is praying to God about the world’s suffering, begging God to do something, saying, God, why haven’t you acted? God replies, that’s funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing.

So maybe we should read this parable in both ways. Yes, we should pray because God will hear. And yes, Jesus is telling us to persevere in prayer because that is what opens our minds and hearts to God’s action in our lives. Prayer is what takes us into the higher parts of our brains and our hearts, taking away our fear and anger, our tendency to lash out at those we love when we’re upset, helping us live with calm and compassion and love. As we pray, as we continually open our hearts to our God, we open a pathway for God to come to us: Knock, knock, knocking at our doors, asking us for justice, and giving us strength not only to love our neighbors, but to bring justice to this world, so that we and all our neighbors can live with abundance.