Sermon for October 4, 2015

Scriptures for today are Here

You know the movie – it could be any movie. It could be Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. It could be “When Harry Met Sally” or the Jane Austen knockoff teen romance “Clueless.” It could be any movie romantic comedy. They all end the same way. After one problem, miscommunication, and misunderstanding after another, the lovers discover that they like one another after all. They resolve their differences. They talk out their troubles. Their hearts fill with love. The closing music swells. And in a beautiful montage, at a wedding or on New Year’s Eve or at the high school prom, they dance in each other’s arms.

And we know, even if the closing line doesn’t appear in beautiful cursive script on the ending screen, that the ending is, “They Lived Happily Ever After.” It’s all very satisfying.

I think that quite possibly, what is so satisfying about that standard ending is that no one in history has ever actually lived happily ever after like that. Every single person who has ever gotten married has discovered what I often tell new couples who are preparing for marriage: the marriage ceremony is not the end of the story – it’s the beginning. The marriage begins a long life of ups and downs, life in good times and bad. Which is why, in The Episcopal Church, we promise to marry for better for worse. Because real life is not a fairy tale, and none of us will sail through life feeling the whole time like we’re Cinderella and the Prince dancing at the ball at a quarter to midnight. Life is just not that easy.

Which is what makes today’s gospel so relevant, and possibly so startling, to so many of us today. We’ve all had relationships, and most of us have had relationships that failed. And in many ways, we can look at our human relationships – not just our marriages, but also our other family relationships and our friendships and our relationships within our workplaces and our schools and our Christian communities – as laboratories for life. As practice for what it means to be a Christian. As the best way we humans have to discover and explore what it means to love God and love our neighbors. If we want to learn how to love, God gives us plenty of chances, starting with the people closest to us and moving out from there.

But it’s not easy. Love is never easy. There are those Cinderella and the Prince moments, but there are also those for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health moments. And Christian life is a matter of figuring out how to love – not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. After all, that’s how Jesus loved us.

So what’s going on in this gospel about marriage and divorce? The first thing to understand is that the folks who come to Jesus and ask this question are not really interested in Jesus’ views on marriage. They don’t really believe he is an authority on this or any issue. Instead, they want him to take sides on a controversial issue, which is, how do you interpret Scripture (which for them mean the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures)? Whatever he says about this controversial issue, he will make enemies.

In this case, the question they are really asking is this: Is the Bible a rule book that you have to interpret absolutely literally and follow word for word, like a set of legal regulations? And if so, how do you justify some of the unjust and difficult results that will occur? Or is the Bible something that allows room for broader interpretation? And if so, how do you justify departing from the letter of the law?

In the case of divorce, if you interpret the Bible as a word-for-word, literal rule book, then the rule is clear in Deuteronomy 24:1: a man can divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, if he finds anything “objectionable” about her, or for no reason at all. But under Jewish law, she doesn’t have a corresponding way to divorce her husband; for example, she has no way to escape from an abusive marriage. And given the economic and social climate of Jesus’ time, a woman who was divorced by her husband had no right to any property, no right to alimony, no future rights to her children – they are the property of their father, and he can prohibit her from seeing them if he wants to. And if her parents won’t take her back, then she is out on the street with no way to support herself except begging or prostitution. In such a situation, divorce is a terrible injustice, and everyone knows it.

The other school of thought was that divorce was allowed only for adultery (this departs from the letter of the law of Scripture, and therefore this is the liberal view). The liberal view in this case is also the merciful view – it protects the weak, it ensures that women will not be thrown out on the street. But if you take the liberal view, you can be accused of not honoring the scriptures.

So watch how Jesus avoids the trap. The Pharisees ask about divorce and Jesus instead talks about marriage. He puts the narrow scripture of Deuteronomy 24:1, which allows men to divorce their wives for any reason at all, into conversation with the broader scope of Scripture as the record of God’s love for humankind. In a conflict in interpretation between one narrow scripture and a broader view of all scripture, Jesus gives more weight to the broader scripture. The way Jesus reads it, scripture is far more than a narrow book of laws and regulations; scripture is a narrative of God’s true, lived relationship with people who are continually imperfect, continually falling short of the ideal for which God has created them.

Jesus explains the ideal of God’s hope for human marriage by talking about God’s hope for humans in creation: God created world, called it “good” in Genesis Chapter 1. Yet God immediately recognized in Genesis Chapter 2 that there was something not good: “it is not good for the human being (Adam) to be alone” – and God created a partner for Adam (Eve). The Biblical story of creation recognizes that human beings are made to live in relationship with each other and with God, which in marriage means a faithful, monogamous, lifelong commitment. Yet the fact is that that ideal did not persist for long given the realities of how humans relate to each other – polygamy and divorce were common by the time of the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs.

Jesus understands this reality, and says the reason for the law allowing divorce in Deuteronomy is hardness of heart – human sin – and the result was, in practice, that divorce was an injustice perpetrated against the weak (women) by the powerful (their husbands). Jesus speaks against this injustice by appealing to the broader purposes of God: respect, equality, love that honors the other above oneself, a marriage covenant that means a lifetime commitment.

So given that background, we need to understand in our own time, how Scripture applies. In our time: divorce is all too common – look at celebrities who don’t take the marriage commitment seriously when they make it, who seem to change partners as often as they change clothes. Who act like any romance is a movie romantic comedy – full of infatuation and warm glowing feelings. But in real life, that warm glow of romance is often followed by confrontation with the daily reality of sharing your life with someone else, and sometimes that means that strong romantic feelings, feelings of infatuation may begin to fade. If we’re not careful, we can read that loss of feeling as a loss of true love. When the fact is, as I tell new couples that daily routine of living with each other is when you really have the opportunity to learn to love.

Which begs the question: what is love, really? The Christian answer is that love is not a feeling but an action, a series of actions and decisions that you make, day in, and day out. To grow in full humanness, human beings must grow in relationship. Learning to love another person, over a long period of time, with the opportunity to experience each other’s flaws, to be in conflict and to reconcile, to compromise and to learn to put the other’s welfare before our own – for many of us, whether this challenge comes in marriage or some other relationship, this is the most difficult challenge we’ll ever face. Yet, with all its difficulties, if we figure out how to do it, the love we experience with another human being is the closest experience many of us will ever have with the kind of love God offers us.

Understanding more about what love is helps us understand marriage. Christian marriage is a covenant, not a contract. A person enters into a contract for his or her own benefit, and a contract is null and void if one provision is not met. And if marriage were a contract, it would mean that when we lose that pleasant infatuated feeling, we might as well leave – because we’re not getting what we want. From a legal sense, our society sees marriage as a contract.

But from a Christian standpoint, marriage is not a contract but a covenant. A covenant is unconditional, entered for the other’s benefit rather than our own. In a covenant, we commit to love the other more than we love ourselves. We commit to depend on each other, to make ourselves vulnerable with each other, to open our hearts to each other in trust and love. A covenant relationship requires us to ask: is this relationship fulfilling God’s purpose for us as human beings?

That question is why the Episcopal Church has decided to allow divorce and remarriage. There are some relationships that fall into patterns of abuse or addiction or mistreatment or simple human failure, and we humans can’t rescue them. One broad theme of scripture is there is always room for forgiveness and grace. God’s love for us and desire for us to flourish is why we recognize divorce and allow remarriage in the Episcopal Church; there is always forgiveness, there is always new life, there is always the hope of learning and growing.

In the case of divorce: is forgiveness available? Of course – this is the good news that Jesus brings to us. Is new life, new hope, new beginning possible? Yes, God can bring joy and hope out of despair and failure (after all, that’s one message of the cross!). We rejoice in the healing that remarriage after divorce can bring.

And a third question: is love a gift from God? Of course it is. But it’s not a gift you simply receive. It’s a gift you also give, from your heart, for the benefit of the other person, not for yourself. Because, after all, that’s the way Jesus loved us. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Sermon for Sept. 27, 2015

Scriptures for today are Here

In an article in the NY Times a few years ago, Zev Chafetz, who calls himself a Jewish agnostic, goes on a tour to learn how to pray, or at least to observe how others pray. He visits a giant church, the Brooklyn Tabernacle, which has a 250-voice gospel choir and what the pastor calls the biggest weekday prayer service in America. People call in prayer requests that are handed out to members of the congregation, and in small groups they pray for the people who requested the prayers. Zev receives a card for Pete and Angela, who are struggling with financial problems. In his small group, he explains that he doesn’t pray, and asks someone else to do it. But then he feels bad for Pete and Angela, who requested prayers in good faith. He tells his group he’s thinking good thoughts about them, and pronounces the words of a Hebrew blessing he remembers from his childhood. He goes home not much wiser about prayer, but feeling better because he did his duty.

He continues his investigation by going to an Anglican spiritual director, who listens kindly as he tells of his spiritual journey (or lack of it), then tells him that in future sessions they will explore what is meaningful to him. He goes to a Reform Jewish synagogue, where the rabbi laments the quality of prayers in a congregation where many people live too much in their heads, not their hearts (something that some Episcopalians share!). The rabbi explains that there are really only four basic prayers: Gimme, thanks, oops, and wow! And to learn to pray, you should start with Thanks!

Chafetz visits with Catholics, who explain classic Christian spiritual exercises. He visits an interfaith prayer service with leaders from Hinduism to Islam to Judaism to various kinds of Christians, all praying together in their own way.

And then, on Easter morning, he visits a small Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia, where before the service, seeing a stranger, the kids crowd around him, and begin to talk about prayer. One explains that she prayed for her grandmother when she broke her leg, and her grandmother is getting better; one tells how she prayed for her sister’s asthma, and her sister was healed, a third tells about the whole congregation praying for a boy who was burned, and the boy was recovering.

As it turned out, this was Zev’s favorite lesson in prayer of all his visits. He writes: “I liked being in this one. Especially the kids. They didn’t need … prayer techniques, or the high-tech mantras of the Brooklyn Tabernacle. Their prayers weren’t Rabbi Gellman’s suburban Jewish prayers of Thanks! offered to whom it may concern. They didn’t pray to de-center their egos or find transcendence or to set off on a lifelong therapeutic spiritual journey. They prayed to a God with whom they were on a first-name basis, and they believed their prayers gave them power, which they used on behalf of their asthmatic sisters and infirm grandparents and a kid they knew with burns on his body. Sitting in church on Easter morning, I realized that I was probably never going to become a praying man. But if, by some miracle, I ever do, I hope my prayers will be like the prayers of the kids I met at the Love church in Berkeley Springs. Straight-up Gimme! on behalf of people who really need the help.”

The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, says James in the Epistle today. James is a strange epistle: light on theology, heavy on living a Christian life. Some people think James is too heavy on works righteousness: that is, on arguing that our behavior as Christians is more important than our faith in Jesus. But I think if you read James closely, you see that James assumes that Jesus has already saved us, and how we act now is our response to being saved.

We just sang one of my favorite hymns: “Come thou fount of every blessing.” It’s written by an individual crying out to God; it’s a prayer for blessing. As we sing, we recognize our own weaknesses, and God’s ability to overcome them: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” We know as we sing, that faulty, imperfect people that we are, God is able to forgive us, welcome us into his kingdom, and help us grow as new people.

James in the epistle today talks about the same thing: the sinner being brought back from wandering. First Jesus embraces us, brings us into the fold, and then everything we do after that is in response to that gift: our life becomes an extended prayer of “Thanks.”

We’ve been reading James’ letter over past few weeks in worship, and we’ve heard James talking about how people in church behave toward each other. He has talked about how Christian faith needs to be lived out in a Christian way of life; he has criticized the rich, the hypocrites; he has gone to great lengths to explain the damage that people can do to each other by unkind talk, calling the tongue a blaze that can set church on fire, a destructive fire instead of the fire of the Holy Spirit that is supposed to set us ablaze. He has criticized conflict and said flatly that faith without works is dead. His concern has been for Christian community, that we live out our faith in communities that reflect the love that God has given us as a free gift in Christ.

And today he comes to the point: all that we do is lived in the shelter of God’s grace, and therefore every Christian action is truly prayer, because prayer is Christian life, and Christian life is prayer. We live in the presence of God. So praying is the primary action that the Christian community does together, not only in formal prayer addressed to God, but in the words we speak to each other, which are also a form of prayer, for good or ill, and in the ways we reach out to each other with acts of healing, forgiveness and grace.

As the friends and relatives of the children Zev Chafetz talked to at the small church in West Virginia were healed and given the love of the Christian community through prayer, so all of us are brought together through praying together. So we pray for each other, we anoint each other for healing, we confess our sins, we give thanks and sing songs of praise together, and all these are prayer.

And in praying, we recognize two things about God: God is transcendent and mysterious, larger than we can understand or imagine; a mystery to be experienced but not explained. But God is also as close to us as our own breath, God is intimately involved in human affairs, and God is vitally interested in us, in listening to us and speaking to us, and God can truly make a difference in our lives.

Like in the gospel today, where Jesus uses exaggerated language (don’t try this at home! He doesn’t mean it literally!) to make the point that we should turn away from criticizing other Christians and instead look inside ourselves and work to remove whatever separates us from God, we pray for healing, forgiveness and grace because we believe that God can take action in our world. We believe that our faith and our longing for God is a prayer that God will answer with presence and love.

But this is a mystery too: why is it that God knows our needs before we ask, and yet the asking is important? Why is it that God loves us before we know about God’s love, and yet the prayer for healing is necessary?

The prayer of faith will save the sick, says James – but how, and why? After all, we’ve all known many people who received heartfelt prayers for healing, and yet were not cured of their diseases.

I believe that prayer is effective because it opens our hearts and minds to a reality that is beyond the material world; it brings us into a place where the spirituality that is a true and important part of us – and yet an easily ignored and often neglected part – can become integrated with our physical being. And so our prayer to God, for ourselves and for others, helps heal our spirits even when our bodies are not cured. Curing is not the same as healing. Healing can mean restoring relationships, it can mean assuring someone of God’s presence and love, it can mean giving peace and a holy end. I believe when we pray, God always answers in some way. Prayer makes a difference, in individual lives and the life of the community.

When I was studying to become a priest, I worked for a summer as a chaplain in a hospital. One day, I was called to the ICU, and found there a scene of incredible drama. A man who was addicted to methamphetamines had been injecting drugs directly into his carotid artery. He developed an abscess, which burst while he was being prepped for surgery, and a tech who just happened to be standing by put his finger in the dike and saved his life. When I got there, the man was crying out for God, asking for a Catholic priest to give him last rites. I couldn’t do that, but I could pray with him, and I did.

And over next few weeks, as he recovered physically – a medical miracle in itself – I learned his story, heard how his drug habit had separated him from his family and everything he had once worked and hoped for, had left him completely alone and bereft – and I began praying with him. And I watched as little by little, he was healed – he left his addiction behind, he restored relationships with his family. It was a miracle that wouldn’t have happened without God’s grace.

I can look at that situation and ask, why would God pour healing grace and a miracle cure on this man, who had wasted so much of his life? I don’t know. What I do know is that God loved this man, as God loves us all – and that prayer over a long period of time saved him and restored him to Christian life. Which is what the Christian community is for. We are here to help each other. We are here to pray for each other. We are here to build each other up. We pray, we sing, we confess our sins, we anoint the sick, we share a holy feast together. All of these things bring us together in the body of Christ. Because all of our life together is prayer, spoken and lived in the presence of God.

Sermon for 9.6.15

Scriptures for today are here.

Just this week was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005. Three years after the storm, in 2008, I went to New Orleans for some church conference or other. One of the offerings of the conference was a bus tour of the neighborhoods that had been ruined by the storm.

-12ece5ef083f04dfSo I joined the bus tour, and rode slowly through these neighborhoods, where you could still see water lines on the outside of houses that showed how high the water had risen. On most of the houses were spray-painted markings, and guides explained the markings to us. Rescuers would go into a house and spray-paint a big “X” on the houses, and in each quadrant they would write markings that told other people who had been there, when they had been there, and what they had found – how many people and animals, dead or alive. Through the windows, we stared, fascinated, at those x-codes that told snippets of the stories of what had happened in each house.

And then, as our bus approached the Lower Ninth Ward, it stopped and a young African-American man got on. The Lower Ninth Ward, of course, was below sea level, and as is the case in so many places, the least desirable real estate is where the poorest people live. So the Lower Ninth Ward was overwhelmingly African-American, and very poor.

But this young man who got on the bus grew up there, and for him it was a community, a neighborhood. He told us how he had grown up, how he had known every person on his street, from the children he played with to the women who kept an eye on them from their kitchen windows and front porches, and scolded them if their play got too rowdy.

By the time of Katrina, he had moved to another part of the city to go to school. But he came home the night before the storm to try to convince his mother to leave. She refused, she insisted on staying with her house to protect it, so he went back to his apartment. And as he left, he walked down the street where he grew up, toward the corner where he would catch the bus to take him away. And as he walked he said hello to people: young people he had played with as children; women who helped raise him, who he called “Auntie;” the elderly gentleman across the street who taught him how to change the oil in his first car; the pastor’s wife on the corner who taught him in Sunday school and directed him in the church choir – all out on their front porches, all waving at him and saying hello, and goodbye, to a friend.

And it was only a week later, as he was grieving the death of his mother, that it hit him that every single person he talked to that afternoon was gone.

He couldn’t tell the story without weeping for the people he had lost, for the community he had lost, and we couldn’t listen without weeping too.

Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal.

And part of what struck me, an educated, comfortable, white person staring out of a bus window three years later at an incomprehensible scene of not disaster, but desolation, emptiness – blocks and blocks of empty yards with weeds and concrete foundations, the houses that had been built on them simply gone – was that although the hurricane itself was a natural disaster, the human suffering that followed was an economic and social disaster. It was made worse by the barriers that arise between human beings as a result of history and race and money, and some of those barriers are truly life-threatening to the poor.

And I knew that surely God’s heart broke just as this young man’s did, surely God wants to see dangerous, heartbreaking barriers that separate people and keep them in desperate situations, fall, so we all can live in security and safety.

God’s love for the human race, and God’s hope for barriers to fall and for all people to live and thrive, is woven throughout the scriptures. Over and over, God tells us to care for the poor, to care for the widows and orphans, to love those who are different from ourselves. Our Proverbs lesson and James lesson both say we are to help the poor. And James says flatly, Faith without works is dead – you can’t just believe – you have to act. In other words, if our faith is alive, our love for others will be alive, and we will reach out in compassion to others because our God loves them.

And then our gospel lesson today presents us with a startling story of Jesus being confronted by an outsider, responding the way his society expects him to – maintaining barriers of class and nationality – and being brought up short by a woman who helps him discover his true mission.

So what is it Jesus does here that is so startling? He calls a woman a “dog.” He goes to a foreign country – if it’s not clear from the story, Tyre is outside Israel, in what is now south Lebanon, on the shore of the Mediterranean. So you can imagine Jesus wanting a little rest and recreation at the beach, and going there secretly to rest. But his presence doesn’t stay a secret: a non-Jewish woman, a Syrian woman, comes to him, desperate because her daughter is terribly ill, and what mother wouldn’t do the same?

Jesus looks at this suffering woman and says, you don’t take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs – basically saying Jews are the children, Gentiles are dogs, and Gentiles don’t deserve what he has to offer. (And remember, most of us in this room are Gentiles – that’s us he’s talking about.)

In other words, though Jesus was both human and divine, his human side was brought up to respect the barriers that divide people, and those barriers are strong, so strong that even the Son of God has a moment when he seems subject to them.

The woman persists, and he changes his mind, and heals the child. But the problem for us is – how could Jesus have said this? The perfectly nice, all-knowing, compassionate Jesus we know and love? I have read and heard lots of commentaries that say Jesus didn’t mean it. Lots of people say, oh, Jesus was just testing the woman’s faith, and she passed. Others say, oh, Jesus was actually testing the disciples’ faith to see if they would give the right answer, and when they failed, he turned to the woman who said the right thing. Maybe – I guess it’s possible – but our story doesn’t say that’s what happened. That doesn’t seem to be what Mark is saying. I think we should take this story at face value, realize that it is difficult, and wrestle with it as it is – and when we do, new things appear.

First of all, the reason we have a problem with this story is, we think Jesus should have known all the time that Gentiles like us were included in his mission. But what’s wrong with Jesus not knowing this from the beginning? What’s wrong with Jesus having a human veil that partially concealed God’s will from him? What’s wrong with Jesus learning over time, through prayer and interaction with the world, what his true mission was, just like we have to do? What’s wrong with him being able to open his ears, listen to what someone new was telling him, across an age-old human barrier, and learning from it? Learning from it something so momentous that it changes his whole mission?

We see in this story Jesus himself, his human side, being trapped by all the same barriers we humans are trapped by, assuming that someone different should be shunned – and then we see those barriers between human beings falling, as Jesus realizes his mission is not just to people like him, but to the whole world. Mark seems to show this moment very clearly as a turning point for Jesus. Where before, Mark shows him only healing and preaching to Jews, afterwards we see Jesus opening up his mission to all kinds of people.

So what’s wrong with seeing this story as Mark saw it, that this was a turning point for Jesus, that one lowly, suffering, desperate, foreign woman could come to him and open his ears and his eyes to a whole new aspect of God’s plan?

I love it that Jesus listened to this woman and changed his mind. Because you know what that means? It means that God listens to you and me too. It means that God hears us when we pray. It means that God is in true relationship with us, and that we matter to God. It means that we are not puppets who perform a little drama that God has scripted in advance, and God just sits back to enjoy the play. It means that God respects us, listens to us, and is willing to truly respond to us.

Jesus opened his ears, listened to a woman, and changed his mission.

And if we have any doubt about whether that’s what Mark wants us to understand, I think the next story seals the deal: Jesus opens the ears of a deaf man and that man begins to speak clearly.

This is a story about listening. This is a story about understanding. This is a story about transformation and mission. If Jesus can open his ears and listen, then so can we. We can listen to each other across barriers of race and class and wealth, we can listen to each other across barriers of political disagreement.

And we can learn that God loves the least of those in this world, that God aches for every struggling single mother and every person who doesn’t have enough food or education or a place to live and every Syrian refugee we see in heartbreaking photographs.

Because although we are all very different people, the human heart is universal. And God loves us, each one of us – and God calls us to reach out in love.

As I rode in that bus that hot day in 2008, looking at scenes of emptiness that used to be the Lower Ninth Ward, the bus pulled up to one of the few buildings left standing. It was a brick building that used to be a Walgreen’s, and unlike the wooden houses around it, it survived the storm. And because Walgreen’s didn’t see any hope for business in that empty neighborhood, the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana bought it and opened a church there.

On this weekday, church volunteers were setting up toys and books and shelves and rugs for a children’s after-school program. They were providing children with a safe place to stay while their parents tried to rebuild their lives – giving them food and water and the assurance they were cared for. And person after person in the city told me that the only people who were truly helping were the churches – where official programs failed, Christian people were coming in, rebuilding, caring for children, and making a difference.

And that, I think, is the meaning of our gospel today. That God doesn’t see, doesn’t want to see, our barriers of race and class and wealth. That our call is to open our ears, to listen to each other, to love each other, to reach out to others in compassion, to make a difference in this world.

Because although we are different, the human heart is universal, and God loves us all.

Sermon for 8.23.15

Scriptures for today are here.

Victor Frankl was a prominent Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna – but in 1942, he was arrested, along with most of his family, and sent to a concentration camp. The rest of his family died, but Frankl survived, and in 9 days in 1946, he wrote a book that the Library of Congress in 1991 called one of the 10 most influential books in America: Man’s Search for Meaning. In the book, Frankl wrote about his experiences in the camps and his work counseling other prisoners there.

Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the camps didn’t have so much to do with their physical condition or the things they suffered: it had to do with whether they had meaning in their lives. Those who believed their lives had meaning and purpose were far more able to bear suffering, had a far greater will to live, than those who didn’t. He told about two people he had counseled in the camps, who in the miserable conditions were both considering suicide. Neither saw much reason to live, because like everyone would be there, they were deeply unhappy.

But Frankl helped them both to see that they had something to live for, a deeper meaning to their lives than what they were suffering right then. One was a scientist and wanted to finish a series of books to help the cause of science. One had a child who had escaped and was living in another country, and wanted to find him after the war. “In both cases,” Frankl wrote, ‘it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in future was expected of them.” Both of those men – and presumably all the prisoners – were deeply unhappy, yet for those who found meaning, there was a reason to live. They survived.

An article in the Atlantic in 2013 talked about this idea of happiness versus meaning. Six out of 10 Americans say they are happy, but 4 out of 10 say they haven’t found a satisfying life purpose. A major psychological study explored this difference. Happiness arises when you are well fed, maybe you are sitting in a comfortable chair, you’re watching a good movie, you have no complaints. Your immediate physical needs are met. Animals can be happy just as much as humans can. So happiness comes from external factors – it’s associated with getting what you want, receiving, taking.

But having meaning and purpose in life, the study found, is associated with giving. And what humans can have that animals don’t have is meaning. The study said: “Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.”

And ironically, just pursuit of happiness, just spending one’s life making sure you get what you want, makes people in the long-term lead a less happy, less satisfied life. According to the study: “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

For instance, parents of small children aren’t as happy as those without – they get less sleep, they don’t get to eat what they like all the time, they don’t get to go out as much, they have their attention diverted from what they want to be reading or watching or doing to what is good for their kids – endlessly reading Goodnight Moon, for instance. I wonder how many hours I’ve spent reading that book – bored to tears by the book itself, but it was worth it, because to those kids snuggled up in their pajamas, the lesson it taught was not just the book. It was the lesson that I love them, a lesson of infinite value.

And parents of small children unsurprisingly report that despite the inconvenience, they see the children they are pouring themselves into as a big part of their life’s meaning. Raising children is an exercise in giving, not taking.

The study participants in general said they got meaning from sacrificing on behalf of others and being a part of a group. Martin Seligman, one of authors, wrote that in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

People who have great meaning in life will actively seek out challenges that will bring short-term decreases in happiness – for instance, going on mission trips even though you might be uncomfortable. Having meaning in life brings us joy, as opposed to happiness. Joy means a deep satisfaction that can arise even in the most difficult circumstances. Joy means a person in a concentration camp, or in a hospital, or suffering grief from the death of a loved one, or without enough money to live comfortably, or sacrificing her own comfort for the good of others, has a real sense that her life is worth living, or that he is giving himself to something important.

This difference between meaning and happiness, I think, helps explain what is going on in today’s gospel. Today we finally come to end of Bread of Life story that we’ve been reading for 5 weeks. Remember how it started – Jesus fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish. He satisfied their physical needs, he made them happy.

But it turns out that giving happiness is not the reason he has fed them. It turns out that Jesus wants to give them a deeper meaning and purpose: called eternal life, that starts now and goes to eternity. And that that deeper meaning and purpose will involve sacrifice, it will demand giving of themselves, it will require them to open their minds to uncomfortable truths.

Jesus talks about the bread he gives the people as being “bread from heaven,” like manna in the wilderness. Giving manna to feed the people of Israel as they were escaping from slavery in Egypt was not just God’s way of giving happiness, meeting their immediate physical needs. It was God’s way of giving meaning – leading them to freedom. They had to learn to trust God.

But nevertheless, they grumbled, they complained, they failed to trust. They kept yearning for their old lives in slavery, where they weren’t free, but they knew where their next meal was coming from and where they would sleep each night. God didn’t listen to their complaints, but kept on leading them to freedom instead – which is much bigger than happiness.

In the gospel today we find something similar happening. The people around Jesus hear the teaching about Jesus being bread from heaven, they hear him say to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They hear him demand that they begin to live with his essence as part of their very selves, part of the blood running in their veins. They hear him asking them to abide with him, to take him in as a very part of their lives, flesh and blood, body and soul, in a bond of love that can’t be broken. They hear him offering them meaning and purpose – in this life and to eternal life.

And they want to run back to the simple, the predictable, the known. They have the same basic problem the Israelites had – they don’t trust God. When Jesus says to “believe” – he doesn’t mean believe with your head, adopt a set of beliefs, but believe with your heart. It’s like saying to someone, “I believe in you” – you’re not saying I believe you exist, but rather: I believe in what you are doing, I put my trust in you. The kind of belief Jesus wants from us is an “I believe in you “ belief – a willingness to put our hearts on the line, follow where Jesus leads, no matter how difficult or unlikely his words and his promises seem.

Believing in Jesus means doing things that bring meaning to life – sacrificing yourself, giving to others, devoting yourself to a cause that’s bigger than you. It means I believe in you, Jesus, I put my trust in you, or as Peter says, Where else would we go? I am going to follow wherever you lead because you have the words of eternal life. You have the words of love that bring meaning and purpose to my life.

So where is Jesus going to lead us? Well, Jesus sometimes leads in some difficult directions. Jesus isn’t easy to follow. Jesus will sometimes lead us into unjust situations and call on us to change them. Jesus will say astonishing things like, Forgive others as you have been forgiven. Love your enemies. Don’t judge other people, because you might be judged too. Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers and sisters, you have done it to me. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.

Jesus might give us a mission and ministry that could transform lives. Following Jesus might be difficult. But it could also be amazing, it could be fulfilling, it could change us, from the inside out, and it could change the world.

Which brings us back to Victor Frankl and the search for meaning versus the pursuit of happiness. Where is it that you find meaning in your life? Many of us might say in our family, or our work. But something brought you here this morning – even though you had other options. Maybe something said, God, just give me one more hour of sleep, maybe you wanted to linger over breakfast and the paper, maybe it was hard getting the kids dressed and in the car. But you left behind short-term happiness, and came here in search of meaning.

(Not that you won’t find happiness here! Maybe you’ll hear some beautiful music, maybe you’ll hear an interesting sermon – or maybe not – maybe you’ll see people you enjoy.)

But at heart, I believe that the reason people are part of Christ’s church is because as human beings, we need a deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.

So perhaps you came here wondering how Jesus would feed you today, body and soul; perhaps you came hoping that your children would learn the great truth that Jesus loves them, that lesson of infinite value; perhaps you came looking for whatever healing God might bring; perhaps you came seeking a word Christ might speak into your life; perhaps you came listening for a call from the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps you come here because every now and then, there’s a moment when the blazing presence of God is gloriously apparent, and then it fades, but it brings inexplicable tears to your eyes because you have fleetingly touched the divine. And when that happens, when you hear that call or experience that presence or feel that healing or know that Jesus truly, deeply loves you, and abides in you, then you have the deepest, most meaningful, most true thing to believe in, in the world.

That God, our Christ, our beloved Jesus, has the words of eternal life. And in him, we find our life’s truest meaning and purpose.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2015

At St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales, AZ, once a month, miracles happen. Once a month, the church hosts the St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic, where American doctors and nurses and health care professionals of all kinds come and give free medical care to handicapped children from Mexico. These children are the poorest of the poor, unable to afford the kind of lifesaving treatments that could give them new hope. But once a month they get a day pass to come into the US, their families come with them, and they get the care they need.

On the one day a month when this happens, the whole church is set up as a clinic. In the sanctuary there are pediatricians, in the narthex are physical and occupational therapists. In the chapel are teachers for visually impaired kids. In a mobile home out back is a clinic for hearing-impaired kids. In the sacristy they have clinics set up for prosthetic limbs and orthopedic shoes.

Every square inch of the church is converted to a medical clinic, and it takes an army of people to run it – people to set up and take down all the equipment, people to give the medical care, people to donate supplies, people to interpret, people to make lunch for all the workers.

And they see miracles – oh, they see miracles. I’ve gone there several times with our youth group and others, and the first time, I heard a story from Deacon Mike Meyers. His day job is as the owner of an orthopedic shoe store. Someone invited him to come down and see the clinic, so he brought some shoes along and went. So he was set up in the sacristy, and a family wheeled a little girl in, in a wheelchair. He looked at her, said, I think I have some shoes that will fit you, he put them on her. He felt her toes, and said, yes, I think those fit you. Now stand up and let’s see. She stood up, and he said, that’s good, now walk a couple of steps and we’ll check the fit. She walked a couple of steps, and he said, yes, I think those shoes will do.

And then he looked up and realized that everyone in the room was crying. That little girl had never walked before.

It was a miracle – God’s love in action – the simple gifts of a variety of people made that miracle happen. It wasn’t a supernatural miracle (though I have seen supernatural miracles), it was the church in action.

And when you think about it, that miracle was way bigger than Mike Meyers. It took all those folks to make this miracle happen – the cooks, the setup crew, the church, the people who raise the money, people who serve on the board. And more than that, it took the family of this little girl, who never gave up, who made the difficult and harrowing trip each month to get her the care she needed. And it took the little girl herself, who accepted a gift and had the courage to willingly try what she had never tried before. Every single person in that story was an agent of God’s kingdom, working together to give their different gifts, coming together as one to make God’s love manifest in this world by making a miracle happen. All had different roles, all had different gifts to give – and because of them all, a little girl learned to walk, and you and I are here to know about it and file it away and remember that God is truly present here on this earth with us.

Today is Trinity Sunday, when the church contemplates the mystery of Holy Trinity – God who has revealed self to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You may wonder what that has to do with the clinic in Nogales – well, we’ll get to that.

Now if you’re like me, this is a doctrine you don’t, can’t possibly understand. It takes a lot of very careful language to understand the Trinity, and even then we can only come close. If you want to see the best explanation, you can look at the Athanasian Creed on page 864 of the prayer book. But if you come away from reading it telling me that you have a complete understanding of the Trinity, I won’t believe you. None of us humans, with our finite minds, can understand the infinite. How can something be one in three and three in one? People have tried many different ways to understand it, and have offered lots of bad analogies: like the idea of water, that could appear as ice or liquid or steam, but it’s all still water. Or the idea that I’m one person, but some people see me as a priest and two people see me as a mother and one person sees me as a wife, but I’m still the same person, just taking on different roles. Let’s be clear – those are not good analogies – those are both just examples of the same thing appearing in three different ways, as if God just goes around doing things and we give him a different name depending on what hat he happens to be wearing.

But the mystery of the Trinity is that it’s not about one-ness; it’s about three-ness, about diversity. But it’s also not just about diversity and three-ness; it’s also about unity and oneness. The doctrine of Trinity says there are three distinct persons in the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but they are one in substance, one in will. How can this make sense?

rublev-trinity2To give it a little context, let’s look at the beautiful picture on the screen – one of the most famous icons in Christian tradition – Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity. In this illustration, you see them at a table together, three persons who are distinct from each other, dressed differently, but you can’t really tell them apart, can’t imagine that one is more important than others; they are all distinct but equal. They’re neither male nor female – they’re either, or both. They sit at the table and look at each other with gazes of love – each one looking at another, no duo any stronger than any other – all three love each other intensely.

This illustration tells us something important about the Trinity: it tells us that God is a community of love. If there were only one figure, this would not be a picture of love. If there were two figures, this might be a picture of a relationship, but a relationship that no one else could participate in. Because there are three figures, you can see that they love each other, equally, and their love binds them together as a unity out of diversity.

With me so far? Here’s why this is important.

We say that God is love. But love is not an abstraction. There is no such thing as love that just floats around in the air without someone doing the loving and someone being loved. Love is active, love is specific, love is not a feeling but an exercise of the will, love is a decision to care about someone so intensely you will do anything for them. Love requires a Lover and a Beloved. Without persons loving, there is no love. Because there are three figures here, love flows between them.

What I’m describing to you is the Social Doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine championed by great contemporary theologians like Juergen Moltmann and Miroslav Volf. It tries to explain not what the Trinity is, but why it matters to us.

To me, the Social Doctrine of the Trinity tells me why Trinity is not an abstraction, but actually incredibly important to us as Christians and as human beings. What’s important is that God encompasses a community of pure love.

If you’re going to make the argument that God is Love, that means that from before time began, there was a community in God, a community of Lovers and those Beloved. But not a community of three Gods; a community of three persons united in substance and will so that the love that flows between them is perfect, eternal. When we say that Jesus was the only begotten Son of God, we are saying that Jesus the Son was born out of love, that he existed from before time because God is Love; and when we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, we are saying that the love of God is more than a duality of mutual admiration; the love of God is a community of love. It is love that respects the individuality of each person at this table in this icon, but it is love that binds them together in a unity of will, a unity of substance.

Here’s what else is important about that. Take another look at the icon. There are three persons sitting around a four-sided table. There is room at the table for one more. In this picture, the open side is our side. We are standing here, this table open to us, receiving an invitation to join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at their table of perfect community, perfect love. This community of love that exists within the heart of God encompasses us too. In fact, Christian theology says that because God is love, God is entirely love, that creation happened because God’s love spilled over. God created us and this world and the planets and the stars out of an excess of love, and the love that exists between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is so big that it can’t be contained within them – it extends to us too.

God can’t help but love us, God can’t help but invite us to this table, God yearns for us to be part of that community of love, that’s why Jesus came to find us when we were lost and bring us home, that’s why the Holy Spirit is still present and active in this church, that’s why we are adopted as God’s children through the sacrament of Holy Baptism that gives us new birth from above; it is all because of God’s eternal love.

And one more thing. Because God is a unity of love out of a community of diversity, that’s what we are called to be too. We are made in the image of God, and that means we are made for relationship, we are made for love. When Jesus commanded us to love God and love our neighbors, he wasn’t just imposing new rules on us. He was saying, be who you are created to be. Become who you are.

We are born out of love and we are brought together in love, and as a church we too are called to be a unity born out of diversity. We are called to respect and honor each other’s differences – that’s our diversity. At the same time that we exist because of, and for the sake of love. That’s our unity.

That clinic in Nogales, where one day a miracle of love became manifest? That miracle was born out of a community of diverse talents and gifts. Doctors, accountants, cooks, shoe store owners, interpreters, people who do setup and take down – every single member of that community was valued and essential – every single member of that community helped that miracle of love become manifest. Out of that community, love was created. Out of that community, love was given to one little girl, to the glory of God.

That is the church in action. Because we are made in the image of God, that is who we are called to be: a community of love, honoring each other, calling forth the best in each other, joining together in a unity of mission, bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit, unity in diversity, the many coming together as one. We are a Trinitarian community, going forth in mission, and reflecting the love that is the deepest truth and the eternal reality of the heart of God.

Sermon for 4.26.15

Scriptures for this Sunday are Here.

If you grew up going to church and Sunday school, you probably heard a lot about shepherds and sheep. You might have done that Sunday school craft where you glue cotton balls to paper sheep cutouts so they look like puffy, woolly sheep. You might have memorized the 23rd Psalm, as I did, though you probably memorized it in the King James version, and were slightly annoyed when we recited a different version of it a minute ago. You might have seen lots of pictures of Jesus the good shepherd, and if you did, my guess is that they looked something like this: romantic, soft-focus pictures where the sheep and shepherd look very clean and happy.in-the-shepherds-care-simon-dewey

Or maybe like this: hearts and rainbows!

jesus-shepherd-clipart-Jesus_is_a_good_Shepherd

But the fact is, the Good Shepherd image was never intended to be soft focus or romantic. People in ancient Israel who heard about shepherds were likely to picture something more like this – an African tribesman tending his sheep.good shepherd

Or like this – a modern Palestinian shepherd who probably looks a lot like the shepherds of Jesus’ time.7339064472_b3147e8bd7_b

Shepherds in ancient Israel were considered to be, not clean and romantic, but dirty and irreligious. They couldn’t fulfill religious rituals like washing before meals, they lived outdoors, they were probably smelly, uneducated in scriptures, illiterate, they didn’t really know how to act around people because they spent all their time alone, so they were outcast, lowly, poor people. But they knew their sheep by name, and their sheep would go where they called.

The great king David, who wrote the 23rd Psalm, started life as a lowly shepherd boy, so he understood what shepherding was all about. He was famous for protecting his sheep from lions and bears. To the owner, the life of the sheep was worth far more than the life of the shepherd. So the shepherd risked his own life to protect his sheep.

So when Jesus begins talking about being Good Shepherd in today’s gospel, he is hearkening back to strong Jewish tradition, both cultural and scriptural. Frequently in the scriptures, Israel is referred to as the sheep, Israel’s leaders as the shepherds, God as the ultimate shepherd. And the leaders of Israel often are seen as wicked shepherds who fail the sheep, even turning against them and devouring them (figuratively).

One of most famous examples of this in the scriptures is in the book of the prophet Ezekiel Chapter 34, where the prophet, speaking in God’s voice, pronounces judgment against the leaders of Israel, shepherds who have turned against their sheep, who don’t protect the sheep, who use them for their own gain:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God.

At the time Ezekiel said these things, King David had been dead for centuries. So God is not literally saying David will be the shepherd – God is saying that he will send a Messiah, a shepherd in the tradition of David.

It’s with this prophecy in mind that Jesus starts talking today about being the good shepherd, because he has just come out of a conflict with the rulers of the Temple in Jerusalem. In John Chapter 9, just before today’s gospel, Jesus healed a blind man. The Temple leaders threw the formerly blind man out of the Temple for telling the truth, that Jesus healed him. Jesus went and found the formerly blind man, and said, “Follow me.” In other words, Jesus was strengthening the weak, healing the sick, seeking out the lost, doing what God said he would do in Ezekiel.

Jesus’ proclamation that he is the Good Shepherd is a judgment against the rulers of the Temple, who are acting for own gain, who are the “hired hands” who don’t protect the sheep, but who run away from danger. It is a pronouncement that Jesus stands in the place of God, who says, I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep. Jesus says these Temple leaders are the hired hands, but I’m the Good Shepherd. And it is a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is claiming to be one with God. This is serious stuff here, because Jesus knows that this claim will get him killed – “he lays down his life for sheep” is not just sentimental metaphor. Jesus knows exactly where claims like this will get him – to the cross. This is not a story about soft edges, hearts & rainbows – this is about life and death.

So good – what does that have to do with us? We know Jesus is the Messiah, we say every week in the Nicene Creed that he is God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Why should any of this be a surprise to us? Why not picture it in hearts & rainbows, since we know how the story ends, with resurrection?

Here’s why: because we are the Body of Christ. The mission that Jesus started is the one that we are commanded to continue, in his name. Oh, we’re not called to be the Messiah – there was only one of those. And most of us will not be called to lay our life down for our faith – there are plenty of Christians in this world who give their lives for their Christian faith, still today, but not us comfortable North Americans. No, we are free to proclaim ourselves Christians all we want.

But – we are still leaders, shepherds of God’s people, as followers of Christ. As Christians, we trust ourselves to the hands of the Good Shepherd. And in turn, he trusts us to abide in his love and share that love with others. So as a church, as a body, we are called to be shepherds to our community, to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, seek out the lost. We are called to care for the physical, financial, and material needs of those who surround us. As the first letter of John says, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” We are called to use what God has given us to share with those in need.

And we are also called to care for the spiritual needs of those around us – seeking out those who have not heard the news of God’s love and God’s sacrifice for them, telling them of the loving relationship with God we are given through Jesus Christ.

That’s the mission of the church, no two ways about it – not just to care for those inside the church, but also to seek out those outside the church. Because God loves those lost sheep just as much as God loves us.

But what about each of us, individually? What’s our mission as followers of Christ? How are we shepherds of the good news that Jesus has given us?

I was fascinated a couple of weeks ago to read an editorial in the NYTimes by David Brooks, a conservative columnist who has just finished a sabbatical in which he wrote a book, The Road to Character. In his column about where this book came from, he wrote:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

In an interview with NPR, he described these people:

I would come across people who just — they just glowed. I remember I was up in Frederick, Md., visiting some people who tutor immigrants; they teach them English and how to read. And I walk in a room — 30 people, mostly women, probably 50 to 80 years old — and they just radiated a generosity of spirit, they radiated a patience and most of all they radiated gratitude for life. And I remember thinking: ‘You know, I’ve achieved career success in life, but I haven’t achieved that. What they have is that inner light that I do not have. And I’ve only got one life — I’d like to at least figure out how to get there.’

As he wondered about these people, it occurred to him that there are two sets of human virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues – and while everyone agrees that eulogy virtues like love, kindness, and compassion are more important, our society spends all its time working on resume virtues – we learn them in school, we spend our careers developing them, we build our identities around them.

So he set to work researching people who had extraordinary eulogy virtues, to find out what makes them different –people as disparate as Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, George Eliot, Frances Perkins. And he decided they had several qualities.

They had humility – they were profoundly honest about their own weaknesses, and took steps to overcome them – they knew their biggest sin. For Eisenhower, his biggest sin was his temper. So he did things like, in private, write the names of the people he didn’t like on pieces of paper and tear them up, so that in public he could be calm and even-tempered. He made himself into a low-key, even-tempered person.

These folks realized their own dependency – they were not self-made loners, but they understood that they were surrounded by a web of connections that helped them be who they are, and they made deep, unconditional commitments to the others around them. They each had an experience of energizing love – an experience of love that redefined them from the inside out – love of a child, love of another that required giving of oneself.

They spent their time answering what they believe is a calling, whether it was career or family or something else. They made moral decisions according to their own conscience – they left social mores and judgments behind and devoted their lives to what they believed was right.

These are not specifically Christian virtues – some of the folks he researched were Christians, some were not. But I would say that these values are deeply in line with who we are called to become as Christians and as followers of the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is profoundly devoted to the welfare of his flock, and that is what we are called to be in our lives too. We are called to be transformed from the inside out by an experience of love – love of others, that changes our lives, and love of God, to whom we grow closer and closer as we devote ourselves to worship and prayer and the Christian life.

We are called to make deep commitments to the people we love and to the world around us – answering the calling of God to become shepherds, leaders in our families, workplaces, and communities, changing our world for the better. We are called to a life of humility, recognizing and overcoming our own weaknesses, and rejoicing in our interdependence with those around us. And we are called to a life of self-giving service.

As Jesus gave his life for the sheep, for us, so we are to spend our lives building up the world around us – because we are the shepherds who follow in the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sermon Notes for 4.19.15

Sometimes the hands of the people we love are as familiar to us as our own hands. I think of my mother’s hands – not long and slim and elegant, not delicate feminine hands, but strong and capable hands. I can think back to my childhood and remember those hands – holding my hand as we walked across the street, patiently showing me how to tie my shoes, carefully holding my small hand clutching a pencil, showing me how to make words on paper, testing my forehead to see if I had a fever, putting a Band-aid on a skinned knee, playing the piano, not expertly, but well enough to play carols while we decorated the Christmas tree. Or, more recently, making beautiful vestments for her daughter, the priest. From a thousand miles away I can picture my mother’s hands, in detail.

And maybe you’re like that, too, with the people you love. Maybe you remember the thrill, the first time you held hands with a person you came to love. Maybe you remember the moment your spouse first put your wedding ring on your finger. Maybe the first time you saw your newborn child, you held out your finger and watched her tiny hand clutch it tightly, and maybe it made you cry because that tiny child had a grip on life so determined and so strong. The hands of those we love are imprinted on our minds.

Perhaps this is why the resurrected Jesus says “Look at my hands and my feet. Touch me and see.” The familiar hands that healed and blessed, the familiar feet that walked for miles alongside his friends – these they know as well as their own hands and feet. Yet these familiar hands are also evidence of Jesus’ death, carrying the wounds of his terrifying crucifixion. But here he is, in the midst of his friends, and these familiar, wounded hands and feet become evidence not only of death, but also of resurrection.

Luke, our gospel writer, is very careful to make sure we understand that the resurrection of Jesus is outside all categories we can understand. Jesus has a physical body – you can touch him, and he can eat a piece of broiled fish, of all things. it’s not a completely new body, because it still carries the marks of Jesus’ life on earth: the wounds of his crucifixion are still there on his hands and feet. But it’s not a physical body like yours and mine: he can suddenly appear behind locked doors, he can walk for miles alongside two good friends who don’t recognize him until he does something characteristic, like break bread and bless it, and then he disappears from their sight. This is a category of life we can’t possibly understand.

We understand the category of living people, and Jesus does not fit into this category, because he has died – the scriptures are emphatic about this. His death on the cross was no fake – he was dead and laid in tomb, and many people saw it happen.

We understand category of dead people – but Jesus doesn’t fit here either. Dead people do not get up and walk around – the ancient Jews knew this well. Modern people sometimes think the disciples must have been simple country bumpkins who didn’t know about death, and that’s why they could make up this crazy story about resurrection. But let’s be clear – they were far more familiar with death than we are – they lived with it every day. Their children died young, their wives and sisters and mothers died in childbirth, their elderly parents lived in the same house with them, they watched people die gruesome deaths on public crosses. They didn’t have sterile hospital rooms and beautifully appointed mortuaries that mask the reality of death. When someone died, the whole family was there with them. They knew far more, far more personally, about death than we do. These folks understood category of dead people, and Jesus didn’t fit it.

We even understand the category of ghosts. We may not believe in it, but we can understand what ghosts are – spirits of those who have died, who somehow linger and sometimes communicate with the living world. But Luke is very clear that Jesus is not a ghost, or a disembodied spirit, the soul of Jesus living on after his body has died: you can’t touch a ghost; a ghost doesn’t eat broiled fish. Jesus is not a ghost.

And we can understand the category of memories, but Jesus is not a memory, a realization that even after death, life still goes on, and Jesus’ kind words will live on even if his body doesn’t. This resurrected Jesus does not fit that category either. In fact, Jesus does not fit any of our known categories: living, dead, ghost, memory – Jesus is something neither the disciples nor we have ever seen before.

Jesus is something new: he is resurrected. Which is something that shatters all our known categories, a phenomenon that establishes a whole new order of being, something that has to open our minds to new possibilities for each of us. In the resurrection of Jesus, God is doing something new and unexpected, establishing a whole new category. Luke wants to be absolutely certain we understand: this resurrected body of Jesus’ is completely continuous with Jesus’ life on earth, and yet the resurrected Jesus is a whole new order of creation, something that somehow describes what God intends for all of us to become, in our eternal life in God’s presence . We don’t need to fear death – what Jesus was in the resurrection is what we will become.

But I think there’s more to the gospel writers’ insistence on the tangible reality of the resurrected Jesus than that. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection, our temptation is to spiritualize it like the disciples who thought the resurrected Jesus was a ghost; to say, see, the life of the spirit is more important than life of the old, discarded body, to say that Christianity means life after death, and that’s what really counts. That’s what the slave owners of the American South tried to tell their slaves, that their suffering now, in this life, didn’t matter, because Jesus would take them to heaven someday. But those same slaves could read in the scriptures that the God who promised life after death was the same God who heard the cries of the slaves in Egypt, the cries of those who were groaning under oppression, and brought them out of slavery into freedom in the Promised Land.

When we think of the resurrection of Jesus as a completely “spiritual” thing, we run the risk of doing the same thing those slave owners did. We might be tempted to think that the conditions of this world don’t matter, that God intends to rescue us all from this earth anyway, and so it’s all right that people live in poverty, that people are hungry, that people suffer.

Yet if we are tempted to think that Jesus cares only about so-called spiritual things, things like prayer and meditation and life after death, Jesus calls us right back to physical reality, the reality that you and I live in, the touchable, visible, embodied reality of everyday life, with these words: Look at my hands and my feet, he says. Touch me and see.

If nothing else is clear from our scriptures, what must be clear is that God is involved in our world – in its messiness, in its physicalness, in the everyday reality of things we can touch and see and feel. Here and now is where God comes to us. And here and now is where God calls us to be witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection: witnesses in a way that makes that resurrection an observable, tangible reality in this world.

Jesus comes to us in simple, physical ways still today: the water of baptism, the bread and wine of holy communion. Yet St. John Chrysostom and several bishops of our church said, if you can see Christ’s body in the bread on the altar but you can’t see it in the beggar on the street, you haven’t seen him at all.

The wounds of Christ direct us to the wounds of the world, they call us to be witnesses of resurrection, they call us to be healers in this world.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and if you lived through that time, you can remember extraordinary stories of heroism in the midst of that disaster: people who risked their own lives to bring others out, people plunging into the burning rubble to save children in the day care center, doctors who labored for hours in a dark hole that was really too small for them, to amputate the leg of a woman trapped under debris, to get her out of a building that could have collapsed on her, and on them, at any moment, people putting their own hands to work in the service of others.

The Episcopal bishop of Oklahoma, Ed Konieczny, wrote to his diocese this week that when we think of those sad events, “let us not focus our attention on stories of anger, fear, or violence; but, rather, let us turn our attention to the stories of hope, love, and community that surround that day. Let us remember the immeasurably courageous rescuers who plunged into danger to save our neighbors. Let us remember the unified fortitude and kindness our capital city portrayed, reminding us all that we are truly stronger together than we are apart.”

I was touched this week to read that the Oklahoma City Memorial Museum is calling each Oklahoman this month in memory of the victims to do one act of service, one act of honor, and one act of kindness.  Which I think is a discipline all Christians could undertake – in memory of all those who suffer and fall victim to the evil of this world, and in witness through it all to the resurrection of Jesus that tells us that this world matters, its suffering matters, its physical realities of poverty and hunger matter.

We could all do one act of service – for instance, we could participate in our Habitat for Humanity build date on May 2, we could help provide Mother’s Day gifts for homeless women through our purse collection, we could help feed the hungry at the Santa Maria Food Bank, we could do any number of other acts of service to help those in need.

We could do one act of honor – something to remember someone we love, a hero we admire, or someone who is currently working to serve others – like, for instance, what my friends and I used to do in high school: bake cookies to take to the firefighters in the fire station down the street.

We could do one act of kindness – visit a friend who is lonely, take a vow to say only kind things about each other, work to build up and support each other, this whole season of resurrection.

Acts of service, honor, kindness: These are things that Christians do – because we are witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, because we have felt the touch of his hands in our lives. Here I am, says Jesus. Touch and see.