A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.
Reading about Egan’s tweeted story, it hit me how new media forms force the evolution of new modes of communication and creativity.
Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?
Text: Genesis 32
#Twitterletics: In a tradition where names foreshadow everything its not clear from the name Jacob we’re meant to root for this character.
A while back I listened to a TED talk and then read an article about the A Visit from the Goon Squad author, Jennifer Egan, publishing a short story in the New Yorker via Twitter. Like the serial novels of the 18th and 19th centuries, she released her story 140 characters at a time.
Reading about Egan’s tweeted story, it hit me how new media forms force the evolution of new modes of communication and creativity.
Is it possible to construct a complete sermon out of 140 character parts?
Text: Genesis 32
Here’s entry #2:
In a culture that prizes the eldest son, Jacob isn’t.
In a religion whose exemplar, Abram, leaves everything behind to follow when God calls, Jacob doesn’t.
Nothing tightens a congregation’s collective sphincter, quite like the subject of money.
Preaching about money and giving and generosity just makes people uncomfortable. This weekend I thought I’d turn the tables; perhaps it should be my turn to be uncomfortable.
And nothing makes me more anxious than preaching without any notes.
So on Friday, I asked people to send me scripture passages about money that they found challenging, confusing, or obscure.
I wrote them down on a spinning wheel and then ll just shot from the hip and thought through the passages as we landed on them at random.
As I mentioned in one of the services, if we were to put every scripture passage that speaks about money onto a spinning wheel like the one above we’d need a wheel that was 233 times bigger than this one.
Each of the 4 sermons were different this weekend; unfortunately, I’ve only got the recording from the 9:45 service.
Here it is. You can also download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the rich (young) man.
You can listen to here, on the sidebar or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
I originally tried to get an actual, live camel here for this weekend. As it turns out that would’ve been obscenely expensive, which Dennis thought would’ve been too ironic given this month’s focus on simplicity.
So I don’t have a live camel, but I thought I could approximate one to help us visualize the story. I need a few volunteers.
According to Wikipedia, which is never wrong, the one-humped dromedary camel is about 7 1/4 feet tall, from the ground to the top of its hump, and about 10 feet long from nose to tail.
In his day and in his part of the world, the camel was the largest animal Jesus could’ve have conceived. Just just hold those dimensions in your mind.
In Mark 10, Jesus and the disciples are a few miles outside the nation’s capital. Jesus has just taught that if anyone wants to enter the Kingdom of God they’ll have to approach the Kingdom as children, as having nothing, as children have nothing.
No sooner are his words out of his mouth than someone with everything approaches Jesus. A rich man. You don’t have everything you want without knowing how to get anything you want. So the rich man tries his hand at flattery: ‘Good Teacher’ he calls Jesus.
And then he asks him a rich man’s kind of question. With everything in this life taken care of- no worries- the rich man asks what he has to do to inherit the next one.
Jesus doesn’t return the rich man’s flattery and responds disinterestedly by giving him the most ordinary answer imaginable.
He recites the 10 Commandments.
But the rich man waves him off: I’ve already done all that. I’m a good person. I’m religious. I don’t lie. I haven’t cheated on my wife. I haven’t stolen from my neighbors.
You’re still missing one thing, Jesus says.
Liquidate your 401K. Empty your savings. Put the house on the market. Trade in the car. Sell the season tickets. Forget the beach vacation. Cancel your membership at the club. Everything. Give the cash to the poor.
And then come follow me.
And the rich man says: ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. What do you know? You’re just some homeless guy.’
Then Jesus looks at this one rich man and makes a sweeping generalization about all rich people:
their salvation is impossible.
This same Jesus who promised paradise to the thief
This same Jesus who refused to condemn the adulteress
This same Jesus who compared himself to a shepherd who will go out of his way searching for a single lost lamp
This same Jesus who said God’s love was like an old lady who turned her house upside down looking for a dime
This same Jesus says salvation is impossible for the rich.
The disciples, who’ve grown up believing that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing, they ask Jesus: what do you mean it’s impossible?
I mean, it’s about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded 7 x 10 foot camel through the eye of a needle.
Or, as we might say today, when it comes to heaven the rich have a snowball’s chance in hell.
I offer it to you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Actually, the story’s maybe not as bad as it sounds.
As the ancient Church Father, Origen, pointed out, the Aramaic word for camel (kamelon) is almost identical to the Aramaic word for nautical cable (kamilon).
It’s just 1 letter difference. It could be as simple as a copyist’s error.
So when Jesus says ‘impossible’ he doesn’t mean camel-through-the-eye-of-a -needle impossible.
He instead means that the rich getting into heaven is more like threading a mariner’s rope through the eye of a needle.
See, that’s more comforting right? Not really?
If nothing else, we can seek solace in the fact that Jesus didn’t say this to everyone.
Jesus didn’t tell his 12 disciples to sell everything and give it to the poor. Sure they dropped fishing nets and left boats behind in the water and walked away from homes and, presumably, families inside them.
But Jesus didn’t tell them they had to or heaven was null and void.
And when a lawyer- who definitely wasn’t poor- asks Jesus this very same question about eternal life, the lawyer doesn’t get an impossible image of a camel squeezing through a needle.
He gets a story about a Good Samaritan.
And the woman at the well, when she asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t tell her ‘Go and give away everything for the poor.’
Jesus tells her ‘Go and sin no more.’
So before you get all worked up about this Gospel passage, just remember that Jesus doesn’t say this to everyone. Jesus doesn’t pull the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle comparison for everyone. He doesn’t say salvation is impossible for everyone.
He just says it to the rich, about the rich.
So as long as we’re not rich, we’re in the clear.
We can love our neighbor as ourself. We can go and sin no more.
We don’t have to worry that our salvation is impossible.
But how do you know?
If you’re rich?
After all, rich people are notoriously adept at deluding themselves.
In study after study, sociologists have shown how rich people seldom think of themselves as rich. Hardly ever.
It’s always the person above them, in front of them, who has and makes more who’s wealthy. Not them.
Rich people rarely think of themselves as rich.
Even if we were rich, chances are we wouldn’t think we were. So how do you know?
A few years ago, Money Magazine surveyed its readers and asked them how much they would need in liquid assets to consider themselves wealthy.
Guess how much? 5 million dollars.
That seems a little high to me.
But here’s the thing-
When it comes to wealth, we don’t need to agree on tax brackets or net worth.
We don’t need to debate exact amounts or dollar figures because we can easily identify a rich based on some very specific behaviors.
Some ‘you might be a rich person if’ behaviors.
Because rich people have so much money they do some crazy, strange things that are easy to point out.
For example, one of the things rich people do is called ‘upgrade.’
Maybe you’ve read about it. It’s when a rich person has something that works, perfectly, and then they go out and get another just like it, only a litter newer.
And then they have 2.
Like I said, we don’t have to agree on net worth because we can I.D. rich people by the crazy things they do they have so much money.
Don’t believe me?
Listen to this:
Rich people will go into a kitchen, a kitchen with countertops, a microwave and an oven, and guess what they’ll do
They’ll rip it all out.
And then…they’ll replace it.
With countertops, a microwave and an oven.
You’re smiling because it’s crazy right?
That’s why we don’t need to agree on how much money makes a person rich because we can identify a rich person based on what they do.
Some rich people I know, they’ll go to the mall and they’ll wait in line outside the Apple Store, and let me tell you rich people hate waiting in line.
But they’ll wait in line at the Apple Store for an hour, 2 hours, 3 hours. And while they wait, they’ll pull out their iPhone and they’ll post on Facebook: ‘At the Apple Store, waiting to get my new iPhone.’
Rich people do such strange things they make themselves obvious.
Something else rich people do- maybe you’ve heard about this before.
They’ll open up a refrigerator filled with food, and they’ll look inside and then they’ll say the craziest thing: ‘There’s nothing to eat.’
I know rich people who will do the same thing in front of their closet.
They’ll stand in front of a closet full of clothes and they’ll say: ‘I’ve got nothing to wear.’
And the truth is, they’ve got work clothes, workout clothes, afterwork clothes and work in the yard clothes.
It’s ridiculous I know.
Don’t say anything, but I know this one rich woman. She’s got like 13, 14 pairs of shoes and she’s always on the lookout for another.
What could you possible do with 14 pairs of shoes? That’s like half of February.
You see, we don’t need to peek inside a person’s portfolio to know if they’re rich. Their behaviors are so easy to spot.
Rich people have so much stuff they’ll gather up stuff they don’t use- it all works fine- and they’ll give it away.
They’ll give it away.
And then, they’ll feel good about themselves for giving away stuff they don’t need in order to create more space in their house so they can go get more stuff.
I’m telling you, rich people do the craziest things.
But it’s not just the crazy things that make a rich person easy to identify.
How many of you know someone who owns a car? Any kind of car?
Only 8% of the world has a car. 92% of the people in the world would look at that person with the car and think ‘rich.’
How many of you know someone who has some way to drink a glass of clean water?
Because 1 billion people in the world would look at that glass of water like it was gold and lick their lips and think ‘rich.’
How much change do you have on you? Right now in your pockets?
Over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. I won’t tell the IRS but congratulations, you’re rich.
How many of you know someone who will eat something today?
Because half a billion kids won’t.
This girl on the back of your bulletin.
I’ve been to her home at least 3 times. Fact is, I can tell you for sure that my garbage disposal eats better than she does.
When surveyed, the readers of Money Magazine said they’d need 5 million dollars in liquid to consider themselves rich.
The truth is- if you have a combined household income of $45,000 you’re in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.
And I know, the way wealth works, you probably don’t think of yourself as rich.
I know, most of you, in this part of the world, in our part of the world, you’re not considered rich. But don’t forget Jesus was a homeless dude and probably wouldn’t find that a very persuasive argument.
It’s a dangerous thing when we think our world is the world.
It’s dangerous because we might read right on past a passage like today’s and not even realize that Jesus just said our salvation is impossible.
The rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus answers by reciting the 10 Commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet or cheat or dishonor.
Jesus doesn’t rattle off all 10 of the Commandments.
Jesus leaves off the first 2, the 2 most important ones, the 2 of which the other 8 are only subsets:
I am the Lord your God.
You shall worship no other gods but God.
‘I’ve done all that; I’ve kept those commandments’ the rich man says.
And Jesus parries:
There is one more thing- what about the first 2 commandments? How are you with those?
Only Jesus doesn’t phrase it that way.
He asks it in an object lesson instead.
Go sell all your stuff. Put it on Ebay and Craigslist. Auction it off.
Take the money- I don’t want your money- give it to the poor.
Get rid of everything you have so that you just have me.
Get rid of all you treasure and you can have me, your homeless God, as your greatest treasure.
How does that sound?
Mark says the rich man walked away, ‘grieving.’
And that word in Greek (aganakteo) it’s the same exact word that Mark uses to describe another rich, young ruler in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he gives everything away, when Jesus weeps and sweats blood because he’s losing the most precious thing he has: the presence of God the Father.
Mark says the rich man ‘grieves’ thinking about losing his god.
As the rich man walks away, Jesus says ‘Huh, rich people…their salvation is impossible.’
I know enough rich people to know that that rich man- he probably heard that as bad news.
It just goes to show how money can make it hard to hear the Gospel.
Because it’s not bad news.
Let’s be honest, rich people like us- we’re such sinners. Our hearts have so many idols, money is only the primary one. Our values and priorities are so compromised . We’ve hurt so many people in our lives and messed up our own lives in so many ways.
It would take a completely impossible miracle to save rich people like us.
I mean, it would be as likely as a rich man willing making himself poor. Not going to happen.
Our salvation is as unlikely as a King stepping down off his throne to become a slave. What are the odds?
It would be like someone paying an incredible debt that someone else racked up. There comes a price point where no one would ever do that.
It would like an innocent man laying down his life not for his friends or his family or his country but for a guilty man. What are the chances of that happening?
Our salvation IS an impossibility!
It’s like hell freezing over. It’s like pigs flying.
It’s like a dead man coming back from the grave.
It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle.
Thanks be to God.
The only people who are saved are the ones who realize that their salvation is an impossible miracle.
An act of God.
A gift I don’t deserve and could never purchase.
Something that was bought at great cost but has been freely given…to me.
Once that Gospel transforms your heart, once it becomes your treasure, once it becomes the most precious identity-forming thing in your life, it changes everything.
Once the Gospel transforms your heart, you realize that asking the question ‘How much do I have to give?’ or ‘What percentage do I have to give?’ misses the point completely.
Because it’s not about obligation.
You should want to give all that you can because Jesus Christ gave it all away for you.
Even putting the question that way: ‘How much do I have to give?’ is a good indication that you haven’t experienced the Gospel yet.
You might be a religious person; you’re just not a Christian.
That’s why, for example, it never works out when people say ‘I’ll give more once I make this much money, once I’m at this stage in my career, once the kids are gone, once this bill is paid off.’
Odds are, you won’t.
Because it’s not a money issue. It’s a God issue. It’s a Gospel issue.
Statistically, the more money a person makes the less they give as a percentage of their income.
Because the more stuff you have, one, single gift doesn’t seem quite as important does it? The more provisions you have, the less you need a Provider.
It’s not a money issue. It’s a Gospel issue.
It’s not about asking how much you have to give.
It’s about having your attitude about money- and everything else- shaped by the Cross.
It’s not about percentages or pocket change.
It’s about giving and living sacrificially.
And by definition, giving and living sacrificially means it hurts. It’s uncomfortable. It’s costs something. It’s not easy. It strains you.
Look, full disclosure: you pay my salary.
So if you want to chalk this up to a self-serving, fundraising sermon, fine.
Don’t give your money to the Church.
Give it to Lupe to use in Guatemala.
But give until it hurts.
Give until it hurts because it’s NOT ABOUT MONEY.
Jesus didn’t want the rich man’s money, and God doesn’t want yours.
God wants your heart. He already paid a lot for it.
God wants your heart.
And God wants your heart to be shaped like his.
And if the preaching of Jesus, again and again and again, is any indication:
Nothing competes more for your heart than money.
Nothing competes more for your love of Christ than the pursuit and management of wealth.
Nothing works against you following Christ fully, you maturing in your faith, you surrendering everything you are to Christ, you making yourself available to Christ’s call upon your life- nothing works against you following Christ more than the pursuit and management of a lifestyle.
Nothing competes more for our hearts than money.
So it’s always good to find out where our heart is, whose our heart is.
Now I’m not going to test you like Jesus did and challenge you to sell everything you got and give it away.
Because actually, you can find out where your heart is without all that trouble.
You just have to think about this one question and answer to yourself honestly.
Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear:
There is no God. Your sins haven’t been forgiven, but that’s okay because there is no heaven and after you die you won’t be with God or any of your loved ones.
You have no money.
Which reality, if it were true, would cause you greater anxiety, distress and fear: there is no God or you have no money?
Where your answer is, there lies your heart.
* ‘rich’ anecdotes and closing question owed to Andy Stanley.
This weekend we continued our sermon series, Enough, with Jesus’ uncompromising challenge to the rich, young ruler: Go, Sell, Give, Follow.
Evidently it’s a text with much attraction for me because I’ve got quite a few old sermons in the files. Here’s one from 3 years ago:
Last June I had the dubious honor of being invited to serve as the guest preacher for West Potomac High School’s Baccalaureate service.
There’s nothing quite like preaching to a congregation full of teenagers who are all there because their parents made them. It’s kind of like being a comedian in front of a completely sober crowd.
When the invitation came, I tried to pass it off to Dennis, but I was told that he is much too old to relate to high school students.
Because it was an interfaith ceremony the program didn’t even refer to me as a preacher. Instead it called me an ‘inspirational speaker.’ Now I warned them how I felt about that title; I told them how ‘inspirational speaker’ makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.
So I tried to pass it off on Dennis, but Sue McConville is even more persuasive than her husband and eventually she beat me into submission.
This scripture about Jesus and the rich man- this is the passage I chose to preach on for the Baccalaureate.
Now, I admit it’s possible I was in a contrary mood. It’s possible I wanted to subvert people’s expectations of sentimentality. It’s possible I didn’t anyone confusing me for an inspirational speaker.
But it’s also true that in Matthew’s version of this scripture the rich man is said to be ‘young,’ which makes this rich man the only young person mentioned in all of the Gospels. So it was more than just me feeling contrary, I thought it was an appropriate scripture given my audience.
To all of those seniors setting off for college and the American dream, to all of their parents who had just as many ambitions for their children if not more- I told them about this rich, young, religious high-achiever who asks Jesus about eternal life.
And in telling them about the rich young man, I also told them about a young woman I knew in my previous church. A young woman who was a straight-A student at an Ivy league school, who was nearing graduation, whose parents were anticipating her career and six-figure salary.
I told them how Ann, that young woman, threw them all for a loop one day and announced that rather than doing anything they had hoped she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in South America.
All because Jesus ‘loved’ her.
I thought the sermon went alright. I got a few laughs, mostly at Dennis’ expense. I saw a couple of heads nodding in affirmation. I didn’t notice any one sleeping or scowling. All in all, it seemed like it went okay.
Then I made the mistake of walking into Wesley Hall for the reception.
All I wanted was a cup of lemonade.
At first, I didn’t even make it through the double doors.
‘Do you always preach like that?’
The question was barked at me in a hushed, let’s-not-a-make-a-scene tone of voice. He was wearing an expensive-looking suit with an American flag pinned to his lapel, and his bald head was flushed red with bulging out everywhere.
‘Do you always preach like that?’ he questioned me.
‘I guess you don’t go to church here?’ I said.
‘No, and we never will.’
‘I guess I don’t understand.’
‘My daughter has worked hard and I’ve saved so she can go to the best college and law school. And you’re telling her she should just throw all her ambition away to go help the poor? That’s irresponsible. You call yourself inspirational speaker?’
And, okay, maybe I was in a contrary mood that day.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘it sounds like your problem’s with Jesus not with me. Maybe you should take it up with him.’
He stormed off with his family in tow.
Next, I tiptoed up to the punchbowl hoping nobody would notice me, and thought I was in the clear. But then a different Dad, this one in a yellow polo shirt and khakis came up to me.
He had a gold chain and cross around his neck. He smiled and shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus didn’t really mean sell EVERYTHING and give it to the poor.’
‘He didn’t?’ I asked.
And he smiled at me like I was no older than the high schoolers and he said: ‘Of course not. Don’t you see he just meant we should keep things in their proper perspective? That money and possessions aren’t problems so long as we put God first in our lives?’
And like I told you- it’s possible I was just feeling contrary.
I took a sip of lemonade and replied: ‘Proper perspective, huh? I like that. That sounds good. That sounds a lot more manageable. I don’t know why Jesus didn’t say that, but I like that a lot better.’
I left him there at the punch bowl not sure whether I’d just agreed with me or not.
I almost escaped Wesley Hall. I made it to the door by the kitchen, when a Dad, a church member here, stopped me.
He shook my hand and said: ‘Jesus just told that one man to sell everything and give it to the poor, right?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘Jesus didn’t ask anyone else to do that did he?’
And I thought about it and replied: ‘Well, the disciples weren’t rich but, yeah, they gave up everything too when Jesus called.’
I didn’t wait for a follow-up question.
I walked down to my office to take off my robe and go home but lingering outside my office door was a mother with three embarrassed-looking kids loitering near her.
‘Can I help you? The ladies’ room is right there if that’s what you’re looking for.’
She blushed but didn’t smile.
‘I was just confused by your message’ she said.
‘Oh, well, don’t worry. That’s how my congregation feels most of the time.’
She shot me a perplexed look and motioned to her tallest girl standing to her left: ‘My daughter invited Jesus into her heart when she was fifteen. She’s saved. She doesn’t have to change her plans, give up her dreams or DO anything.’
‘You must be baptist,’ I said.
She nodded but she didn’t laugh.
And I might’ve mentioned I was kind of feeling contrary that day.
‘Lady, I’m a Methodist. We’re the ones who notice how whenever Jesus talks about salvation he seems to want a lot more from us than just our hearts.’
‘Good Teacher, what do I have to do to inherit eternal life?’
Jesus is on his way to the nation’s capital when this rich guy from the suburbs comes up to him with a question.
And Jesus doesn’t appear all that interested in the spiritual questions of these well-to-do, upwardly mobile types. Jesus just tries to blow him off with a conventional answer about obeying the commandments.
‘I do all those things already. What else? What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Then St Mark says: ‘Jesus, looking at him, loved him…’
This is the only place in all of the Gospels where it says Jesus ‘loved’ somebody. Jesus talks about love but this is the only place in the Gospels where Jesus loved an individual.
‘Teacher, I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a kid. What else must I do to inherit eternal life?’
And Jesus looks at him. And Jesus says: ‘Because I love you…there is one thing you can do…just because I love you…go, sell everything you possess, give it to the poor and then come follow me.’
He’s the only one Jesus loved, and Jesus asks everything from him.
They watch the rich man walk away, depressed and grieving.
And Jesus looks at the disciples and says: ‘You know- you just can’t save rich people. It’s hard. It’s just about impossible.’
Near as I can tell, this is the only place in the bible where Jesus invites someone to become a disciple and the person refuses.
And yet we call this story Gospel, good news.
I left that baptist mother looking confused outside my office. I actually made it to the parking lot. I’d almost made it to my car when this student with floppy hair and a wrinkled dress shirt said to me: ‘Did you choose that bible story yourself?‘
I turned around, took a deep breath and said, in love: Look, I might have to take that crap off your parents but I don’t need to take it from you.
‘Yeah, I chose it. Why?’
‘I thought it was inspiring,’ he said.
And I did a double-take and squinted at him: ‘Are you jerking me around?’
‘No seriously. It’s inspiring to think that Jesus believed in that rich man enough to ask him to give up everything. Jesus wouldn’t have asked if he couldn’t do it, right? Jesus must’ve thought he was capable of great things.‘
He was about to get in his car when I said: ‘Hey, would you mind going back inside? There’s an angry looking bald guy in there. He’s wearing a nice suit and he’s got his boxers in a twist. He didn’t get that scripture. But you did. Why don’t you explain it to him.’
We hear this story as bad news.
We feel the need to explain it, excuse ourselves from it, suck the urgency out of it with a thousand qualifications. As a preacher, I know I’ve thought it’s my job to clean up after Jesus, to say things more delicately than he said them.
But maybe this scripture really is good news.
Maybe Jesus has more faith in you than you have in yourself.
Maybe Jesus believes in you enough to say to you that you were made for more than just checking-off the boxes of religious obligation.
Maybe Jesus loves you enough not to leave you as you are right now.
Maybe Jesus thinks you’re capable of more than just a successful life.
Maybe he thinks your life can be significant.
Maybe- maybe the point of this story isn’t that Jesus asks EVERYTHING from you. Maybe the point of this story is that Jesus believes you’re CAPABLE of giving him everything.
I mean- isn’t interesting how the rich man asks about his eternal life, but Jesus responds instead by talking about the Kingdom? As in…thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Isn’t interesting that we speak in the passive voice of ‘being saved’ but Jesus speaks of salvation with active verbs: GO, SELL, GIVE, COME, FOLLOW.
Let me make it plain.
There is no salvation apart from following Jesus.
The Gospel is not ‘Jesus died for me now I might think about following Jesus.’
Following Jesus isn’t an afterthought.
Following Jesus is salvation.
Giving him your whole life, this life, in this life, is salvation.
Following him now is participating now in the salvation God is working for the world.
Because God’s plan wasn’t just to come in the flesh and die on a cross.
God’s plan was to change the world, to remake the world.
And he chose his followers to be that change.
That’s what it means to be loved by Jesus.
Two Sundays ago, I told you about Anna Lucia, the girl on the cover of your program. I met her a few days before Christmas. She lives in Guatemala in poverty it’s hard for us to comprehend.
And I told you how Anna Lucia’s mother, Maria, herself just a teenager, thanked me the wood-stove I built her by giving me a basket of tomatoes because that’s all she had to give me.
Well, inside the basket, tucked underneath the tomatoes, was a torn half-sheet of notebook paper. Written on it with a dull pencil was a letter. To you all. ‘To your church’ it said on the outside below the fold.
And on the inside:
Dear brothers and sisters. To each of you I wish that the love and Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ would fill your hearts. The families here in Guatemala are so very happy to be a part of Christ’s Body with you so that, together, we may help change the world and bring it closer to his Kingdom.
Feliz Navidad, Maria.
In his book, The Hole in Our Gospel Richard Stearns says: ‘….In a broken, fallen world, in a world of poverty and injustice, as followers of Jesus you and I are God’s plan A….he doesn’t have a plan B.’
This wouldn’t be my plan. This isn’t how I would do things.
I wouldn’t have this much riding on you. I wouldn’t ask so much of you.
Frankly, I know a lot of you and I’d never imagine you’d be capable of giving your whole lives to the Kingdom.
The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach famously dismissed religion in general and Christianity in particular by pointing out that believers in God simply return the favor from Genesis 1. Rather than being created in God’s image, we’ve created God in ours.
As Karl Barth, who just as famously concurred with Ludwig’s critique, put it: when (liberal) Christians say the word ‘God’ they’re really just speaking of themselves in a loud voice.’
It’s an argument not without merit or supporting incidence, but it’s an argument that often founders on the shoals of the Gospel narrative for too often within the the Gospel we meet an unsettling, counterintuitive, offensive God that not one of us would ever choose.
Exhibit A: Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler.
He’s the only person whom the Gospels bother to mention Jesus ‘loved.’
And Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.
Not 10%. Not his IRS rebate. Everything.
It’s a text I’ve preached more than most over the years. Here’s a baccalaureate sermon I preached a few years ago. Since the rich young ruler is one of the few ‘youth’ in the New Testament, I thought it a relevant text for graduates.
As one of the pastors here, I want to welcome you all to Aldersgate Church. It’s a pleasure to be here. As a Methodist, I almost never get the opportunity to preach to people under the age of 65 (just kidding…but not really).
I want to thank you for the invitation. By asking me to speak here today you managed to remind me how long ago was my own graduation thereby reminding me how old I really am. So thank you for that (but not really).
During the week I was thinking about this service and I started reminiscing about my own high school graduation. I even looked up some classmates of mine on Facebook- something I never do- and, looking at their pictures, I thought to myself: ‘My God, it’s as if they’ve all swelled.’
Seriously, I’m thrilled to be here today.
One of the aspects of my ministry I most enjoy is the privilege to work with young people:
to get a glimpse at who they might become
to sneak a peek at the world through their eyes
and to learn what moves them and fills them with passion.
I mean- young people are the only way I manage to stay in touch with popular culture and fool church people into thinking I’m even a little bit cool. For that, I’m in your debt.
More than that, some of my most treasured and authentic friendships are with young people in the congregations where I’ve served. Some of them are here today. Both my ministry and my life is richer because of them. I suspect only your teachers know how that feels.
Now, I’m a preacher. I don’t really know how to speak to a gathering if it’s not in response to a text. So I bring you a story today. It’s from the New Testament, from the Gospel According to Matthew:
‘Then a young man came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ The young man replied to Jesus, ‘I have kept all of the commandments; what does my life still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to have life, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.’
There are not many stories about young people in the New Testament. Sure, Jesus talks about a lot about children; he even brings one back to life, but there’s not much talk about you all: young adults, youth, young people.
Trust me. I looked all this week. By my count, this rich, young man in Matthew’s Gospel is the only young person ever to have been confronted by Jesus.
Remember, Jesus himself never lives past my age. So when the New Testament calls this rich man in Matthew ‘young’ probably he was about your age.
They meet when Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for the last time. He confronts Jesus just outside the city, in the suburbs outside the nation’s capital. That’s probably where the young man grew up. By calling this youth ‘rich’ Matthew probably means that he comes from a wealthy family and a nice community.
I imagine he went to a good school and he has a bright future ahead of him. Probably, his parents spared no expense in raising him. He’s gotten good grades. He’s received more than a few acceptance letters. No doubt he’s popular among his peers. Most likely he’s led a comfortable life and now he’s about to set out on his own.
Probably everyone- his parents, his friends, his neighbors, his teachers- has expectations for what he’ll do, for where he’ll go and for who he’ll become, and I bet he has ambitions of his own.
Evidently, something bothers this young man enough that he approaches Jesus. Even with all he has and with everything he can look forward to- apparently, he has this nagging suspicion that there’s more to life than fulfilling his potential, there’s more to life than pursuing his own happiness and achieving his own dreams.
He asks Jesus about it.
And Jesus says: ‘If you want to live a good life, then follow the commandments: don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your parents and God…’
And the young man replies: ‘I’ve already been doing all that. What else? What is my life lacking?’
By my count, not only is he the only young person ever to confront Jesus, he’s also the only person in the Gospels who ever asks Jesus: ‘What’s missing…in my life?’
There was a young woman in one of the congregations I once served. Her name was __________. She was a straight-A student at an Ivy League school. She was nearing graduation, and her parents couldn’t have been more excited about what lay in her future: maybe a graduate degree at another prestigious school; maybe a career and no less than a six figure salary.
Instead she threw them all for a loop and one day, out of the blue, announced to her parents that rather than doing anything they hoped, she was going to work in a clinic in some poor village in Venezuela.
I only found out about this when her mother burst into my office one day, clearly assuming I was the one who put the idea in her head. Red-faced and furious, she said: ‘Jason, you’ve got to talk to her. You’ve got to convince her to change her mind. You’ve got to show her she’s throwing her life away.’
Ever the obedient minister, I met with the daughter and communicated all her mother’s fears: she was being naive, she was being irresponsible, she was being idealistic, her education should come first, she shouldn’t jeopardize her career.
She looked back at me liked I’d disappointed her in some way. ‘Didn’t Jesus tell the young man to give up all his stuff and follow him?’ she asked.
‘Uh, well, yeah but…I mean…he couldn’t have been serious…that would’ve been irresponsible.’
‘At least tell me why you’re doing this.’
‘Everyone thinks I’m throwing my life away if I go,’ she said, ‘but if I don’t go it feels to me like I’m settling.’
‘Settling?’ I asked.
And she said: ‘There’s something missing from the life everyone else wants. That’s what I’m looking for.’
Then she narrowed her gaze at me and said: ‘When did you stop looking for it?’
‘Be quiet. What do you know? You’re just a young person…’
I think maybe that’s what’s so compelling about this young man who meets Jesus. He realizes you can fulfill everyone’s expectations and still be lacking, still not be living a life that’s bigger than yourself.
Near as I can tell he’s the only person in scripture who asks Jesus: ‘What’s missing? What else is there?’
When I think about it, that’s what I most appreciate about young people like you.
It’s that you keep adults like me honest. You get it in a way most of us have forgotten or ignore. You’re wise to the fact that the way the world is, is not the way it has to be. You know without anyone having to tell you that your life should have a purpose beyond yourself.
Your BS radar is too good- that’s what I love about you. You know there’s more to life than what we sometimes show you with our own lives. And you know that Jesus- whether you believe in him or not- isn’t one for compromise and qualifications and half-measures, that if God isn’t worth dying for then he’s not worth living for either.
Your program today calls me an ‘inspirational speaker.’ I asked them to change it, but it was too late. It makes me think of guys on TV with capped teeth, hair plugs and seven steps to something.
I don’t know- maybe inspiration is what your parents were hoping for today. But I’m a preacher and I’m stuck with Jesus.
The problem is Jesus never really inspired people. Mostly he irritated people. He agitated people. He made people uncomfortable with the compromises they’d made and he pushed for change. He insisted that the life they’d settled for was not the life they’d been made for. He persisted in pointing out what was missing from their lives.
Jesus wasn’t inspiring exactly. Mostly Jesus acted like, well, a young person.
When Jesus shows the rich, young man what’s possible with his life, the young man responds by walking away, defeated and depressed. But that’s just one man.
One day soon a challenge will be put to you too. One day soon you’ll get a glimpse at what’s truly possible for your life. It might frighten you. It might mean you give up everything you know or have or have been counting on. It might mean you turn your back on everyone else’s expectations for you.
And I, for one, can’t wait to see how you’ll respond.
Just imagine how awesome the conversation, text messaging or email exchange could go:
You: Say, I just downloaded this pastor’s new ebook. It’s really great. You should check it out.
Friend: Really? What’s it called?
You: 100 Foreskins
Friend: Come again.
You: No pun intended, right?
2 Timothy 3 states:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
100 Foreskins is my attempt to test out Timothy’s bold assertion.
Is there something worthwhile about David’s gross dowry of 100 foreskins? Can we actually learn something from the story of the bare-a@#ed Isaiah prophesying in the nude? Can God get to us through the random bits of the Bible?
You can download the book here or by clicking on the image on the sidebar in the right.
Tell your friends.
Just think, now you can have my voice in your head and my words on your tablet without every worrying about the first-world problem of no wifi access.
This weekend we continue our sermon series on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.
Here’s an old Father’s Day sermon/letter I wrote to my boys that echoes the very same themes of simplicity and sufficiency in our lives.
Everything We Need: Galatians 5
Dear Gabriel and Alexander,
First, my apologies. I had meant to write this letter and give it to you on Father’s Day. Unfortunately I have this job where I have to work most weekends so instead you’re getting it a week late. In any case, I hope you will take this letter, tuck it away somewhere and save it for a day when you want some advice and life wisdom from your old man. I’m guessing that day will not come until you are in your forties so make sure you store this in a dry place.
You might be wondering if this should not be the other way around. Maybe you should be the ones writing me a letter. After all, what kind of self-aggrandizing, cheese-ball writes his kids a letter on Father’s Day and then reads it from the pulpit? Gabriel, if you do happen to ask yourself that question, the answer is your godfather, Dr. Dennis Perry. I got the idea years ago when I was just a teenager, listening to the letters he wrote to Jess and Ben.
You should know I went through a phase in my theological development where I didn’t think it appropriate to talk at all in sermons about mothers and fathers and children. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day aren’t liturgical holidays, after all, and Jesus seemed to have had a complicated relationship with his own family.
I can tell you I’ve disappointed no small amount of church ladies with my previous refusals to preach Mother’s Day sermons. Obviously its because of you two boys but these days my thinking is changed. I can’t help thinking that if the Gospel has no bearing on our everyday, ordinary decisions and relationships then the incarnation- God taking flesh and dwelling among us- was kind of a waste of time.
Alexander, by now you’ve spent not quite two of your seven years with us. Just as if I’d held you at your birth, I honestly can’t recall a time you weren’t with us. As much as the extra weight around my middle, the weight of your head on my shoulder feels a part of me.
X, when I think of how far you’ve come since you first came to live with us and when I think of all the obstacles you have overcome, I’m filled with pride for you. And my faith is reinvigorated. I know your success is not because of your mom or me or even entirely because of you. I don’t often talk about seeing God at work in my life for fear of intimidating people who don’t see their lives that way. X, you are one case where I feel no need to be reticent.
Since we promised to be your forever home I’ve watched you go from just a handful of English words to turning the pages of Roald Dahl. This year I’ve seen you step out from your fear of getting something wrong to try new things- and, okay, maybe you should’ve been more afraid of skiing.
And this year I’ve discovered just how empathetic you are Alexander. With everyone. I can’t guess what path you will choose when you are older, but I pray its one in which you get to exercise this gift that God’s given you.
Gabriel, you make me laugh. I hope you always will. Some parents wonder what their children will be like when they are older. Considering how often I catch you hiding in the closet eating cheetos and cookies, I mostly wonder how big you’ll be when you’re older.
Gabriel, this year you’ve learned to ride your bike, your skateboard and to jump in the pool- all with reckless abandon. As the Fantastic Mr Fox says, that’s your trademark. This year you’ve also developed your potty humor and sarcasm to heights previously unmatched for a four year old. While some will say you couldn’t have inherited this from me genetically, I like to think it certainly has come by osmosis.
I can’t believe you’re four years old. I already miss the sound of you tramping down the hallway at 11:30 at night, wrapped in your red Nationals blanket, asking if you can watch Deadliest Catch with your mom and me.
But this year we’ve noticed other things about you boys too. For example, Alexander I’d no idea you could recite the Lord’s Prayer all by yourself, and Gabriel I don’t know when you learned to hold your hands out to receive- rather than take- communion.
I saw signs of your spiritual development all year, such as the afternoon this spring I listened to the two of you arguing in the backseat of my car about the nature of the Risen Christ. Alexander, I heard you positing that the Risen Jesus is ‘kind of like a Jedi, like Obi-Wan after he dies.’ Gabriel, on the other hand, you felt the Easter Jesus had more in common with Gandalf from Lord of the Rings because when he comes back from the dead ‘he’s sparkly.’
That’s hardly all. There was the evening at the dinner table when you, Alexander, matter-of-factly explained that Jesus and God are one and the same and, in your own words, you explained how Jesus was present at creation. Not too shabby for a first grader.
And there was the Easter night this Spring when we were all serving the homeless in DC with some church people when you, Gabriel, looked at me with complete seriousness and explained that we were doing what we were doing because Jesus had been homeless too.
When people hear this about you, its possible they’ll chalk it up to you being a couple of preacher kids. They’d never believe that in our house we actually talk more about bluegrass, baseball and the X-Men. Despite wearing a robe once a week and having some people call me Reverend, the truth is I don’t know how to plant this faith in you any better than any other parent.
No, the growth of your faith is a testimony to the Church- not just to Aldersgate Church specifically but to the Church with a big C, to the Church as a sacrament, to the Church a visible means of a grace we can’t see with our own eyes.
You’ll learn one day, if you’ve not already, that the Church is often easy for people to mock and parody. The Church can be easy to criticize and it can be a convenient scapegoat for disillusionment. Nevertheless, its every bit as true that the Church can transform people. Of that, you are already exhibits A and B.
Gabriel, one afternoon this summer while we were at the pool you pointed out how I had a couple of gray hairs on my chest. You then said: ‘Daddy, you’re old. Are you going to die soon?’
I like to think the gray hair is just part of my plan to look more and more like Sam Elliot, but even if that doesn’t work out for me the gray hair at least puts me in a better position to begin offering you sagely wisdom. Are you ready?
Here it is:
When you get older, one day and probably many times thereafter, you are going to wonder: DO I HAVE ENOUGH?
Enough what? you might be asking. Enough of anything.
I’m starting my 10th year in ministry and my 6th year at Aldersgate, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about people its that there’s one anxiety we all share. Its an anxiety about not having enough: money, time, love, health, security, faith.
You should know, boys, that question’s as old as the bible; in fact, they even asked it in the bible. A teacher named Paul wrote a letter about it.
Gabriel, you already know some of it. Thanks to Mrs. Mertins and the Aldersgate Day School you know all about the fruit of the Spirit. But somehow I doubt Mrs Mertins taught you that Paul writes about the fruit in the middle of a long argument about circumcision. I imagine it is hard to explain circumcision with construction paper.
If you were to read Paul’s letter now, I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it was confusing, that you tripped over words like Flesh, Law, Justification and, naturally, Circumcision.
Here’s the thing- when you push all the confusing parts to the side, what you discover is that Paul is writing to people who wonder if they have enough. Only their question is: Is Jesus Enough?
These people loved Jesus. They believed in him and had faith in him.
They believed Jesus was enough to get them into heaven; they just didn’t think Jesus was enough to make sense of their practical, everyday lives. They wanted something else that would tell them what to do and what not to do, who to be, and where to go with their lives. So they hoped that something called the Law could give them the answers that, let’s face it, everyone wants.
We do not argue too much about the Law anymore, but the fact is boys: every moment of your lives you’re being bombarded with messages about what to wear, what to desire and buy, how to think, who to fear, what to hate, where to belong, what is possible and what you should aspire to.
So its no different than it was in Paul’s day. Everywhere you are confronted with messages telling you that Jesus is not enough to make your way in the world.
In response, Paul says we should ‘live by the Spirit.’
X, you asked me not too long ago what the Holy Spirit is. And I said it was like wind or breath, something that is everywhere even if you can’t see it. I could tell from the look on your face that that was a singularly unsatisfying answer.
I think in general Christians are too sloppy when it comes to talking about the Holy Spirit because really its simple: the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus.
The Spirit is Holy because its Jesus’ Spirit. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus is at work in the world today. The Spirit does what Jesus did and if the Spirit allegedly does something Jesus would not have done then, chances are, its not really the Spirit.
When Paul says that we should live by the Spirit, he means we should follow Jesus: mimic his life, practice his teachings, apprentice our lives to his life. He is the mold we should pour our lives into.
That’s where the fruit of the Spirit comes in, Gabriel. Paul says that if we apprentice our lives to Jesus then our lives will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, and self-control.
Some bibles have Paul saying ‘There is no law against such things’ but, really, in the Greek, it says: ‘There is no shortage of such things.’
In other words, Paul is saying our lives will resemble Jesus’ life. And not only is that is enough for your life, really its everything you need.
God doesn’t give you everything you want- you’ve probably learned that already.
God doesn’t give you everything you need to be happy and free from disappointment and suffering.
But God does give you everything you need to follow him. That’s what we were made to do and that’s what the fruit of the Spirit means.
And that brings me back to the Church, boys- the Church with a big C. Because our lives are meant to bear fruit; our lives are meant to look like the life Jesus lived. So its not that your faith can ever be just one part of your life.
The moment you become a disciple your life suddenly becomes something for you to cultivate and grow. And you can only do that among the People we call Church. You can only do that by learning how to worship and pray, by learning how to give and forgive, by serving and sharing another’s burdens.
I hope when you are my age you have not forgotten that. I hope none of us have.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, famously said that All Saints’ Day was his favorite holy day on the liturgical calendar. Methinks Wesley must’ve have suffered through some dreadful Christmas services to make such a claim tenable.
Nonetheless, All Saints’ is a powerful reminder of two primary claims of our faith, that of Ash Wednesday and that of Hebrews:
To dust we came and to dust we shall return.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; i.e.. those who’ve returned to the dust ahead of us.
All Saints’ Day is Friday and will be celebrated in my church on Saturday and Sunday, chiefly as we preside over the Eucharist, calling upon the ‘great company of heaven’ to join in our alleluia.
Every year when All Saints’ is just a few days away on the schedule I’m given to thinking about the men and women who’ve been saints to me, in my own life.
I don’t mean people like St Francis or St Augustine.
I mean people like David.
Here’s an All Saints’ sermon I wrote with David in mind. Actually, it was David’s question: ‘Can we pray to the saints?’ that prompted the sermon.
Psalm 145: The Company of Heaven
‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
We were sitting in his battered, red F150 parked in front of the mud-brown elevation sign at the Peaks of Otter overlook on the Blue Ridge. Four-thousand feet, the sign said.
We were sitting in the cab of his truck, both of us looking straight ahead, not at each other- a position I think is the only one in which men can be intimate with one another.
Looking at Bedford County below us, neither of us had spoken for several minutes until he broke the silence by asking me: ‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
David Burnett was (is) one of the saints in my life, and not because of any remarkable feat of his or his exceptional religiosity.
David was just good and kind, a Gary Cooper-type without pretense. What you saw was what you got, and what you got from David was very often the love of God condensed and focused and translated into deceptively ordinary words and gestures.
Not long after I’d been assigned to his church, David let me know that he’d like to spend an afternoon with me. He wanted to get to know me better, he said, because he thought I’d likely be doing his funeral.
David was only a few years older than me. He’d lived every day of his life in the same small town and wouldn’t have had it any other way. He’d been baptized and raised and was now raising his own two kids in the church I pastored.
Ever since graduating from high school, David had worked in the local carpet factory and had survived as the captain of the volunteer fire department, despite his slight frame. But when I first met him, David hadn’t worked for over a year. Not since his Lou Gehrig’s Disease had begun its monotonous mutiny against his body.
At first I’d suggested to David that we grab some lunch, but he blushed and confessed that the stiffness in his jaw and hands would make eating distracting for me and embarrassing for him. ‘Let’s go for a drive,’ he suggested.
He picked me at the church. He was wearing jeans that his wife had sewn an elastic waistband into and a t-shirt that was much too big for him but was just big enough for him to be able to dress himself.
I could tell he was proud that even though he could only awkwardly grip the steering wheel he could still drive his truck.
We switched places when we got to the edge of town; he couldn’t navigate the steep, winding roads that wound their way up the mountain. But we switched back again when we got to the top.
Driving through the Blue Ridge, every now and then, David would stop at places as though he were turning the pages of a family photo album.
He stopped at the spot he’d gone hunting with his Dad just before he died.
He stopped and showed me the woods he’d snuck into as a teenager with his friends and snuck his first beer.
He coasted the truck and pointed to a ridge with a clearing where he’d proposed to his high school sweetheart; he said that was the best spot to see the stars at night.
And he stopped and showed me the place he liked to take his kids camping. It was at that stop that he asked, with the V8 idling, my advice on how to tell his kids, who thus far only knew that their Dad was sick, that he walked and talked funny now, not that he was dying.
David parked at the Peaks of Otter overlook and turned off the engine, and all of a sudden the pickup took on the feel of a medieval confessional.
Staring straight ahead, David faked a chuckle and told me how he’d rushed into burning homes before without a second’s hesitation but that he was terrified of the long, slow death that awaited him.
He pretended to wipe away something in his eye besides a tear, and I pretended not to notice.
Then he told me how he’d miss his kids. He told me he worried about them; he worried how they’d do without him.
He was quiet for a few minutes, evidently thinking because then he asked me: ‘Will they be able to talk to me? Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
It’s a good question.
I don’t think David would’ve known or would’ve cared for that matter, but in so many words his was a question that’s been a bone of contention between Christians ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 protests against the Catholic Church into the sanctuary doors in Wittenberg 500 years ago:
Can we solicit the prayers of the dead?
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
The instant David asked me his question I felt glad that we were sitting in a pickup staring straight ahead instead of in my office or over lunch facing one another.
I was glad were sitting in his truck because, with tears in his eyes, I wouldn’t have wanted him to see the confusion in my own, to see that I didn’t know how to answer him.
My first impulse was to sidestep his questions, to ignore the questions about the saints departed, about what they’re life is like, what they do and what we can ask of them.
My first impulse was to sidestep those questions and just offer David the reassurance that Kinnon and McKayla would be fine.
And I could’ve gotten away with it, I suppose.
But David didn’t just want reassurances about his kids. He wanted to know if he’d still have a relationship with them. He didn’t just want to know if they’d make it after he died; he wanted to know that even if he did not, would his relationship with them survive death?
Or I could’ve just said ‘Yes’ and moved on. I thought about it. I considered it.
It was a pastoral moment. He had a pastoral need. There in the cab of his pickup surely compassion trumped orthodoxy.
Rather than worry what was the right answer, what was the theologically permissible answer, I should just say ‘Yes’ and give him some peace in from his pain.
But as I said, David was a saint, one of God’s plainly good people. And the thing about saints- it’s hard to lie to them.
Of course I could’ve chosen to explain to David everything I’d been taught in seminary classrooms and theological textbooks, Protestant classrooms and Protestant texts.
I could’ve explained to David how I was taught that praying to anyone but Jesus Christ was…idolatrous; how devotion to anything else, saint or otherwise, detracts from our devotion to Christ.
I could’ve explained to David the mantra of the Reformation: how we are saved by faith alone, by Christ alone, who is our Great, High Priest therefore we don’t need any other priest, confessor or saint to mediate our prayers.
I could’ve explained to David all the ins and outs of everything I’d been taught.
And because I like to be a smarty-pants, I had to stop myself from doing so. Because even though the question was one I’d heard batted round and round in theology classrooms, when I heard the same question on David’s lips it sounded anything but academic.
Can we ask the saints to pray for us?
It’s a question that has divided Christians for 5 centuries.
After all they won’t be celebrating All Saints Day at any of the Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian or Pentecostal churches up and down Ft Hunt Road.
And in the United Methodist Church and in the Episcopal Church we split the difference. We remember and we give thanks for the saints, but we don’t speak to them. We don’t call on them.
And we typically don’t ask them to pray for us.
But ever since David asked me his question from the driver’s side of his pickup I’ve wondered if we Protestants have been on the right side of the question.
As it turned out, David was wrong. I wasn’t the one to do his funeral.
As it turned out, David was just as strong and determined as everyone believed him to be and stronger than he gave himself credit. He lived longer than the doctors expected and by the time he died I was serving here.
But even though I wasn’t the one to preside at his funeral service, the script- the ancient script- was the same.
Draping a white pall over his casket, the pastor proclaimed:
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
As in baptism David put on Christ, so now is David in Christ and clothed with glory.
Then facing the standing-room only sanctuary, the pastor held out her hands and for the call to worship voiced Jesus’ promise:
I am the resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
And then at the end of the service, after the preaching and the sharing and the crying, the pastor laid her hands on David’s casket and prayed the commendation:
As first you gave David to us, now we give David back to you.
Receive David into the arms of your mercy.
Receive David into the fellowship of your departed saints.
When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven.
And so in death we never cease to be in Christ.
The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.
It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints. The Church is one People in heaven and on Earth.
The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world.
They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into. The same communion to which we belong.
And so death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.
We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they.
We praise God and, according to the Great Thanksgiving-our communion prayer, so do they.
We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.
Our fellowship with the departed saints is not altogether different from our fellowship with one another.
That’s what we mean when we say in the Creed ‘I believe in the communion of saints…’ We’re saying: ‘I believe in the fellowship of the living and the dead in Christ.’
So it seems to me we can pray and ask the saints to pray for us. Not in the sense of praying to them. Not in the sense of giving them our worship and devotion.
But if we believe in the communion of saints, living and dead, then asking the departed saints for their prayers is no different than Trish, Julie and David- in this congregation- asking for my prayers for them this week.
It’s not, as Protestants so often caricature, that the saints are our way or our mediators to Jesus Christ.
Rather, because we (living and dead) are all friends in Jesus Christ we can talk to and pray for one another.
I can ask Jackson Casey, who had an eleven year old’s insatiable curiosity for scripture, to pray for me that I never take these stories for granted.
I can ask Joanne Jackson and Peg Charney, both of whom knew better than me what it was to serve the poor, to pray for me that I not lose sight of what Jesus expects of me.
I can ask Eleanor Gunggoll, who made her boys her priority, to pray for me that I never stop treasuring mine.
‘Will I be able to pray for them? After I’m gone?’
The moments passed in silence while my mind was anything but, then David, perhaps sensing that I didn’t know or wasn’t going to respond, reached for the ignition.
But then I turned in the passenger seat and, violating the man code, I looked right at him and said: ‘I hope you’ll pray for me too.’
I didn’t know at the time whether it was a good or right answer.
I do know, though, that I think of David, and his question, every time I stand behind a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and pray:
‘…and so with your people here on earth and all the company of heaven, we praise your name and join their ending hymn…’