Monday, May 16, 2016


[i]Some stories make best selling novels,
            but we forget them two years later.
Others become blockbuster movies,
            but in 6 months we cannot recall the plot.
Then there are stories like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.
This tale was being told hundreds of years before Jesus
      and here we are, thousands of years later
listening to it again today.

Such stories hold our attention through the ages because
            they are deep and universal.
They say something vitally about important for our lives.

The widow of Zarephath had no earthly means of support.
Even in a good economy, she would have been poor.
But a terrible drought had stricken the land; so things were even worse.

She had just enough food left
            to make one last paltry meal for herself and her child.
She planned to cook that meal, eat it,  then die.
All she could think of was surviving one last day.

That may not sound like it applies to us.
But everyone is neurologically wired, while still in the crib,
            to feel fundamentally vulnerable.
Just being ignored or disrespected,
            triggers the same survival anxiety
                        in our brain stem as a threat to our life.
We need to know we are loved, appreciated, and respected.
So we are all trying to survive – financially, socially, emotionally –
            one way or another, trying to get by.

Our Old Testament story takes a remarkable turn.
The widow has only enough food for her last meal.
Elijah says, “Give it to me,” and she does.

Her crazy generous gift blossoms into a miracle
as the food lasts long enough
to save them all.
We hear an echo of this story in John’s Gospel
 when a little boy gives Jesus his five loaves and two fish
to feed a multitude.

The point is simple if we just dare to believe it.
When we devote our gifts
– material, social, intellectual, or what have you --
            to our own survival, our own well-being --
            we have just enough to scrape by.
We subsist on the edge of anxiety.

But when we forget about self-preservation
            and give ourselves away,
            we plunge into the abundance of life itself
            and the miracle happens.

When we give God whatever we’ve got,
            however small, however inadequate,
            God multiplies it to serve others and sustain us
                        at the same time.

The tricky thing about plunging into abundant life
            is that we can’t do it on our own.
Someone has to invite us.
If Elijah hadn’t dared to ask the widow
            to give him her last meal,
            it would have been her last meal.
But by imposing on her, by challenging her to be
            absurdly generous, he saved her life.
Our job is to invite each other into God’s grace.
Who are we in this story? Perhaps we are bot
            the widow and the prophet.

There is a legend that the Risen Lord
            appeared to St. Thomas and told him
to take the gospel to India.
But Thomas refused; so Jesus sold Thomas
            to a slave trader who took him to India
                        and sold him to a Raja.

Thomas was an architect by trade;
so the Raja gave him the task
            of building for him the finest palace in India.
Thomas took from the Raja’s account,
 the construction costs for a palace,
            bricks and hiring masons,
he gave the money to the poor.

Every few months the Raja would ask for a progress report,
            and Thomas would hit him up for more construction costs,                       
            which he would again give to the poor.

Eventually, the Raja demanded to see his palace.
So Thomas explained, “Your majesty,
            there was no place on earth worthy of a palace for you,
            so I have given the money to the poor
            in order to build you a palace in heaven.”

The Raja thought a moment and then replied,         
            “Oh I see. Thank you.”
Although I come to you from Las Vegas,
            I am not recommending a course of sacred swindling.

But I do say this:
            Life and joy do not flow when we are marshaling
                        our time, talents, thoughts, and attention
                        to advance our own interest.
            Life and joy flow when we give ourselves away.

But that is such a counter-intuitive thing to do,
            we need an invitation.
We need each other’s encouragement.
The best thing we can do for another person
            is often to ask them for help.

And when someone asks us for help,
            they are doing us a favor.
It is nothing less that the gift of God’s abundant life.

[i] This sermon for Pentecost 3 is for a Preaching Course I am taking at the Anglican Center in Rome.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


Today we will confirm Christians for a life of service
to God and God’s people.  
We will pray “Strengthen O Lord your servant with your Holy Spirit;
empower her for your service . . . .”
Pentecost is the perfect day for this sacrament.
It is the perfect day because that’s what happened
            to the apostles on the first Pentecost.

To get this story, we need some context.
Luke wrote two companion books
-- the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
Literarily, the two books have parallel plots.

In each book, the main character is the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel of Luke is about the Holy Spirit acting through Jesus.
Acts is about the Holy Spirit acting through the Church.
In Luke, the action gets started
when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus.
It’s the Spirit of God filling Jesus body and soul
            that makes his words the Word of the Lord
            and his actions the saving acts of God.

So what is God’s agenda?
Jesus answers as he kicks off his mission.
He says,
            “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because
 he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
 release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind,
 to let the oppressed go free . . . .”
That Spirit is what made Jesus God.

On Pentecost, that same Spirit transformed a motley crew of lost,
confused, followers of a departed messiah the Church.
The same Spirit that made Jesus the Christ,
            makes us the Body of Christ.
From the day of Pentecost to today we have been the Church
because and only because:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us because
 he has anointed us to proclaim good news to the poor,
            release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind,
            to let the oppressed go free . . . .

In Confirmation, we convey on each of our members
the spiritual power to carry out God’s mission in this world.
That probably isn’t what most of us came here for.
We expect the Church and the Christian faith
to play a decidedly different role in our lives.

Secular society has already given us a life project.
Our parents, our friends, TV shows, movies, commercials,
            magazines, and self-improvement books
 have already told us what life is for.
They have told us how to be human.
And it is an exhausting, life-consuming job.
We do not need religious extra-curricular activities,
            let alone some grand mission to change the world.
We want  the Church to provide us
 a spiritual support for our secular life project.
We want Jesus to be a supporting actor in our movie.
We want the emotional equivalent of a nutritional supplement
            to give us a boost at the hard job of our life.

I totally get that and respect it.
But there are a couple of problems.
First, the modern Western secular definition of humanity
            and prescription for life is failing us.

The secular recipe for life has left us lonely,
alienated from each other,
despairing of meaning, and often angry.
Our life projects are real.
They are legitimate and respectable.
But they are too small to make a life worthwhile.
2,000 years ago, St. Augustine said,
we were made for something larger than this world.
The secular definition of life just isn’t enough.
And so we panic, desperate to find something
compelling enough to live and die for.
In his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning,
            war correspondent Chris Hedges says
            we are addicted to war because
it temporarily exhilarates us and gives us a sense                 
            we are doing something important.
Regular life in the modern world doesn’t do that.

In a Vanity Fair article, Sebastian Junger
explains why PTSD is so prevalent and so hard to cure
                        for American soldiers.
Civilian society does not provide returning soldiers a sense
of meaning and belonging.
They are stuck in their war experience – even if it was traumatic –
because it was the only time in their lives
they have felt deep belonging and that they are doing something
that mattered enough to deserve their life commitment.
Similarly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells us something surprising
about terrorism.
Most suicide bombers are not even observant Muslims.
Terrorist cells provide a sense of belonging
and terrorist acts feel meaningful and important.
We are that desperate for a cause worth dying for,
because without it, we don’t have enough to live for.

Las Vegas has recently seen a surge of gang violence.
Clark County teachers report 1st and 2nd graders
are already talking about “jumping” into  gangs.
Even our children are that desperate for a community.
We are dying of thirst for belonging
            in this secular desert.

That’s one reason a little help with our life project
for the coming week isn’t enough.
Here’s reason number two.

We come to God because we need something.
We need some healing or peace or joy.
But the Catch 22 is: our spiritual needs can never be met
            as long as we are trying to get them met.
So God patches us up a little,
            then gives us a mission to help someone else.

In the course of serving others,
            we get healed ourselves, find peace ourselves,
            discover our own joy.
Jesus said, “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it,
            but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Through confirmation, we offer a community of belonging.
Is that a sweet supportive brotherhood?
Sometimes. Other times not so much.
The Church is a bunch of flawed, stiff-necked, wrong-headed,
obdurate, and exasperating people.
But we belong to each other in Christ.
We are the Body of Christ
-- not because we always like each other
            -- sometimes we like each other, but that’s gravy.
We are the Body of Christ because we were redeemed
by the same Savior on the same Cross.
We are the Body of Christ because we
            breathe the same breath he breathed.
We live by the same Spirit.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us because it has anointed us
            to carry forward the mission Jesus began.

So if you want to belong to somebody,
you can belong to us and we will belong to you.
If you want a mission to make your life count for something,
we got a mission – the Kingdom of God.
That means turning this world upside down
            so that cruelty, injustice, and greed are cast out.

Isaiah says,
            “Never again will there be a child who lives only a few days . . .
            No longer will they build houses and others dwell in them
                 or plant and others eat. . . .
            They will not labor in vain or bear children for misfortune.
            They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.”

We have a mission too big to accomplish in human history,
            but a mission that begins here, today, with us;
a mission that will carry us and sustain us,
            -- it will be profoundly inconvenient --
but it will invest out lives with meaning
            every moment and every hour that the Lord our God has given us.