Category Archives: Sermons

Bottling God

I remember being in church once and really sensing the presence of God. You know that feeling? Your singing a song, or saying a prayer, and you know in your bones—God is here. I felt that and thought, “If I could just bottle this, and take it with me, I’d be a much better Christian.”

Because the reality is that most of life isn’t mountaintop moments. It’s waiting in line at the grocery store, it’s being told I don’t have a job, that my blood work doesn’t look right, that my expenses are exceeding my income.

And what I’ve found is that if God isn’t with me in those moments, the church stuff doesn’t really matter. Pump me up on Sunday, but if I can’t find God come Thursday, I’m in trouble.

What I’ve been learning is that I didn’t need to bottle up God in church so I could take Him into the world. What I needed to do was open my eyes and see that He was already there.

sorry.

I heard of a woman who received a nice settlement from a lawsuit. Afterward, she was still furious. Her lawyer asked, “What’s wrong? What you got was more than fair.”

“What I wanted,” she said, “was for somebody to look me in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”

We all know this.  But saying sorry is hard, isn’t it?

In a book called Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz writes: “As a culture, we haven’t mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’”

Think about that. We fly robots to Mars. We cure disease. We’re the most advanced people in the history of humanity.

But we can’t say sorry.

Why? Maybe it’s because our culture is upside down on the issue. There’s a famous line from the movie, Love Story – remember it? “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Uh, what?

Love means having to say you’re sorry all the time. Preferably every fifteen minutes.

There’s a thousand answers that could be given for why we don’t do it, so let me focus on one: pride.

Pride trivializes God’s mercy in our lives.Pride makes it hard to appreciate what God has done.

We’re like the young rich man who can’t follow Jesus because his heart is consumed by wealth. He’s spiritually blind to his need for Christ. Why follow Jesus when you already have what you need?

Dorothy Day said the closer she grew to God the more she could acknowledge her sinfulness because she saw that God never abandoned her to sin but repeatedly extended his mercy.

That’s the secret. Drawing closer to God allows us to see ourselves for who we are: fragile creatures in need of grace.

It’s tough to say sorry when we’re doing life on our own. Easier when resting in God’s mercy.

It comes down to pride. We don’t apologize because we see it as weakness. But it’s not.

A recent study on leadership found that admitting fault and apologizing creates solidarity, innovation, and openness to change.

So, saying sorry literally makes us more creative and successful. Sorry isn’t weakness; it’s power.

When we need to say sorry, who keeps us from doing it? Nobody.

We hold all the power. And that’s the problem, because our tendency is to address our weaknesses and struggle with them. But there is often little moral effort where we are strong.

But in scripture sin resides not so much in our weaknesses but in our strengths. Because God doesn’t kick us when we’re down. He lifts us up.

Think about Jesus with the adulteress, refusing to condemn her, daring others to throw the first stone. He whispers something hidden in her ear, then says, “Go and sin no more.”

Scripture is filled with a God who grieves with us in our weakness and offers grace to help us overcome.

It’s when we sin in our strength that God drops the metaphorical hammer. When we simply don’t bother to do what we can.

The rich man could have followed Jesus and given his money to the poor, but he doesn’t. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite could have cared for the wounded man, but they don’t. In the last judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel, those who are condemned are told their fault lies in their unwillingness to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.

The story of sin, like the call to repentance, concerns those areas of our lives where we could have tried harder, precisely because we were able to do so. Christ judges not the weak heart that struggles, but rather the strong heart that does not bother.

We hold enormous power over one another. We can withhold an apology and wreak havoc. Or, we can trust God’s mercy, lay down our pride, and offer this little word of healing.

The choice is ours.

 

 

Homily on John 9:1-38

“For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of the light.” Amen.

 

My mother has been a flight attendant for nearly 23 years.

 I remember the day she went for the interview. She wore a red dress and was afraid to fly. But she needed the job. So fly she did. Pretty cool woman.

A week ago a passenger approached her to report that another passenger had threatened him.

“He threatened you?” mom asked. “How?”

“He said if I leaned my seat back again, he was going to beat the something out of me.” That’s the PG version of what he said.

Mom raised an eyebrow. “Was he was joking?”

The man shook his head. “No, not joking.”

“OK,” mom said, “I’ll ring the cockpit and let the captain know. We can have law enforcement board the plane when we land.”

“No, no, I don’t want to cause a scene,” he said. “I just wanted you to know in case something happens to me.”

“Well, at the very least, let’s move you to another seat.”

“Great,” he said.

Later, mom was taking drink orders when she arrived at the row where the alleged villain sat. She checked him out and said he was well dressed and by all accounts appeared normal and content.

The passengers around him, however, looked stressed. The tension that had surfaced earlier was still very much alive. Mom said the man sitting next to the villain had his face pressed against the window, trying to put as much distance between them as possible. He also ordered a double scotch.

The villain ordered a ginger ale.

Mom left to get the drinks but when she returned she realized she had forgotten the villain’s ginger ale.

Uh-Oh.

 

She apologized and said she’d be right back with his drink.

The passengers winced. The man by the window threw back his scotch. Just kidding.

The villain said, “You know what? Make it a club soda. I forgot; I gave up ginger ale for Lent.”

Mom’s jaw hit the floor.

 

 Ginger ale? What about threatening people? That might have been a good one for Lent.

 

I’m not looking to throw stones but sometimes we Christians give Christianity a bad rap, don’t we? I know I do.

It was Gandhi who said, “I like Christ, just not Christians. They’re so unlike Christ.”

 Ouch.

I’ve tried to let that quote challenge me and not offend me. Because the reality is that when people want to know if what they read about Jesus is true, they often look to the lives of those who profess Him as Lord.

I think about that.

As a kid someone once told me I needed to behave because I might be the only Jesus someone ever sees. To which I thought, “That’s too bad.”

But seriously, when we—the religious—turn people off from Jesus, that’s a problem.

A popular mantra of my generation is that we’re spiritual but not religious. Which is another way to say we’re open to God, but suspect of his people.

A sentiment I imagine would ring true with the beggar from our gospel reading. Blind since birth, he encounters Jesus, who takes dirt, spits in it, and uses it to anoint the man’s face. And for the first time in his life, he moves from dark to light.

But then he runs into a bunch of religious folks and things run sideways.

Before he’s even healed, the disciples point at him and say, “Teacher, whose fault is that? Who sinned? He or his parents?”

It was a commonly held belief in the ancient world that illness and disability were the direct result of sin.  But Jesus will hear nothing of it.

“Nobody sinned,” He says. “Come on. This man is who he is as you are who you are. He’s a person, fully formed, in whom the work of God will be made manifest.”

On a recent evening I was running at the track when I saw a severely disabled teenager using a walker in the lane next to me. His father was a few paces ahead, keeping an eye on him. As I ran by, I became hyper aware of my able body, and I felt bad for running while he fought for every step. I felt pity for him.

But the next lap I got a better look at his face. It was painted in joy. He was smiling, radiant, happy to be walking in the cool of the evening with his father. And I thought, “How dare I marginalize that boy? How dare I presume to know anything about him?”

Two thousand years ago Jesus looked at the disabled and declared them full people, in every sense of the word.

The disciples’ question had to do with exclusion. They wanted to know who was responsible for keeping the blind beggar shut out from society.

Jesus said, “Wrong question. No one is excluded. I’m the light of the world, and my light shines on all people.” All people.

After the beggar’s encounter with Jesus, his neighbors drag him before the Pharisees to give an account for his healing.  And like our pal on the plane who gave up ginger ale for Lent, they make a mess of religion.

They simply don’t believe the story.

They badger him and question his integrity. They haul his parents in to testify whether or not he was actually even blind. They call Jesus a sinner and say the man is nothing more than a disciple of a sinner. But they are disciples of Moses, a true prophet.

The beggar fights back, saying, “Look, I don’t know who he is; haven’t a clue if he’s a sinner. But if he were not from God, how could he open my eyes? I was blind, but now I see.”

That does it. The Pharisees eject him from the synagogue, saying, “You were born into utter sin. How dare you teach us?”

With those words we reach the heart of the story: blindness, but not of the eyes, of the spirit. Physical blindness, challenging as it may be, only has so much power. Our physical condition speaks not of our true identity.

As we heard in our reading from Samuel, God does not see as mortals do, who look on outward appearances, for God looks upon the heart.

Far more challenging is spiritual blindness. Because when our spirits are blind, we no longer see the works of God, not even when they’re brought before us.

The Pharisees are certain they know how God works and how He doesn’t. So when Jesus heals this man on the Sabbath, it can’t be from God, because God doesn’t work that way.

You know, the Pharisees take it on the chin a lot, but they were just trying to be faithful. But in this instance their religious beliefs, the conviction they could see, blinded them.

Which is kind of terrifying for us. How can we know if we see by the light?

Dan Clendenin says, “One of the most dangerous spiritual places we can live is in the deluded notion that we are a fully sighted person.”

There’s something to that. This past week the Westboro Baptist Church—which in no meaningful way is Baptist or a church— was again in the news because it founder, Rev. Fred Phelps, passed away. Phelps made the church famous for protesting the funerals of American soldiers, and making hateful statements about all kinds of people. I’ve often wondered what drives a person to such extremes? Probably a lot of factors, but at least one is a deep-rooted belief that you see the world rightly. You don’t treat people as worthless unless you believe they are.

It’s easy to get into trouble when we think we’ve got it all figured out. We may not spout hate speech but we have our plans, our ambition; why consult God in prayer? We know who to vote for; why listen to another perspective? We know what’s right and wrong; why bother reading scripture?

We know. We know. We know.

I wish I read this story and identified with the blind beggar, who knew he was blind and could thus recognize the light.

And maybe some days I do. But more often I’m the Pharisee, believing I can see, when in reality I cannot.

But, you know what I’ve found? The healthiest people don’t just admit their blindness; they embrace it. The wise readily admit, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Long ago a newspaper posed the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” The great writer, G.K. Chesterton wrote back, “Dear Sirs: I am.”

Pretty good.

If we hope to see by the light, we must acknowledge we’re in the dark. The first step in any recovery is admitting there’s a problem.

Jesus said he didn’t come for the healthy but the sick. A healthy person doesn’t need a doctor. A sick person does.

The righteous can keep on being righteous, but sinners? Well, we need a savior.

If we’re honest, I think that’s tougher to admit than we like to think. We like Jesus as teacher, and healer, and preacher… but savior?

Who needs that when we know, we know, we know?

During the past year the most visible Christian in the world has garnered unprecedented attention. Pope Francis has been called a rock-star pope; a title he said offended him. Which I thought was awesome.

This is a man who’s spent his entire career living with and serving the poor. A man who admitted he didn’t want to be pope. A man with tremendous wealth at his disposal and drives a Ford escort, which the guys from NPR’s Click and Clack say proves he is a man of prayer.

Pope Francis hasn’t changed any doctrine. Hasn’t overwhelmed anyone with electric preaching. He’s not youthful or particularly handsome.  He’s not even considered a great theologian.

And yet, he’s set the world on fire with talk of God. I have atheist friends who despise religion, but they like this pope.

What’s up with that?

Might be because he recently admitted that while burying the priest who had been his confessor years ago, he stole a rosary from his casket. Pope Francis said it took a little work to pry it from his cold fingers, but he got the job done, and then asked the priest to forgive him one last time.

 I think it has something to do with the answer he gave to a reporter when asked, “Who are you?”

The pope sat in silence and then said, “I am a sinner. A sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

Humility is a warm light that draws all people toward it. The Proverbs declare that fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.

If we hope to see we must first know we are blind. This isn’t bad news. It’s good because in our blindness we are not left to stumble in the dark, for the light of Christ shines on all people—on popes and beggars, on saints and sinners, on your and on me.

 How do we know if we see by the light? “I don’t know,” the beggar said to the Pharisees. “I don’t have all the answers. But one thing I know: Jesus touched my eyes. And where once I was blind, now I see.”

Words and Mouths

Preaching is a great privilege. To stand in a sacred space and speak creatively about God and life is one of the weightier things I do. That being said, I count it sheer joy to stand up and talk in front of people. Anyway, if you like that kind of thing, below is a link to recent homilies I’ve given.

Hope everyone is having a peaceful Sunday. Peace and Love.

Sermons

P.S. Football starts really soon. My predictions: The Cowboys will win the Super Bowl and the USC Trojans will go undefeated, once again proving that Southern California really is God’s favorite college.