If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not About God

If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not About God

One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Mark 12:28-34

The title of this sermon is “If It’s Not About Love, It’s Not About God,” something I’ve heard our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry say many times.

I’d like to begin by telling you a bit about my journey of faith.

I had a disjointed spiritual upbringing due to circumstances in my family, and for many years, when I lived with my father and stepmother, we didn’t attend church or have any explicit spiritual grounding at home. But I had friends at school who were Christian, and when I was in 9th grade, one of my friends invited me to join her family for Easter Sunday services. It was a Baptist Church, with an altar call, and when the minister asked anyone who wanted to invite Jesus into their heart and accept him as their Savior to come forward, I found myself walking to the front and allowing this kind man to pray for me, that I would be saved.

I don’t remember feeling all that much different afterwards, but I knew something had happened. My friend and her family were overjoyed that I had accepted Jesus and was now among the saved, and I was happy to be among people who seemed to care about me. Thus began my conscious life of faith.

I didn’t join my friend’s Baptist church, but I stayed within the world of what we might call biblical fundamentalism through my junior year in high school. I eventually joined a church and even lived with the minister’s family for a time when my own family collapsed. By and large, my experiences with the church and the minister’s family were positive. They were kind, generous, and sincere in their faith. I loved to sing, and I was part of a touring choir that traveled from Colorado to Mexico, singing in churches about the love of Jesus.

But there were several things that troubled and confused me that I didn’t know how to talk about with anyone from my church.

First, although I was now among the saved, I didn’t feel the way others described what being saved was like for them. I struggled with all manner of fear and doubt. And I saw that others in the church did, too, but nobody talked about it. What’s more, living with the minister and his family, I saw all their foibles and sins up close, but nobody talked about that either. All the church focused on, it seemed, was ensuring that other people could be saved like us.

That was the other thing that troubled me–this notion that the human race was divided among the saved and the unsaved, and we just happened to be on the narrow path to heaven. I was surprised to learn that even other Christians were not on the saved path. When the time came for me to leave Colorado and return to live with my mother in New Jersey, the minister of my church warned me not to join my mother’s Episcopal Church for fear that I would “backslide into sin.”

I simply couldn’t believe that anyone who wasn’t on our narrow path of faith was condemned by God forever. Out of love and respect for the people who were so good to me, I kept quiet. But when I returned to my mother and began attending church with her, the Episocpal priest there helped me integrate my nascent spiritual experiences with an understanding of God broad and generous enough to encompass all that was swirling around in my head. He said to me something I’ve never forgotten: “Mariann, if you wouldn’t condemn another human being because of what they did or didn’t believe; rest assured that God wouldn’t either.” Which was his way of saying, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”

Seven years after I started attending my mother’s church, I entered seminary to become an Episcopal priest and here I am, now a bishop. Through it all, I have held that unwavering view that if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. It was for love that Jesus came to us. When he told the story of the Prodigal Son and his forgiving father, he was talking about us in relationship to God. When he said there once was a woman who lost a precious coin and spent all night looking for what she had lost, and when she found it called in all her neighbors to celebrate, he was talking about how much God loves us. When he asked God to forgive even those who had sentenced him to death, he knew that God had already forgiven them, because God is love.

Jesus came into the world to put human flesh on this wondrous love of God, and to save people like us from ourselves and all the ways we get caught up in anxiety, judgement, greed, anger, despair. He came to show us what it looks like to walk in love, to live in love, and to experience in ourselves the kind of transformation that only love can bring about. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

There are two main ideas that I want to leave you with today, the first having to do with how we read and understand the Bible. For as you know, the Bible is a collection of all kinds of ancient documents that tell the stories of the Jewish people as they came to experience what they called the One Holy and True God. Then, for Christians, our texts tell the stories of Jesus as they were eventually written down, and include documents from some of the earliest Christian communities, made up of both Jews and those the Jews referred to as Gentiles–that is, everyone who wasn’t Jewish.

In both Jewish and Christian texts, there are certain stories and teachings about God that have what biblical scholars call “hermeneutic priority.” That is to say, they come so close to expressing our clearest–though imperfect–understanding of what God is like that they take priority over texts that are in contradiction to them.

For example, there are many passages in the ancient Jewish texts that describe elaborate rituals of animal sacrifice that were deemed necessary in the ancient world, in order for human beings to make restitution for things they had done wrong in the sight of God. But there are other passages that describe God and what God wants from us in completely different ways. If you were in church last Sunday, you heard Father Tim reflect on precisely such a passage from the prophet Micah:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

That is the text with priority for us. What God wants from us and for us is a relationship–to walk with us. And God wants us to love as God loves: with kindness and justice toward all humankind, for we are equally beloved by God.

The encounter Jesus had with those in religious authority that we just heard and is another example of a text with priority for us. The authorities don’t know what to make of Jesus–he seems so disciplined and yet so free when he speaks of God. So they repeatedly ask him questions to test him. Today’s text tells of someone who asked him of all the commandments given the Torah (the Scriptures of the Jewish people) which was the greatest–which, in other words, had priority. Jesus answered quoting from both the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus: The Lord our God is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all other laws and teachings of the prophets.

If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. Which doesn’t mean that we throw out all the biblical texts that seem to contradict these teachings with priority; only that we know their priority and learn other lessons from them, mostly how our forebears struggled to know and love God, and their neighbors as themselves. Remembering their struggles allows us to have a bit of self compassion when we flounder ourselves.

The other main idea I want to leave you with is that Jesus came, and is in relationship with us now as the Risen Christ, so that we might know ourselves to be loved by God and to grow in our capacity to love others.

Love, as Jesus lives it and as the Scriptural passages with hermeneutic priority describe, is a high bar, and we fail to reach it most of the time. As the Apostle Paul famously wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: love is patient and kind. It is not envious or arrogant or boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right. It bears all things, endures all things, hopes all things. Love never ends. (I Corinthians 13:1-13)

God wants us to love like that. And most of the time we fail.

For the last several weeks, Tim has been exploring with you questions at the heart of what we call the baptismal covenant, which describe the path of what it means to walk in the ways of Jesus. One way to approach these questions, as we’ll be asked to do a bit later in this service, is as commitments we make. Yes, I will do these things, with God’s help. The “with God’s help” clause is an acknowledgment that we cannot do things on our own.

But let me suggest another way to understand the questions. They also describe some of the ways God comes to us and helps us grow in faith and love.

For example, the first question is Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? On one level, this expresses our commitment to show up in Christian community. But it’s also one of the ways (one of the catalysts, to quote another pastor) that God uses to help us grow in faith and love. When we’re here, or together in our homes or other places, God is also here–drawing us in through the words, through the sacraments, helping us to know ourselves as loved and practicing loving others.

The next question is: Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Again, this sounds like something we need to do whenever we fail to love or do what’s right, and it is. But it’s also one of the ways God helps us grow in faith and love. I don’t know about you, but when I have done something I regret and experience God’s forgiveness, or the forgiveness of others, my heart grows in response, my capacity to love and forgive others grows through God’s forgiving me.

Thus we can hear each of the foundational promises as something we strive for, yes, but also as ways that God uses to draw us closer, and helps us, by grace, to grow in faith and love. Tim talked last week about the last question in the baptismal covenant, and how hard it is to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being, and it is. We regularly fail miserably at this. But whenever we step into the gap between what is needed in our world and what we are capable of offering, God also shows up in the gap with us, often empowering us to accomplish more than we ever do on our own. That’s a growth experience like no other. Moreover, when we engage the suffering of the world and allow our hearts to break, we give more of our hearts to God to work through, as we, like Jesus, take in the pain of others as our own. We can’t help but grow in love as a response.

I leave you then with this invitation. In the coming week–between now and next Sunday–when you rise each morning, after you simply acknowledge in whatever ways you do that another day has begun, that you’re still here and been given the gift of life, simply ask for one thing: Help me, Lord, today, to grow in love. Or, you might, as I have done for the last week or so, be more specific and ask God to help you love someone that you are struggling to love. Then, as the day goes on, pay attention to what happens inside you. After the week has gone, ask yourself, what, if anything, you noticed. What, if anything, changed inside you?

This isn’t a self-improvement project; this is opening ourselves to the workings of grace. That grace is here for you, and for me, to receive and then to share. We’re meant to get better at love, yes with practice, but mostly through the experience of being loved ourselves to such a degree that we can’t help but share that love with others.

If it’s not about love; it’s not about God. With God, it’s all about love.

The Power of Jesus’ Questions

The Power of Jesus’ Questions

Bishop Mariann gave this homily at the 2021 fall Clergy Conference. 

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 
Mark 10:46-52

As our time together draws to a close, we thank Dr. Margaret Benefiel for her wisdom, whole-hearted presence, and confidence in us that we would bring our full selves to the work of discernment. But the choice to do so was yours. Thank you for the ways you have been present to one another and to God.

At our first session, Margaret asked us to offer one word to describe what we hoped to receive from our time together. Do you remember your word? I wonder if you have received what you asked for, in full or in part? Are there other gifts you didn’t think to ask for that you have also received?

Among all the things we can say about our Lord and Savior, surely this is true: when Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he was a one-person itinerant clearness committee. Sometimes you’ll see a bumper sticker or billboard that says “Jesus is the Answer.” It would be more accurate to say that Jesus is the Question. In fact, that’s the title of a book by Martin Copenhaver with the subtitle, The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered. Equally as striking as all the questions Jesus asked, Copenhaver points out, is the fact that he rarely directly answered the 183 questions he was asked. Most of the time he responded either with a story to make people think for themselves, or with a question in return.

Imagine sitting in a small group circle reflecting on the questions that Jesus asked. That’s what Copenhaver invited the members of the UCC congregation he served to do. He compiled a list of 150 of Jesus’ questions. Each group began by taking turns reading all 150 questions around the circle–without commentary, without context, without citation.

Of the experience, he writes:

Some of the questions were as familiar as our own names, and other questions felt like we were hearing them for the first time… the experience of hearing one question after another–a shower of questions, a tide of questions, helped us hear them anew in a new way that was powerful. It was as if spending time with the questions, so central to Jesus’ ministry, was a way to spend time with Jesus, and we wanted to linger there for a time.1

Sometimes our lives depend on finding the right question. Certainly that’s true in the life of faith. Whatever else it might mean to follow Jesus, we are to live with Jesus’ questions as our own, and allow them to guide our lives.

So hear again some of the questions that Jesus asked. As you listen, consider the questions you find yourself drawn to, or the one you want to run away from. Which one do you want to take with you as we take our leave this morning?

What are you looking for?

Who do people say that I am? But who do you say that I am? 

Why do you see the splinter that is in your sibling’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye?

Do you want to get well?

What is your name?

Do you see this person?

What do you think? Which one of these was a neighbor to the mane who encountered thieves?

Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

Which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves at the table?

How much bread do you have?

Where is your faith?

Why are you afraid? 

Does this offend you?

Do you also wish to go away?

What do you want?

What do you want me to do for you?

What do you want me to do for you? Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus takes center stage in this Sunday’s worship. It was the same question we heard Jesus ask his disciples James and John asked last week. What do you want me to do for you?

Bartimaeus knew what he wanted. Do you know what you want? Imagine Jesus asking you that question. And allow me to channel my colleague Robert Phillips here and suggest that after you give Jesus your first answer, imagine him asking you in return, Is there more? For as Robert reminds us, there is always more. What else do you want? And what else? Allow your desires to go from surface to depth, or to touch upon every part of your life.

In 2007-09, when Michele Morgan and I were both in the Diocese of Minnesota, we served on a group that was called the Bishop’s Commission on Mission Strategy. It was one of the most challenging and important growth experiences of my life. One of the first things we did was collect and face all the hard data that told a story of the precipitous decline in many of our congregations, the lack of focus and coherent vision as to what it meant to be the Episcopal Church, and no unifying sense of identity as a diocese. It was a hard and scary process. I vividly remember one afternoon when we were all gathered at some church, and during a break Michele and I went for a walk in the parking lot. I confided in her what I had been thinking for several weeks: ““I’m not sure that it matters to God if the Episcopal Church survives.” The mission of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit was not in question in my mind, only the relevance of our church in that work.

This was right around the time when Barbara Brown Taylor–one of the most influential Episcopal priests in the country, wrote her book Leaving Church. Like what’s happening in light of the pandemic, it was as if Taylor gave a whole generation of clergy permission to leave their congregations for the sake of their souls. It felt as if everyone wanted to leave.

But Michele said something in the parking lot that day that I’ve carried with me ever since: “It matters to me. This is the church that welcomed me.” Suddenly I thought of all the other people I loved who were part of our church, both in the congregation I served and beyond, and I knew that I wasn’t going to leave, and I wasn’t going to give up. In fact, I would dedicate my vocational life to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of our church.

That’s also when I said to God that if I were ever called to be bishop, I would give my whole heart to the work. I’m not one of those people who resisted the call to ministry–I always ran toward it. I wanted to be a priest. That day, I realized that I wanted to be a bishop.

In the ten years I have been with you, I have come to love you, and I love the people in our congregations. I hold you in my heart. If we’re going down as a denomination, like a captain on a sinking ship, I’m going  down with it. But I’m betting we won’t go down, because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus, and all of you.

It is a privilege to serve Christ alongside you.


Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question, Kindle Version, 2014, p. 119.

Homily for Choral Evensong & Installation of Honorary Canons Virginia C. Mars and John H. Shenefield and New Members of Cathedral Chapter

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit. Jeremiah 17:7-8

Jesus said, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Matthew 6:19-24

Good afternoon. I am honored to be in your company today. 

Services like this one are an important reminder that the leadership roles we assume in the organizations we care about are part of our vocation, our life’s work. Though they are often voluntary, when we take on the tasks of leadership, we give something precious of ourselves. We share our talent and skill. We give financially from the wealth entrusted to us. We give our time, perhaps the most precious gift of all. In giving, we also receive, from others engaged in the work alongside us; from the work itself; and from the grace of God that finds expression in human creativity. In the work of our varied vocations, we are co-creators with God.

A religious leader that I admire, Andy Stanley, once took it upon himself to identify the means through which God seeks relationship with us. Think of that for a moment–God seeking a deeper relationship with us, using whatever means possible to draw us in. “Faith catalysts” are what Stanley called these means God uses to help us grow in faith. After interviewing hundreds of people over several years, he identified five such catalysts. One of the five he called “personal ministry,” when we choose to personally engage in acts of service, and in particular, the acts that stretch us beyond what we think we can do or offer. An example of this is when we say yes to something not fully understanding what’s being asked of us, only to discover later on how big a commitment is required. Or perhaps we sense from the beginning that whatever we said yes to is far more than we can possibly accomplish on our own. In either case, we are particularly open to God, precisely because of the vulnerability we feel. 

For it is in that gap between what’s being asked of us and who we are and what we have to give that we can experience God in a powerful way. God shows up in our times of doubt or even despair, when we know that we’re in over our heads. God shows up in the collective striving of the group when we cross a threshold. God shows up in those graced moments when we feel–actually feel–the Holy Spirit working in and through us, as St. Paul writes, accomplishing far more than we can ask for or imagine. 

These are “loaves and fishes” moments, when what we have to offer pales in relationship to what’s needed, but like the disciples giving Jesus a few loaves of bread and some fish with which to feed a multitude of hungry people, we make our gift anyway, and through the grace of God our insufficient offering is part of a miracle through which others are blessed. Our faith in God can’t help but grow as a result, for we know, even if others want to give us all the credit, that it was God who filled the gap between our offering and what was needed, and accomplished what only God can do. 

When we give of ourselves in service, what we give becomes an expression of sacrificial love–the love God offers all of us, revealed most dramatically and completely in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we participate in that kind of love, no matter the cost to us, something in us shifts. In a mysterious process of spiritual alchemy, we become more of who we are at our best, more of the person God created us to be; indeed, a bit more like ones created in the image of God. 

Preparing for today, thinking of the Cathedral Chapter, and the new leaders we are here to install, and the two soon-to-be named honorary canons of this Cathedral, my mind went in two distinct directions. A good rule of preaching, by the way, is to pick one stream of thought and keep things simple. I’m breaking that rule, trusting that you are all smart people and can all stay with me for both. 

The first stream of thought has to do with the act of giving itself. 

Virginia and John are seasoned givers. They have been giving all their lives, sacrificially giving of their time, talent, and wealth. More than that, they are quick to invite others to join them in this over-the-top giving for the good of something big–like the mission and vision of this Cathedral–something worthy of the best we can give, and not just what we have left over.

It can be uncomfortable to be in the presence of ones so adept at giving that it looks easy for them, as if they had all the energy, creativity, wealth and time in the world to give, unlike the rest of us who much more rarely feel as if we have enough. But John and Ginny know, from experience, that when we give beyond what feels comfortable, we become like those trees planted that Jeremiah wrote of long ago–stronger inside, less anxious. As hard as it is at first, when we give beyond ourselves in a big way, we feel freer, for we are both grounded in our values and inspired by our highest aspirations. 

I can’t explain how it works; I just know that it’s true. Yes, there is a cost, a real, sacrificial cost. Ginny and John know that; returning chapter members know that, as do those joining you in the important ministry. But that’s precisely the point. Some things are so important in life that they deserve the gifts that cost us something, because where our treasure is, as Jesus said so well, our hearts are there also. What he doesn’t say, that we learn on our own, is that our hearts grow bigger with each gift. 

The poet David Whyte tells of time when he mentioned to his good friend, the late John O’Donohue (one of the finest poets and priests of contemporary Ireland) that he was thinking about giving his father some money. David rarely speaks or writes about his father, unlike his late mother, about whom he speaks and writes all the time. We can surmise, then, that it wasn’t the easiest of relationships. But he was clearly worried about his father, living alone in England after his mother’s death. David himself had long since relocated to the Pacific Northwest.

“How much are you thinking of giving him?” John asked. David told him. “Very good!”  John replied, “Now go beyond yourself. Double it.” “Okay,” David said after a pause. “All right, I will.” “Very good!” said John. “Now go beyond yourself again, and double that.”  Taken aback, David said, “Well, with friends like you a man could go broke.” To which John replied, “You won’t regret it.”

Sometime after that conversation John died a sudden and early death. It’s been years now, but David Whyte still talks about John as if he were still here. This particular conversation stayed with him. He did what John suggested. He went beyond what he thought he could do, and gave enough money to change his father’s life forever and for the better. And John was right. He never regretted it. 

Ginny and John know something about that kind of “go beyond yourself” giving. When they invite us to join them, it may well feel impossible to us. “Good!” they would tell us. “That’s how it’s supposed to feel. Go beyond yourself anyway. You won’t regret it.”  

The second  thought I offer this afternoon in honor of John and Virginia and the new Chapter members, and as a reminder to all of us, is the spiritual courage required to go first, to be the one to take the first step in response to a call, a vision, or a dream. When we go first, we don’t know if others will join us. Nor do we know, in taking the first step, exactly where we’re going. We walk in the beginning more by faith than by sight. The poet Antonio Machado reminds us that often in life there is no road. “Pilgrim,” he says, “You make the road by walking.” 

How many times in the life of this cathedral has John Shenefield or Virginia Mars gone first–making the first gift, being the first to chair an important initiative, to go on the road, to be the first to say out loud, “We need to consider this, or do that.” Then after taking the first step, they went ahead and took another, and another after that, and so they forged a road for all of us by walking it first. 

The combination of courage and tenacity is a wonder to behold, especially in the beginning stages of anything important, because there is absolutely no guarantee that things will turn as they hope. Failure is always a possibility, but John and Virginia know that it is better to fail at something important than to succeed in mediocrity. Today we honor their willingness to go first, and then to persevere, making it possible for others to join in and bask in the glory of reaching the destination and accomplishing the task, when at first, and for a very long time, Virginia, John, and a few other stalwart leaders forged the path on their own. 

Looking back from the perspective of the destination or accomplishment, there is an air of inevitability about it all, as if the outcome was assured from the beginning. Those who went first will tell us otherwise, that nothing we celebrate now was inevitable when they started. What brings a dream or vision of what could be to its fulfillment are the steps taken toward it–the first, courageous step and all the other steps that follow. For a long time, it’s a lonely walk. For a long time, it doesn’t seem as if anything has or will ever change. But when it does change, when momentum kicks in and more people join the effort, all can bask in the collective joy of accomplishment. In retrospect, we all speak about the thing that we accomplished as if it were our idea in the first place, as if we had all gone first. People like John and Virginia are kind to smile and allow us all to share in the dream they held on our behalf for so long.

This is such an important moment in the life of our nation, in the world, and in the life of this Cathedral. We are all here for a reason. It matters that we show up. It matters that we say yes to causes of great importance. Thus far, I’ve been speaking of John and Virginia in the past tense, but they are very much here, still giving, still willing to go first if needed. The best way to honor them is, as Jesus often said, to go and do likewise, giving of ourselves in ways that both cost us and give back far more than we could ever hope to receive, and in forging our way toward the dreams God has placed in our hearts.

Discovering the Gospel of Your Life

Bishop Mariann preaching on The Gospel of Your Life at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday, August 29

When the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”  
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The title of this sermon is “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life.” 

Throughout I will be posing a number of open-ended questions, each of which are invitations into an intentional exploration of your life and your faith that you can always do on your own, or you can take  part in one of two offerings this fall through the Diocese of Washington’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership. One of the offerings is a six-session series called Discover, designed for a small group or entire congregation to take together; the other, called Explore, is a self-guided, online course. Information about both is on the School for Christian Faith and Leadership website.

I make this invitation well aware that — amid all that your life demands of you, how busy you are, the challenges you face, and the enormity of suffering we see all around us (and this was a particularly difficult week) — personal faith exploration can seem like a luxury that you simply don’t have time for. If that’s true for you, I understand. Yet questions of faith and self-awareness, while not always urgent, keep coming back to us. They are the questions, as the poet David Whyte suggests,“that have no right to go away, for they have to do with the person we are about to become; they are conversations that will happen with or without our conscious participation.”1 They are the questions that determine what kind of person we will wake up to be tomorrow.

Let me clarify what I mean by “Discovering the Gospel of Your Life,” word by word, starting with the first.

When we discover something, it’s helpful to remember that nothing has changed in the material world. What changes is our awareness of something whose existence had been there all along. In most cases, what we discover others have long known about — a common observation among the people whose ancestors were in the Americas centuries, if not millennia, before Europeans discovered what was for them a New World. In our personal lives, what we discover about ourselves is generally not news to those around us, which is why increasing our self-awareness always involves allowing others to tell us what they see in us that we cannot.

One of my favorite examples of this is an exchange between two characters of a movie that came out about twenty years ago entitled The Legend of Bagger Vance. Matt Damon plays Rannulph Junnah, a professional golfer in the early 20th-century, who is attempting a comeback after his life hit rock bottom as a result of what he experienced in the trenches of World War I. Will Smith portrays Bagger Vance, a mysterious man who befriends Junnah when he was all but lost to alcohol and despair and slowly helps him heal, while serving as Junnah’s golf caddie and coach. In one scene, Junnah is playing in an important golf tournament, and he is way off his game. He turns to Bagger Vance and says, “This is getting embarrassing.” “Oh no sir,” Bagger Vance replies, “It has been embarrassing for some time now.” 

It’s good for us to have truth-tellers like this, especially when the truth is hard to hear.

While what we discover about ourselves is sometimes embarrassing or even shameful, at other times the discovery is unexpectedly affirming of the good in us that we can’t see or tend to minimize. When others name our goodness, it can feel like a revelation to us, a new discovery. Conversely, one of the easiest ways for us to bless those around us is to take the time to point out their goodness. For they may not see it, or allow themselves to accept and live more deeply from that part of who they are.

So first question: what do you suppose that others see in you that you don’t? And what might change for you as a result of your knowing what others know about you? 

There is a lot of energy being expended in our country now — and in our churches — to better understand aspects of our history, specifically the roots of the persistent, pervasive racial inequities in our society; and there is an equal amount of energy being expended actively trying not to know these things, or teach them to our children. There are implications in what we, as individuals and a society, choose to know or not know about who we are. But the process of discovery only affects our awareness of what’s true about us. The truth exists, whether we choose to know it or not. 

Now let’s skip over to consider the last two words of this sermon’s title: your life

The parts of your life that I’d like to focus on are these: first, the arc of your life story and where you see yourself on that arc; second, the recurring patterns and stories through which you interpret your life; and lastly, the aspects of your life that you cherish most — what you love about being you.

Starting with the arc: Picture in your mind’s eye the image that shows up when you’re on an airplane, telling you where you are in relation to your final destination. Imagine that arc represents your life. Where are you on that arc in any given part of your life? Are you at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? Having some sense of that puts a lot of other things in perspective.

Years ago, after dropping one of our sons off at college in Chicago, I gave the slightly older son of a co-worker a ride from Madison, Wisconsin back to Minneapolis. It’s a four-hour drive, so we had time to talk, and I asked him about his life. He had graduated from college a few years earlier, and admittedly, he was struggling, as is common in young adulthood, with loneliness and vocational drift. At one point he said, a bit tongue-in-cheek, “I think I’m having my quarter-life crisis.” He expected me, as someone nearly twice his age, to smile at this, and I did, but I could tell that his struggle was real. I was also struck by his awareness of where he was in life–at the end of the first quarter. As in a football game, there is a lot of life ahead at the end of the first quarter, and he knew that. He also knew that the clock was ticking and that he wasn’t an under-grad any longer, with professors and parents telling him what to do next. It was time to make some important decisions, and they were his to make.

No matter where we think we are on our life’s arc — and of course we don’t really know — we don’t have time to waste, do we? I’m reminded of a story Anne Lamott tells of going shopping for clothes with her friend Pam, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time. When Anne asked Pam if the dress she’s tried on made her hips look too big, Pam slowly replied from her wheelchair, “Annie, I don’t think you have that kind of time.”2 No matter where we are on our life’s arc, some things are worth pursuing and some are not. 

The second aspect of your life that I invite you to consider are the recurring patterns that you have come to recognize as part of your life story. Think, for example, of when in casual conversation you hear yourself say,  “Well, that’s the story of my life” to describe certain things that always seem to happen to you. In my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest one? Or when I have a biking accident, as I did last week, why is it always my fault and when I’m within walking distance to my destination? I need to discover the answer to that question before I get back on my bike! 

Incidentally, our younger son, Patrick, like his mom, was accident-prone as a kid, to put it mildly. But some of his accidents truly defied explanation. They were so bizarre that by the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to them as PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents, which to this day is what everyone in his life calls the mishaps that seem to find him.

So what are the patterns of your life? Are you the person who never wins at anything, or do you always win? Do you make friends easily, or does it take a long time? Would you say that you are a glass half-empty kind of person, or a glass half-full? And what would others say? 

While some of these patterns are relatively harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are quite powerful and have real implications for how we experience and interpret our lives. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes considerable effort to change it, even if the data supporting it is suspect, or when what was once true about us isn’t anymore. The desire to make a change in a life pattern is often a sign that change is coming, perhaps because we’re tired of a given storyline that doesn’t fit us anymore. Or it could be that the Spirit of God is beginning something new. 

The third aspect of your life that I invite you to consider is what you love best about being you — what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when you’re doing what truly matters to you, the fulfillment and satisfaction of knowing that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use — even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. (This morning’s Washington Post tells the story of Nicole Gee, age 23, one of the 13 Marines killed at the Kabul airport this week. A few days before she died, she had posted a photo of herself on Instagram holding an infant of an Afghan refugee family. Her caption read, “I love my job.”) Your dreams show up here, what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price.

That goodness in you, the part of you that you love, brings me now to the central word of this sermon title — gospel. Derived from the Old English, god-spell, it’s root meaning is “good story,” translated from the Latin, evangelium and the Greek euangelion, also the root of our words evangelist and evangelical. Christians are those who come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world “as good news of great joy for all people.”

The Bible contains four gospels of Jesus’ life, but what about the gospel of yours?

Part of your gospel is revealed in your innate goodness, your good story, the good news you bring to others simply being you. One of the first Christian theologians famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  “I have come that you might have life,” Jesus said, “and life in abundance.” 

But another part of your life’s gospel may be, paradoxically, where you have experienced, or are experiencing now, your vulnerability, or life in its harshest terms. The good news isn’t in the sin or sorrow or pain, but in the good that can be wrenched out of it, or the ways that grace and goodness shows up for you when you least deserve it,  or as you are walking through a long, lonesome valley. Even a fleeting moment of grace can carry you a long way, giving you just enough to keep going. 

Do you have that kind of good news story to tell, I wonder? These are our resurrection stories — not of dramatic rescue, but of new life rising from the ashes of what was lost. Sometimes we don’t even have that story to tell, but somehow it can be enough to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, with no need to pretend that it doesn’t hurt, and to experience something of love in the midst of the pain.

Nothing I have said thus far has been explicitly Christian. Intentionally so, because what I am attempting to describe is universal. What makes your life story, or mine, explicitly or intentionally Christian is when we find ourselves drawn to the story of Jesus, through which we come to interpret and go deeper into the meaning of our own. For a Christian, Jesus’ life becomes, in the words of a Christmas carol, our life’s pattern. His teachings inform our worldview. Jesus Related Incidents become our own. Admittedly, this takes time, and effort. This isn’t drifting or dabbling on the spiritual path; we’ve made a choice. But there’s mystery involved, because more often than not, it feels for most Christians as if He has chosen us. The invitation to follow comes from him, or as often, from the compelling example of another person who is a Jesus follower who inspires us and we seek to emulate. 

I’m reminded here of something the late Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, is reported to have said to the priests under his charge: Your life may be the only gospel that the people will ever know. I’m fairly certain that what he meant, if, in fact, it was Romero who said it, is that when working among subsistence farmers, the priests in El Salvador needed not merely to preach the message of Jesus, but to embody it for those who might never be in a position to read about Jesus for themselves. St. Paul writes a similar exhortation in his letter to the Philippians: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) Live, in other words, in such a way that people know who Jesus is by your example. This is the vocation of all who call ourselves Christian.

What I know about living the gospel, however, is that it is as much a revelation to me as it is to those around me. I don’t mean this abstractly, but in the most concrete terms. From time to time, a gospel story or teaching moves from something I’ve read and know in my mind to something else entirely. It takes up residence inside me and becomes, for a time, the lens through which I see and understand my life and through which I experience God. It becomes the gospel of my life. 

I could give you any number of examples — the stories of Jesus that have most shaped my life, but to demonstrate how the process of seeing our lives through his teaching works, let me simply point you back to the gospel text we just heard and that’s printed in your bulletin. 

In the text, Jesus is having an argument with a group of people referred to as the Pharisees, who were among the most disciplined, rigorously observant Jews of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees are often Jesus’ sparring partners. He admired them for their diligence in religious practice, for Jesus himself was an observant Jew. But he differed with them, sharply at times, whenever he felt that their outward expressions of faith did not reflect an inner humility before God and compassion for their fellow human beings. Like the Jewish prophets before him, Jesus hated religious elitism and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who kept up the appearances of piety while failing to love God and neighbor, which is at the heart of the Torah. His invitation here is to a life of integrity — of an inner life consistent with outward appearances. In the gospels there are numerous examples of Jesus related incidents demonstrating and teaching us the importance of “walking our talk.” 

Discovering the gospel of your life is thus an invitation to go deeper into the mystery of your life’s story — its arc, patterns, and essential goodness — in conversation with Jesus’ story. Over time, the conversation frees you to become more fully you. For the change isn’t an external rearranging of your life’s circumstances, at least not a first. Consistent with how Jesus lived and taught, it is an internal experience of being given new eyes and ears with which to see and hear what’s all around you that’s been there all along. 

So I end with where I began, inviting you to consider a few questions on your own or in conversation with others: Where are you in the arc of your life? What time is it, and what don’t you have time for anymore? What patterns and themes do you notice and are there any you are ready to change? What do you love most about who you are and when has love shown up for you when you needed it most? 

And should you sense that Jesus is inviting you, for the first or the hundredth time, into a deeper conversation with him through the stories of his life and teachings, I hope that you accept it, so that his arc, his life patterns, his good news might inform and deepen your own. Then, through your life, others will see and know the love and mercy of God that has been with us all along. 

May it be so. God bless you as you discover and wholeheartedly live the gospel of your life.

~~~

1  David Whyte, What Questions Should We Be Asking Ourselves.
2 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor Books, 1995). 

To Stay Or To Go

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  
John 6:56-69

The working title of this sermon is “How Do We Know When It’s Time to Go or Time to Stay?” 

It’s a topic I’ve been pondering for most of the summer, as part of a long-term writing project. I’m trying to better understand and articulate what’s at stake for us, and what God might be doing within and around us, when we need to make a big decision, and in particular, the decision either to go or to stay. 

Apparently I’m not alone in this thinking. Surveys indicate that as a result of the pandemic, as many as 30% of the American workforce is considering or has made a change in their vocation,1 that an equal number of people has made or is considering a geographic move.2 You may be among them. Or someone you love may be asking questions like “Do I quit school or go back?” “Is it time to leave my apartment or house and look for another?” “Is it time to leave my faith community for another or perhaps no community at all?” The drop-out rate in religious affiliation is alarming, particularly among young adults. The Barna Research Group published a study about the exodus of young adults who had been raised in the church with the haunting title, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith.3 What is it that causes some of us to stay in the faith we were raised in, while others choose to go? 

In whatever realm of life, these are big decisions. How do we make them, and how does God show up for us in the decisive moments, if at all? 

I tend to believe that if I really listen, in one way or another God will tell me what to do. My job then is to be obedient to what I determine is God’s will in my life. Sometimes, however, God is frustratingly silent on the matter I’m struggling with, or I can’t hear God. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t want to hear, and yet the decision looms. My husband Paul tends to relate to God differently, on the assumption that God is too busy to micro-manage his life, and that God is curious to see what Paul, and all of us, will do at the moment of choice. 

Either way, the process of deciding, or to use a term with spiritual overtones, of discerning is rarely immediate or completely clear, at least not for me. A theologian and Episcopal priest named Urban Holmes wrote several books on the Christian life in the 1980s. In one of his books, Spirituality for Ministry, he defined discernment this way: “The ability to intuit God’s will by casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”4 The result of discernment, then, is a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, and willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most.  

On the global stage, we are witnessing the consequences of President Biden’s decision to keep to the timeline he established for the withdrawal of American troops and military personnel in Afghanistan. Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that decision, and for that matter, the multitude of decisions our leaders have made regarding Afghanistan in the 20 years since 9/11. Except to state the obvious: the humanitarian crisis is devastating and demands our compassionate response. The grief, worry, and survivors’ guilt is palpable among those with friends, family, and former colleagues caught in the chaos. They and countless others are doing whatever they can to help and to advocate. If you are among them, thank you. Later this week, I’ll share the ways we are organizing ourselves across the diocese to assist Afghan refugees who are arriving in our region. 

For today’s purposes however, suffice it to say we have many global examples of how our decisions to stay or to go affect other people, and that’s true in every realm of life. Imagine the conversations taking place right now in Afghan homes across that country–do we stay or do we go? How do we stay or go? For them and for us, the process involves making decisions and taking actions whose surety is enigmatic at best. That is to say neither staying or going is always the right decision, nor the same decision for everyone. 

I spent a big part of my early adult life on the go. Almost like clockwork, every 2-3 years I made a significant change that involved leaving some place or endeavor for another. I wasn’t always happy about the move. It often felt that I had to leave just as I was learning how to thrive where I was. But the pattern established itself such that when the rhythms of life eventually slowed down a bit, it didn’t feel right, as if something was wrong because nothing was beckoning from the horizon. It took me time to realize that staying put didn’t mean staying the same; that there was a deeper call involved in deciding to stay, and that at certain times, the most courageous decisions we make are the ones that no one sees.

In those years I read a novel by Anne Tyler entitled St. Maybe, which is about a young man named Ian who at age 17 feels responsible for his brother’s accidental death. With the subsequent death of his brother’s wife, he decides to drop out of school to help his parents raise his brother’s three young children. It’s a slow-moving story on the surface, with a lot happening emotionally and relationally within Ian as the years pass. 

At one point, Ian tells his minister that he thinks that it’s time for him to go back to school and get on with his life. His minister asks him to say more. Echoing the words of one of the several young women who broke up with him because of his commitment to the children and his church (and the church, made up of every kind of social misfit, plays a sweet role in this story), Ian cries out to his minister, “I am wasting my life!” To which his minister quietly responds. “This is your life, Ian. Lean into it. Accept it for the gift that it is.” 

This is your life became a mantra for me as I learned what it meant to stay in place long enough to grow up inside, and to create the kind of foundations that would allow others to thrive. In recent days, I’ve heard resonance of that same sentiment from people slowly coming to terms with some aspect of their lives that is theirs not only to accept but embrace.

We’ve just read, and you have printed in your bulletins, a passage from the Gospel of John. It comes from the end of a long section in which Jesus is expounding upon an event that shows up on all four accounts of Jesus’ life, which biblical scholars would tell us make it a really big deal. The event itself came after a long day of teaching and healing, when after the disciples urged Jesus to send the gathered crowd home, he insisted on providing them food. In John’s version of the story, a young boy offers what he has, a few loaves of bread and some fish, and from that offering Jesus provides food for the multitude, with enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.

In the other three gospel accounts, the message of this story is that God will provide, that Jesus cares for those who are hungry, and that we can participate in Jesus’ concern for others by offering what we have, even when we know that our offering isn’t enough to meet the needs before us. I love this story. Nearly every day, I feel that my offering isn’t enough, but Jesus invites me to offer it anyway and let him do with it what only he can do. 

In John’s version, the take-away from the loaves and fishes story is different: Jesus asks those listening to think less of physical food, and he speaks of himself as the food that can sustain our souls. “I am the bread of life. Those who eat my bread and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” It sounds rather strange, put starkly like that. What lies beneath those words, however, is a growing understanding among first-century Christians that even when their physical hunger and other forms of suffering persist, even when their initial expectations of who Jesus was and what he was going to do for them were disappointed, even when they found themselves in situations that were hard or dangerous and it was clear that God wasn’t going to rescue them, even then Jesus was with them. They felt his presence, in a spiritual, mystical way. They felt called to abide with him, to trust in his presence. The question for them became, would they stay with him in this new way, or would they go?

For everyone raised in a particular faith tradition, or who chooses to be a part of one, this is something we’ll all experience eventually. Whenever being part of our tradition, or following Jesus, or belonging to a particular church turns out to be something other than what we originally thought, had hoped for or imagined, or when something happens that causes us to doubt what we once had no reason to question, we come to a moment of decision–do we stay or go?

Some of Jesus’ followers, John tells us, decide to leave. “This teaching is difficult,” they say. “Who can accept it?” While John, the Gospel writer, judges these people harshly, I doubt that Jesus did, or that he harshly judged anyone who chooses another spiritual path, or no path at all. Here’s why: Jesus’ love is unconditional. Such love isn’t withdrawn when people don’t do as we want. Jesus can no more stop loving us when we walk away than we can stop loving those who reject us. 

But you can hear the poignancy when he turns to his closest friends to ask, “And what about you? Do you also wish to go away?” He truly wants to know: Then Simon Peter responds with words that can’t help but make us love the guy, “Lord, to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They had come too far to turn back now.

Simon Peter and the others had come to one of life’s sweet moments of clarity. They don’t come often, but when they do, they have a settling effect on us. We become increasingly at peace with whatever we decide, no matter what happens next. 

Their decision wasn’t merely to stay with Jesus, but to do deeper in their relationship with him. It wasn’t a choice between actively leaving and passively staying, but between two active choices–to leave (a conscious choice, not merely drifting apart and pretending not to notice) or to stay with greater depth and intentionality.  

I leave you with this thought: rest assured, wherever you might be in the process of discernment about leaving or staying, that this is a particularly sacred time. Whatever you discern or decide, I pray that God gives you enough clarity to feel settled as you take what is for you is the next faithful step. As you act on your decision, may you be given grace and courage either to go or to stay wholeheartedly. And afterwards, should you begin to question your decision or feel that you need to change it, know that God’s grace will be with you, whatever happens next. 

May I pray for you:

Lord, this is a time of change and transition and decision-making for so many on so many levels. Hold these your beloved ones as they discern and decide–give them the gift of wisdom and understanding and assurance of your abiding presence. Help all of us, Lord, who feel the call to follow Jesus to be given eyes to see him more clearly, hearts to love him more dearly, and desire to follow him more nearly, day by day by day by day. Amen. 

~~~
1 Nearly a third of U.S. workers under 40 considered changing careers during the pandemicThe Washington Post 
2 Pandemic Forces Moves for Many Americans, Survey Shows – Credit Union Times 
3 David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 2001).
4 Urban T. Holmes III, Spirituality for Ministry (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1982), 138.

The Story of Your Life

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Then the religious authorities began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
John 6:35, 41-41

Good morning, friends of St. Thomas’ Church. It’s wonderful to be with you. Special thanks to your good rector, the Rev. Lisa Ahuja, and members of the vestry for inviting me to preach. 

The working title of this sermon is “The Story of Your Life,” an exploration of recurring themes and patterns that you might come to recognize over time, and how you can discover, to your amazement, “The Gospel of your Life,” that is to say, the ways that God, through the loving presence of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, shows up for you, and the ways you are uniquely wired to experience God and to be a witness for Christ simply by living your one, unique life. 

Let me begin by asking you to think of times when you’ve heard either yourself or someone else say, “Well, that’s the story of my life.” 

Casually, it’s a way we describe how luck seems to fall for us; in my case, for example, why it is that whenever I choose a check-out line in a grocery store, I always seem to wind up in the slowest line. I don’t know why, but it’s the story of my life. A friend once told me of her husband’s “parking karma,” because he always seems to be able to find a parking spot in the most crowded part of the city. It’s the story of his life.

In these arguably superficial yet uncannily true ways, we experience a significant part of who we are. “I never win at anything.” Or “I always seem to win.” “I’m a glass half-empty kind of person.” “I’m a glass half full.” 

Our younger son, Patrick, was rather accident prone as a kid, to put it mildly. By the time he reached high school, his friends began to refer to what they called PRIs, or Patrick Related Incidents. In his case, it was more than simply bad luck, although he had plenty, it was also reflective of the fact that he had so much going on in his head at one time that his situational awareness suffered. Accidents became a big part of the story of his life. 

These stories we tell about ourselves, or others tell about us, are powerful. They help account for recurring patterns–the things that just seem to happen, time and again, for good or for ill. Once a pattern is ingrained and the story is set in our minds, it takes real effort to change it, even if the data supporting them is suspect, or when what was once true about us is true no longer. One of the liberating aspects of moving to a new place or a new job, actually, is that we get to start over with the story of our life. While some of these patterns and stories are harmless and tend to be exaggerated, others are highly influential, with real implications for how others relate to us. 

As I’ve been talking, I wonder if you’ve thought of an example from your life or someone close to you that is akin to what I’ve been describing? Are there any narratives that you’d like to change or you feel are changing? We’ve all been watching the fascinating storyline shift at the Olympics this year, with the highly unusual decision for world star gymnast Simon Biles to withdraw from competition at the final hour, citing concerns for her mental health. She and others like her are insisting now on a new narrative, one that takes into account for sportsmen and women the entirety of their lives, not simply the moments when all eyes are on their performance.  

Let’s go deeper now to consider that part of your story that encapsulates, attempts to describe what you love best about you–what you love to do, the things that cause you to lose track of time because you’re so engaged in them, the people who make your hearts sing, the places that speak to you of home, or adventure, or joy. Another way to identify this part of your life is the deep sense of purpose you feel when what you’re doing matters to you, the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction you feel whenever you sense that the gifts God has given you are being put to their use, even when, or perhaps especially when, the effort involved requires real sacrifice on your part. Your dreams are also a big part of this storyline–what you hope for, what you really want for yourself and for others, so much so that you’d give up a lot of other things for that one pearl of great price. 

Now that part of yourself–whatever it is–is sacred. It’s your personal connection to the creative, life-giving spirit of God. I would say that God really cares about that part of you. More about that in a moment. 

But first I’d like to briefly consider the story of Jesus’ life, not the overarching narrative from birth to death, but rather the animating energy that drove him, the things that people knew about him—the Jesus Related Incidents, if you will. There are several to choose from, but one story about Jesus always rises to the fore–his passion for food. 

Jesus loved food, and most especially, to share meals with other people. He’d eat with anyone–tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees–he didn’t care. He loved parties, and at one of them, he personally made sure that more wine flowed freely (and really good wine) after the host’s supply ran out. 

It mattered to Jesus that people had enough food, which helped explain why so many were drawn to him. For Jesus walked among people who were almost always hungry–subsistence farmers, fishermen whose livelihoods and often next meals depended upon their night catch. Famine was common in Jesus’ day, as it is now in drought-stricken or war-torn parts of our world. 

One of the most cherished memories about Jesus’ ministry was the time (and perhaps it was more than once) when he made sure that a hungry multitude did not leave his presence without being fed. As you may recall, he worked with what he had, what people gave him–a few loaves and some fish–to create a banquet enough for many to eat their fill, with food to spare. It’s one of the few stories about Jesus that shows up in all four written accounts of his life, which biblical scholars agree makes it a really big deal. 

The other meal recorded in all four accounts was the most intimate one, the one we reenact every Sunday when we gather around this sacramental table–the last supper he shared with his closest friends on the night before he died. It was a time of final words and of reassurance that after he was physically gone, whenever they gathered together to break bread, his spirit would be with them. 

What all this focus on food tells us about Jesus is that he really cares about human beings. He knows that we need food–good nourishment for our bodies–to be fully alive. He also cares about feeding souls. For all his love of actual food, he would also remind people that we do not live by bread alone, that there are other kinds of hunger. It mattered to Jesus, and it matters still, that souls are fed. Because we cannot realize the best, most true story that is our life without soul food, that which feeds and sustains the part of us that animates, our spirit and energy, passion and purpose. We can’t run on empty and live that part of your life. 

So the first thing I hope you take with you from this sermon is the non-negotiable commitment Jesus has to your physical and spiritual well-being, and not just you, but every child of God on this planet. Anyone called to be a follower of Jesus will be invited into a life of first receiving the food that nourishes body and soul, and then ensuring that others are equally fed, no matter who they are. 

You may remember a story about the time Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection while they were fishing on the sea of Galilee. They saw him from the boat and made their way to him. And the first thing he did was invite them to eat the breakfast he had prepared for them. Then he took Simon Peter aside for a private conversation to help Simon Peter to get past the guilt he felt for having denied him three times on the night of his arrest. You remember how he asked him three times, “Simon Peter, do you love me?” and Simon Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Each time, Jesus gave him this exhortation, “Feed my sheep.” Feed people. Give them food–nourishing food, for body and soul–in my name. 

The second message of this sermon is a bit harder, although equally, if not more important. For it has to do with how Jesus can show up for us in those times when, in the story of our life, a part of us–a really important part–is going hungry. I’m not speaking about physical hunger now, but rather the other ways that we feel the ache of emptiness and lack. He knew it would happen to us; it happens to everyone; it happened to all him: disappointments and failures; dreams lost and roads not taken. 

You heard and have printed in your bulletins a reading from the reading from the Gospel of John in which Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life, even going so far as to say that whoever comes to him will not go hungry and whoever believes in him will never thirst. He’s clearly not talking here about physical hunger because any human being alive will experience physical hunger and thirst. It’s the way our bodies work. So what is he talking about? 

First we have to consider the text itself. You may know that there is a radical shift in tone in the Gospel of John as compared to the other three accounts of Jesus’ life–in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the other three, Jesus almost never speaks of himself in the first person. He’s always talking about what the Kingdom of God is like, calling people to follow him in a life of radical service to others. 

In John, by stunning contrast, written at least a generation after the other three, Jesus can’t stop talking about himself. He talks about himself all the time. “I am,” he says, “the light of the world.” “I am the Way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the bread of life.” In fact, John devotes two chapters to this one idea of him being bread, Jesus being our bread, our soul’s food. This is an extended reflection on the very story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and some fish, as if to say, “Don’t just pay attention to your bodies here. Let Jesus, let me be food for your souls, and food for your souls in the very places where you may not be getting what you want or what you need.” 

Do you hear that? Jesus is meeting you in that place of want or need, and recognizing that what you want or need may not come to you in the ways that you desperately pray for. And this, as you know, is a significant shift in the life of faith. Historically, it’s the result of the passage of time, and the realization among Jesus followers a couple generations after the resurrection that whatever it meant for Jesus to return in glory, it wasn’t going to bring about a change in their life circumstances anytime soon. At the same time, they had the sense, a growing  sense, of Jesus’ presence with them. It hadn’t gone away; in fact, it had grown stronger with time, albeit in a more mysterious, mystical way. It was as if they didn’t have to wait for Jesus to come back. Maybe he was already here, with them already in spirit and in truth. Whatever that meant for them, it had something to do with Jesus’ presence, in itself, being food for their souls–less focused on what changed externally and more centered on their inner life. 

That’s the kind of food Jesus offers still. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the things that we want and need. But he also offers, where we need it most, sources of strength, resilience, forgiveness and grace that can sustain us even when, or especially when, we are experiencing emptiness and hunger in parts of our lives where our needs aren’t being met in the ways that we hope or want. 

It’s a challenging shift. I wish it wasn’t necessary, that we could always have our needs met, but it is. The shift involves acceptance and letting things go, experiencing the emptiness inside, and allowing Jesus to meet us there and fill that space. It’s a different kind of food, and we may not want it, at first. We may want to hold out for the fulfillment of our desire. There’s nothing wrong with that. I hold out for as long as I can. But what Jesus says to me and to you, when we’ve run that course is, “Let me feed you in other ways.”

Here is a concrete example of this kind of food. Dear friends of ours, now in their 70s, married young and, as most young couples do, they wanted to have children. It was not to be. Their grief was real and long lasting, but by grace and with time, they found a path as a couple that has filled their lives with children for whom they are a blessing, including our two sons who love them fiercely. One of the couple told me years ago that in conversation with other childless couples, their story isn’t always well received. “They don’t want to hear that it’s possible to live a fulfilling life without children, because they still want children,” my friend told me. “How well we understand that.” As people of faith, they never minimized their grief, or pretended that their longing for children wasn’t real. But God gave them another path, another way to live fully. That’s the kind of food we hear Jesus offer us when we need to find another path and experience fulfillment in a different way than what we had hoped, and even when a part of us remains empty. 

The African American theologian Howard Thurman writes powerfully of this kind of spiritual food in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Writing as a black man in a deeply segregated, unjust America, in 1949, he asked the haunting question, “What on earth does Jesus have to say to the people whose backs are against the wall–to the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed?”1 He was far less interested in what Jesus had to say to those with power and privilege about sharing their resources and helping those in need. He wanted to know what Jesus had to say to them. He wanted answers for the people for whom this world is constant struggle, perpetual hunger, and stolen dreams. In Jesus, Thurman finds his answers–not in Christianity, but in Jesus, and his promise of inner strength, inner clarity, inner conviction of worthiness and power that enables those oppressed by others to live according to a different narrative, a different life story, born of the unshakeable conviction that they are beloved of God. With that  story, they stand up to those who would tell them otherwise and work toward the fulfillment of God’s dream for all. Their immediate hunger for equity and justice may, as yet, go unfulfilled, yet a deep knowledge of their belovedness in God’s eyes, that Jesus is there for them, is food enough to see them through and, to quote Ghandi, a man Thurman deeply admired, “to be the change they wanted to see in the world.” 

I  leave you with the invitation with which I began: to consider the story of your life. Smile at the more quirky aspects, consider the narratives you are ready to change, and most especially, cherish the deeper story that speaks to the animating energy that is you. It is your gift to all of us, your sacred, God-given, God-inspired life. Jesus longs for you to have all the food you need to live your dreams and gifts into the world. But when they can’t be fully realized in the ways that you hoped, there he will meet you with the Gospel of your Life, the way he meets you in your empty place, holds it with you, and gives you, if you let him, the food of  love and mercy, strength and deep assurance that you are beloved child of God. And that my friends, is enough food to live the life that is yours alone, and to live it well.  

May it so for you, and for us all. Amen. 

~~~
1 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (First published by Abingdon President, 1949).