Just Breathe

In many prayer and mediation practices around theworld, the first step is to find yourbreath. To breathe in such a way that you are paying attention to your breath and only your breath. Doctors and researchers have found evidence that simply listening to your breath for a few minutes a day reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and has all-around positive effects on health.Spiritually, taking a few minutes to practice simply breathing, being present to the breath, allows us to begin the practice of being present to what is happening now, to God’s presence with us just where we are. It is how we start to obey God’s command in the psalms to “be still and know that I am God.”

So I would like to invite you to take a moment. Put your feet flat on the floor. And breathe. You don’t need to change your breath, just breathe as you normally would. But of course as soon as someone says breathe normally, you change your breath, and that’s okay. Just notice what your breath is doing. In. Out. In. Out. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable enough. In. Out. Place one hand, or both hands, on your belly, or your chest, and feel the way that your breath moves you, even when you are sitting still. Feel the breath filling you, sending oxygen through your blood stream, waking up your limbs and your brain. Some of you have a hard time breathing. Some of you are short of breath much of the time. For a moment, if you can, try to simply notice your breath, without judging it. Try not to think about whether it is deep enough or long enough, but simply notice that it is. It is there, and it is moving you. It is there, and it is doing its job, keeping you alive. Just. Breathe.

Now, if you haven’t fallen asleep on me, keep your eyes closed for a moment longer, and think about the Holy Spirit. What images come to mind? A dove? tongues of fire? A rushing wind, like we heard in the Acts reading today? What about breath? When you think about the Spirit, do you think about breath? (Okay, you can open your eyes if you like.) The words for spirit in all of the Biblical languages, in both Hebrew and Greek, are also the words for wind and breath.

At a meeting last week, we were reading through some of these texts, and someone asked the question that has been on the church’s mind for the last 2000 years. What is the Holy Spirit? I think she felt a little silly asking the question, but it’s not a silly question at all. We might think we should all know the answer, having spent at least some time inside the walls of a church, each week confessing in the words of the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, baptizing and blessing people in the name of the Father and the Son, and then throwing the Holy Spirit in there for good measure. But I’m going to be honest. I went through 5 years of seminary and took at least 2 full classes with the words Holy Spirit in the title. I have one book on my shelf actually titled “The Holy Spirit,” and countless others with chapters and sections about it. And the conclusion I’ve reached is, we really don’t know. We don’t know what the Holy Spirit is, we can’t explain it, we can’t describe it, we can’t even draw a picture of it.

What we do know is this: God acts in the world. God is not hiding up in some distant heaven, God did not create the world, set the clock to ticking, and then step back to watch. God did not put us here for God’s entertainment. God created the world, created us, for relationship. Which means that God acts in the world. And yet, I have never had a direct face-to-face encounter with God. So how do we know that God is acting? How do we know that God is engaging us, is in relationship with us, is moving and inspiring us? We know because of the Spirit. The breath of God. I know, it’s maybe just another metaphor, and it doesn’t exactly solve the problem. What is the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. What is breath? What is wind? Can you catch it? Can you put it in a box? Can you nail it down? That’s the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind from God, sweeping over the face of the waters in the beginning when all was formless and void. The Holy Spirit is the way that God continues to create, to sustain the world, even as the very forces of the world seek to pull it apart. It is the way that life turns to death turns to life again each generation, each year, each day. As today’s psalm reads, “You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.”

It’s nebulous, I know. It’s not a precise or concrete answer, and we like precise and concrete answers. We like to understand how things work, we like to know the mechanisms that drive the world around us. But the Spirit is not one of those things. It’s not something we can explain or describe. We only get it by metaphor, and then only barely, not entirely, not precisely. And so we talk about what we experience, not what we see. The ways that we feel the Spirit present, the ways that we feel God’s breath on us, even though we can’t quite explain what it is.

The Holy Spirit is the breath of God. Breathing in. Drawing us toward God. Breathing out. Moving God toward us.  The way that the earth sighs at the end of a long hot summer day, and suddenly you feel that breath of cool air driving down off the mountainside into the valleys, or up off the river bank and out of the hollows, onto the hills, and the whole world breathes a sigh of relief as the heat is overcome. That’s what Paul is talking about in the reading from Romans today. The whole of creation is groaning in labor pains, all of the world is longing for relief, the way that it does at the end of a long hot summer day.

You can feel it, the tension in the world – the culture wars, the gender wars, the class wars, the religious wars, the outright money-grubbing, land-grabbing power wars; the politics that divide us, that drive us to polar ends of some arbitrary spectrum that suits the political ends of one group or another, but don’t really reflect our daily lives or our true opinions; the feeling on the right and the left and in the middle that we are not being heard, that we are being marginalized and alienated, that we are being persecuted; the changes in the weather, whether you think it’s caused by humans or not, the loss of animal and plant species, the disappearance of rain forests, the melting of the glaciers; the nuclear disaster in Japan; the friend who is grieving; the loved one who is dying; the relationship that is broken; the shame that won’t go away. The whole of creation is groaning, in labor pains, longing for relief, longing for a glimpse of hope that will breathe a breath of cool air, driving it down off the mountainside, down out of the heavens and into our lives, as we wait for redemption for all this broken world. And into all of that pain, all of that brokenness, comes a breath, the breath of God, the Spirit, groaning alongside us, assuring us that we are not alone, reminding us that God is active in the world, that God is here, that God is moving us, drawing us closer with each inhale and then sending us out with each exhale. So that when, in the face of all the world’s pain, in the midst of all this brokenness, when we can’t find the words to pray, when we are too overwhelmed by our own pain or grief or shame, when we can’t even find the strength to believe anymore, much less to pray, God breathes on us, and into us, and moves us: in. out. in. out. and the Spirit intercedes for us, with sighs too deep for words to express. And so we confess in the words of Luther’s Catechism: that I cannot by my own strength or understanding believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. I cannot by my own strength or understanding draw breath, find hope, feel the cool relief of God moving in the world, drawing the world into reconciliation and redemption and new life. But the Holy Spirit has breathed into me, has breathed for me, so that I am moved, drawn toward God, and then sent, breathed out toward others. No wonder the French word for “hope” has the word “spirit” in it.

When the Day of Pentecost came, all the disciples were together in one place. And they were wondering how they could do it. How could they keep their faith, when the One in whom they had believed had been drawn up into heaven? How could they go out there and face the crowds, who were ready to stone them as heretics? How could they keep on believing in something so strange? Maybe they were meant to keep this to themselves? Maybe that was the safest route, to stay in that locked upper room, reassuring one another that they were chosen, until even the most certain of them would begin to doubt. But then, as they sat there, figuring out how to structure their little enclave, forming committees and selecting the next council member, there came from heaven a sound like the rushing of a violent wind, and God breathed. God breathed out, and the Spirit drove them out of that room, out of their comfort zone, out into the streets. God breathed in, and drew all the people to God’s self. Look at the list of peoples in verses 9, 10, and 11. These were all Jews from all over the world, indeed from all over time. Some of these, like the Elamites and the Medes, were wiped out centuries ago, and yet here they are, being drawn in by God’s inhalation, by the Spirit of God, by God’s inspiration.

God’s breath draws all the people in, from across the world, from across time. And then God breathes out. And they are sent. This book, The Acts of the Apostles, is sometimes called the Acts of the Spirit, and as you read through it, that is the picture that you get. God breathing in, drawing people together, drawing people toward God; and then God breathing out, sending people to stranger and stranger places. Sending people where they would not otherwise go. First a small band of disciples locked away in an upper room; then the Jewish people of all times and places gathered in Jerusalem, and the Spirit sends them out to all of Judea and Samaria, all over the Jewish diaspora; then one day an Ethiopian eunuch is drawn in, and breathed out, and the gospel spreads into Africa; then God breathes in and Cornelius and Peter find one another, and God breathes out and gentiles are brought into the church; and God breathes in, and Saul, a persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, called and sent by the spirit to bring the good news to all the known world, even to Rome itself. God breathes in, drawing people toward God, into relationship, into faith; God breathes out, sends people toward one another, into relationship, into service.

Close your eyes if you will. Place your hand on belly, or on your chest. And breathe. In. Out. In. Out. God is breathing here, God’s spirit is moving here. In. Drawing us together. Drawing us together toward God. Calling us through the Gospel, giving us the gifts of faith and of passion and of service. And Out. Sending us out. Sending us toward one another, toward our neighbors. How is the Spirit moving us? How is God’s breath drawing us in and sending us out? What boundaries are being blown down before us, so that we can be the hope for the world, that cool breath of air being blown down the mountainside into the sweltering heat of the world’s deepest need?

All the Difference in the World

Mr. Smith was in pain, and he was scared. He had diabetes, and had not kept up well with the treatment. He had a wound on his foot that was not healing, and the pain from it was shooting up his leg and right into his chest. Though the doctors said that it was not his heart, that his heart was not in danger, he was still scared about that pain. As I sat at his bedside talking to him, a wave of pain would come over him. He would stop talking, blanch, and tears would leak from his eyes as he tried not to cry out. He was a proud man, but he was in pain, and he was scared. He was also angry. No one seemed to be able to tell him why the pain was so bad. They wanted to put him on an anti-depressant, which they said would help the pain, but he insisted he was not depressed and would have nothing to do with it. To make matters worse, he was an African-American man in a hospital where everyone around him was white. The doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the administrators, even the chaplain, were all white. He was out of his element, far out of his comfort zone, both physically and culturally. He worried that he was being treated poorly because he was black. He thought that maybe they wanted to give him the anti-depressant simply to shut up his complaining, so they could get him out of their hair. He was in pain, he was scared, he was angry. I tried mostly to listen to him, hoping I could find some guidance, something that would help his nurses and doctors show that they were on his side. Something that would draw people together, so that they could work as a team, patients and providers, toward a solution. And one day, it came. I asked him, “would it make a difference to you if you knew your doctors and nurses were praying for you?” “All the difference in the world,” he said. “All the difference in the world.”

On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus did a lot of things. He washed the feet of his disciples. He named his disciples as his friends and gave them a new commandment, that they love one another as he had loved them. He took bread, blessed it and broke it and gave it to them, and established a new covenant in his blood, shed for all people for the forgiveness of sin. And today we hear about another thing that he did on the night in which he was betrayed. He prayed. You’re probably more familiar with a different prayer recorded in the gospels on this night. In the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, Matthew, Mark, and Luke have told us, Jesus went and prayed by himself, while his disciples waited. And his prayer in the garden, his earnest, blood-sweating prayer that night was, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” In the book of John, there is no prayer in the garden, only an arrest. The prayer in the Book of John happens here, while the disciples are gathered around the table, having just had their feet washed by their Lord. In this Gospel account, Jesus prays, not by himself, but aloud and in the midst of the disciples. And he prays for you.

Jesus knows better than anyone, I suppose, what it means to live in the world. He knows that the world is a hard place to live, painful and bitter, and often quite cruel. In the book of John, whenever you see the word “world,” what it’s talking about is not some split that equates everything in the world with evil and everything spiritual with good. That’s not where John is, because that’s not where God is. God created this world, and saw it and called it good. God entered this world, became a part of this world, became human. This is not the act of a God who despises this world, or equates this world with evil. Yet Jesus’ prayer here seems to place this world and God as opposites somehow. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world,” Jesus says. Twice. What does he mean by this?

The world, in this prayer, and in all of the Book of John, is the word that John uses to talk about the things that would push God out of our lives. We might say that the world here is referring to “worldly” things. It’s not that all of creation stands in contrast to God, that everything solid and sensual and touchable is contrary to God. Though you’ve probably heard that interpretation before. But that’s not what this is about.

This word, world, is about all of the powers that you encounter in your life that would draw you away from God. It might be something concrete and tangible, like structures of power and greed, and the longing to fulfill ourselves by loving things and using people. It might be something less easy to identify – a feeling of loneliness and alienation that drives us out of community; the indiscretion of gossip and complaint that drives wedges and divides communities; the affliction of mental illness, disease, addiction; the fear of a man whose life has been plagued by racism, who now faces overwhelming pain, pain made worse by his circumstances. These are the things that Jesus means when he uses the word “world” in the Book of John. These are the things that each of us encounters in our daily lives, the things that distract us from God’s purpose for us, that turn us in on ourselves, rather than outward to God and our neighbors. So when we are in the world and not of it, when the disciples and Jesus do not belong to the world, this is where we find ourselves as disciples of Christ, where Christ found himself. In the middle of the suffering, in the midst of the brokenness, and yet not controlled by it, not ruled by it, not identified or determined by it. Instead, what we are identified by, what we are determined by, is the prayer of Jesus Christ, who on that night two thousand years ago, prayed for us. For you.

Because this is the same one who, though the world did not know him, the world that would draw us away from God, the world that would come between us and God at every opportunity, though that world rejected him, still, God so loved that world, God so loved the God-hating world, that God sent this one, this Jesus, the Son of God, into the world, for the sake of love. And just as God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us. Not to leave the God-hating world, but to love it. We are called and sent into it, we are called into it to break boundaries; to tear down the walls between ourselves and the world; to stand in the breach between what is and what ought to be; between the here and now, and God’s promised and preferred future; and that can feel like a lonely call. And so Jesus prays for us – “I am not asking that you take them out of the world,” he prays, knowing how much the world needs the Body of Christ, how much the world needs you. “but I ask you to protect them, to sanctify them, to make them one, to remind them of who is praying for them.” Because it can feel like a lonely journey, and knowing that you are not alone, knowing that there are others in this with you, that even your Lord and Savior is praying for you, that makes all the difference in the world.

I’d like to ask you to take a moment and consider how Jesus is praying for you. What is it that you would ask Jesus to pray? What boundaries within yourself would you ask Jesus to break, that would enable you to answer that call? Patience to be a better friend, parent, spouse? Courage to stand up to those who would tear others down? Joy in the face of loss? Hope in the face of discouragement? Companionship at a time of loneliness? Healing of mind, body, spirit? Forgiveness? The ability to forgive? What would you ask Jesus to pray for? Take a moment, and write it down on one of the cards you received with your bulletin. Take that card and tuck in your wallet or your purse of somewhere, so that you can pull it out over the next week or two, to remind yourself that Jesus is praying for you. And then, if you would like, take the other card, and write it down again, and place it in the offering plate as it is passed. I will collect these and pray through them each day this week. You can put your name if you like, but you don’t have to. If you would like others to pray for this, make a little note there on the card, “Please share,” and I will share this prayer request with the congregation. Praying for one another is at the heart of the Christian community. Whether and how we pray for one another makes all the difference in the world.

A few years ago, one of my best friends sent her son off to college at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, MN. He had only been in there a few months when, on his 21st birthday, they went to worship at a nearby church. As they left the service, they stopped to shake hands with the pastor, and shared that it was his birthday. As it turned out, it was also that pastor’s birthday, and they shared a hearty handshake over that. And then the pastor said something that struck them and stuck with them. He said, “Happy birthday. I pray for you every day.” Well, they had only just met, so they asked what he meant. He replied, “I have prayed for you every day since you were baptized, because I remember all the baptized in my prayers. So I have prayed for you each and every day of your life.” They were moved by his words, and carried them with them as they left. My friend was so struck that she shared this story with me. It meant a lot to her to know that there was someone there in St. Peter praying for her son, when she was over a hundred miles away. Already, that thought made all the difference in the world. But the reality of what it meant came home for them a few months later, when her son had a psychotic break, one that was painful and confusing, the worst moment of their lives. She rushed to St. Peter to be with him, to help him find help, and found none. There was no assistance from the police, who wanted only to accuse. There was no assistance from the school, because it was spring break and no one was available. It was the middle of the night, the weekend; everything was closed and they had nowhere to turn. And then they remembered that there was someone. Someone who had been praying for her son every day of his life. And when they called, he answered. He met them at the church, gave them a safe place to sit and think and pray, gave them the space and hospitality and grace that they needed to get through that first frightening night, until they could get the help that they needed. By Monday, her son was in the care of good medical professionals and beginning his journey into a new normal. But that night, when they had no one else to turn to, it was the prayer of a stranger that made all the difference in the world. It was the prayer of a stranger that turned him into a friend, a refuge in the storm. It was his prayer that echoed the prayer of Jesus, that we might be made one, that the boundaries between us might be brought down, that we might be defined by our unity and not by our divisions. This is the prayer that Jesus prayed for you, for me, for us, 2000 years ago, and that Jesus continues to pray for us today. It is echoed in the prayers that we pray for one another, that draw us into community, as we participate in the unity that God has already accomplished for us in the prayers of Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. And these prayers make all the difference in the world.

Love Letters from God

I’ve never had a 5-year old boy in my life before. So I have been taken by surprise at the way that a 5-year old boy can love. My son Holden loves like no one I’ve ever met before. He throws his entire being into his love, sometimes literally launching his entire body and soul at his beloved. Sometimes it’s one of his sisters, sometimes his dad. Pretty often, it’s me. And his love becomes all-encompassing. He loves all of me, and he loves everything I touch. He decides which car door to get out of based on his love – he always wants to crawl to the front seat and get out of my car door, “because I love you, Mommy!” He decides where to sit at dinner, what movies to watch, sometimes even what glass to drink out of, based on where I’m sitting, what I want to watch, and what kind of glass I have. This is love like I’ve never seen it, without boundaries, pouring out of every pore of his body, and infecting every part of me and my life. His days are bounded by this love, so that the first thing he does every morning is to climb into my bed for a snuggle, sometimes for an hour, sometimes only for a moment before he rushes off to start his day, but every morning begins with that little check-in, that moment of grounding the day in love. And each night before bed, the last thing he does is to give me a hug and a kiss, and sometimes to insist that I come back again and again, or that I hug him by falling across the bed so that he can feel the full weight of my own love, grounding him and giving him the strength to fall asleep knowing that he is safe and loved.

Mother’s Day seems like a good day to start the sermon with a love story like that. But it’s not just the calendar that leads me in this direction today. The readings that are set for this day are a love story of their own. They are God’s love story, God’s love letter to us. Our readings today, and actually for much of this season, are taken from the writings of the community of John. This Gospel and these letters were written for a community that was striving to become a beloved community, that is, a community based in the love of Christ. The word love in its various forms appears as often in these books of the Bible as it does in all the rest of the New Testament combined. These writings are love stories. They are the stories of what the love of God has done for us, and what it is doing in us, and what it might do through us. They are love stories, and if we doubt it, then we have only to listen through the ears of a 1st century Jew. The language that Jesus uses on the night of his arrest, the same images that we heard last week, are the images of the vineyard – I am the vine, you are the branches; abide in me; you will bear fruit. These images are familiar to us from the words and parables of Jesus. We are probably not as familiar with the Old Testament verses that Jesus is invoking with these images. But the people of Israel, the Palestinian Jews of the 1st century, they would have known these Hebrew stories, the words of the prophets, the Song of Solomon, the psalms, and they would have known that when people start talking about vines and vineyards, they are talking love language. This is the image that appears over and over again when God is renewing God’s promises to Israel, renewing God’s vows – in Hosea: “Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit; They shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine.” In Zechariah: “there shall be a sowing of peace; the vine shall yield its fruit.” In Isaiah: “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved has a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” The Song of Solomon: “My vineyard, my very own, is for myself.” Vineyard language is love language in the Scriptures.

So God is sending you a love letter. God is writing you a love song. The problem that we run into here is that our language for love is so limited. Our vision of love is so limited. When we think of love, we either get sentimental, or we get vulgar. We talk of romantic love, and we talk of maternal and paternal love, and we talk about brotherly love, and we sometimes try to twist Greek words like agape and philos into something that will approximate what we mean when we talk about God’s love, but in the end, all of our words and images and metaphors fall short. Because God’s love is not human love, it is something beyond all of the kinds of love that we understand, or try to understand. Because God’s love, like God’s word, does something; it has power. God’s Word has power, right. You know that, because when God said, “Let there be light,” what happened? There was light, right? And when God’s Word made flesh said, “Lazarus, come out!” what happened? The dead man came out of the tomb. So God’s Word makes things happen. And when God’s Word becomes flesh, when God moves into the neighborhood, the whole world gets turned upside down. God’s love is the same way. God’s love has power – the power to move us to new life, to new understanding, to new ways of seeing and being.

Maybe this is why Jesus says that we need to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Because that’s not usually how we receive God’s love, is it? We don’t usually receive God’s love like a 5-year old boy, in love with the whole world and everything in it, and especially in love with his mommy, so that even using the same door as she does gives him satisfaction and joy. No, I think the way we usually receive God’s love is more like a surly teenager. Thankfully, I do not yet have direct experience with parenting a teenager, but I have experience with being one, and a good and proper surly, resentful, sulky teenager at that. A teenager’s love is dramatically different from a 5-year old’s. It’s far more wary, far more inward, and somehow far more needy. I remember as a teenager shying away from hugs, sneering at compliments, saying “ppsht” to “I love you”s from my parents, and yet, inside, craving that love and attention, longing for the affirmation and grounding that it gave me. And when things got bad, when I was at my lowest, when nothing else came through, it was back to that love that I would turn. Isn’t that how we tend to deal with God? When God says, “I love you,” our response tends to be, “uh-huh. and what is it you want from me?” Don’t we tend to respond to God’s love letters, to God’s love story, with wariness, with fear, with doubt, “sure you do, but if you really knew me…” And yet, when things get bad, when we are in crisis, when we are up against it, we turn to God with our prayers and supplications, our pleas for help.

I think we really are like teenagers when it comes to God’s love. Not just in how we respond, but in how we view it. Remember being a teenager? Or having a teenager in the house? Remember how, for teenagers, everything is scary? You feel like you are always on show, everyone is looking at you and judging you, and your main objective is to be inconspicuous. You are wary of what will be demanded of you, and most of all perhaps, fearful that you will not be able to do it right. That is, I think, the main motivating factor for many of us, starting in our early teens and going on through our lives. Fear – what if I can’t do it right? So when God says, “I love you!” Our response tends to be wary, “what do you mean? what do you want from me?” Because we’ve heard these passages before, and we’ve been told that we need to obey God and follow God’s commandments, and it sounds like a lot of work that I am not equipped to do. So rather than throwing myself into my love of God like a 5-year old, I stand at the edge, like a teenager, wary and uncertain and fearful, lest I love God wrong, and embarrass myself and God in the process.

It’s the same old problem. We are so certain that God’s love is bound by our response, that we are afraid to respond. We are so certain that what we do for God will determine what God does for us, that we are frozen by our fear, lest we do the wrong thing. When we hear these readings today, all about God’s love, over and over again, God’s love, the only words we actually hear are “keep my commandments.” The only words we hear, in the midst of this love song, in the midst of this gospel story, are the words that sound like law. And we think, if I don’t do this, if I don’t love God right, then all the rest of this won’t apply. But what we forget is the truth that God has known all along, since God first created the world and humans and named it all as “good, very good.” What we forget is that if we could do these things on our own, if we could do  the commandments, if we could obey perfectly, if we could love God right, then we wouldn’t need a Savior.

Because God’s love song, God’s love story, is not a story about what we have to do to earn God’s love. It is not a story about what boundaries God places on God’s love. It is not a story about some sort of ladder that we have to climb to get closer to God, who waits for us up in the heavens. God’s love song, God’s love story, is about how God came down into the vineyard, how God became one of us, so that God could walk among us and know us and show us the fullness of love. God’s love song is the story of how God’s love goes beyond boundaries – not just that it breaks boundaries, or tears boundaries down, or ignores boundaries. It’s that God’s love, like God’s Word, has to power to do, the power to change things, even to change our perceptions of ourselves. Because God’s Word, God’s love, goes beyond sentiment, beyond romance, beyond all of the baggage we bring, and right up onto the cross – it is the love that would lay down its life for the sake of the beloved. For the sake of you.

And because of this love, not because of anything that you have said or done, or anything that you have failed to say or do, not because of any ladder or commandment or obedience, but purely and solely for the sake of God’s love, for the sake of Christ who laid down his life for your sake, you are made free, you are made whole, you are bound, not by any of your own works, good or bad, but by Christ. You are bound by Christ, and by Christ’s love, and by nothing else in all the world. The letter of John tells us that it is God’s love that enables us to keep the commandments, God’s love that conquers the world and gives us faith, God’s love that binds us together and breaks even the boundaries of our own fear so that we can respond, not like a surly teenager, sheltered and shy, but like a 5-year old, boldly and with every ounce of our being, shouting out our love at the top of our lungs; starting each morning and ending each evening grounding ourselves in the love of our beloved; throwing ourselves headlong into the joy of simply loving, because we have been so so so loved.

Building on the Cornerstone

ImageWhen I was in seminary, Nelson and I had the opportunity to meet with a financial coach, as part of the seminary’s attempt to acclimate pastors to the realities of the pastoral lifestyle. One of the things that we took away from our time with the financial coach was the concept of abundance and scarcity. For many reasons, from childhood experiences to family attitudes to temperaments, different people develop very different perspectives about money. Some people tend toward a perspective of abundance. They always feel that there is going to be enough, rarely worrying about future shortage, and as a result, when they have money, they usually save it, or at least spend it frugally. Others tend toward a perspective of scarcity. They worry more about whether there will be enough money, and tend to assume that what there is will run out, and as a result, when they have it, they spend it. Most people fall somewhere along this spectrum, but this lens of abundance and scarcity informs financial decisions large and small. And using this lens has given Nelson and me a helpful tool to use when we have financial decisions to make together. We now recognize that there has to be some negotiation between abundance and scarcity, whether we’re deciding how much to spend on a home, whether to buy a new car, or how much to give to the church and charity. It makes for difficult discussion, but having this information also pushes us to be more understanding of one another, and to ask ourselves more frankly how God might want us to approach money matters.

I don’t think the abundance/scarcity lens is reserved for money matters, though it is maybe most obvious there. I think for most of us, we approach every aspect of life with a question of abundance versus scarcity. Will there be enough for me? Enough love? Enough security? Enough recognition? Enough gratitude? Enough space? Enough beauty? Enough health? Enough time? Enough connection? Enough grace? In each of these areas of our lives, and probably many more, we tend to fall into one view or the other. Either there is an abundance, or there is a scarcity. And how we live, the practical reality of our day-to-day lives, is radically a result of that perspective. If we buy the common argument, the media marketing message that there is never enough, we will live our lives as though we must always be scrounging, hoarding, and struggling across the desert of life to the next oasis, where we can pause for a moment before starting again to fight for the feeling that we have found enough. I find this to be a fairly bleak prospect, but the marketing geniuses have managed to make it look like fun, even glamourous, so it seems like a significant number of people have hopped on that bandwagon. Even in the institutions of the church, we have become obsessed with the question of scarcity. There’s not enough money, there’s not enough people, there’s not enough room in the building. Open any magazine aimed at church-going Christians, or look at the sidebar on my facebook page, and you will find ad after ad for church growth programs and classes on expanding your congregation through social media. Scarcity becomes the rallying cry of the consumerist culture, and the church has bought into it right along with everyone else. But if this is the way that we plan to sate our needs, if this is the way that we as individuals, as a society, and as a church, have decided to fill the emptiness, then we are in trouble. Because at some point we will have to ask, “when is enough, enough?” Is there ever a point where we can stop trying to get more? Will scarcity ever suddenly feel like abundance? No. It won’t. Because it’s not a problem of supply. It’s a problem of demand. And the worldview, the lens that we have been taught to use, the lens of scarcity, always demands more, regardless of actual need.

Using that lens, the lens of scarcity, we turn everything that we see into a demand, a lack, an insistence that we must do something, in order to have enough. Enough love; enough gratitude; enough money; enough stuff; enough salvation. We take even a passage like today’s gospel reading, and turn it from promise to command. Jesus tells us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” And it’s hard to get a more promise-filled sentence – God came into the world, precisely in order to fill the hole, in order to abolish the scarcity, in order to provide us with a completely new lens on life, so that we can stop chasing after the next satisfaction, because God has promised to be that satisfaction. And yet, so often I have heard this very sentence used to reinforce the lens of scarcity. Jesus said we should have abundant life, so we’d better go out and earn it! If we please God, Jesus will give us abundance. This has become the basis of a prosperity gospel so insidious that best-selling books turn God’s plan for salvation for the whole world into an individual self-help mantra of your best life now.

That’s not the gospel. That’s not what Jesus is promising here. Jesus is not promising an if-then proposition. This is not, “If you jump through the God’s hoops, then I will give you stuff; love; beauty; health; happiness.” God’s name is not, “I might be.” God’s name is “I AM.” And that is the name, the credentials, that Jesus pulls out in this passage. “I AM the good shepherd.” And what does a good shepherd do? Provides for the sheep, gives them what they need, so that they do not have to wander off in search of greener pastures. Everything is provided – food, security, comfort, love, even someone who will lay down his life for the sake of the flock. Jesus is describing what abundant life looks like. The people who heard Jesus speak knew the psalms. They knew the 23rd psalm. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. We can stop looking at the world through a lens of scarcity. God’s lens is the lens of abundance. God prepares a table for us, so that our cup is running over. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear. God walks with us. That is abundant life, life beyond measure.

I grant you, this is a tricky promise. It is hard to look at the world, to see how many people are starving and living without abundance, without even enough, and then to hear God’s promise of abundance. How is God fulfilling that promise, when there are children dying every day because they do not have enough? And the only answer I have, really, is, “that’s on us.” Because we continue to live with a lens of scarcity, rather than with God’s lens of abundance. Because people continue to take more than enough for themselves, just in case; when our cup overflows, we get a bigger cup; rather than trusting that God is at work refilling our cup, so that our overflowing cup might fill others’ cups.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus is the manifest promise of that abundant life. Jesus is God’s promise that there is enough – enough grace that God would come into the world and become human; enough beauty that God would see even the most wretched among us and name them as God’s own; enough health that God would allow power to flow out of Jesus and heal an anonymous, powerless woman;  enough recognition that Jesus would know and call Nathanael from afar; enough connection that Jesus would eat with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners of all kind, and draw them into community, even as the community shunned them; enough love that Jesus would go to the cross, and die there, for the sake of love, for the love of each and every one of us; enough life, abundant life, such that the grave could not hold him, and death had no power over him, and God would break loose into the world.

And this promise – this promise of abundance – this is the cornerstone. This Jesus is the cornerstone on which we build our church. But we have to be careful, because over time, that cornerstone might get buried, hidden behind the work we do. If you look for the cornerstone of a building, it is sometimes hard to find, because people have lived in the building and around the building, and they have put in gardens and plantings, and the cornerstone has become obscured. And even the most faithful communities have done this with the cornerstone of the church. We have built up ministries and done wonderful and faithful things, building the church and growing in community and in faithfulness and in knowledge, baptizing and teaching and making disciples, exactly as we have been called. But when those things begin to obscure the cornerstone, as they do sometimes, it is easy to lose sight of why we are here. It is easy to begin to believe that we are here for the sake of growth, or for the sake of the Sunday school, or for the sake of maintaining a property, or for the sake of shoring up our investments of time, talent and treasure. We’re not. And if we are, then we need to stop, and pull back the gardens, and take a look again. We are here for the sake of Christ, for the sake of him who is made the sure foundation, for the sake of the cornerstone. And Christ, our cornerstone, is God’s promise to us that we will have enough, and more than enough; that our cup will overflow so that we can share God’s abundance with our neighbors. It’s not about money, it’s not about stuff, it’s not even about having a pastor or a building or the recognition of the community that we are a good church doing good work. Those are all great things, and I think we want them and we want to work for them. But if they are not built on the cornerstone, if they obscure the cornerstone or make us forget why we are here, then I don’t want them. But if we build on the cornerstone, if we build on Christ, if we build on God’s promise of abundance, then it will not matter whether we have $1 or $1,000,000, we will be the church, with Christ as our foundation.