31 August 2008

Running for More than Celery

Isaiah 40: 21-31 & 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 31st August 2008

For decades, Professor Donald Macleod taught preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. I had occasion to know him well, even though he retired by the time I arrived on campus in the late 1980s. He died last year, well into his 90s. He retired to Charlestown and attended worship at Catonsville Presbyterian, including the Sunday I candidated here in June 1999. He was also Dr. Jewett’s preaching professor when he was a student at Princeton.

Dr. Mac, as he was known, liked to say that a sermon title should get your attention. It should cause you to take notice while sitting on the bus going down Fifth Avenue in New York City, enticing you to satisfy your curiosity by attending worship on Sunday. He was referring to the sign-board of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. I’m not sure what he would say about my title. I’ve wondered what folks driving along Frederick Road have been thinking all week. You’re probably wondering — what kind of sermon title is that?

All the eyes of the world turned to China a few weeks ago for the Beijing Olympics. Athletes from around the world descended upon that most ancient of cities to fulfill their dreams of being a medal winner, to stand on the winners’ platform, hearing their country’s national anthem, as the flag of the winning nation rises above them. It’s the part of the pay-off, the prize for years of sweat and tears.

The opening ceremony two weeks ago, my favorite part of the Olympics, was spectacular, majestic, and uplifting. All the participant nations marched in the stadium so full of joy, anticipation, and hope. I have a great deal of respect for them, primarily because I was never, ever good at anything athletic, after many tries. But more than that, you have to respect their dedication, discipline, and drive.

There are plenty of people who feel that the Olympics have become one big consumer-driven extravaganza in which Coca-Cola and McDonald’s are the real winners, where the golden arches are more important than gold medallions. The media was criticized for praising a country’s culture and heritage, while relatively silent on the contemporary human rights abuses.

But consider all those athletes from around the world gathered together for the opening ceremonies. Just think of all the hours of training they represent. It is quite amazing. Think of Michael Phelps from Maryland, alone, or Usain Bolt from Jamaica. They didn’t get to be so good and fast by just showing up at the pool or track whenever they felt like it. Just think of what these athletes have been through, how they have trained their bodies, of muscles that needed to be stretched, then broken, then healed again in order for growth and strength to occur, of minds that need to be sharp, clear, focused; all this must be done for years in order to reach this level of excellence. Consider their dedication, their discipline, and their drive.

Yes, consider their dedication, their discipline, their drive – says Paul! – because the same characteristics are essential for the Christian life.
Nothing less than years of training,
of endurance and sacrifice,
of lives that are stretched and sometimes broken and
then healed, yielding growth and strength;
of minds that are sharp, clear, focused –
- yes, all this must be done for years after many setbacks,
- failures, and disappointments, in order to reach a level of excellence, of reaching what Paul calls “mature”
Christianity, of running in love’s “still more excellent
way (1 Corinthians 13).”

The only goal, same for everyone, is the love of Christ.
The characteristics and skills of being an athlete are not dissimilar to what’s involved in following Jesus.

Paul loved to use athletic metaphors throughout his epistles. From his jail cell in Rome, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).” The image is that of a runner who has his eyes set on the finish line,
body straining forward toward the goal,
not looking back or to the side, not worrying about what
others are doing,
mind focused, reaching for that prize
which is the upward call of God,
this God who is calling to set our sights higher and
broader in Christ,
to set our eyes on him and them give him your all.
Set your eyes on Christ and then literally throw yourself toward him, toward the finish.

What’s significant about this passage is that the prize is not, as we might think, living happily ever after with God. Instead, the prize is the call and the call of God is the prize. The prize is not getting to heaven. And everyone who has been baptized is called. What is the call, what is the prize?

It’s the prize of living a life that is pressed into the service
of someone and something higher than oneself – beyond
egotism and selfishness.

It’s the prize of living a life that is heaven-bent on achieving, straining after the glory of God in all that we do. The prize comes when we live in conformity with what God wills for us. The prize is the immeasurable pleasure that comes when we’re running this way.

Do you remember the movie “Chariots of Fire”? It’s the true story of the Scottish Presbyterian missionary Eric Liddell (1902-1945) and the English Jewish Cambridge student Harold Abrahams (1899-1978) who ran for Great Britain at the 1924 Olympiad in Paris. It is one of my favorite movies. The well-known opening beach scene was filmed at 4:00 a.m. in St. Andrews, Scotland; it is actually the West Sands of St. Andrews, a place I know very well. (If you look closely you can see the house where I stay in St. Andrews, including over the sabbatical.) There’s a scene in the movie when Eric is preaching before a crowd after a qualifying event in Scotland. He says, “You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It's hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape - especially if you've got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner's burnt. Maybe you haven't got a job. So who am I to say, ‘Believe, have faith,’ in the face of life's realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.’ If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.”

And Eric has to convince his sister Jenny that he’s going to stay in Scotland instead of returning to mission service in China. The two of them are walking near Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, talking. He feels called to train and compete and run for Scotland. She wants him to return with her to China. But he says he can’t. “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure. When I run, Jenny, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”[1]

You see – that’s the prize, the pleasure. Being a Christian isn’t easy. It’s tough. No one is perfect at it and no one does it alone. But in order to go for it, we have to be trained.

This is why the athletic metaphor is so useful for Paul. He didn’t just use it because it was helpful; he used it because his readers would have been familiar with these images, even as he was familiar with them. Athletic training and competition, like now, were integral to the educational, formational process of all children and young adults in Paul’s time. Then, like today, athletes were superstars. The Roman writer, Juvenal (c. First to Second Century), complained that teachers didn’t receive the kind of respect they deserved. In his Satire, he “bitterly calculates that musicians and popular athletes earn more in a day than the teacher does in a year.”[2] Sound familiar?

Paul writes to the Corinthians using athletic metaphors because he knows the Corinthians. Remember Paul founded the church in Corinth and spent a lot of time there. Paul knew that just down the road from Corinth were the massive track and fields of the Panhellenic (Greek) festivals in Isthmia.

We often think of the ancient Greek games being based in Olympia. The Olympian festival was the oldest and most prestigious. Hence our contemporary reference to the Olympic Games – although they were able to pull theirs off at a fraction of today’s cost, saving a lot on uniforms alone. But there were three other sites for these Panhellenic festivals: the Pythian festival held at Delphi, the Nemean festival held at Argos, and the Isthmian festival held at Corinth. They were also called “stephanitic” festivals; stephanos means “crown” or “wreath” referring to the prize awarded to the winner of each event. Each site offered a different kind of crown. At Olympia the winner received a wreath of wild olive, at Delphi a garland of bay leaves, at Nemea a wreath of fresh celery and at Isthmia a wreath of dry, wilted celery – yes, celery.[3]

When I was in Greece several years ago, I went to Isthmia; it is one of the more recent archeological digs in Greece. The site contains the remains of the temple of Poseidon, a theatre, and baths. Most amazing for us was to see the actual starting line for the track in the stadium – easily visible – along the starter’s pit behind the starting line. There’s a fascinating museum there which has a mosaic depicting a wilted celery wreath around an athlete’s brow and tied with a knot or ribbon behind the neck.[4] There are also large, stone tributes to many athletes with wreaths of wilted celery over their heads.

Now you might be wondering why I’m going on about celery. Because Paul does. Listen to this text again, imagine the people of Corinth listening to this letter, think of them walking down the road to Isthmia, seeing the athletic fields, observing the competition and games, watch how Paul used these everyday occurrences as a way to bring life to the gospel. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.” Hear the allusion to celery?

Those athletes are disciplining and training their bodies to go after a “perishable crown,” a wilted piece of celery! But what we’re training for, friends, is a crown that will not wilt, that is imperishable, that will last! Now, whether we will all be walking around in glory with crowns is beside the point – it’s a metaphor – the point is that the goal, the prize that we strive after and strain for as Christians is better than any athletic prize or any other prize given in this world subject to rust and decay and corruption.

What are you running for? Is the prize you’re after worthy of the race, especially if it’s a rat-race?

Unless we put the effort in, unless we are dedicated, disciplined, driven in our following of Christ, running the race that Christ sets before, trained in body and mind, then we run the risk of losing our crown. This doesn’t mean that our salvation is somehow in jeopardy. This is a metaphor. The point Paul is making here is that we can’t say we’re a Christian without following Christ, without demonstrating with your life the power of the gospel at work in you, without demonstrating the presence of the Risen Christ in us, without being a witness to the transforming power of God’s love in our lives. All of which were critical problems in the Corinthian church, where they were saying one thing on a Sunday and doing another the rest of the week, claiming to believe one thing only to have their actions betray them.

We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk. And we do it together. Someone got very mad at me once when I said you can’t be a Christian by yourself. It’s true. Being Christian requires others, it requires community. We need one another to run this race, to run the race with everything we have!
We can’t do it alone. Following Christ is not as easy as some think. It requires nothing less than the dedication, the discipline, and the drive of an athlete.
[1] “Chariots of Fire,” Engima Productions, 1981. Quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082158/quotes
[2] Cited in Albert A. Bell, Jr. Exploring the New Testament World. Foreword by Bruce M. Metzger (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), p. 239.
[3] See the review by Bernard Knox in The New York Times Book Review, August 8, 2004, of Nigel Spivey, The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2004) and Stephen G. Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics (Yale, 2004).
[4] Cf. Clyde E. Fant & Mitchell G. Reddish, A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 44.

27 August 2008

De Profundis: Out of the Depths

Psalm 130 & Luke 5: 1-11

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th August 2008

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning and seeing your smiling faces. I spent this week doing a lot of listening and getting brought up to speed on some of what’s been going on around here the last couple of months. I knew that my leaving, particularly at a critical time in the life of the church, just as we were about to completely transform the look of this building, both inside and outside, was generating just a little bit of stress and anxiety (okay, maybe a lot). But I had every confidence that the church would still be standing when I got back (and it is); that the renovations would proceed smoothly (and they are); and that you would be in very capable hands with the Session, Dorothy Boulton, Joan Berry, and Terry Schoener preaching most Sundays (and you definitely were). I wasn’t worried or concerned. I am extremely grateful to all of them, particularly Dorothy for carrying an extra burden of responsibility while I was away – and which she quickly placed back upon my shoulders. In my travels and conversations, I told folks that I was very proud of this congregation, because you embarked on this renovation in the midst of sabbatical, and that you told me to, gave me permission to go during this season. It was really very healthy – it spoke volumes about your trust in yourselves to do this, and I could trust you to make it happen. It made it clear that this renovation is not my vision, but yours; it’s not about me, but about you, it belongs to the soul of and souls within this congregation faithfully stepping out into the future God is preparing for us.

Listening this week to some of the stories, it’s clear that you discovered some new things about yourselves. It’s exciting to hear all that’s been going on and it’s great to see all the changes to the building. We’re being stretched with this renovation and perhaps no entity is feeling the stress and strain more than the staff of the Child Care Center as they open their doors tomorrow. Change produces stress and the stress perhaps reveals some of our weak points. Perhaps this is why we are reluctant to change, because we can’t stand the stress. But the change and the stress also call us to respond to these challenges with greater commitment and focus, they summon within us emotional and spiritual resources we didn’t think we had or have had to use in quite some time. I can’t help but think that we will be a healthier, stronger community for having lived through this. Transformation and growth are impossible without change and the stress that comes with it. The challenge in those moments is not allow fear to hinder the good that can come from change. Fear can destroy so much within us – it can kill our souls – and the soul of any church. Fear can hold us back, but Jesus always says to us, “Do not be afraid.” But Jesus also continues to say “Step out.” Or, as in this story in Luke, “Go deep.”

So what have I been up to? Over the next couple of months I will gradually share some of my experiences and discoveries. I can’t thank you enough for providing the time and space to disengage, to step away, to reconnect with myself and with God. I am extremely grateful for the time to reflect upon my life and my ministry. I’m thankful for your prayers, your support, your encouragement, and for really giving me space. Dorothy did an excellent job of keeping me in the dark about everything – that is, until last Monday.

As you know, the theme for the sabbatical was “a vast, broad, space,” a line taken from Job (36:16) describing life in the Spirit as a vast, broad, space where there is no cramping.[1] The hope was to make space in my schedule, my heart, my mind, my spirit for myself and for God. I was searching for breathing space, to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. And I hoped to go to places that were expansive, that were open and vast, to live in and near such places that would enlarge my soul and vision. I went to New Orleans and met with an author, an expert on dream analysis;[2] I went to a monastery in New Mexico; lived for a week in the Blue Ridge mountains in Northern Virginia, reading, writing, hiking; six weeks in Europe, spending almost a month in Scotland, including a week in Iona (one of the holiest places on the planet); a pilgrimage to see a painting I’ve wanted to see since I was in college, in a small museum in Colmar, France (just north of Basel); a brief time in Geneva before flying to Rome and spending more time there, going into the catacombs. (I felt like I was reversing the movement of Protestants, even the history of Christianity – Maryland, Edinburgh, London, Colmar, Basel, Geneva, Rome, right into the catacombs). I visited Pompeii, and spent a week on the Amalfi Coast; there was a week in New Jersey connecting with family and dear friends who were mentors of mine from my home church; then just last Friday, a quick visit to Houston to meet with James Hollis, a Jungian psychoanalyst, author, and director of the Jung Center in Houston. His books were a companion throughout the sabbatical. I spent an entire day and a half with him in Washington in early May at a workshop at the Jung Society. I’ve learned so much from him, but had also had a lot of questions. I sent him a letter of thanks from Iona, he replied within twenty-four hours, and said he would be available to talk. So last Friday he spared three wonderful hours, offering a rich, meaningful discussion.

In early May, Susan Hutton picked me up at 5:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico. My destination was a Benedictine monastery, called Christ in the Desert, about two hours north of Santa Fe, situated at the end of a canyon, an hour off the main road, in a desert environment that was austere, bleak, yet beautiful. I was there for almost a week, spanning Pentecost, attending most of the seven, daily services in the abbey, that begin at 4 a.m. (made the 4 a.m. services twice), chanting the psalms (in English and Latin), and had a lot of time to think, to pray, to read, to sleep, but also to listen. One of the brothers in the abbey said they often get reservations from people in New York or Philadelphia who book three weeks there, hoping to “schedule” a “spiritual experience,” to detox, to cleanse their spirits. But by the third day, many of them leave, because the silence is too much. It takes about three days for the internal chatter of our minds to stop. By the third day, you either embrace the silence or you resist and say, it’s time to go. When the internal chatter stops and you have no distractions (such as the regular routine of life, or email, television, or schedules) and just stop, all you’re left with is yourself, or maybe you and God. And in that space, that vast open space of the heart, we see both what is good within and maybe what is not so good, we see the things we can affirm, but also our demons. We can run from this inner life, deny it, avoid it, fill it with all kinds of junk or we can confront our demons, like Jesus did, also in a desert. We can go into our heart of hearts, into the depths, and see what we discover there. And what we will discover in the depths, I believe – but it’s more than belief – I know, in the depths, is the abundance of God’s Being, if we trust, if we risk, if we dare.

“Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch (Luke 5:4).” Jesus finishes up this encounter, by saying, “Follow me and you’ll be catching people.” Very often we see his text about discipleship and evangelism, a matter of “catching” people, and it is. But those words, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch,” are too poetic, too profound, to be overlooked. Jesus is dealing with metaphor here, of course. Whenever I read this verse I have only one association or metaphor. When Jesus tells us to put out into the deep, I can’t help but hear this as a summons to go down and in, to enter into the depths of my being, my soul, my heart, my psyche (whatever you want to call it). The sea is a metaphor for the heart, the unconscious, what lies below the surface of awareness. It’s an invitation to go inward, an inward turn that leads to such an overabundant yield that it cannot be contained. By inward, I don’t mean being self-focused, or selfish, or ego-centric navel-gazing. For some, being introspective or inward is considered a luxury they can’t afford, given all that is claiming their time. But, I would argue that ignoring the depths, avoiding the inner life, will eventually demand a heavier price.

What do I mean? By going inward we have a clearer sense of who we are – but also discover that in the depths we will experience the abundance of God. The psalmist knew this. “Out of the depths, I cried unto thee, O LORD (Psalm 130:1).” It’s from within, from the depths of our being as humans that we experience our faith in God, our relationship with Yahweh. It’s in the depths that we also experience the pain and anguish of doubt and fear, and yet still reach out to God. It all comes from within.

It was John Calvin (1509-1564), right at the beginning of his Institutes who said, writing from his experience, that knowledge of oneself leads to knowledge of God and a knowledge of God leads to a knowledge of oneself. And sometimes it’s difficult to discern which comes first and which is which. But the experience is known inwardly, in our hearts, in the depths. The more he knew about himself, the more he discovered about God, in the depths.[3]

The use of the word “depth” here in verse four, bathos, implies immensity, expansiveness, a spatial depth either of water or earth. It’s a metaphor rich in meaning, something profound, fundamental, which undergirds this world, which sustains our lives, our reality. In Gnosticism, God is referred to as bathos, the depth, the source of all our being. God, not so much “up there,” high and lofty, but deep and unfathomable. And in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul explains that before the Holy Spirit speaks to the human spirit, it has first searched the very depths of God (v. 10). And so the Spirit teaches from the depths of God to the depths of the human spirit. So that when the Spirit speaks to us it has gone through the depths of God, and conveys the depths of God to us – from depth to depth. Amazing.

All this goes on in the deep, not on the surface, not amid shallow superficialities, but in the deep. There’s something inherently significant here in the Jewish and Christian experience, that we encounter God in the depths, when we risk going out into deep water and let down our nets. We could almost say that Jesus is calling us to grow down, to grow down before we can reach out to others. We could say we’re being warned to be leery of religious teachings and practices that are shallow, superficial, and actually prevent us from going deep, because the surface always disappoints.[4]

De Profundis. Latin for, out of the depths. Depth. From the beginning of the sabbatical right to end, this was the current running through my experience. The importance of depth – of facing my fears and my demons and going in, of the power of God known in the depths of my being, of connecting with the source of my life. It was both discovery, but also rediscovery.

Let me explain: On the 25th February 1984, I read a sermon by Paul Tillich that resonated with me and shook me; it was called “The Depth of Existence.” I was in college. Now, I know, you’re thinking – what an odd child – not a lot of college students are reading Tillichian existential sermons in their sophomore year. What can I say? I was a nerd. What mattered most was that I was listening to my soul and knew that I wanted to live in the depths and not on the surface. I wanted to go down, deep and discover the One in whom I live and move and have my Being (Acts 17:28). Yes, going deep is painful and uncomfortable, because we’re forced to confront things in the dark waters of the mind and the past. But I knew that underneath every pain and every grief, there is joy, a joy that can only be found by going deep. It was the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), once said, “The world is deep, and deeper than the day could read. Deep is its woe. Joy deeper still than grief can be. Woe says: Hence, go! But joy wants eternity, wants deep, profound eternity.” Curiously, while reading that sermon, I was also listening to Mahler’s Third Symphony (I know, I’m a nerd), listening to the fourth movement of the symphony, which contains a soprano solo singing this same exact text from Nietzsche. Carl Jung (1875-1961) would call this synchronicity – something of significance that I need to pay attention to, for it gives direction to what matters in my life.

In college, I reaffirmed my faith in Christ because Jesus spoke to the deepest needs of my soul and felt called to live in the depths and to help God’s people risk living in the depths, to live lives of profound meaning and joy, touched by eternity, by God, and I believed the church was the best place to do this. It’s also what Nietzsche was looking to the church to do in the nineteenth century, only in the end to be disappointed by the institution. Nietzsche is perhaps best known for being the atheist who declared “God is dead.” But we need to remember that he was going to be a minister. In the end he turned away because he could not find there a way to access the depths. I don’t think he literally meant God was dead. The church and its god were dead to the presence of God. In his spirit he kept searching the depths, but didn’t look to the church to help.

Everywhere I went on the sabbatical, I was reminded of the call to the depths. Whether it was in the deserts of New Mexico or the Blue Ridge Mountains, going back to Mendham to preach at the funeral for a dear friend who died in early June, or going to Scotland and being surrounded by water, everywhere the deep fathoms of the North Sea or the Atlantic Ocean confronted me, even sailing on the Mediterranean Sea off of Italy reminded me of the depths. I was reminded of this in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, looking for one painting (which I’ll talk about another time) only to discover a different one, by one of my favorite artists George Rouault (1871-1958). The painting spoke to me before I knew who painted it or what it was named. Guess what he called it? “Out of the Depths.”

But, you see, I’m like Simon Peter in this text; and my guess is many of you are too. We are reluctant to do what the Lord tells us. We are reluctant to go where the Lord sends us. And we come up with all kinds of excuses why we can’t or won’t go into the depths. You can almost hear Peter mumbling under his breath, “I can’t believe we’re heading back out there. What does this guy know about fishing, anyway, he’s just a preacher.” “Sure, Jesus, whatever you say, I’ll humor you, if you say so, I’ll let down the nets. What a know-it-all.”

“They caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break.” And they signaled for another boat to collect the catch, and then both started to sink.”

And what did Peter do? He fell down at Jesus’ feet.

And what did he say? “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” “For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch they had taken.”

See what can happen when we listen to the Lord, when we put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch? If we’re honest, we’re all like Simon Peter, who when confronted by the power, abundance, and holiness of God, standing in awe and amazement, recoils and says, “Too much, I can’t handle, I can’t stand it or withstand it,” and he doesn’t (literally), he falls to his knees. It’s too much. It’s all too much. With God it’s always too much, who is The Too Much!

Then he says to the Holy One, “Go away.” Go away. I am a sinner. I am not worthy for such a revelation. I don’t deserve to witness such an event. I’m not good enough to experience this kind of abundance, this kind of generosity, this kind of grace. Do you ever think that? I do. But I think it’s often an excuse, it’s a defense mechanism against living from the amazing claim that God is within us, and available to us. You see, when we go into the depths, eventually we will find God, but I think the knowledge and possibility of the “too much” scares us, which is why we are reluctant to go there, and why it’s easier to live on the surface with a superficial faith or why the church gets sidetracked in stupid debates and arguments, or why we simply tell God, “Go away.” I know it scares me. Maybe because the more we acknowledge what’s within, the greater our responsibility becomes. “Be present in my life, God,” we might pray; but not too much. Show up, God, but don’t show me something that’s going to cause my boat to sink, or what I can’t handle, or that’s going to mess up my world, or my value-system, or my career plan, nothing that would elicit that kind of change. And so we keep the Holy at bay, “domesticating transcendence,” keeping it tame, and we pay the price for it – in our hearts and in the church, and the world suffers because of it.[5]

But what if there’s all this abundance in the depths of your soul? What if there really is “a great sea surging within us”?[6] In ancient times, the Romans rarely sailed in open seas across the Mediterranean. They hugged the shore and went from port to port in order to get to their destination. But Jesus calls us to put out into the deep, face our fears, but don’t let them determine the journey, let down our nets, dare for the sake of discovering what’s truly available to us in God.

I think James Hollis is right when he says there’s one thing that blocks us from going deep and it is fear. And this fear often takes three forms: fear of loneliness, fear of rejection, and, most of all, he says from his years as a psychoanalyst, is the “fear of largeness.”[7] Largeness. That’s what I think scares Peter so much.

What if there’s all this abundance in your soul, largeness, potential, possibility, love, mercy, generosity, joy? What if it’s all there, given by the Source Himself, waiting to be caught and shared? Setting fear aside, what is the Lord asking you do with it? What would we do? We can begin to understand how disciples could leave everything behind and follow, because of the greater abundance their lives would yield when they listen to him and go deep. The same is true for us. It’s all worth the risk.

Photo: Aillwee Caves, County Clare, Ireland. Beyond the Pale at http://www.flickr.com/photos/andy-c/249762701/

[1] Ruach, Hebrew for Spirit, “creates space. It sets in motion. It leads out of narrow places into wide vistas, thus conferring life. To experience the ruach is to experience what is divine not only as a person, and not merely as a force, but also as space – as the space of freedom in which the living being can unfold. That is the experience of the Spirit: ‘Thou has set my feet in a broad place.’ (Psalm 31:8). ‘You also he allured out of distress into a broad place where there is no cramping.’ (Job 36:16). According to Kabbalistic Jewish tradition, one of God’s secret names is MAKOM, the wide space. If God’s Spirit is experienced as this broad, open space for living conferred on created beings, then it is easy to understand the spatial designations which declare that people live ‘in’ God’s spirit, and experience God spatially as ‘breadth.’” Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation (Fortress Press, 1993), 42-43.

[2] Rodger Kamenetz, The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul (HarperOne, 2008).
[3]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559). “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, whole joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves’ [Acts 17:28].” I. I.1.
[4] Cf. quotation from worship bulletin, theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), “Why have [people] always asked for truth? Is it because they have been disappointed with the surfaces, and have known that the truth which does not disappoint dwells below the surfaces in the depth?” From his sermon, “The Depth of Existence” in The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 53.
[5] The phrase “domestication of transcendence” comes from the title of a book by theologian William Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
[6] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin, James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination (College State: Texas A & M University Press, 2000), “As children we listened to the sound of the sea still echoing in the shell we picked up by the shore. That ancestral roar still links us to the great sea which surges within us as well.” (119).
[7] Hollis, 104.

19 August 2008

Took, Blessed, Broke, Gave

Took, Blessed, Broke, Gave

Luke 24: 13-35

Third Sunday of Easter/ 6th April 2008/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

There's something exceedingly profound about this Emmaus encounter, found only here in Luke. Since I was a teenager, this text has always fascinated me; it never fails to yield new layers of meaning and beauty. It's an Easter story and yet it's rarely heard on Easter. We prefer to hear what happened Easter morning. But what happened Easter evening is just as significant, and – dare I say – maybe more so.

On Easter evening two nameless disciples decide they've had enough of Jerusalem and escape to Emmaus. They couldn't get the recent events of the weekend out of their heads, they couldn't shake the shock from stories that Jesus was alive. In their journey of grief, Jesus arrives; he draws up alongside of them and walks with them. Never asserting himself but with the utmost respect for them he asks, "What are you talking about?" They tell him. We had hoped….
We had hoped…. He tries to explain to them the meaning of what they experienced. He starts with Moses and works his way up to the present, interpreting scripture. But this stranger wasn't making any sense.

They arrive in Emmaus, the journey complete for two of them. The third acts as if he has farther to go – he always has farther to go, this Jesus of ours, he's always eager to take us farther, always eager to go on – but they invite him to stay, urge him, for it is late and the day is almost over. So they went into their house, all three.

When it was time to eat, Jesus the guest takes the bread, as if he were the host, offers thanks to God for it, tears it, and then gives it to them. The one who came to serve, serves. And then it happened, in that moment they knew who he was. It's when he took bread and blessed it, broke it and then gave it to him – this entire sequence, this entire four-step experience – that they recognized him. It was as if they'd seen this before, but where? This was more than déjà vu. Where have we seen this before? Here, he graciously demonstrates what he tried to explain earlier in the day on the road, to make clear what they didn't understand, he acts the story of salvation; moving beyond the interpretation of a text, he picks up the bread and shows them.

Jesus vanishes and they run – at night (no one travelled at night), because this couldn't wait until morning – they flew back to Jerusalem and discovered there had been other Jesus sightings all over the place. He appeared to Simon. He was up in Emmaus, they say, and we recognized him in the breaking of the bread. Soon Jesus would stand there among them and say, "Peace be with you." And they jumped with fear as if they saw a ghost – I would have. But there's no reason to fear when God is involved. "Why are you frightened…?" He shows him his wounds and says, "Here, touch and see for yourself." Don't be afraid. And while they were "disbelieving for joy" – I love this, one of my favorite phrases in scripture – and totally perplexed, Jesus says – I love this, too – "Have you anything here to eat?" So real. So honest.

More and more I'm becoming convinced that in this story we are given the keys to the kingdom, deep insight into the inner-workings of the mind of God, a glimpse into some primordial pattern or secret of the ages. Here we find God's style. This is the answer to the riddle of life, the meaning of human existence. Here we can feel the rhythm of the universe; it's what makes the real world – God's world – tick. It's God's way of operating through Jesus and if Jesus is alive within us, it's the way God's people, the church, operate in the world. It's what it really means to be Christian: Took. Blessed. Broke. Gave. That's it. We are called to take or receive the gifts given to us by God (which is everything we have), acknowledge them as gifts not belonging to us. Then we bless them, that is we offer them up to God with thanks, with gratitude. And then we break them – we take a risk with them, we divide up what we have. Why? In order to give it away, in order to share it with others, so that they might take and receive these gifts and bless them, then break them and give them.

It's the pattern of the Lord's Supper and the pattern of the supper at Emmaus, every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper and every meal we share around any table, the pattern preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Took. Blessed. Broke. Gave. This is at the heart of the Christian life, the core of who we are and what we do. This pattern at the table must inform the pattern of our lives away from the table. This pattern is what it means to say, "I believe in Jesus Christ," or that "I love the Lord," or "I want to follow him."

Perhaps the crucial element of this pattern is the breaking, and perhaps the most difficult. We can be happy to receive any and every gift from God and we can be ever thankful for it, living grateful lives. But if it ends there, then that's not the way of Christ. There can be no giving, no true blessing, no sharing, we cannot become truly generous, our lives cannot reflect the crucified Lord without the breaking, without the fraction, without the rending, without the sacrifice, without yielding and finally letting go. It's in the breaking that they knew Jesus, because they saw in him the one who was broken and they witnessed in his breaking the willingness of God to be broken. Being broken paved the way for Jesus to give his life to you and me and the person beside you. We would not be able to receive him, receive the gift of his life within us if it were not for his willingness to be broken. It's the broken one who is Lord and Savior, servant and host of this meal.

In my journey as a Christian and as a minister, I believe all the more that Christ is known in the broken places, perhaps only there. Well, maybe not only there, but especially there. Where are these broken places? You know.

I also believe it's possible for Christians to miss Christ's presence because they resist going to the broken places – either in themselves or in others, or they live safe, predictable, conventional lives, avoiding anything that might be risky or scary. We can live this way and still be Christian, of course; God still loves us. But I wonder if when we do, we also miss out on the joy, the grace, the blessing, the celebration that comes when we risk and then give, when we risk and thereby create new opportunities for people to live and receive the gifts of God?

Presbyterian theologian William Placher reflects what this meal does to us, how it forms us. In an essay entitled "Eating Gracefully," he writes, "As Christians we are called to take risks, to make ourselves vulnerable in love, to share with strangers, to dare to challenge unjust power and take the consequences." We can't help but think of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) in this context, particularly this weekend 40 years after his death. "And we are promised joy and celebration, not as a reward bestowed extrinsically after having paid the price of enough suffering, but rather in that a life of vulnerable love is itself a life of joy."

That's the kind of church I imagine Christ yearns for. That's the church I dream of. It's the church I yearn for. It's possible. Not easy, but possible. Receiving. Blessing. Breaking. Giving. A church not afraid to take risks in his name. A church willing to be challenged and made uncomfortable, even uneasy in order to experience all the more Christ's joy and grace working through us. A church that risks a life of vulnerable love, that risks being broken and entering broken places. I've seen it here in this church and others, especially last Sunday evening in Philadelphia. I was there to attend the Covenant Network Board meeting on Monday at Broad Street Ministries. Our Middle School class had a mission trip there earlier this year which inspired our current clothing drive for local homeless). My friends Erika and Bill are the two directors of this new community that provides food and shelter for the homeless, Bible studies during the week, and worship on Sunday evenings, among other ministries. It was truly a profound and moving experience for me to be there in their worship space. The music was amazing. We sang old hymns, like "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms," as if they were written for today. There were about 160 people, about half were homeless, recovering addicts, mentally ill, people suffering from HIV/AIDS, broken people beaten up by life. The rest were people like you and me, with food on our tables and warm beds. People come from as far away as Princeton to worship there. They have Communion every week, by intinction. I've worshipped in diverse community before, but never worshipped in the midst of that kind of diversity, with the obviously broken and the broken who are successful and adept in hiding theirs. In Erika's invitation to the Table she reminded us, "There's more here than bread and wine." She encouraged us not to take a small piece of bread, but a hefty chunk, then to dip it in wine or juice. The first to the Table eager and with joy were the hungriest and homeless, who were not afraid to tear off a large piece of bread, dip it in the cup, and eat it, savoring it on the way back to their seats. They went to the Table hungry. Do we? I wondered how the bread tastes for them? Christ was there, surely recognized in the breaking of the bread.

So come with your hunger to this table, come with joy. Yes, awe at Christ's broken presence here, but also joy, joy, in receiving the gracious welcome of God. The Lord, Calvin (1509-1564) wrote, has "given us a Table at which to feast, not an altar upon which to offer a victim; he has not consecrated priests to offer sacrifice, but ministers to distribute the sacred banquet." A sacred banquet shared among all God's people, in community – receiving the gifts of God, and blessing God for them, breaking them, dividing them, risking them, yielding them, in order to share them, to give them. When we live this way in all that we do, people will recognize Jesus in us, we will recognize Jesus in each other, we will recognize Jesus working through us.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth E. Kovacs

Catonsville Presbyterian Church

Catonsville, Maryland