A Moment of Silence–But Only a Moment

Short sermon for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) from worship services at the hospital chapels commemorating those lost or hurt in the wildfires in the West, the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, and the shootings at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ and the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.

“Be worried for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you” (Philippians 4:6-9).

A week ago today, members of this community gathered right here in this chapel, gathered around this altar to worship, to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior of the world, to offer thanksgiving and take inspiration. The community gathered here just like similar gatherings around the Lord’s Table in chapels, churches, homes, and store fronts all over the country and all over the world, just as Christian people have done for twenty centuries. Already then, we were in the midst of difficult times. Already then, the praise may have felt a little muted, lasting peace of heart a little harder to come by. Already then, the days and weeks prior to worship had seen the devastation of hurricanes destroying the lives of our countrymen in Texas, in Florida, and in Puerto Rico. Fires wreaked havoc throughout the West, and the news told of the blasphemy and horror of a man walking into worship services at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ in Antioch, Tennessee and opening fire, wounding eight, including the preacher, and killing one. Still, we gathered. Still we joined the angels in their unending hymn of praise, still proclaiming: “Holy, holy, holy! Hosanna in the highest!”

That evening, when the chapels and churches had emptied and shut out the lights, as many of us were sound asleep getting recharged for the week to come, a man in a 32nd floor Las Vegas hotel room rained hellfire down on a crowd of innocent men, women, and children enjoying a concert. Fifty seven lives were lost.

vegas

When Paul urges us to think on true, honest, just, pure, and lovely things, few may come to mind. When Paul directs our attention to “whatsoever things are of good report,” we recoil: Paul had not seen this week’s reports, but they are not good.

With so many large-scale tragedies in our country, it’s possible that right here, right now in this room is someone who was personally impacted by one or more of them. But maybe we weren’t. Still, our hearts break over all the suffering. They break, because we suffer, too. We suffer not only with those harmed by hurricanes, fire, and mass slaughter. We all have our own hurricanes, our own fires that may never make the news. Hurricanes of our own grief, our own illness, our own lonliness. Fires of our own traumas, our own addictions, our own devastated relationships.

Where is this peace which passeth understanding? Where are the good, true, and beautiful things to think on? They are to be found rising forth from the smoldering ashes of our own pierced and broken hearts. We have named Jesus Christ as our Savior. Perhaps you’ve seen the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, images which show his heart wrapped in thorns, bearing the wound of the soldier’s lance, and topped with flame. It is an image which illustrates who this Savior, this Jesus of our Christian story, really is.

sacredheart

As the incarnation of the God who is love, Jesus is self-giving love for others. Jesus is the heart that bleeds with compassion for the suffering of others. Compassionate, self-giving love is the world’s only Savior. Now, perhaps at any moment, the sky may open up, and Jesus may step down from his throne and right all the world’s wrongs. In times like this, many certainly may find themselves wondering why he hasn’t yet. I suppose he may well do that. But then again, he may well not.

It’s not Jesus enthroned at the right hand of the Father that has the most to say to us as we grieve. It’s the Jesus who really is present right here, right now. Present among us. And present as us.

The Apostle Paul assured the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live. I live, yet ’tis not I—Christ liveth in me.” The Christ who truly lives today in this world is you and me. We are the living, moving, breathing Body of Christ. When our hearts break at the suffering of so many people, the true, honest, and pure reality we’re called to think on is that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, that we are all in this life together, and that we are all each other have.

That’s not always easy to see. We’ve done a great job blinding ourselves to how deeply connected we are to one another. We’ve done a great job erecting barriers to keep us separated from one another. Yet from the flames of heartbreak, if we look around us, we see illuminated how false those walls are.

The hurricanes don’t ask whether we’re black or white. They don’t ask whether we’re people of faith or not, whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, HIndu, pagan, or Jewish, or what name graces the signs in front of our churches. The wildfires don’t ask what side of the border we were born on, whether we voted for Clinton or Trump, or whether we’d prefer our football players to stand or take a knee for the national anthem. Bullets don’t ask those questions. Neither does cancer or heart disease or miscarriage or dementia or addiction or grief over a lost loved one or regret over years we feel we wasted.

One and all, we face these demons. What matters is that we work to face them together. When tragedy strikes, we may look around us, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus to make sense of it. But if we want to see Jesus, we have to be Jesus.

You and me. We’re all we have. We are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, and we must answer the call to embrace one another with self-giving love. Around the altar, we will observe a moment of silence for those lost. But only a moment. More importantly, let us commit this day to not a moment but a lifetime, not of silence but of action, to be people who use whatever gifts we have to sow peace around us, whether on the world’s great stage or in the quiet of our homes.

 

 

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The Gospel according to Legos

This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.

Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.

And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.

Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.

Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.

Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.

Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.

Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.

The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.

lego

Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.

Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.

Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.

Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”

This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”

In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.

Old Stuff: Epiphany Version

In honor of today’s Feast of the Epiphany, here’s “Frozen Pizza and Maury Povich,” a sermon I was privileged to preach on Epiphany, 2012 for the good people of Notre Dame Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois. After the service, I hit the road to start my second semester of graduate seminary. A lot has changed since then, but my love and gratitude for the people who supported me back then has not.