Today I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of Church of the Apostles in Oro Valley, AZ. Here is the sermon I shared.
Collect for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (C)
Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Jeremiah 1:4-10 (“Now I have put my words in your mouth”)
Psalm 71:1-6 (“In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge”)
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Luke 4:21-30 (“no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown”)
I love today’s reading from I Corinthians.
Indeed, I am tempted not to preach at all,
but simply to read the lessons over again,
to bask in them with you.
That I will not do,
but I might have to do something a little different,
something slightly unexpected,
because I fear we have all heard this story
and the Gospel story so many times,
we don’t stop to look at it with new eyes.
So, let me come at this from another angle.
I want to share with you a Zen Koan,
a story from Buddhism designed to open you up to an important truth,
something like scripture for Christians.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
The story has something to do with expectations
and with learning.
The professor in the story wants to know about Zen Buddhism
but he is so full of expectations –
historical knowledge, philosophical speculation,
personal prejudices, and hearsay –
that he cannot be open to the teaching Nan-in wants to give him.
The professor cannot drink the new tea,
because he is always trying to poor it into a cup already full.
We all do this.
We all want God to give us answers,
but we usually ask for them with a caveat.
God, tell me how to be happy –
just so long as I can be happy and financially secure.
God, tell me how to escape loneliness –
Just so long as I can escape loneliness and still be self-sufficient.
God, help me share my faith –
just so long as I don’t have to talk to people I don’t know,
or people I do know who might judge me.
I don’t know about you,
but I do this all the time.
I want answers, but I want my kind of answers,
and truthfully, if my kind of answers worked,
I wouldn’t need to turn to God,
now would I?
Today’s Gospel also reminds me of a Far Side Cartoon by Gary Larson.
It shows a classroom full of students,
and one in the middle raises his hand.
He says, “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
We do this all the time,
and sometimes it has to do with too much information,
and sometimes it has to do with being emotionally overwhelmed,
and sometimes it’s just a matter of trying to do too many things at once.
And we can’t take in any more.
Luke is telling us that Jesus’ friends and relatives,
the people he grew up with,
had their tea cups full.
They looked at Jesus and all they could see was Joseph’s son, the carpenter.
They couldn’t imagine, so they couldn’t see,
Emmanuel, God with us.
They were even offended when he tried to add something new
and so they chased him out of town.
As wonderful as it was, it didn’t fit.
Too many other things crowded it out.
How many times have you failed to see Jesus,
simply because your mind was too full?
In Buddhism the prescription is mushin or empty mind.
Meditation leads to a clearing out of the clutter.
In Christianity, we call it selflessness and humility.
We speak of a special kind of prayer called contemplation,
which focuses on adoring and appreciating God,
without asking anything or even praising,
just basking in the glory of God’s goodness.
How many hours of the day do you spend in contemplation?
How many minutes?
Christians also speak of losing ourselves in service to others,
but that’s a trickier route,
because it can be easy to focus on what we want to give,
and fail to listen for God,
who is always there ahead of us.
So I’d encourage you to work in the world,
evangelism and mission are tremendously important,
but don’t forget contemplation a well.
There’s a sermon in itself,
and if I were here with you every week, I might stop there.
But I am not.
And as much as this is an interesting truth about the world,
as much as it is interpretation of scripture,
I haven’t yet gotten to the Good News.
The good news has to do with Jesus Christ in the world.
The good news has to do with grace and peace and joy.
As hard as we try, we have this terrible tendency
to think of love as something else to add to our tea cup.
It happens again and again in our history as a church,
and it has led to tragedy after tragedy,
both personal and common.
We want to make love into an act,
or a belief,
or an ideology,
or, worst of all, into a commodity.
We want to think of love as something with which we fill our cups.
It is not so.
Love is that space within us, which can be filled.
Love is the openness to God in the world.
More than that, love is the process of tea flowing into and out of us.
It is the opposite of security
and the absence of certainty.
It is the willingness to not only see God, but be God in the world,
an openness to allow grace – God’s good gifts –
to flow into us,
and out of us,
to fill us and overflow into the world.
“Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.”
Love is that which makes all these other things possible,
because it does not fill, but empties.
Even faith, that most blessed of gifts,
a true relationship with God,
pales in comparison with the love that makes it possible.
Even hope, that necessary companion in life,
the ability to see the future in the light of grace,
pales in comparison with the love that illuminates it.
When all else passes away, love remains.
And God is love.
This God that we worship,
who came to us in the most unexpected way,
this God revels in emptying itself into creation.
This God flowed into us, that we might flow into the world.
And that God should be that way,
that the world should be this way,
not full of love, but filled with a dynamic loving,
a constant filling up and emptying out,
a giving of self to neighbor,
and giving back to God,
this is glorious, ecstatic, lively – even fun.
I simply haven’t the words.
That is the good news.
That is the wisdom that sounds like foolishness.
You have been given things for the sole and wonderful purpose
of giving them away.
God wishes you to be like God,
not only empty so that you may receive,
but full so that you might give.
It’s why we do not hoard.
It’s why we do not worry.
It’s why we do not complain about the rain
falling on the righteous and the unrighteous,
about good things happening to bad people.
It’s why we pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us.
If you ask me, that is the core of Christianity,
That God gave his only begotten Son;
that Jesus emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness,
that the Spirit fills creation.
There is no challenge in evangelism,
no hardship in charity,
if only we can enter into this reality;
if only we can, in the real sense of the word, be in love.
And so, this week I offer you, curiosity.
I ask you to empty yourself and see things anew.
Come to Jesus as little children.
Contemplate the glory of God.
And then empty yourself,
share what you have.
Give away your possessions – yes really give away your possessions.
Don’t give them up, give them to.
Give them to people that need them.
Give away your dreams – share them with the people around you.
We all suffer from a lack of fairy dust,
and it’s no wonder why.
The world has taught us to lock away our idealism,
where it won’t get us into trouble.
Get into trouble.
For God’s sake, get yourself into a little trouble
for being too open, too curious, too trusting, and too generous.
Worse things could happen.
Give away your knowledge.
People need it.
I guarantee you, everyone in this room knows something
that could benefit someone else.
It starts with the simple act of voting and talking about politics.
Horrible, I know. Uncouth, improper, sometimes antisocial.
But that’s the way democracies work,
people sharing what they know
and what they think,
and making decisions together.
Teach someone how to knit, or fix a car, or crochet, or make the perfect omelet.
You have that within you.
Most of all, I ask you to give away your time.
It’s one of the easiest things to give away,
and yet we are all so reluctant to part with it.
Every person you meet could be Jesus.
In a very real way, every person you meet is Jesus.
Every single human being lives in the image and likeness of God.
Every single person carries that within them.
Take the time to see it.
Empty your cup and stare into the world.
Gaze in wonder.
Stare in astonishment.
Stand gape mouthed and grinning at the world.
Give time to God in contemplation.
Give time to your neighbors in group projects.
Give time to yourself to learn something you really wanted to know.
You can write this down, or just remember,
but I really do expect you to do it.
Think for a moment.
Name one possession you are going to give away this week,
to someone who needs it.
Name one dream you are going to share
with someone who didn’t know about it already.
(Don’t tell Pastor Megan I said this)
Name one way you are going to get in trouble for a good cause.
Introduce yourself to one person you do not know,
and look – really look – for the light of Christ in them.
I think if you do these things more than once,
you will find it difficult to stop.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known.”
The Kingdom of God is at hand.
It lies just around the corner,
just a breath away,
if only we can empty our cups
and allow them to be refilled.
It is a land of perishable goods,
because true goods are good to be shared.
It is a land of insecurity,
and incalculable wealth,
A land where there is neither emptiness nor fullness,
but a love that fails to recognize where one ends
and another begins, but flows freely.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.”