In lieu of a real post, here is last Sunday’s sermon:
Proper 14, Year C
With 25 other bright-eyed, eager folks from across the country, I enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary in the fall of 2007. Armed with a history degree from the University of Texas, I walked into the seminary thinking that I knew everything. In my sneaky sort of way, I had gotten my hands on some reading lists so that I could get a head start on the mounds of books that I knew I was going to read.
Some of these books sound like the books one should read while in seminary – A History of the Episcopal Church, An Introduction to the New Testament, and The Philosophy of Religion. The boring, hum-drum sort of stuff. Now, some of them were a little bit more catchy, like From Jesus to Christianity or God’s War. But as I scanned this list of books, both ancient and modern, I did a double-take at one particular title: The God Delusion. The God Delusion? “What kind of seminary is this?” I thought to myself.
But like a good seminarian, I purchased the book for my theology class…and I read it. And you can still see it on my shelf today. It’s got a flashy cover and its title is in bold, black letters. The whole thing is just screaming skepticism! The author, Richard Dawkins, attempts to break down Christianity. He claims that the Bible cannot be true because it’s too fantastic. He claims that what we do in church is not worth our time. And he claims that even our most fleeting idea of heaven is a delusion, because heaven cannot be measured or observed.
And with Mr. Dawkins, our whole society is screaming skepticism. The God Delusion is not an isolated book, it is accompanied with a host of other titles ranging from God Is Not Great to Everything You Know About God is Wrong. They point at our Bible, especially like today’s gospel passage and claim that it’s too silly to be true. This whole thing about selling your possessions and making purses for yourself in heaven, well, they say, that sounds outlandish. Our skeptic friends think that since we can’t measure or observe heaven, it is futile to think that we can store up our treasures there. Our skeptic friends want us to believe that this whole Jesus thing is simply nonsense, and that we should give it up, and lead our lives based on cold reason and lifeless science. Our skeptic friends think that all of us who participate in the ancient rituals of the church could do a lot of better things with our time.
I cannot answer my skeptic and atheist friends with words. There is no way that I can go to the heavens, measure the holy city of God, and report back to Mr. Dawkins with its heighth, length, and width. But I can do something else. I can tell him a story. I can tell him a story about how outlandishly true Jesus’ words are – that where our treasure is, there will be our hearts also. And I can tell him how the ancient rituals of the church, the sharing of bread and wine, are true in that they encompass everything we do as Christians.
Two weeks ago, I went with five members of our youth group to downtown Houston on a mission trip. Diane, Jericha, Alex, John and Travis jumped right into our work projects. They fed breakfast to the homeless, they made sandwiches for recovering addicts, they handed out clothes to the needy and naked. These five saints of God sacrificed a week of their precious summer vacation to sleep on air mattresses. And they agreed wake up at ungodly hours to immerse themselves into the cycles of poverty, violence, and addiction that plague our nation’s cities. They gave up on the comforts of their own life, and gave themselves wholly to the work of comforting others.
With every sandwich given to an alcoholic, with every cup of orange juice handed out, with every ladle full of grits passed on, I witnessed these five make purses for themselves that do not wear out. They measured and cut the fabric for these purses by smiling to a mentally ill homeless man. They carefully stitched these purses by chopping vegetables and packing cupcakes for addicts.
At those moments, the Bible was more than just true, it was alive. Our skeptic friends would probably say these words about making treasure for ourselves in heaven is unsettling or fantastic. And you know what? I would agree with them. It was unsettling to see Jesus’ words come alive before my very eyes. It was fantastic to see five young saints of God abandoning their own desires in return for the welfare of others. These words of Jesus are so true, they are scary. The scariness of their truth lies in the fact that they encompass and envelop everything we do that is good in this world. If we would only open our eyes to see it, and not worry about measuring it, the truth of God’s word would leap off the page and into our hearts.
And then, as if this wasn’t good enough, the story of Holy Scripture would give meaning to our lives. Not measuring, not what our skeptic friends want, but meaning. When the scriptures live inside of our hearts, they have a way of coloring everything we say and everything we do in this world. The stories of the scriptures and the words of our liturgy are the stitches that hold our heavenly purses together.
John and Travis went about picking up dirty plates and cups, and they were acting as deacons. Alex was welcoming the homeless into that safe place, and she was acting as an usher. When Diane Collins was ladling out grits to the hungry and destitute, I asked her to think “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.” When Jericha Price was handing out orange juice amidst the rank body odor and foul language of the Houston homeless, I encouraged her to think “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”
When we let the scriptures and the liturgy encompass our lives, we no longer ask if they are true. Because, that’s the silly question. When we let the scriptures and the liturgy encompass our lives, we begin to think, breathe, pray with the words that give meaning to a world of confusion, like the world of downtown Houston, or the world of Waco north of the river. Unlike our skeptical society we don’t set out to measure the Bible, or take a barometer reading of the scriptures’ veracity. Instead, we measure our entire lives with the sacred words of scriptures. We look for the greater and truer meaning in these words. When we hear how God created the world in seven days, we shouldn’t ask how long ago that was. Rather, we ought thank God for the beauty of this world and for the splendor of his creation. When we hear the words, “sell your possessions, and give alms,” we shouldn’t ask, “now what pecentage of my income was Jesus talking about?” Rather, it means that every part of our lives has to be dedicated to Christ. When we hear about our purses full of unfailing treasures in heaven, we shouldn’t ask, “how big is heaven, and where is it?” Rather, we say “how do I stitch that purse out of the fabric of my life?”
Christianity is so true, that it’s downright scary. We don’t learn that lesson as bright-eyed seminarians. We don’t learn that lesson by years of studying the scriptures. It’s people like Diane, Jericha, Alex, John, and Travis that teach us that the words of Jesus are true. They teach us that what we do in church is full of meaning beyond our comprehension.
Mr. Dawkins and our skeptical society may never understand this. They will probably go on writing books with flashy titles trying to break down our pillars of faith. Their purses have long ago been eaten away by moths, and stolen by thieves. But our purses are still in the making. It’s time we sit down at the sewing machine called the word of the Lord, measuring, cutting, and sewing together the fabric of our lives into a heavenly purse, filling it with our unfailing treasure of love and charity. If you’re not quite sure how to make those stitches and cut that fabric, there are five saints in this church that have some experience, and whose purses are overflowing with beauty and truth.