God is Life

South Coast Convocation Beach Eucharist
August 17th, 2019

The readings for this service are:
Job 12:7-12
Psalm 98
Philippians 4:4-7
Matthew 19:13-15

       We heard a lot about God’s hands this morning, didn’t we? In the Old Testament, we heard how all life, every living thing, is in God’s hands. In the Psalms, we heard how God’s right hand has worked salvation. And in a little bit, we’ll pray together the Prayers of the People, where we will give thanks that God fashioned us and this beautiful place with his life-giving hand. This all reminds me of a song we used to sing as kids: “He’s got the whole world, in his hands.” Do you know that one? As a kid, I imagined this big set of hands, cupped around, and a bunch of people, or even the Earth itself, just sitting there in God’s open palms.

       Now, hands signify something really important in the Bible and for us Christians; they signify the life-giving presence of God. Think about the Bible, where people are always reaching out and touching Jesus with their hands; and when they do, they’re healed. Or that Jesus, and the disciples with him, lay their hands – physically touch – the sick and the injured, the lonely and the destitute, folks no one wanted to be near, much less touch. Some of these people are suddenly healed, miraculously, though others are shown, rather simply, that they are not alone in their pain, that someone cares for them and loves them. For some, that’s healing enough.

And our practices at church continue this focus on hands. At the passing of the peace, we shake hands or hug one another, all in the name of Christ, welcoming them into our hearts and our lives. Or in the sacraments: In Baptism the pouring of water and the anointing on the forehead with oils, or Reconciliation, where at that most beautiful moment, when we are reminded that we are loved by the God of all things, the priest puts his or her hand on the head. Or in the Eucharist, the simple and vast depths of the Eucharist, where a small wedge of wafer or bread, the very Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, is placed in an outstretched hand. And all this, all these moments, signify something: a presence, a life, a depth within the world that is far beyond ourselves.

       And God, and our church, and our Christian lives extend out beyond the four walls of our worship space, don’t they? I think also of the hands that I have seen in my own life, as well. I think of the hands of my father, who was a woodworker. His hands are like anyone’s hands who works with wood all day: they’re nicked and scratched, they have deep callouses and are scarred, but they’re also deft, able, skillful, and sure. Or I think of my daughter’s hands and my own when we go out to play in the sand. After just a few minutes of building castles and burying each other in the sand, our hands are grubby and dirty, and they most certainly have to be washed before we can eat lunch – but even so, they are full of the life and joy of digging about in the earth. And I think of the hands of Jesus, which I have seen in paintings and statues and in my own heart (and surely you have, too): the hands of Jesus, our God and our Savior, human hands but holy hands as well, as they were lifted to heal and as they were laid on the cross and nailed to its hard wood.

       And all these images – hands in healing, hands full of dirt and grime, hands giving bread, hands bleeding at the palms – these images all point to one thing: not just of some vague presence but the presence of Life and it’s advent into this world. Now, our own hands, our fallen, human hands, can bring other things, too. Sure, we can bring life into the world, we can be God’s hands, but we can also work death, destruction, and pain as well. But God’s hands are different. God’s hands are life. In God’s hands is life, not sitting on the top but deep down inside them, like a bit of salt baked into a cake to enhance all that flavor; or, if you’ve spent some time in the South, you’ll know sweet tea, where the sugar isn’t just added in later but brewed into the tea itself to make it, oh so delicious. And all these are just more small, partial images, because that goodness and hope and life of God’s hands are deep down at God’s core, who he is; because God is Life. God is Love.

       And all this love, all this life, it’s not away on some mountain top. It’s not locked away in secret somewhere so that only smart and adventurous people can find it. It’s not something that only our great spiritual ancestors can find because they were just more special than we are. It’s right here. As St. Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice!” And why? Because the Lord is near to you, or, as in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord is very near to you. This Life, this Hope, this Goodness, and this Love, they are here for us, because God is here among us. Whether we’re under the church roof or out here on the side of the beach, whether you’re in a hospital room or on the other side of the door, waiting in anxiety, God is with you.

       But sometimes, truth be told, it’s hard to remember all this. We live in a troubled world. Each day, it seems, we are met with new tragedies, news that awakens our anxiety or anger or even our hatred. And it seems that we have just two choices: to push it all away and hide from it or else enter into it and risk becoming that pain and anger ourselves. But whether we go out or stick home, whatever we do, we Christians don’t begin there. We don’t begin in pain or anger or despair, but in Life. We begin in Hope, even if (or especially if) there doesn’t seem to be any. We begin in community, in listening to one another, in the seeking out of all people, regardless of who they are and how different their cultures or thoughts or politics are from our own. We begin in Love because God began in Love. God created the world, we believe, not because he was bored and needed something to do, or that God was incomplete and so needs a world; no, we believe that God created the universe, this world, and all the creatures in it, for Love. And that Love is the foundation of all things, from the grains of sand out there on the beach to the planets and stars out there in their courses.

       And we, too. We have been created anew by that Love. It is a Love that we have long yearned for, long hoped for, and that Love found us and is bringing us home. And our work now, we pilgrims on a journey to our true Home, is to shower the world with that Love. To open our hearts when it’s easy and when it’s tough, to listen to those we agree with and those we think are fools, to seek God in all people, no matter who they are. For Love was at the beginning, Love is now, and Love forever shall be the beating heart of Creation and the center of all our lives.

 

God’s Abundant Love

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 12
July 28th, 2019

The readings for this week are:
Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Click here to access these readings.

I’ve never really been a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, but there’s one scene from Oliver Twist that I know decently well. You might call the scene, “I want some more.” In this scene, we find Oliver, a young boy who was orphaned as a younger boy, in a workhouse. He and his fellows are treated poorly and barely fed – just three bowls of oatmeal a day. The boys know they have to do something, and so they draw straws, and thus elect Oliver, to ask the master for more food. The film versions of this scene are what I know, and in them, this small, innocent-looking boy, dressed in rags, walks up to the master, who’s usually large, well-fed, and wearing fine clothes. And Oliver asks, very simply, “Please sir, I want some more” and offers his empty bowl. And the master’s response is, “WHAT!? MORE!?” and Oliver is punished. That idea that these workhouse boys should get more food, and the very audacity of even asking for more, is simply beyond belief for these people. The word “more” just doesn’t seem to be in their vocabulary; that is, at least for anyone but themselves.

Sometimes I wonder if this scene is a bit similar to how we approach God with our own intercessions. Sometimes, I think we have an image of God – an unconscious image, but still an image – that God’s this old man with too much to do and who’s certainly too busy to answer any of our small requests. God is the ruler of Heaven and Earth, after all, and he’s got too much work to bother about us small and insignificant people down in the dust. I know that, when I really need something, my prayers fall almost into begging. “You know God, I’m sorry, I know this is selfish, I know it’s a lot, and I’m sorry that I’m not thinking too much of other people right now, but, look, I’m sorry, but would you be so kind as to just maybe, for a little bit, maybe even just a few minutes so I can catch a breath, be with me, you know, just for a little?” Have you ever prayed one of those prayers before?

Well, Abraham, in our Old Testament reading this morning, he prays differently. Here’s Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Old Testament (and in our day as well) that are bywords for corruption and evil. And God is going to check up on them, to see whether or not they’re really guilty of what is said of them. And when Abraham hears this, that God’s going to look into all these rumors of sin, he’s worried. He’s worried that this will set God off, that God will see all that sin and evil and will destroy the cities right out. And so what does he do? He prays. He prays, “Please God, are you going to destroy the good along with the bad? Surely there are at least fifty people in the whole city who are good folks. So if you find even fifty people in all the bad, don’t destroy them all, okay?” And God says, “Okay, sure.”

Now, this is a good prayer, but Abraham goes further: “What about forty-five? What if you find forty-five good folks down there? Will you destroy the whole city?” And God says, “No, I won’t.” And Abraham goes further: “What about forty? Or thirty? Or twenty? And – oh, don’t be angry with me God, please don’t be angry with me, who is dust and ashes – but what about ten?” And God says, “Sure, for the sake of ten, if I can find ten people who are good, I won’t destroy it.”

Now, in the end, God’s not able to find many more but a single family that is good, and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are in fact destroyed; but look at Abraham’s prayer. His prayer is this: more God, please, more. He brings his empty bowl before a master that is stronger and mightier than he is, who he knows through experience to be stronger and mightier than he is, and who maybe is angrier and more resentful and quicker to use that might and that strength, and yet even so, he lifts that empty bowl towards that God and he asks, “Please God, I want some more.” And God doesn’t say, as the master says to Oliver Twist, “WHAT!? MORE?!” God says, “Yes!” And to Abraham’s eyes, this must have seemed a miracle.

And, in a way, it is a miracle. God is a God of abundance, and such abundance is not often found in this world. God’s love isn’t like a zero-sum game, so that he’s only got just so much love to dole out to his children. God’s love isn’t like a pizza pie, so that if Sally over there takes two slices, then the rest of us won’t have enough to go around. God’s love is endless. God’s love is powerful and deep and fathomless and, well, endless. God’s love doesn’t stop. So when we pray, God, please love me more, give me more love, send out your Holy Spirit, God will meet us there. God will be with us. We might need to be led through some trouble before we can see that love, or experience it, or be healed by it, but that love is present, that love is full, and God is at the ready to give it to us.

And all this is true, but we have to pause and step back for a moment. Sometimes prayers aren’t answered. Sometimes we pray, as Jesus prayed in the garden, that a certain cup may be taken away from us. Sometimes our beloved dies. Sometimes our illness isn’t miraculously healed. Sometimes people don’t make it home. We live in a world where death will come, eventually, for all of us, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us. God is still present with us in the grief. God is still here, right now, in all of our troubles and in all of our sins and in all of our worry and anxiety – God’s here, with love in his hands, hands stretched out for us to take into ourselves. And that’s because that what God brings to us, that love that God brings, is more powerful than death, deeper than sin, and the miracles of miracles because it is pure and joyful Life.

So, yes, we have to pray knowing that our prayers may not be answered. And yes, we must pray knowing that all our desires are not good desires. But, even so, we are called on to pray, and to pray fervently, for all life and love and goodness, and for that life and love and goodness to be poured out onto the world in its fullness. Don’t be scared to go to your Father in Heaven and pray with a full and open heart that he opens his beating heart of love to you and to the world more fully. Because our God isn’t like the master in Oliver’s workhouse. Our God is like the grandparent who buys the grandchild another ice cream cone even though the parent said, “No, you’ve had enough.” Our God is like the ground, which, when you put a seed in it and give it some water, grows whole gardens and forests of life. Our God is like the apple tree behind our house here in Coquille, that has so many apples on it that they weigh the branches down to the ground. Our God is like a feast for Hobbits that can eat all day and even then still be hungry. Our God is like our dogs and cats and other pets, who keep on loving us and loving us and loving us no matter how tired or exhausted or worried we are. Our God is like all this and more, because God is a God of abundance, and that abundance is of Love and Life and things like Love and Life never, ever end.

So pray. Pray with a full and open heart. Sing out your praise, weep your worries, let your hopes and dreams be carried out into the world by the Holy Spirit. But whatever you do, pray it and pray it without fear. For in God is all life and all love. And in God all of our prayers may find their true home.

Jesus is the Center

The Sixth Sunday of Pentecost
Proper 11
July 21, 2019

The readings for today are:
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

Click here to access these readings.

We have before us here this morning a really magnificent reading from Paul’s letters.  I mean, each week we have something magnificent to read here on Sunday morning, as the week begins anew, but today we’ve got something particularly nice.  It’s like that nice, big, shiny apple out of a bushel of really good, juicy ones, or a sandwich that doesn’t taste any different from other sandwiches, but because you’ve used some tomatoes fresh from your garden, and the bread is just out of the oven, and you’re eating it with a good friend, somehow the sandwich just tastes so much better.  Here is one of those good passages from the Bible, and it’s good because it tells us so much about Jesus.

            Now, we often say that we are healed in Jesus Christ.  All the pain we experience, all the hurt or the worry or the despair, all of it is healed in Jesus.  The Bible tells us that we are made whole in him, made fully alive and fully human, when we live in Jesus.  In Jesus we are made who we were meant to be, who God created us to be.  And all this healing happens, all this fullness and wholeness, because of who Jesus Christ is.  Now, Jesus doesn’t heal us as a doctor might.  Doctors work on our bodies – the physical stuff that makes us who we are.  A doctor might give us medicine, operate on us, or tell us to exercise a bit more or eat more fruits and veggies.  And this is good and important to living a healthy life in this body while it lasts.

            Jesus, however, heals us differently than all this.  Jesus is the life at the heart of our lives.  He is the life that helps us heal emotionally and spiritually, the life that helps us forgive those who wronged us, that helps move us from a life of despair to a life of fullness and goodness, even if it’s still tough.  Jesus is that life that brings us away from sin and hatred and into a life where we can see the light of God all around us: in the ground, in the sunshine, in those around us, especially those who we don’t know, and, perhaps most of all, in ourselves. 

And Jesus can do this, Jesus can heal us and make us whole, because of who he is: the firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God, the one who holds all things together. Now, this can all seem like theological and mythological language.  It’s all really easy to say, but what does it mean that Jesus is the firstborn of all Creation?  Or that he is the foundation of all reality?  I mean, we all know what a foundation is.  For the past we months we’ve seen that new addition to the First Community Bank go up.  And the first thing they did was dig into the ground and set a firm, flat bed of concrete down.  Then they built up more concrete to create the foundation.  And this foundation is, of course, so very important, and not just so that the building doesn’t sink into the soft mud, but because it dictates all the other pillars and supports of the rest of the building.  If your foundation’s off, your building won’t be straight.  Is Jesus like that?  A sort of foundation to the whole world so that, when we build and live our lives, we won’t get stuck in the mud and our walls won’t fall down?

This is an example, of course, of getting too deep into a metaphor.  I mean, this metaphor of the foundation of a building, it’s a good one, but it’s not enough.  Jesus as the foundation, Jesus as the cornerstone, Jesus as the blueprint – all these metaphors can help us understand how Jesus Christ acts in the world and in our lives, but at the end of the day they’re not enough?  And they’re not enough because Jesus isn’t just some blueprint that you look at everyone once in a while and is important to have.  Jesus isn’t just a rock that gives you a sure foundation.  And Jesus certainly isn’t a set of rules that, if you follow them, you’ll have a happy and comfortable life.  Because Jesus is a person: a full, living person.  So Jesus isn’t just the rules of, say, baseball.  He’s the coach who knows the rules backwards and forwards, who sits with you and teaches you how to play from the time when you’re just old enough to pick up a bat.  He’s the one who watches you and, with a firm and discerning eye, can give you advice on perfecting your swing or change how you’re throwing the ball so that you don’t thrown your arm out.  He’s the coach who, when you win a game, takes the whole team out for pizza; and when you lose, knows why you did and will work with you to improve.  Jesus is the coach who loves baseball so much that he seems like the game itself, that coach you want to impress not because you want to look good but because if you impress him you know that you’re really living the game, because he loves it so much, too.

And this, of course, is just another metaphor for Jesus.  It’s not perfect, but it helps.  It helps us understand what this strange, beautiful, hopeful, founding and grounding presence is in our lives.  Metaphors like these help us to understand that person we encounter in our prayers, that makes our prayers more than just a bunch of requests but a relationship, a communion, with something beyond ourselves.  Metaphors like these help us to understand the fact that helping others, especially those who look and live a lot differently than we do, that helping them is a good in and of itself, regardless of whether we get anything back or not.  And metaphors help make sense of what’s going on in the Sacraments, why we feel the true, reconciling hand of God in the Sacrament of Confession; why a bit of oil on the forehead on Thursday afternoons here at St. James can bring us into the presence of the Almighty God; and why partaking with the whole Church, across time and space, partaking with them in the Eucharist, where we are given the gift of that same Life of Jesus Christ in a little bit of bread and a tiny sip of wine, how all that can continue us on the path to wholeness and oneness with God our Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth. 

Because these things we say about Jesus: we’re not just playing around.  When we stand up to say the Creeds, we know that they are speaking to a truth that is deeper and more profound than any of us.  When we live a life with the Sacraments and the Bible and the Church, we find that at their center, at the center of all we do, is the beating heart of all Creation.  When we look to where all the metaphors are pointing, where all our Christian lives are directing us, where all of Church history is singing and preaching and proclaiming about, we find: Jesus Christ.  In him all things are alive, because he himself is alive.  At the end of the day, all metaphors fail me, because it is not in metaphors that we believe, but in our God, living and true, who breathes upon us Life whenever we turn to him.

 

The Kingdom of God has Drawn Near

The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Proper 9
July 7th, 2019

This Sunday’s Readings are:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Click here to access these readings.

            Last week I spoke a bit about “mission.”  We read a section of Luke’s gospel, as we’ve been doing all year since the start of Advent, and we heard a few stories that Jesus told about going out into the world and doing God’s will.  And, last week, we talked about how doing mission isn’t just about going to the four corners of the world or to the most dangerous parts of a country, but it’s also about seeing the person in front of you, whoever it is, and bringing to them the hope of God.  No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks backwards is fit for the Kingdom of God.  Or, in other words, look in front of you.  Minister to the people in your life, whether they’re out on your doorstep or a thousand miles away in Tanzania.  And, whatever you do, be present with the person who you are with.  Be present with the Life of God in the life of others and the world.

            And now, in our gospel reading this week, we see a bit of what Jesus thinks that will look like.  For here he is the sending out of the seventy, who will go into every town and every place that Jesus was thinking of going to as well.  And, in a way, Jesus is teaching these seventy how to say hello and how to say goodbye.  It reminds me of how we teach children to say thank you.  Kids don’t know how to be polite, so we kinda have to prompt them, right?  When someone gives Gwendolyn something, whether it’s a gift on her birthday or her dinner when we go out to eat, often she’s so consumed with the joy of the gift or a plate of yummy food that Helene and I have to say, “Gwendolyn, what do you say?”  And she looks up at the person and says “thank you”, then goes back to the gift.  Jesus is doing some of the same stuff.  When you enter a house, he says, make sure to say, “Peace to this house!”  You seventy might be so ready to do the fine work of the Lord among these folks, you might be all excited and rearing to go, but don’t forget to say hi first. 

            Now, Jesus doesn’t say this just because he wants the seventy to be polite, but because the way a person says hello and goodbye matters.  I don’t want Gwendolyn to say please and thank you because they’re just empty gestures that make social interactions more smooth.  I want my children to say please and thank you because I want them to be gracious and thankful adults when they grow up.  You know, in the U.S., when we meet someone, we often say, “how are you doing?”, but there are those people who, when they say it, they actually mean it.  Not that they’re pushy or nosey and want to get into your business, but that when these people say, “how are you?”, they actually care about your response?  These folks can be tough for introverts who just want to stay below the radar, but even so, when you meet someone who actually cares about how you’ve been, it changes the conversation.  At least for me, it changes my day.  The world is a bit less drab and work-a-day.  It’s full of people who care.  That’s one of the real reasons to be polite.

            Now, when Jesus sends out the seventy, he’s kinda saying that you have to be like this person who really asks, “how are you?”  For, when you go into a town, and they’re all happy to see you and give you food (which is good, ‘cause you’ve got no money), and they sit and listen to you, make sure to say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  But when they don’t welcome you, when they kick you out of town with a dirty look, man, then you can look back and wipe off the dust of that town that clings to your feet, you know what you get to say then?  “The kingdom of God has come near.”  Nope!  You don’t get to return those dirty looks, or come up with some pithy remark that’s gonna sting just right. You wipe off the dust and say just the same thing as you said to everyone else: the kingdom of God has come near.

            Because you know what you’re doing out there?  You know what we’re doing out there in the world?  We’re not out in the world to join in the fight.  We’re not out there to get angry or choose sides or help draw battle lines.  We’re out in the world as Christians to preach the hope and the peace and the Salvation of the Lord Jesus Christ.  We’re out there to tell people about the goodness of the Lord, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has drawn near to us, that he, not some empire or program or group, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the Salvation of the world.  And we need to see the person in front of us and speak that love and that hope into the fabric of their lives.  And sometimes that means just saying “how are you” like we mean it, though at other times it means that we should love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, help the sick, the poor, the lonely, the destitute, anyone who is right in front of us and who needs our love and hope and joy.  But in the end, all that is quite a bit like saying “how are you” like you mean it.

            Now, living the Good News of Jesus Christ can certainly get us into trouble.  There are people out there who think that just in being Christian that we’ve chosen a side, or just because we serve at our local food bank and keep our doors open so that anyone can come inside for a warm meal or just some coffee, that we’re in the thick of the battle.  And hopefully we’re not.  We’re followers of Jesus Christ, and through our study of his life and his teachings and the further teachings of the Church throughout the ages, we’ve come to understand that our duty as Christians is to do things like volunteer at our food bank.  And this study and experience and prayer has led some of us to different groups or parties.  And, with an election coming up, it’s important to remember that our Christian vocation has led some of us to be Republicans and some of us to be Democrats (and some of us to try to weasel out some space in the middle), but, if we are true to our faith in Jesus Christ, we are doing so because we are founded on God, not on a single party or side.  Our Christian vocation, our life in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, is what should dictate our actions, always and everywhere.

            The work of the seventy was to go out and proclaim the kingdom of God.  And when they did, what happened?  They found that they had a power that they had never imagined.  And what happens when we, we Christians living in the 21st century, go out and do the same?  What happens when we go out and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed?  What happens if, instead of getting lost in some vague and vain debate, we simply love the life of Jesus Christ in others and try our best to nurture it within them?  Well, to be quite honest, we’ll probably get hurt.  We all learned back in elementary school that doing good doesn’t always turn out good for us in the end.  But at the end of the day, it’s not about us.  Doing the right thing, loving our enemies, and listening to and caring for the person in front of us, none of that is really about us.  But they’re the right things to do.  Because it isn’t through bickering, hatred, or divisions that the kingdom of God will draw near, but through love, and respect, and an open, praying heart.  For it is through Jesus Christ alone, and no other, Jesus Christ who went to the cross so that we humans could be reconciled to God, it is through such love that we humans, and our world, may be saved.        

 

Keep Your Eyes Forward

Pentecost 3
June 30, 2019

Today’s readings are:

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Click here to access these readings.

        When I was a kid, I played a lot of baseball.  It’s something that you just did if you grew up in the shadow of New York City like I did.  Yankee Stadium, where the legends of baseball used to play, was just a short trip into the City.  And the Mets were just across town.  The Red Socks were up in Boston and the Phillies and the Oriels were just a little further.  Down in the South and up here in the Northwest it’s all about football, but in New Jersey, it was baseball.

        Now, I played baseball from T-ball up until middle school, either on a team or with the neighborhood kids.  But at whatever level, whether I was trying to smack a home-run or catch a pop fly, there was always one bit of advice I always got: keep your eye on the ball.  Maybe other kids got this quicker than I did, but, for me, when I played, I was always wondering about what was going on around me.  I was looking at the people on base, or I was worried about whether I’d hit the ball or strike out.  But my dad and my coaches always told me: keep your eye on the ball.  Whether you’re batting or playing in the field, the first step is to keep your eye on the ball.  Sure, doing so won’t guarantee that you’ll hit the thing or catch it, but it’s that first step.  Look forward, focus, and keep your eye on the ball.

        Now, Jesus tells his disciples something very similar in our gospel reading today.  No, Jesus isn’t planning to make a baseball team out of the disciples so he can take on the Samaritans in an ancient World Series.  Jesus is trying to teach his disciples how to follow him, how they should hear his call to them, and how they should join him.  Luke records a few things Jesus said to the disciples and, perhaps, to some people who were called and who chose not to follow him.  And one of these sayings is a lot like “keep your eye on the ball.”  It’s this: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

        Now, this is one of those “gulp” passages.  This is one of those passages (and there are quite a few in the Bible) when we come face to face with what it means to love God, and what God means when he says that he loves us.  Often, I think, we take this passage to mean: don’t doubt.  Don’t you ever doubt, even for a second.  In God, our life is changed, from the inside out and from the outside in.  In God our life takes on new meaning and new hope as we grow to be sons and daughters in the image of Jesus Christ.  We become who we were truly meant to be.  But if we look back, if we look back to our old lives and our old sins and, even for a moment, relapse, then that’s it, we’re through, we’re not fit for the Kingdom of God.

        No, no, I don’t think that’s what this means.  Even though we are alive in Jesus Christ, we still sin.  We’re not perfect, even if we were baptized, even if we take the Eucharist each and every day.  That’s why, in our Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, one of the promises is that “Whenever we sin” (not if we sin but whenever we sin) whenever we sin, we will return to Christ.”  Being a Christian doesn’t mean that, from now on, we’ll lead a perfect and blameless life; being a Christian means that we will orient our entire lives to God.  We could be a long way off from a perfect life, but that orientation, that turning, again and again, towards God – that’s what’s important. 

        No, what I mean when I say that this passage – that no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God – when I say that this is a “gulp” moment, I mean that in it we come to understand the depth of what it means for God to love us, and what it means for us to promise to love God.  Now, I don’t know much about farming, but I know this much: when you’re working a plow, when you’ve got that plow deep in the soil, look in front of you.  Or, for those of us without experience in farming, think of when you learned to drive a car.  When you’re driving, look at the road in front of you.  Check a mirror here or there, make sure you’re not speeding, but, on the whole, look forward.  When a kid trips, what does the parent always say?  “Look where you’re going.”  So, in other words, when you’re following Jesus, look at what’s in front of you. 

        Now, this can mean two things.  First of all, when you follow anyone, what should you be looking at?  The person you’re following.  Look to Jesus Christ and to God his Father. Look to the life and the love of the world around you; look to the light and the fullness and the grace that you have been given.  At times of joy, remember that all goodness comes from God, not from we ourselves but God living in us.  At times of sorrow, look to those moments of help and community that is the Spirit breathed into the ones around us.  At times of anger, look to God to how to handle that anger and discern, with God, if it is a righteous anger and needs to be spoken, or if you just need to go blow off some steam.  At times of difficult decision, look to God and his Church for guidance and wisdom.  In your work, praise God; in your play, praise God; in all things: praise God.

        And the other thing is this: as we follow Jesus, as we continue the work of Jesus in the world, look at those who are right in front of us.  Often, churches can get bogged down with a sort of “do do do” attitude towards ministry.  When someone says “ministry”, it can often seem that all we mean are those large and official ministries like soup kitchens and missions to other countries and huge building projects.  And these are all great and important ministries that are the responsibility of the Church, but there are others as well.  We all have a call to ministry to those individual folks in our lives, from the members of our families to the clerk at the supermarket.  And that ministry might not be rescuing them from despair (though it certainly might be), but, oftentimes, giving them the good, honest hope of Life in their lives.  We don’t have to be saccharine about it, or be happy and exuberant and energetic all the time.  That would tire out even the most type A extrovert there is.  But we should live our lives, in whatever way God has given us to live, we should live our lives as people who have been given a great hope and a great life. 

Because what we have before us, what is in front of us, every moment and every day, is a flame of Life unquenchable and eternal.  Down at the core of our souls, beyond all hurt and pain, beyond even all our joy, is the beating heart of Christ, which is goodness pure and simple like a drink of cool water on a hot day.  The reality of all things is a turning to God in love.  So when you put your hand to your plow, be that in working at the food bank or serving on diocesan committees or just simply going about your common business on a cool summer’s day: look in front of you, keep your eye on Christ, and give to the world that Life that you yourself have been given.  For in such life is eternity.