Archives for July 2018
God’s abundance is enough for all; how will we live as if we truly believed that?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 17 B
Texts: John 6:1-15 (16-21 saved for next week); Ephesians 3:14-21; 2 Samuel 11:1-15
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I gave away well over half of my clothes last week. I didn’t plan to.
I meant to go through my closet and drawers and give the things I never wear anymore to Central Lutheran Church’s Free Store. I cling far too hopefully to clothes I used to fit into, far too sentimentally to clothes I think I might wear again. But after 35 years of adulthood, I finally took the time to thin out. I couldn’t believe how much it ended up being. Shirts, jeans, socks, belts, shoes, dress clothes. 205 pieces of clothing.
I don’t tell you this as a point of pride, or for your praise. You would do better to wonder what it is about your pastor that makes him stubbornly refuse to act for over four decades of John the Baptist’s urging every Advent, and give one of his two coats to someone who has none. Or why when so many have nearly nothing, your pastor accumulated more than twice the clothes he needed, but didn’t wear them for years.
A simple reason is that I could.
Mary and I had lean years, especially when the children were young, but we were blessed that we always could provide for the family. As we both grew older, both with steady incomes, more and more I didn’t have to decide not to buy that pair of jeans (even though I had some already) or that shirt. Over time, bit by bit, I accumulated.
But there is also something in me that doesn’t want to let go of things. A subtle fear that one day I might need it, or regret not having it. In this land of great abundance, I act as if have a deep-rooted fear of scarcity. What if one day I don’t have what I want?
This story of abundant food shared with thousands, revealing Jesus as God-with-us, says there’s a different way to be. I could live in this abundant world as if there is nothing to fear, no need to hoard. I could become someone who doesn’t wait forty years to find the freedom and lightness of not clinging to things that others could find life in.
Today Paul says God, by the power at work within each of us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
This story of thousands fed by a meager lunch proclaims God provides more than enough resources here to feed and clothe everyone. Our weak imagination matches the disciples’. We see only limits to what we can do, with the resources available, to feed everyone, let everyone live a full and abundant life. But God-with-us takes what looks like nothing and feeds everyone. “As much as they wanted,” John says.
This story of thousands fed proclaims God also provides abundant community. These thousands came from all social strata, but now they are at table together, sharing a meal. We limit who is in our family, whom we will eat with. But God-with-us makes a table big enough for all to gather, and share, and know each other as blessed and loved. No one is alone.
This story of an exhausted Jesus feeding thousands also proclaims that God has abundant love, abundant grace, abundant God for all. This act of self-giving love foreshadows the love for the universe that will be revealed on the cross. We limit God’s love and grace, sometimes for ourselves, many times for others. But God-with-us sees no limits, not even the limit of death, and pours out love for the whole creation.
If this is true, why do I cling so tightly to things, and to my social circle, and even to God’s love?
I can’t speak to whether all this is true for you, but it is for me. This is a trap of privilege. Living a privileged life means I can hear of God’s abundance shown in a massive feast and spiritualize it, keep hoarding my possessions, give away a little to feel good. I can limit who’s in my community, and not face that people suffer because of me. I can imagine God only loves those I love, or who see God as I do. And my culture would call me respectable in all this.
Privilege means you can have all you want, and not have to worry about what cost that brings to another person. This terrible story of King David’s rape of a neighbor woman and murder of her husband begins with his abuse of royal privilege. Next week we’ll hear God speak through Nathan and say to the king, “I gave you everything, I made you king. If that had been too little, I would have given you more. But you still destroyed these people’s lives for your own greed.”
Jesus came that all might have life, and have it abundantly.
But Jesus doesn’t promise believers will become rich people, isolated people. Jesus promises walking his way leads to a life that is actually rich, not in possessions and self-centeredness, but in a life that’s truly full and joyful.
In our abundant land, with many of us having more than enough to eat, 40 percent of America’s food gets thrown away. And millions starve in our own country. Jesus’ way is that everyone has as much as they want to eat, and then he has the disciples gather the leftovers, so nothing is wasted. Which is a world you’d rather live in?
In our privileged lives we can pick our friends and acquaintances, and ignore, if we choose, anyone we we don’t want to deal with, anyone we don’t like, anyone who doesn’t share our faith. And millions are lonely, millions suffer under the eyes of those doing well, and religious hatred is destroying our world. Jesus’ way is that every one of God’s creatures are in this together, all belong, all are fed, all thrive, all are loved by God. Which is a world you’d rather live in?
Our new loan program here follows Jesus’ way. When you have more than enough, you don’t build a wall, we’re saying with Longer Table Lending. You build a longer table.
Because that’s where abundance is found. In the freedom and lightness of sharing – your possessions, life, and even God’s love – with all your neighbors. It’s more than just finding abundant food and resources. It’s finding abundant numbers of your community. It’s finding an abundant scope to God’s love.
This story of God’s abundance poured out on thousands is a great challenge to me. Maybe to you, too.
I could leave here today and do nothing. See what Jesus did and what it means, and fall back into my old habits. As if I deserve it.
If you’re like me, so could you. Today’s sermon could be like any other you heard and then did nothing. God’s rich abundance of resources, community, and love, intended for all could be something you delight in but that doesn’t change anything about you.
I know myself well: if I’d been in the crowd that day, hungry, and heard they were giving out food, for much of my life my first thought would’ve been “I’ll bet that basket doesn’t get all the way over here.” I’d worry about getting my share. The fact that I have every reason to be thankful to God every minute of my life for my blessings makes that reaction obscene. But the grace of the Spirit’s working in me over these years means I’m learning to let go of these old ways and find abundant life in Jesus’ way.
So it comes to this: God is able to accomplish for you and for this world abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine. I could walk away and do nothing about how my life reflects that. So could you.
The question is, will you?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
There is no such thing as a secret gospel, because the good news dies when we keep it to ourselves. Mary Magdalene has given us the good news of Christ’s resurrection; how will we add to her story?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
Text: John 20:1-2, 11-18
For a brief moment, Mary Magdalene was the entirety of the church. She alone had met the resurrected Jesus. She alone knew that the jaws of hells had been broken open, and death had been defeated forever. For that moment, she was special, irreplaceable. All of God’s plans for the human race were contained in her.
The second that she announced her good news, she lost that uniqueness. She gave the gospel to others so that they could share it, and share it they did. From her first proclamation, the church grew and spread until God’s word took root in every nation on Earth. Every sermon that has ever been preached begins with Mary saying, “He is risen.” But the church has not always rewarded Mary for her willingness to share the good news. Today, we honor her as an apostle, a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry, and a witness of the resurrection, but for centuries, we misread the Bible and called her a sinner and a prostitute. We pushed her to the margins of Jesus’ circle, instead of recognizing her place near the center. For too long, we took her message while dishonoring the messenger.
And so there’s a part of me that wants to linger with Mary in this moment when she, and only she, carried the gospel. I want to stay here, just outside the tomb, and bear witness to her shining faith and love. I want to hold tight to this time when all of history was waiting for her words – before the church took her words and left her behind. Here in the garden, she is safe from suspicion, safe from slander.
But the first thing that Jesus tells her is, “Do not hold on to me.” He says: don’t cling to me, because you can’t stay here. I have chosen to show myself to you, but you can’t keep me to yourself. Your job is to go out and tell everyone what you have seen. She will always have this moment with Jesus in the garden, but it cannot last. She needs to go out and ready the other disciples for Jesus’ return – because the gospel dies when we keep it to ourselves. It is like a plant: while it lives, it must grow. So of course she doesn’t consider keeping the good news to herself. Of course she doesn’t want to be the sole bearer of the knowledge that death is not the end. She doesn’t worry about credit or attribution or her place among the apostles – all that matters is that Christ has conquered the grave. Her joy carries her back to the upper room where she can proclaim, “He is risen!,” This news cannot be contained, no matter what the cost of sharing it might be.
There were some ancient Christians who recognized Jesus’ closeness to Mary and wrote Gnostic texts imagining that he gave her special, secret teachings. They called her a prophet and a mystic who knew things that the other disciples did not. And yes, it is exciting to think that some people in the early church lifted up the insight of a woman above the knowledge of the Twelve – but the idea of a secret gospel is missing the point. Nothing about God is secret or exclusive. There are no hidden revelations, no teachings reserved for the chosen few. A private gospel is a dead gospel. Everything that God has done for us is ours to share. We do not receive the gospel to hold on to it but to let it flow out from us in our relationships and our words and our work. Each and every one of us are how God’s kingdom grows. We just need to be willing to witness to God’s love, and not try to keep that love to ourselves.
So what is the thing that God has shown you that you can share? What is the good news that is waiting to break out of you and spread through the world? Where have you seen God in your life, and how can you invite others to see the light and love that you are seeing? What gospel needs to be brought to life through you?
As I prepare to leave this place in two short weeks, I have been thinking about where I have met God in this place, and how I will carry that good news with me. Because I promise, I will take your witness with me as I move on. So I want to tell you a few of things that I want to go out and proclaim about how God is at work here.
I have seen God in your deep and joyful faith in the resurrection. Funerals in this place are a celebration of God’s saving love like nothing I have ever seen before. When a loved one dies, we gather together to mourn, yes, but far more than that, we gather to remind ourselves of God’s unshakeable faithfulness, and to look forward to that time when we ourselves are united with God’s everlasting glory. And this is a witness that we most certainly do not keep to ourselves. We consider it a privilege to host the funerals of non-members, and our people show up both in the chancel and in the pews – even if the deceased is a total stranger – so that we can bear witness to God’s salvation and to hold those who mourn in love. That is how much we care about the resurrection, and it has been a blessing for me to experience that confidence.
I have seen God in your commitment to our environment. Although I was not here for the conversations at the beginning of the building renovation, I know that you faced a difficult decision around what sacrifices we should make to care for our planet. But sacrifice you did, and now this building is cooled by the soil and the sun, instead of by harmful fossil fuels. If we are going to find a way to keep living on this planet, we’re going to need to make many more such sacrifices. People are going to need to come together and make hard, costly decisions for the sake of our future. But here, you have shown that such action is possible. And more than that, you acted not out of fear but out of faith. No matter how scary our climate situation might seem, your actions proclaim that God is still walking with us, and God will show us the way forward. That is a witness that the world needs to hear.
And I have seen God in the love you have for each other. You have been nothing but warm and wonderful to me as a sojourner in your midst, and I know that you strive to show that same grace to one another. When my family visited on Thanksgiving, my sister was struck by how many people hung around the nave after worship, simply enjoying one another’s company. Afterwards, she told me: “I liked how people cared about each other. That’s what a church should be.” Jesus says: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” She saw that here, and so have I – time and time again. Your life together, the ways you love and serve each other, testifies to how the love of Christ has the power to heal the world.
I will go out and tell of these things, and many more besides. The good news of how God is bringing life to this place cannot be contained. That’s how we honor Mary’s witness – not by simply watching and praising her, but by joining her in her work. She has given us the gospel: Christ is risen! That Gospel is living and growing in us now, taking shape in each of our hearts, yearning to be shared with the world. So what good news will we add to the story?
Click here to read this week’s issue of The Olive Branch.
The world is a frightening place, and our call is frightening, too. But find a quiet place to listen for God, pray, and then get back out there to serve, because God is with you.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 B
Texts: Mark 6:14-29 (30-32 added); 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a striking difference in the strategy John the Baptist and Jesus used proclaiming God’s reign in the world.
John was fiery. He called those who came to hear him “families of snakes” and threatened them with divine destruction. He publicly called out a corrupt, sexually promiscuous ruler for his immorality.
Jesus did have a few angry moments, but mostly didn’t preach fire and brimstone. He spoke of God’s love. He called people to follow God with their whole lives, their hearts as well as their bodies. He spent time with those considered worthless or unredeemable.
But both of them were killed for their preaching and ministry. John was beheaded by a weak king who couldn’t bear to have people make fun of him. Jesus was executed by a weak governor who couldn’t stand up to threats of going over his head.
It’s risky living God’s Good News in the world.
Standing up for what’s right and just and holy gets you into trouble. Even today, people get arrested for it. Get beaten up by mobs. Or law enforcement officers.
“People” do. But do we? Are we even scratching the surface of following Jesus if we’re not getting into any difficulty for it? And what should we do – follow John’s blazing model? Jesus’ one-person-at-a-time way?
What does God need us to do, us, we who are here right now, in a world in which too many of God’s children are starving, oppressed, and abused, in a nation where families are separated from each other to prove a paranoid political point and children are traumatized, in a city where racial tension and inequity are constantly with us?
Our answer begins with Jesus’ reaction to today’s horrible story.
This is a turning point for Jesus.
After hearing of John’s death, Jesus and the disciples go to a deserted place by themselves. Jesus needed that time apart to contemplate and reflect on his path, in light of John’s brutal death. “If they kill John for preaching against the king, what will they do to me?” And he insists on his disciples coming. They, too, needed time to pray and think. John’s death made this very real for everyone following Jesus. If anyone thought this was just a walk in the park, now they knew it wasn’t.
So Jesus and the disciples separate from the crowds, pray, find quiet room to contemplate what they’ll do next.
And Jesus doesn’t decide to change his path. He decides to re-engage.
When the crowds eventually find him and the others in their quiet place, out in the wilderness, by the end of that day they’re all hungry, thousands of them, and have no food.
So Jesus does what Jesus does, he feeds them. He preaches God’s rule and reign. He does miracles. He calls people to follow. He also starts losing lots of disciples, but keeps at it.
He could have quit. Sent all the disciples home. If death happens to those who preach God’s reign, it will likely happen to Jesus. He knows this now, and soon starts predicting his own suffering and death. But he and some disciples keep going, in spite of the consequences they now understand. And that’s our entry into this story.
This is also our turning point.
Like Jesus and the others, we can have different strategies. Any of us might feel called, like John the Baptist or Dr. King, to stand up and cry out against rulers, against injustice. That’s always a faithful way of following, the prophetic way.
But then there’s Jesus’ strategy. He calls individuals to attend to their inner truth, their hearts. Jesus changes hearts, one by one, calls people to be transformed from within until they look like the love of God in their lives and actions. Jesus believes transformed people, people whose lives are not their own but are shaped by God’s powerful love, will change the world in ways that can’t be resisted. A society that is just and free, where all thrive, all have enough, all live in love with each other, and all care for the creation, a society that God dreams about, is seen as an idealistic impossibility by a cynical world. But Jesus knows if people’s hearts are actually changed, such a society and world are not only possible, they’re the only probability.
To put it in terms for today: we can protest tearing children away from their families at the border, and shame the president into rescinding the order and returning the children. That’s happening. That’s important. But a society filled with people shaped by God’s love would never use children as pawns to fuel paranoia and hatred and racism in the first place. That’s Jesus’ goal. Not only band-aids to fix individual injustices. A dramatic renewing of the heart of all God’s children for the healing of all things.
We see how things are now, like Jesus and the others. It’s time to find a quiet place and listen for God.
Because some kind of path needs to emerge here. Some strategy. As many have reminded us, deciding to do nothing is still deciding something. Doing nothing is saying all’s right with the world, and there’s nothing needed, no change, no justice, no peace. Doing nothing says we’ve never heard of God’s astonishing love for the world and God’s dream for a holy, healed, safe place for all God’s children to thrive.
Here each week it’s one of our quiet places to reflect on our role in a world that has terrifying stories like today’s Gospel as front-page news nearly every day. But it would be wise for you to find other places, too, to get away in prayer, to be with others who walk with you in faith. To reflect, pray, contemplate on what it is God needs of you this week, and what transformation God has done in you already that gives you the ability to do that work.
And then, when the crowds, when life finds you in that deserted place (and it will), go and do. Act. Engage.
But do it with King David in mind. The ark of the covenant, the sign of the presence of God, stolen years ago, is finally brought back to Israel’s heart, the tent of worship.
And David dances. He dances for joy in front of the ark as it comes up the roads, the joy of knowing God is in the midst of the people. That’s the conviction that sent Jesus back out, and the disciples. And now you.
You have met Christ Jesus and have been changed. He’s called you to follow, started to transform your heart to be in beat with God’s and is showing you a path to proclaim God’s Good News with your life.
And God is with you on the path. Whatever happens, whatever consequences you might face for faithfully serving God in love and mercy, for working for justice and God’s healing, know this: you can dance. Every day. Because God is with you in your serving, and will never leave you. Because God will make justice and righteousness flow down like waters as more and more hearts are changed. And because when you know God is with you, what else can you do but dance?
In the name of Jesus. Amen
It is only through our weakness and “thorns in our flesh” that God will heal the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14 B
Texts: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Do we miss the point of the cross of Christ because of how we look at it?
We make that scene outside Jerusalem into something to behold, an epic tableau for our creative skill. Massive movies, paintings in all media and sizes, deeply moving music, sculptures of marble and gold, countless novels and stories, there’s no limit to our imagination of that day.
The cross is for us the turning point in history, when the God of all time and space endured humiliation and death. We’ve pondered and argued and fought for two thousand years over the theological meaning of this moment on that Judean hillside. This image is the center of our faith.
But that makes it really hard to understand individually what we’re to be doing when Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him. It’s more than just that none of us will ever be hung on a cross. Our dramatizing and idolizing this moment makes it exceedingly difficult to grasp what a cross would look like for you. For me. What does it mean to walk the path of the cross, when “the cross” is such an enormous image for us?
But there’s hope.
When the cross is seen in the eyes of Jesus himself, or of the apostle Paul, and they speak of our lives following that path, all the grandeur and spectacle fades out, and the real truth about the cross remains clear. You can see what you are called to be and do. What your cross might look like.
Christ says today: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made complete in weakness.” That’s your path.
The experiences of Jesus and Paul today reveal this truth.
Jesus is riding a wave of popularity. He’s healing, drawing crowds, teaching with wisdom and authority no one heard from the official teachers. And then he goes home. And it’s a disaster. All they can see is Mary and Joseph’s kid who grew up there. They’re amazed, but they discount him, they’re offended by him. And astonishingly, Jesus can’t do any works of power there. He is literally weakened by their unbelief.
We think of Paul as the Church’s greatest apostle. But this second letter to Corinth is riddled with his anxiety and insecurity. His own churches have criticized him, accused him of deceiving them. Other more impressive apostles have come to Corinth. They dress well, speak beautifully, let the Corinthians pay for them. By contrast, Paul was awkward, paid his own way, didn’t speak terribly well, didn’t dress nicely. So now they’re rejecting him.
But in Paul’s pain and sadness he finds the opportunity to remind his people that this is always the way of Christ. We are clay jars, flawed, he says. I get it, I’m not impressive. But it’s God’s power working in my weakness that’s the grace you need.
Now, Paul did ask God to stop his pain. He wanted this “thorn in his side” removed. Maybe it was his lack of impressive speaking skills, or how easily his people seemed to turn on him. But what Paul learned instead is what Jesus learned in Nazareth: God’s power is only complete in weakness.
It’s impossible to overstate how important this is.
After Jesus’ disgrace in Nazareth, remarkably then he sends out his disciples. Not exactly when they’d feel most confident in their ability to serve God as Jesus served, right after he fell on his face in failure. Yet he sends them. Right then. On top of it, he sends them without support, no food, no bag, no money. Nothing but God’s good news and their weakness.
And so he sends you, like them, because that’s the whole message. God’s power will only be known in weakness, not strength. In failure, not success.
Following Jesus is an exercise in accepted humility, as disciples realize their flaws and weaknesses, as they look at the enormous, daunting tasks of healing needed in this world with dismay. That’s precisely when disciples, when you, are able to see God at work.
That’s the point of the cross. God’s mission in the world only happens at the point of brokenness and loss. In everyday weakness God will heal all things.
These weaknesses, these thorns in your side, are the true sign of God’s grace at work.
Is your thorn self-doubt? You don’t have skills to make a difference for God in your life? There are so many more powerful people, more talented people? God can’t use you with your flaws? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your doubt.
Is your thorn pride? Are you horrified to think of following Christ in a way that makes people laugh at you, think less of you? Are you unable to love and forgive some because you don’t want to be seen backing down? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your pride.
Is your thorn fear? Are you afraid to love as Christ loves? To reach out to your neighbor in pain because you don’t know how it will be received? To speak up in that coffee shop or workplace when someone is mistreated, because you don’t want to get in trouble? Do you fear what would happen to your comfortable life if you took seriously Jesus’ commands to love, to give away your wealth, to put your neighbor’s needs first? My power is made complete in weakness, God says. I can work with your fear.
Weakness and failure aren’t something we might experience. They’re the whole point of Christ’s path. Look at how the first disciples were sent out. True love for the other always loses, always lets go, always gives away. It is out of his weakness and shame that Paul found the cross’s deepest promise and gives it to us, the best we could ever have as flawed people who desperately want to follow Jesus but don’t know how: “My grace is sufficient for you,” Paul heard and shared with us. “My power is completed in your weakness.”
This is God’s way and it works. Even if the Church often misses the point.
The Church typically thinks the way to be faithful is to run the world. Control the kingdom, or the democracy, have the armies, get the power. We did that for centuries and look what we made: crusades, inquisitions, oppression, suffering, killing.
This is never Christ’s way. Yes, as citizens we should vote, absolutely. Get engaged politically: we need to start fixing things. Christians of skill and talent should serve in public office. But control’s not our main strategy. Or God’s.
The strategy is that every day, every hour, followers of Christ love as Christ loves. Through weaknesses displayed for everyone to see. Vulnerable to mocking or distrust, to attack and hatred. You have some place today that needs you to be God’s love. Even in your flaws, your weakness. Every healing God has done in Christ in the world, every change Christians have made in society happened when they followed Christ in weakness and vulnerability and God worked through that to bring life.
Maybe the paintings and sculptures and movies were always the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. But if we spent less time idolizing the scene at Calvary and more time understanding the failure at Nazareth foreshadowing the cross, we’d be less confused about our own paths.
So go, be Christ as you are called. As you’ve been baptized to do. What love-mischief can you and God be up to today for the healing of the world?
But make no mistake, it will happen in your weakness and failings, in what you lack, more than anything else. That’s when Christ’s disciples really start looking like their Master. And that’s when the world really starts knowing the truth about God’s healing and transforming love.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
Grieving the deaths of Jonathan and Saul, David writes a lament that praises their skill as warriors. They were great, but their greatness could not save them, and all their deeds died with them. The only excellence that endures is the excellence of love.
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 13 B
Texts: 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15
King Saul was dead, and his son Jonathan with him. At long last, David could take his rightful place on the throne of Israel.
David had spent the last years of his life fleeing from Saul. The king feared and resented David, and wanted nothing more than to see him killed. Wherever he went, Saul followed. Jonathan loved David, and desperately tried to protect him, but nothing could cool his father’s wrath. So when Saul dies in battle with the Philistines, it means that David is finally free. He can become king of Israel, yes – but even more than that, he can have some peace.
But David doesn’t rejoice in Saul’s death. Instead, he mourns. He grieves the loss of his dearest friend, and of the king who once called him a son, before he was eaten up by rage. He remembers his love for them, and pours out his love in a cry of lament. Speaking as a fellow warrior, he mourns their deaths as a national tragedy. He remembers that they were fearsome with their weapons, Jonathan with his bow and Saul with his sword, and they killed many mighty enemies. Saul’s military victories brought great wealth to his people: crimson garments and golden jewelry. But now the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle, and Israel is diminished.
But here’s the thing. Who cares? Who cares how many foes Saul and Jonathan could take down with their weapons of war? Their mighty deeds and their prowess in battle – those died with them. That was true at the moment of David’s lament, and it’s even truer three thousand years later. Saul’s victories against the Amalekites and the Ammonites and the Edomites and the Moabites and the kings of Zobah – those are all just a distant memory. They aren’t why David’s lament still has the power to move us, so many centuries later. We mourn with David because of the love he bore for these two men. We don’t care because they were strong or rich or brave – we care because they were beloved, and capable of wonderful love. Their deeds have faded, but across the centuries, their love endures.
In today’s epistle, Paul encourages the church in Corinth to pursue excellence. But the kind of excellence that he asks for isn’t greatness as the world imagines it. He doesn’t want them to strive for power, or accomplishments, or wealth – none of those things that a warrior could write a song about. He tells them to strive for an excellence of faith. An excellence of generosity. An excellence of love. He challenges them to define themselves not by how well they advance their own interests, but how well they serve the needs of others. He’s pushing them to love more boldly, to follow Jesus more closely, to care for the poor more enthusiastically. Specifically, he’s asking them to give more money to Christians in need. He’s very clear that this isn’t a command. They’re free to do what they want with their resources, and their place in the body of Christ doesn’t depend on what they do or don’t give. But, Paul says, this is how they’re going to grow nearer to Christ. If they can excel in sharing what they have, they will find the kind of riches that will never fade away, the kind of riches that only Jesus can give.
That isn’t how we normally think of excellence. The world around us is always pushing us to be better. We are always supposed to know more, to do more, to have more, to be more. We told that the best people are those who distinguish themselves by virtue of their achievements. Like David singing the praises of Saul’s victories, we lift up those who excel in strength and in wealth. That’s what excellence looks like to us: superior talent, power, success. And there is nothing inherently wrong with those things. Whatever our passions and vocations might be, we can delight in our god-given talents, and in sharing them with the world. Humanity’s drive to improve is what makes our species so amazing. But if that’s the only kind of excellence we care about, the excellence of being better, we’re never going to be happy, because none of those measuring sticks tell us a thing about our ultimate worth. When we focus on all those ways that the world tells us to be better, we are left comparing ourselves to other people. Our value is treated as something relative, as if some lives were worth more than others. Our value is treated something conditional – something that we lose when we don’t measure up. We all want to feel like we are good enough. We all want to know that we are worthy of love and respect. But for as long as we measure ourselves by our earthly excellence, we will not find that assurance, because Earthly excellence does not endure.
My beloved siblings in Christ, I confess that I am well acquainted with this hunger for earthly achievements. As many of you know, I have decided that I am not going to pursue ordained ministry at this time. Instead, I’ll be heading to law school in the fall. It was a decision that I considered carefully, and I think it will let me do good in the world – but already, I’m hearing the siren song of prestige. I know that there will be moments when I fall into the trap of measuring myself against the success of others – even though I know that that won’t make me happy. When I fall short, I’ll be disappointed, and when I meet my goals, I’ll only want more. If I try to seek success for the sake of success, then I’ll never have peace.
And so I pray that I can keep reminding myself that that isn’t how God sees us. God doesn’t love us because of our achievements. God doesn’t care about our status. God’s love for us doesn’t even depend on how well we love God. God sees and knows us as cherished children, no matter who we are or what we do. Whatever successes we celebrate and whatever failures we mourn, we are made good at our creation, and we are made whole in Christ, and in the end, that is the only thing that matters. We cannot shake that love. We cannot lose it. We can never be more or less deserving of it. We cannot choose to accept it or reject it. Our only decision is how we will share that love with others.
If we want to seek out an excellence that lasts, we need only learn from God’s everlasting love. This excellence is different because it’s not focused on itself. Instead, it grows for the good of someone else. That David could look someone like Saul, someone who had sought to end his life, and call him beloved – that is excellence. That Jonathan could risk everything to protect a friend – that is excellence. That the first churches could learn to share their wealth, not out of obligation or as a display of power, but out of earnestness and hope – that is excellence. Earthly excellence is always hungry, always needing more, but God’s excellence endlessly overflows and covers the world with grace.
Just imagine what a world shaped by such excellence would look like. Instead of celebrating greatness in warfare, we could celebrate greatness in love. Instead of honoring fantastic riches, we could honor fantastic generosity. Instead of striving for lonely self-sufficiency, we could embrace each other in humility and faith. This is how God wants us to live. This is how God wants us to excel: together, for each other, growing together in Christ’s love.